Karen Arthur, fashion designer
Karen Arthur is a women’s fashion designer who specialises in creating pieces that not only look and feel great, but that clients will want to keep, cherish and pass down.
After learning to sew as a child and keeping up her practice as an adult, Karen began sewing more regularly as an outlet during a difficult time. She made and sold handcrafted bags for years alongside her full-time job as a teacher, before leaving her 28-year career in education around three years ago. Last year, Karen relaunched her business as ReddskinUK, focusing on creating one-of-a-kind garments for women.
Of course, the full story is far more complex. This is a story of transformation and self-discovery, from breakdown to breakthrough, and in many ways, a journey from a life based around doing what is expected of you towards one that feeds your soul. Following a diagnosis of anxiety and depression, and with a back injury to contend with, this transition included a period of rest and recovery that Karen describes as ‘working on myself’.
Here, Karen opens up about leaving her teaching career, how mindful meditation and a morning routine have helped with her recovery, her thoughts on the link between fashion and mental health, how changing her client process and service offerings transformed her business, and so much more.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and story so far. Where did your interest in sewing and fashion begin?
My mother is from Barbados, and all the women in her generation sewed. They made curtains and kids’ clothes, because that’s what you did to save money. One year I developed hayfever, and the wisdom at the time was not to leave the house, so my mother taught me how to sew. Since then, I’ve always sewed and made clothes as a hobby, and always been drawn to colour and African print, but I never thought I’d be a fashion designer.
I studied performing arts at Leicester University, then moved to London, did a postgrad, and started teaching dance. Then I had two daughters and used to make their clothes. I actually started sewing more when my relationship began to go south. My partner at the time used to stay out, and I would sew to wait. It’s incredibly sad, but it’s true.
One day, my eldest daughter’s school was having a summer fair and they wanted people to do stalls. I decided to make some bags: six of them, out of six different African prints, and printed an order form. I sold all the bags and got loads of orders; I think they were £15 a bag which was about 2p an hour! And I thought OK, I can do this, so I started this business, and I called it Reddskinbags (Reddskin was a childhood nickname). And that was it! I made bags for years alongside my full-time job as a teacher.
What led you to transition out of teaching and focus on your business?
Lots of things. My two daughters grew up and one year they were both at uni, and I was alone. I’d broken up with my partner by now, and I’d poured a lot of energy into making sure they were OK, into changing my will and keeping the house, and I put everything into work. And it was too much. I was 52 and entering menopause; there were lots of things happening, and once the house was empty I didn’t have any choice but to look at myself, and my life.
There was also a lot of pressure at work. My last few years of teaching were incredibly stressful, and I’d fallen out of love with it. I loved the kids and being in the classroom, but I didn’t feel like I was making a difference anymore. All the initiative was coming from above and it all seemed to be about getting children to a certain grade, with no thoughts about the child or why they may be floundering. I felt like I didn’t have a voice. I was unhappy, and I felt trapped.
My body turned around and went ‘that’s it, no more’, and I had some time off. I tried to go back and it just didn’t work, so I left. And then I got worse, in a sense, because I’d had 28 years of teaching and living by the bell. I’d gone from a building with a thousand kids, 200 staff, and always something happening, to being alone in my kitchen, and it was difficult. I felt really lonely. The other thing that happened is I fell down a hole in the pavement and hurt my back, and I couldn’t walk properly. As a dancer, this was particularly tough.
I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, so I took some time off and took myself off to therapy, which was the best gift I could have given myself. I also discovered mindful meditation. My routine is now sacred and my life is slower. I started again.
Where did you go from here and how did you make the leap into fashion design?
To go back slightly, the reason I left my partner, and part of the reason I left teaching and started on my own properly, is because I have two girls, and they watch my every move. And I was adamant that 1) I didn’t want them to think the relationship I was in with their father was normal, because they would then find those men, and 2) I wanted my daughters to know wholeheartedly that if you don’t like your life, you have the power to change it. I wanted them to see that you don’t have to suffer in silence, or do things because you’re supposed to. Especially as black women, I wanted them to see that, with work, you can do whatever you want to do; you don’t have to follow the path of least resistance.
I was also adamant I wasn’t going to leave a job that was killing me to create a life that would also kill me. I needed to find out who I was and rediscover myself.
While I was recovering, I had an open house as part of the Sydenham Arts Trail, which means people come along to your house to see your work. I’d made some clothes, and they were very successful (I’d mainly sold bags up to this point).
My daughter came in one day and said, ‘Mum, your stuff’s really good, why are you selling it at this price, you need to get out there!’. And I burst into tears and said, ‘I don’t know how!’. So I called the graphic designer who designed my website and logo, and, long story short, she became my business coach. I had two years of therapy and two years of business coaching, and I credit Aretha with helping me understand what it is I love.
