Having experienced uncomfortable, unflattering uniform and unisex chefs trousers first hand, Maxine Thompson founded PolkaPants to provide female chefs with simple, robust and functional work wear. With rave reviews from celebrity chefs like Gizzi Erskine and Olia Hercules and coverage in no less than Vogue, we visited Maxine’s north London studio to chat food and fashion.
A Studio of Our Own: First things first — could you please give us a brief bit of background on how you started PolkaPants and where the business is now?
Maxine Thompson: Well I’ve always loved food and fashion equally. I started cooking professionally when I was 17, I ran my own kitchen in Australia and then moved to Bristol. My twin sister and I turned 18 and my parents put us on a plane and watched us go. We had a couple of years partying and then came back to study. I worked in a kitchen here and then quit and went into a managing a retail store because I always wanted to work in fashion, then I went back to Australia and did a degree in Fine Arts and Fashion Design and Business.
Then I moved to New York where I got a job at Chanel — but just in the business team, nothing creative. But at that time my sisters and I were starting a food blog. There are three of us, my older sister and my twin sister and I were all living together and we’d started a food blog and got offered a book deal. We decided that one of us should probably be a qualified chef so to give it some credibility, and I had always toyed with the idea of being a chef, so I quit my job at Chanel and went to culinary school — the French Culinary Institute in New York for six months, which was fun. I had always enjoyed cooking but it was nice, like anything where you have to go back and learn how things are done and why things are done. And getting kicked out of class for wearing red lipstick.
"I felt I looked awful. I had these awful baggy trousers then I tried jeans but I couldn’t wear jeans because it was too hot… and having a degree in fashion I could sew,
so I just made my own."
I went from New York after I’d finished that to a kitchen in Tasmania, and being 26 in New York to being 26 in Tasmania was very different. But it was there I got a job as a head chef in a really beautiful little restaurant with an open plan kitchen.
It was quite small and interactive, but the whole time I was so uncomfortable. I felt I looked awful. I had these awful baggy trousers then I tried jeans but I couldn’t wear jeans because it was too hot… and having a degree in fashion I could sew, so I just made my own, trying different variationsI had these awful baggy trousers then I tried jeans but I couldn’t wear jeans because it was too hot… and having a degree in fashion I could sew, so I just made my own, trying different variations.
I moved back to England about three and a half years ago. I did loads of market research, sending out questionnaires to my friends in a Australia and to the culinary school in New York, just to see if it was a viable ‘thing’. I started making samples and sending them out to female chefs, and I discovered that everyone had a problem, it wasn’t just me. People said to me, “Of course, of course this is a thing.” So I just started prototyping and finding fabric suppliers and a production studio and made a small sample collection and sent them out to some of the key players in the food industry and got a PR person and launched in February last year. We’re still a baby.
ASOOO: So you had a really clearly defined need that you wanted to address…
MT: I guess it was the right timing too, with the feminist bandwagon. About three years ago that became a huge wave, especially in London, especially in the food industry. There were just all these women in kitchens so it was perfect timing really.
ASOOO: How did you identify the message you wanted to communicate? And how did you choose to get that message out there?
MT: Word of mouth and a lot of social media, sending out samples to the right people… I sent samples to really key people in London food chefs and socialites who wore them and posted about them and we had a huge party. Everyone who was anyone who is female in the London food world came.
ASOOO: PolkaPants has a very strong and recognisable aesthetic — from the logo through to the gorgeous black and white screen printed designs and your black and white photography. Did you have it a clear vision for branding from the start? And how important do you think it is to have a strong brand?
MT: The black and white colour way is quite symbolic for chefs pants and it keeps it raw and stripped back. We were worried about introducing colours about how that’d be accepted.
That consistency has been key for us. Especially with our Instagram feed, which is all black and white. We’ve thought about switching it to colour but an American magazine called Cherry Bombe over there said “No! Keep it black and white!” They told me that it’s really hard to start something and keep it consistent and curate it and keep with that. A lot of people make the mistake of doing one thing and thinking, oh that’s not working and switching to another thing. We want it consistent. We also try to keep it faceless too —there’s no one who’s the face of the brand — there’s no pictures of myself on there. It’s a community.
