How do you describe to people what you do and your design style?
I describe myself as a fashion designer and business owner. It’s my mission to create gorgeous leather handbags that are stylish, timeless pieces. My collection is beautiful, interesting and wearable, with a true artisan identity, which reflects my ideology of what fashion should be.
What sort of comments do you get about your designs?
I am thankful to say that I get many lovely comments about my bags from both new and repeat customers. They seem to appreciate what I’m trying to achieve with my design ethos and enjoy wearing my handbags. The word which is most used in relation to my handbag designs is ‘beautiful’.
What is your background?
I studied for a BA Honours Degree in Fashion with Textiles at ‘Ravensbourne College of Design’. After studying I knew straight away that I wanted to start a
fashion label and whilst I experimented with ideas, I worked at Liberty as a sales assistant on the womenswear designer floor. This experience really taught me how to design what a customer really wants as opposed to what I think they might want; it was essentially great market research.
I went to Italy to work as a womenswear clothing design assistant at a well-known label that had stores throughout Northern and Central Italy. My next job was also as a design assistant but with a completely different type of label which focused on textile techniques such as printing and embellishing. Here I started to design accessories and realised that I really loved creating handbags and working with leather. I went on to start my first label with an Italian designer and in our first season we sold our accessories collection to seven prestigious boutiques in the Emilia-Romagna area, including one that stocked other labels such as ‘Prada’ and ‘Roberto Cavalli’. After working in a partnership for a year, I realised that we wanted the label to go in different directions, so I returned to England to start researching for my new label ‘Carmen Woods’. Since returning to UK and whilst setting up and running my own label I have worked as a freelance designer at an ethical label.
Why did you start doing what you do?
I wanted to start a label with my own vision since I studied fashion design at college. I have always had a very clear idea about what fashion should be and what it means to me. I wanted to bring beautiful designs to customers that are both wearable and interesting; to create modern classics which are great quality and timeless, like an investment piece. I believe in promoting ‘slow fashion’ instead of the fast throw-away variety and think that it’s good to look after good quality pieces instead of spending money on poor quality fast fashion that outdates very quickly. I also have so many ideas all the time, so wanted the challenge of creating without any barriers, unlike when you design for someone else. I also was really interested in learning all the skills attached to running your own business, like decision making, communicating with your manufacturers/suppliers/customers, branding, marketing and even accounting.
Which designers do you rate highly and why?
There have been many designers I’ve aspired to throughout my life. When I was at college I loved Gianfranco Ferre the most for his sculptural elegant designs and Prada for their understated forward thinking vision. I also really loved conceptual designers such as Comme des Garcons and Hussein Chalayan. When I first started handbag designing I discovered a brilliant accessories label called Bracher Emden. Their designs really pushed creativity to the extreme with a vibrant contrast of colour, leather textures and Swarovski crystals. At the moment I really like the handbag brand Rocio, who carve their creations from wood and the well established designer Anya Hindmarch. I also love Basso & Brooke for their amazing prints, Miu Miu for their accessories and I'm still in awe of Prada!
Tell us about your design process from concept, production and to the shelves...
I am both visually and craft inspired, so I work between 2D and 3D by sketching ideas and experimenting with various techniques. Everything connected to my brand is fairly localised. My production is completely UK based and my leather and fittings are sourced from Italy. The zips I use for my ‘Carmen’ range are Swiss and for my ‘CW’ range are British. My boutique is situated in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, which is the perfect location for my label. It’s fast becoming a really fashionable and affluent area, with good boutiques, restaurants and bars but still retaining its local village identity. My main label ‘Carmen’ reflects the time I spent in Ravenna, Italy, working as a fashion designer, where I drew inspiration from the intricate Byzantine mosaics, which covered the city’s buildings and walkways, in response I have used patch-work and pleating techniques in the “Carmen” collection. We use these techniques to harness a beautifully sculptural and timeless quality in our bags, whilst standing out as something individual and desire to harness a beautifully sculptural and timeless quality in our bags, whilst standing out as something individual and desirable. In addition to creating interesting designs, it has always been important to maintain high quality. We make sure that every piece is made using the finest Italian leather and only the very best materials such as Swiss zips and strong nickel fittings. This ensures that every bag is durable and an investment piece, looking better over time. For my diffusion range ‘CW’ I continued my interest with artisan techniques and evolved my sketches into an appliqué. The appliqué was inspired by the mountainous landscapes I saw on holiday, so work well as flowing linear shapes over the ‘modern classic’ shape of the designs. Most recently I’ve launched a new part to my ‘CW’ range, mixing bold colours and integrating canvas with leather. The appliqué patterns are inspired from animal skins, however in quite an abstract way. In addition to creating interesting designs, it has always been important to maintain high quality. We make sure that every piece is made using the finest Italian leather and only the very best materials such as Swiss zips and strong nickel fittings. This ensures that every bag is durable and an investment piece, looking better and better over time.
How do you think your brand has developed?
Over the last three years I’d like to think that my label has developed into the brand I was hoping for. It has really helped having a concept boutique where I can display my collection and create an atmosphere in the way I want to. I would like to think my brand is associated with good quality, timeless designs that are wearable. I wanted my boutique to look very welcoming to make my customers feel at home, so I decided to recreate a living room. I sourced antique furniture, such as a Queen Ann chair covered in Liberty fabric, a crafted rug and a vintage telephone. I hung framed photographs of my designs on the walls, alongside my handbags suspended from silver hooks. The last three years since I’ve been in business, have mostly been a positive experience as I have learnt so many new skills. When I started my label I never dreamed that I would have to know about so many aspects of business and be taken out of my comfort zone so much. But I always confront challenges that arise and have learnt how to deal with many situations. I’ve also worked incredibly hard over the last few years but luckily I‘ve had a lot of support from my family and friends. What do you hate most about your job? Doing my accounts, as it’s really boring! Most other areas of my business are enjoyable, like designing, sourcing, selling and marketing, so I am lucky to do something that I enjoy 90% of the time.
What are your main achievements and what do you aim to achieve now?
I have had quite a few proud moments. For example, when I see my handbags in a magazine, when a customer tells me they are enjoying their purchase, when I see someone using one of my designs, when I receive a new collection from my maker. Also I was really proud when I was short listed by the ‘British Council’ as Young British Creative Entrepreneur of the Year. My business is a lot of hard work but gives me so much satisfaction in times like these. In the future I have lots of plans for the business. I am currently expanding my label’s stockists, which is a major sales plan. I am also working on designs for future collections; in particular I am experimenting with more fabric/leather combinations. For my boutique I will be looking to extend and start to stock other labels complimentary to my own collection.
What advice would you have for anyone starting out?
If you really feel that you can give something interesting to the fashion industry then you shouldn't be intimidated by the huge amount of competition. It's an overcrowded profession but there will always be room for a designer with ideas and passion. Make sure you go to a good college and secure as much work experience within various labels as you can. Keep your eyes open for inspiration at all times and create a book of ideas that you draw upon for future projects. It is also important to research fashion trends and visit as many boutiques as possible.
IndependentBoutique.com is proud to work with British designers, why do you think British design stands out?
I think British design stands out for many reasons. Firstly the quality of our colleges and universities surpass most other countries. We also have such great museums and art galleries to use as reference points. In addition to this, as a nation we are very good at mixing influences and cultures which usually produces innovative and exciting results.