I love sewing, and I love teaching. I also love working with people. We realised the reason I was having difficulty was because I was making things for random people to buy on a website, and that wasn’t filling my soul. My passion is working with women, enabling them to feel and look their best selves. This meant working with people one at a time. I love making an item for someone where I know they’re going to wear it and feel fabulous. I also love the process of working out how to make something, whether how to work with certain fabrics or create a piece that will get the best out of someone’s body.
"We realised the reason I was having difficulty was because I was making things for random people to buy on a website, and that wasn’t filling my soul. My passion is working with women, enabling them to feel and look their best selves. This meant working with people one at a time."
I’d been undervaluing myself, so I worked on pricing that reflected this, which for some people is aspirational. The hardest thing is to not go, ‘oh it’s OK, I’ll make it for less’ - and I’ve done that in the past - but it’s no way to run a business and it doesn’t value my skills or my work. This also means having faith that the right people will find me.
For me, it’s about value and making pieces that people love, but also garments you want to keep, cherish and pass down - not something you bought because ruffles were in, and ruffles aren’t in anymore so it’s gone in the bin or to Oxfam! So you might be paying more than you would normally, but it’s going to last and remind you of a happy occasion every time you wear it.
When reading about your process, I wrote down ‘storytelling through fashion’, because it felt like, for you, ‘bespoke’ garments aren’t just items that fit properly, but also meaningful to the individual. Is this a fair assessment?
It is! Of course it’s vital that it fits, but I think the story is even more important. My process is that someone will email me, I’ll reply and we’ll arrange a time to meet. We’ll talk about the occasion (there’s often an occasion, not always) and how they want to feel. We talk about their body, and how they feel about it. We talk about heritage. And then I go away, and I send them a quote by email; if they say ‘yes’, they pay a deposit, and then I get to work.
I did toy with the idea of using the phrase ‘bespoke clothier’. But I think I did that because I wasn’t comfortable being called a fashion designer. I was suffering from a bout of imposter syndrome, and decided that because I didn’t have a fashion degree, I couldn’t possibly call myself a fashion designer!
But the other side to that is, bespoke clothier needs explaining; fashion designer does not - and it’s exactly what I do, I design women’s fashion. So I squirmed for a while and took the advice of a good friend and finally got to the point where not only am I comfortable saying that, I’m proud! One of the things that helped is I moved out of my kitchen and into a studio space. I now share a space with another local fashion designer called Michelle, who runs EmperorEmpress, who is wonderful, and we bounce off each other.
I would say it’s only in the last couple of months that people say ‘what do you do?’ and I say, ‘I’m a fashion designer’, and I don’t flinch. I don’t inwardly go ‘ahhh, I don’t really know what I am!’ And that’s a big deal.
What’s Wear Your Happy all about and what are your thoughts on the relationship between clothing and state of mind?
I’m really interested in the link between mental health and fashion. I found that when I was ill, I lost interest in dressing up. I would reach for my leggings, and on the rare occasions I went out, it was baggy trousers, hoodie, hair down, hugging the pavement.
As I started to come out of that, I noticed my interest in fashion returned. So now, I dress consciously. Say, for example, I’ve got to go somewhere with a lot of people, I’m not really feeling it but I know once I get there I’ll be fine, I deliberately go for colour and something that makes me feel good. Often the easiest thing for me is a head wrap, but it might be matching lingerie or funky shoes. And it works. It gets me out the house. I feel great. And you often look great in things that make you feel great because you radiate some kind of something. It changes your energy.
"I’m really interested in the link between mental health and fashion. I found that when I was ill, I lost interest in dressing up. I would reach for my leggings, and on the rare occasions I went out, it was baggy trousers, hoodie, hair down, hugging the pavement."
I think there’s a massive untapped market here, because people traditionally see fashion as vacuous. Fashion is being ‘on trend’. Putting that aside, when mental illness is on the rise, I think if you make a conscious decision to wear something that evokes a happy memory, or a dress that makes you stand tall, that can help. I’m not saying don’t go to therapy or take medication. But I think we can sometimes take responsibility for how we feel on a daily basis, so that the cumulative effect isn’t so disastrous. It may not make you better, but it can make a difference.
I’m hoping to study fashion psychology in the future, and at the moment I’m doing some research asking women how they wear their happy, focusing particularly on black women. Statistics show black women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mental health illness, and less likely to be able to access mental health services. And whilst the interest in the link between positive fashion and mental health is there, the research that includes black women isn’t. There’s room to delve deeper. That said, I think we could all benefit from making conscious decisions about what we buy and wear in relation to how clothing helps us feel.