"Sometimes I wake up and think, “Fuuuuuck!", but then other times I go into a restaurant or I go to a café and I’ll see someone wearing [PolkaPants] and there's food all down them and I think that’s nice — that’s what I’ve made them for."
ASOOO: PolkaPants has proven to be very popular — you’ve attracted some big name ambassadors like Gizzi Erskine and coverage in Vogue — was there a point at which you knew you were onto something? When any doubts that you had were dispelled?
MT: When I sent Gizzi and Olia Hercules samples, they received a package from the postman and within an hour or so had both got in contact and said, “Thank you, I love these!”, which was nice. I still go through peaks and troughs, sometimes I wake up and think, “Fuuuuuck!", but then other times I go into a restaurant or I go to a café and I’ll see someone wearing them and there's food all down them and I think that’s nice — that’s what I’ve made them for. Rather than seeing them on Instagram, seeing them being used for what they were designed for, seeing them doing what they are meant to be doing.
ASOOO: You’ve had the kind of coverage that a lot of fashion start-ups would kill for. How did that come about? And what have you found to be the most effective form of marketing for your brand?
MT: More social media. I got some big coverage in Vogue but there has been a lot of interest through social media. I had some lovely coverage in the Financial Times recently, which is nice, because it’s a very grown up publication!
ASOOO: PolkaPants looks amazing, and if the testimonials are to believed, they’re amazingly comfortable too. How much of your success do you think is down to getting the product out there and letting it speak for itself?
MT: It’s partly that. I like that people can work in them, and then go for a drink afterwards and not feel horrible. I’m still looking for other ways to reach someone who works in a deli in the middle of nowhere… other ways to tell people about my product. The magazine I’ve already mentioned, Cherry Bombe, have been hugely supportive, and helpful, and I had a huge support network in America from when I lived in New York. Whenever they post on Instagram I see more sales… the power of social media has been a huge eye-opener for me.
ASOOO: How much hard selling have you had to do and how have you dealt with that? Was it something you were immediately comfortable with?
MT: I probably should do a lot more but I’m so emotionally invested in it. I find it hard. I’m like, “What do you MEAN you won’t buy them?!”. I get emotionally crushed.
ASOOO: You’ve said that you’re keen to expand the brand beyond London. What are your goals for the future?
MT: We’re looking at not just chefs, but women who work in hospitality. But everyone who I speak to who’s not a chef opens up a whole can of worms about workwear for women. Hospital scrubs for example — there’s no reason why they should have to be so horrible. I was reading an article recently about a fashion designer who had partnered with an American hospital, because if you’re sick and in bed why would you want to wear some horrible thing, and there have been studies on the effect on healing rates… but that’s another world. We’re just focussing on one thing at the moment, but I’m looking into collaborations, because they’re fun and there’s some exciting things being planned for next year.
ASOOO: Simon Mottram was inspired to start the Rapha cycling brand because he saw so many people cycling in “sweaty hi-vis jackets" and "baggy cycling shorts.” And what he’s done is to take almost a ready-made community of cyclists and offered them membership into an exclusive community. Can you see parallels with the food community? Have they been supportive?
MT: It’s definitely a community, but it’s just not developed here like it is, for example, in New York. There’s the EightySix List which I’ve used as a platform to help get the message out there and there will be workshops coming up over the next few months.
Kitchens aren’t closed anymore — chefs aren’t viewed as people who couldn’t get a job anywhere else — it’s now a definite career choice. It’d be nice if the pay reflected that! But chefs are definitely more visible.
ASOOO: What have you most enjoyed about the experience of running your own business?
MT: Just learning every day. Just learning from the challenges. Every day you learn something about yourself, you say “Oh, I didn’t know I could do that…” like writing code, that I forgot I could do. I still work as a private chef so having flexibility is phenomenal for me.
ASOOO: What gets you out of bed every day?
MT: Knowing it’s time to eat again! Food and fashion. I have as many clothes as kitchen utensils, so food and fashion in equal measure.
