How it feels to be hired at 61 to work for the company I founded!

How it feels to be hired at 61 to work for the company I founded! Karen Millen reveals her emotions as she unveils her first new collection in 20 years

  • Millen has designed a new collection for the brand — aptly named The Founder 
  • READ MORE:  The Karen Millen comeback!

No matter how old you are, or what the circumstance, the first day of a new job is almost always a daunting prospect.

The apprehension is surely greater still when you’re in your 60s and likely to be faced with a workforce considerably younger and more tech-savvy than you. 

But how positively surreal must it be when the job in question is within the company you founded, made your fortune with and then sold — and which still bears your name above the door.

‘I went in with trepidation but an open mind,’ says Karen Millen, 61, of that fateful day last summer when, after a near 20-year hiatus, she returned to the fashion brand named after her.

‘I didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I’d be. I was surprised that some of the staff seemed more nervous about meeting me than I did about meeting them. I thought they might think, “What’s she doing here, encroaching on us?” But it wasn’t like that at all. Everyone was so nice and made me feel welcome.’ 

After a near 20-year hiatus, Karen Millen returned to the fashion brand named after her last summer 

The new collection Millen has designed for the brand — aptly named The Founder — is seen by some in fashion as vindication for a woman who has had to watch from the wings as the label she launched aged just 19 went through a series of ups and downs

If anyone has earned the right to be there it is, of course, Millen — even if she did sell the business in 2004 in a £95 million deal.

Indeed, the new collection she has designed for the brand — aptly named The Founder — is seen by some in the fashion world as vindication for a woman who has had to watch from the wings as the label she launched aged just 19 went through a series of ups and downs, including the closure of all its High Street stores following a shock sale to fast-fashion chain Boohoo in 2019.

Not that life post-Karen Millen has been plain sailing for Millen herself. On the contrary, hers is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story to rival the plot of any juicy beach read.

It was in 1981, after borrowing £100 to buy 1,000 metres of white cotton, that she began making and selling white shirts to friends. She and her then-husband, Kevin Stanford, opened the first Karen Millen store in Maidstone, Kent, in 1983, and the company expanded throughout the 1990s, its colourful dresses and sharp tailoring gaining a loyal following among women looking for well-priced office attire.

In 2001, she divorced her husband, and in 2004, sold her company to the Icelandic company Mosaic Fashions, in a deal that saw her gain £35 million (Stanford walked away with a sizable chunk, too), but lose the right to use her name. She hasn’t designed an item of clothing since — until now.

Financially, however, this was no happy ending. In 2017, after losing large amounts of money in the collapse of Icelandic bank Kaupthing and following disastrous tax advice that left her owing an eye-watering £6 million to HMRC, she was made bankrupt and forced to sell her £2.5 million family home, a six-bedroom Grade II-listed building set in five acres in Wateringbury, Kent, with a swimming pool, private cinema and lake.

The trappings of her old glamorous life — a flat in Belgravia, London, house in Majorca, private schooling for her three children, that house — were suddenly whipped away and Millen found herself sliding down a snake to the bottom of a ladder. Two years later, Karen Millen the business went into administration and was bought out by Boohoo in a deal that meant the brand was taken exclusively online.

‘I was really upset, because I knew they’d close the stores,’ Millen says now. ‘I felt completely devastated that everything we’d built over 20 years would all just disappear.

Cropped jacket, £151.20, belted dress, £159.20, both; shoes, £75,; earrings, £385,

Embroidered kimono dress, £311.20,; courts, £32.99,; earrings as before

Cropped jacket, £151.20, and belted dress, £159.20,; slingbacks, £59.99,; earrings as before

‘People would ask at the time of the sale whether I had regrets, and I would say no. But of course I do have regrets. There are things I would have done differently. I’d have taken more control over my own destiny, and not listened to others. I think that’s probably one of the things women do. You doubt yourself.

‘I still suffer sometimes with self-belief and insecurities — that whole imposter syndrome thing.’

Today, dressed in a dapper red shirt and tie from her new collection teamed with a black trouser suit she’s had for decades, Millen looks younger than her 61 years. Slim and chic with a hint of rock-star vibe, she admits to Botox, but is no fan of the big lip look nor ‘lots of fillers’.