#wearyourhappy is my Instagram hashtag - people post pictures of what it means to them. It’s short and translates easily on social media.
You mentioned you have a routine that helped with your recovery, can you share what that looks like for you?
The routine is about mindfulness but also about moving my body and managing my injury. My brother’s a Buddhist, and when I became ill he was brilliant. He recommended a book by Jon Kabat Zinn on mindful meditation, especially to do with injury, which helped me.
Before, when I woke up I’d spend a good half hour worrying about stuff. Then I’d go on my phone and get lost in social media. I’d eat breakfast while checking my emails, work until 6.30pm, come home and do more work, then go to bed and start over.
Now, my phone is on airplane mode first thing (so nothing can ping). I get up, drink water, and water my plant. I usually kill plants but this one is thriving thank goodness! I set my alarm for 15 minutes and I journal/braindump, and then I read whatever book I’m reading for 15 minutes. When I’m journalling, I’ll write about what I did, but also what I’m feeling. What’s really on my mind? I won’t necessarily solve it, but it’s out of my head and then I can move on.
Then I go into the living room and do some yoga therapy, which is a series of gentle exercises and breathing, tailored for your injury. I also make some fresh lemon tea, with fresh rosemary, which is good for memory.
Then, I’ll sit outside and recite an affirmation. When I first started doing them, I did make myself laugh - what have I turned into! But I’m telling you, there’s power in repetition, and something about saying things out loud.
So yeah, it takes me ages to get out the house! But I also don’t beat myself up about not doing things anymore. I didn’t do my affirmation this morning, and I only did half my stretching. But I did journal, read and make my tea. It’s not about ticking things off a list, it’s about taking time to sit in silence before the madness, whatever that looks like for you.
"When I’m journalling, I’ll write about what I did, but also what I’m feeling. What’s really on my mind? I won’t necessarily solve it, but it’s out of my head and then I can move on."
What’s been your proudest achievement?
Well I left a job I never thought I’d leave. I’m still gobsmacked I did it. I always say to people I’m not a risk taker. I’m the person who, if I make a bet on something, it’s each way. And yet I ended a 21-year relationship, and I left my job.
So my proudest achievement is keeping my home, bringing up two amazing women, and being a role model to my kids. If I think about the last three years, I’ve come so far. The person who left the relationship 11 years ago is unrecognisable. And when I think about me with my black hoodie on, getting back into bed and thinking awful thoughts, not wanting to talk to people and screening my calls, to this happy person who’s become someone who is the architect of their own destiny... that sounds a bit wanky doesn’t it? But it fits!
I’m incredibly grateful for the position I’m in. I now recognise that your success might be different to my success. I feel successful. I have lots of hope. I can see big things in the future. I never used to think about the end of the day, let alone things I want to do and have aspirations. So yeah, I’m proud of moving on, that’s what it is.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned about running a business?
Surround yourself with people who are on the same journey as you, who get you. There will be people who don’t like to see you soar, they won’t articulate it that way, and it will be a negative experience with them, so see that you follow people on social media who elevate you, or seek out meetup groups and people who will cheer you on.
Anything you’re not good at, get somebody else to do, and pay them! The biggest thing for me is accounting. I have lost sleep over tax stuff, so I now pay an accountant and he’s worth his weight in gold.
Don’t compare yourself. I’m saying this, and I know I do! If that means you take a social media break, so be it. Because no-one’s sending you a letter through the post saying ‘did you know your mate’s doing this?’ You’re seeking this out, and you forget that they’re also looking at you going, ‘oh my God, she’s doing this!’. You’re at the right place for you, in this moment, and that’s key.
The other thing I used to think is, I didn’t want to be a clothes designer because ‘there’s loads of them’. Because I knew a few. So in my little world, it’s saturated. Well it’s not, and actually, the clients who come to me, come to me for what I offer. There’s room for all of us to shine. So I’m learning, but it’s a massive learning curve.
Having a sideline also helps; I now do some supply teaching alongside building my business.
And finally, what’s next for you and your business?
My ultimate goal is to have a studio where I can meet clients, make clothing and teach sewing lessons, and a charity for young people to learn how to sew. We used to teach it in schools; we don’t anymore. I would teach them about upcycling, sustainability, practical sewing, fashion, creating things for yourselves and maybe business skills.
I feel there’s a whole generation growing up who didn’t learn the skills that I have - and therefore, couldn’t possibly pass them onto their children - and also whole swathes of the community who can’t afford sewing lessons, and they’re the people I’d like to help.
I also feel strongly about empowering women, helping young women be creative and have a skill that they can use in any way they like, whether as an outlet or for their career. Basically, I want to sew, meet people, teach, travel, and talk!