ASOOO: Have you ever been faced with a big opportunity that you’ve turned down for the sake of your long-term vision?
MT: Well I was approached to be on Dragon’s Den, but firstly, the idea of being on TV was terrifying, and secondly, I just felt that it wasn’t quite the right time. The business has only been trading for a year, the company is still a baby. I don’t know what it’s capable of yet. If I was going to take on investment, it would have to be with a person who had the same vision as me. I’m still too emotionally committed to my vision to give up any control.
ASOOO: And what is your vision?
MT: PolkaPants is at the core of a community now and a support network for women. I really hope that whatever happens to the brand that we can keep that going. I want to remain approachable, people can email us and we’ll always be there.
ASOOO: How does having that community help to strengthen and shape the brand?
MT: Yes, for example we put something up on Instagram the other day because we’ve had sample of striped denim back so we posted that to see how it would go down and we had a hundred or so people back saying “we want those!”.
"Ask for help as much as possible. You only know what you know, and what might take you 17 hours to do might take someone else only 20 minutes, so ask for help!"
ASOOO: If you could give the entrepreneur you were when you started out some advice, what would it be?
MT: Don’t worry so much. Take a step back and you’ll figure it out. Don’t check your email at midnight, it’ll be OK.
And ask for help as much as possible. You only know what you know, and what might take you 17 hours to do might take someone else only 20 minutes, so ask for help!
ASOOO: What was your biggest obstacle starting the business and how did you overcome it?
MT: Finance. When it comes to buying fabric, you can’t buy less than 100 metres, so it’s a huge investment. Then production on top of that. Because I am definitely not an accountant!
ASOOO: Was the fear of failure an issue for you when starting out? Did it impact the decisions you made? If so, would you have acted differently if you had known then what you know now?
MT: That fear is always there in some way or another. While I was still in my corporate job, and trying to launch PolkaPants, my Dad said “Quit your job and go and focus on this. You’re still young enough to make a mistake, so just do it or you’ll be doing both things half-arsed.”
ASOOO: As an agency, we’re constantly talking about the need for bravery in business. You’ve said in the past that you’ve had to ‘fake confidence’. That’s easy to say, but harder to do. Do you have any tips for start-ups who have a great idea, but no experience of selling?
MT: Market research. It’s the thing that everyone underestimates the value of. I go to networking events and I hear people say “Oh, I’ve got 17 or 18 ideas aimed at people like you…” and I listen to them and think, “Well, I don’t think any of those are much good.” So do your market research, and know the demand for your product.
ASOOO: What was your support network like when you started out? Where did you go when you needed advice?
MT: I had a mentor who helped me, but mostly my parents. My Dad was a lawyer and my Mum was a school teacher. In the early days of the internet they started a company that sold wireless internet hubs to yachts and then another company after that.
They know a lot about starting businesses and living on maxed-out credit cards. They don’t tell me what to do and they’re comfortable letting me make my own mistakes, but they’re always there for advice.
"If you don’t have a product or a vision that’s honest, people will see straight through it. My products came from a real, honest place. "
ASOOO: What has running your own business taught you about yourself? Are there new skills you had to learn and what would you say has been the most valuable?
MT: To value the connections that you make, and follow up with people that you meet. You never know where they’ll take you. Anyone you meet, however long ago it was… I sat next to a girl on the plane coming back from Italy three years ago and I started talking to her about PolkaPants and she turned out to be the Head Brand Strategist from Pepe Jeans. She told me that at when I had first explained it she thought it was stupid but after half an hour her mind was going crazy with things I could do. I’m still in touch with her.
When you start out you feel like you’re so alone, but everyone has to start somewhere.
ASOOO: We're big advocates of companies behaving in a way that's nice, brave and honest. How do you think being nice, honest and brave has helped you get to where you are?
MT: Being honest, certainly. If you don’t have a product or a vision that’s honest, people will see straight through it. My products came from a real, honest place. The core values have never shifted. That’s why it resonates with people, because they feel it too. It’s not trying to ride on something else — there’s a need.