‘You want to look your best, so I try to do all I can to look my best without going crazy. I can’t afford all that anyway. It’s so expensive.’

Sipping on a double espresso, she’s measured but enthusiastic about her new 30-piece collection for the company she founded. ‘I’m excited, but a little nervous, because obviously there’s high expectations,’ she says. ‘The brief was really open, which didn’t help in the sense of getting my head around what to do.’

What she did was go back to her own archives. The result is a carefully curated edit of Karen Millen classics from the 1980s through to the present day: think white shirts, leather trousers and signature shapes such as the mandarin-style dress. 

Add pieces influenced by the brand’s more recent incarnation, which in turn, of course, were influenced by her original designs: flattering shift dresses and modern tailoring in bright, bold hues of the kind that have found favour with the Princess of Wales.

It was the Princess’s patronage, alongside other high-profile fans including Jill Biden, Liz Truss and Liz Hurley, that for Millen signified the revival of the label and partly enticed her to dip her toe back into the water.

Embroidered dress, £223.20,; sandals, £19.99,; earrings as before

‘To have the brand endorsed by names like that — you could not pay for that [publicity]. It’s fantastic.’

She was also encouraged by the current 1990s fashion revival, which has seen original Karen Millen designs from that era trending on TikTok. ‘Timing is everything,’ she says. ‘It just felt like the right time.’

Pieces in The Founder are priced between £80 and £399, a similar if slightly higher ‘sweet spot’ than mid-market rivals such as Cos, Mango, Zara and Whistles. ‘I don’t know what the price points are,’ she says, surprisingly. ‘They didn’t tell me. I’d present them with the collection, and give them an idea of the types of fabrics I wanted to use, then they would present me with fabrics that they suggested.’

Dresses are largely polyester (some recycled) and viscose, for example, though that’s not an unusual mix among rival brands at similar price points.

Even so, how difficult for her! ‘There were always going to be frustrations, because I’m used to having things done a certain way. But you respect what they need to do. It’s their company now, and up to them where they want to take it.’

This echoes criticism she made in 2020, albeit in milder tone. Back then, Millen launched a coruscating attack on fast fashion and the death of the High Street in the business section of the London Evening Standard, writing: ‘KM was once a premium brand. A brand that prided itself on delivering high-end fashion with attention to detail. Using the best fabrics and trims but keeping our prices affordable.

‘It saddens me to see where it has been taken and how it has lost its way, but I have to accept that once you let go of something you have no control in where its future lies.

‘Greed has forced its way to the forefront. Creatives have been pushed to the back whilst business people surge forward unethically to service a young market that quite frankly astonishes me.’

Leather jacket, £319.20 and lace dress £239.20,; sandals, £35.99,; earrings as before

Today, she seems to have rethought her opposition, or at least to acknowledge that the broader fashion landscape has changed beyond recognition since her 1990s heyday. Despite the frustrations, does her return feel like a redemption story? ‘I guess it is quite unusual,’ she reflects. ‘Originally, I thought it wouldn’t interest me. I was doing other things and thought I needed to move on, not go back.

‘But it’s still in my blood. So when they asked if I was interested, I figured I’d see what happens. I might feel totally devastated if it’s a disaster. But it’s definitely whet my appetite in terms of fashion again, so I’m hungry to do more. Whether through the brand, something with someone else, or on my own are all things that I need to work out.’

Having sold her company before e-commerce took off, she admits it took her a long time to get used to shopping online. ‘Fashion isn’t necessarily about trends now, because we’re so spoiled by the vast array of looks we can buy.

‘With online shopping, we can shop the world and create our own style. It’s moved fashion forward. Rather than things being “in” or “out” it’s how you wear them.’

Neither do you design in the same way, she says. No longer constrained by what works visually on a shop floor, you can have a broader range of colours and styles but produce limited numbers of each item. 

‘The depth of the [new] collection is quite small: they haven’t produced massive amounts of any one thing. So the idea of meeting somebody wearing the same dress at a wedding is more limited than perhaps it used to be.’

While the brand is well loved for its dresses, she herself is more of a trouser person. ‘I wear trousers most of the time. It stems from being short [she’s 5 ft 2 in]. They’ve been my uniform ever since I can remember.

‘Dresses are a key part of the Karen Millen collection, but personally, I struggle with dresses. I don’t feel quite so comfortable. Unless I’m going to an event or something — then of course I’ll wear a frock.’

Icon: The Princess of Wales in Karen Millen. It was the Princess’s patronage, alongside other high-profile fans including Jill Biden, Liz Truss and Liz Hurley, that for Millen signified the revival of the label

Does she have any thoughts on the alleged death of the floral dress? ‘Oh, god,’ she says, looking momentarily stricken. ‘Well, there’s not a floral one [in the new collection]. There’s a printed dress, but it’s not a floral dress.’

She acknowledges that women’s needs have shifted. ‘Two years of lockdown completely changed the way we dress. We didn’t need to dress up, and it made people reflect, and shop differently.

‘But fashion is cyclical. At the moment there’s a big move towards the 1980s and 1990s again, which sits very well with the brand, as it was born in the 1980s and grew in the 1990s. Now, it’s considered vintage. My friends’ daughters are raiding their wardrobes for [original] Karen Millen pieces, and loving them.’

She saw similar enthusiasm for vintage Millen when she was working on the new collection. ‘You think that as you get older, people are not going to want you so much. But actually, you’ve got so much more to give. I realised that they were interested in hearing my stories of things, because they were unaware of it all.

‘I took one of my jackets into the office. I’d designed it in the 1980s — linen, double breasted, huge shoulders. Honestly, it’s older than some of the people who work there. I showed them, and they said, “Oh my god, that’s amazing.” ’

She loved working with the young design team. ‘They’ve got so much to give. They’re like sponges, full of ideas and creativity.’

Still, she’s sanguine at the prospect of the collaboration — if you can ‘collaborate’ with your own named brand — not working out.

‘I’ll just walk away from it and channel my energy somewhere else,’ she says, citing her online homeware business, Homemonger, which she launched shortly before the pandemic and wants to move into bricks-and-mortar shops.

‘I didn’t want to start it as an online business — I wanted to do it as more of a store, a destination.

‘People want more out of shopping than just walking down a high street. They want an experience. That’s what interests me. It’s all to play for.’

Whatever happens next, experience has taught her that she’ll be able to cope with it — ‘I’ve always been a fairly strong person, just as well, really’ — and credits her strength to her family.

The third of four children, Millen was brought up in Maidstone, Kent, by her carpet-fitter father, Anthony, and secretary mother, Sheila. That money was tight during her childhood perhaps led Millen to readjust better to life after bankruptcy. ‘A good upbringing, with feet firmly on the ground, being loved and supported,’ she smiles.

Her own three children, now 32, 31 and 26, are equally supportive, as is her partner of 11 years, commercial property developer Ben Charnaud upon whose income she now relies. 

‘Ben’s been my rock. I had never been dependent on anyone financially until things went wrong with me. That was really hard to come to terms with. It’s not ideal.’ She smiles wryly. ‘He doesn’t really like being talked about.’

It would be a cliche to say she appears ‘humbled’ by the events of the past six years. Millen is naturally self-effacing, with a quiet pragmatism and steady gaze.

For now, she’s off home to her rented cottage in the grounds of a farm in Kent — it’s hard to get a mortgage in your 60s having been bankrupt — but you get the feeling she won’t tuck herself away in the countryside for long this time.

‘It’s been a great experience,’ she says of creating The Founder. ‘I’ve really enjoyed working within a team again. There’s definitely more in me, so if they want me to do more, I’m open to talks.’

Having come out of fashion ‘retirement’ and made such an instant splash, Millen has reminded us all why the 1990s were hers.

Elegant, vibrant and with a definite edge, Karen Millen clothes —as designed by the woman herself — have a special place in the heart of all Gen X women.

Let’s hope she’s back for good.

  • Twitter: @LauraCraik Instagram: @lauracraik

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