This month’s designer interview is with Katie of the British, vintage-inspired lingerie label What Katie Did. I’ve been a fan of What Katie Did for years, and when I learned Katie was about to open her first ever U.S. store in Los Angeles (you lucky people!), I had to talk with her her.
In this intensely personal interview, Katie tells us about the hardest parts of starting her own lingerie label, what makes her brand different from other vintage-inspired lines, and What Katie Did’s plans for Fashion’s Night Out. As an added bonus, Katie is giving Lingerie Addict readers first look at never-before-seen photos from her upcoming Christmas 2011 and S/S 2012 collection. Let’s get started!
1) Why don’t we start with you telling us a little bit about What Katie Did? I’ve been a fan of yours since before I started blogging , and I know that What Katie Did predates the current craze for all things vintage. What made you start WKD? And why specialize in vintage-inspired lingerie?
Since my mid teens I’ve been interested in 1950s fashion and style. During the late 80s there were quite a few ‘50s influences in fashion and it was the 25th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death so I think I probably picked it up from there.
One of my first (only!) jobs was at fetish store Skin Two, in London. It was there that I was introduced to proper fully fashioned stockings and steel boned corsets. At this time corsets really weren’t that popular and if you wanted one you had to go to a fetish store. There were only a couple of manufacturers: Vollers and Axfords who made the same designs year in year out although new talent was just about to peek through including Velda Lauder with her Warrior Collection. Incidentally, whilst I was at Skin Two Retail, there was another Katie who worked in Skin Two Manufacturing: she’s now ‘Miss Katie’ who makes beautiful corsets.
The girls I worked with at Skin Two were big collectors of vintage lingerie and tended to wear girdles and longline bras daily, as outerwear. Hours would be lost discussing the merits of Wolford Opaque Devilles and Aristoc Harmony Points. I guess at this point my fate was sealed!
When Skin Two Retail closed to concentrate on it’s own line, I was left without a source for affordable stockings. There was a monthly London Fetish Fair so I ordered £100 worth of stockings wholesale and set up a stand there. I didn’t think I’d make much money (and was right on that count) but it at least covered my stocking habit.
This then led to me setting up a homemade website in 1998 – one which said ‘send your cheque to PO box…’ and unbelievably people did! What Katie Did officially started in November 1999 when I started working on it full time, opened a small shop in Camden, London and set up a professional, transactional website.
After I’d built up a good range of stockings the next logical step was to sell something that would hold them up, so I started first with garter belts and then other bits of lingerie. At this point I was buying other brands including Lady Marlene and Rago, but when Lady Marlene closed it prompted me to start designing my own range.
2) What kind of woman is a What Katie Did woman?
There are all types of What Katie Did women, but they do tend to be strong characters with minds of their own! I think anyone who veers away from the crowd and dresses differently is bound to have something interesting to say! Our core age group is 25 to 35 but do have customers up to 80! Most of our customers are interested in vintage fashion but we do have some who are more into high fashion and it’s interesting to see how they wear our pieces.
3) What was the hardest part of starting your own lingerie label?
I guess the hardest part was not having any money. I started with £100 ($150) and never borrowed to grow the business. I come from a family where it was drilled into my head : ‘do not borrow on credit cards’ and although I did a few years ago, I’m very wary about owing money to anyone. I can remember doing my first bank transfer for £300 to our factory in India thinking it was so much money and what would happen?
If I had have borrowed money we might have grown faster, and at times it has been frustrating how long it has taken, but as we’ve grown slowly and surely we’ve now got a very strong base.
4) There are a lot of vintage, pin-up, and burlesque inspired lingerie lines out there now. What makes What Katie Did different?
We were first! Although there are a lot of lingerie companies out there currently using the ‘vintage’ tag, very few of them actually work from vintage pieces (that’s not to say I don’t like them, the UK in particular has an incredible selection of boutique design houses at the moment all producing fabulous lingerie). Most of our lingerie is developed from vintage pieces from our CC09 tap panties and bra which are taken directly from CC09 pieces to our AW11’s Vicky Torsolette – which is taken from a piece a customer gave to me a few years ago.
Whilst there are a few companies who do ‘very’ vintage inspired pieces like us, we’re the only ones who do 2 collections a year, who also wholesale as well as retail and who have actual stores as well as a website and catalogue. There’s nothing like fitting lingerie on women in real life and having our stores is invaluable for feedback.
5) What are three things every pin-up vixen needs in her wardrobe?
Stockings! Seamed stockings in particular: I’ve never seen the point of wearing stockings without a seam!
6 strap/vintage style garter belt: most modern garter belts are pretty, but designed to be worn on the hip. Invariably they just slide down, twist and generally are uncomfortable. Vintage and vintage style garter belts are designed to be worn on the waist and are far more comfortable. 6 straps aren’t essential but do help if you’re new to stockings. If you do see a modern garter belt you love, either buy 2 sizes smaller so it sits on the waist, or get handy with a needle and thread.
Bullet bra: today the trend is for rounded, natural looking breasts but in the late ‘40s through to the early ‘60s the pointer the better! A bullet bra really makes a difference under a vintage dress and is the quickest way to give you an authentic pin up girl silhouette.
6) I recently learned that you’re getting ready to open your first U.S. boutique in Los Angeles. Congratulations! What made you move into the U.S. market and why L.A.?
We went to Viva Las Vegas and LA in 2010 to look for stockists: whilst we wholesale worldwide from New Zealand to Brazil to Iceland the USA has always been a bit of a black hole for us. We work with Faire Frou Frou and presumed we’d find a few more stores like their beautiful boutique: but no, there weren’t any! This prompted us to set up a US website with prices in USD, with all duties paid, a US toll-free phone number and US address. Until we launch our store in the US telephone calls are re-routed to our UK office which means that the time difference is a bit of a pain: we’re frequently taking calls at 11pm in our pajamas!
The site went well and although Girdlebound started stocking us, we didn’t pick up any other stockist. One evening when we’d had too much to drink, my husband (Richard – who runs WKD wholesale) said we should just open our own shop. Over the next few days, when sober, he kept saying the same thing! We started looking around and LA was not only affordable but had a lot of movie and press in the area. We flew out in April and found a suitable (and affordable) store, much to our surprise and really that was that! We really expected to visit our real estate agent and for them to laugh at what we were trying to do, but they couldn’t have been more supportive.
7) What have been some of the challenges of bringing What Katie Did overseas? I’ve been to the WKD location in London (back when it was on Portobello Rd.). Will there be any differences between the UK and US stores?
On the whole it has been quite easy. At time of writing, it looks like doing business in the USA is a lot easier than in the UK, and that the USA is very supportive of small businesses. The biggest issue is that companies in the USA aren’t used to working with people from overseas. The start of every phone call goes well, and then we get asked for our social security number – which we don’t have as we’re English! Then the computer says no! Dealing with automated utility suppliers is bad enough without being told ‘no’ at the last hurdle. The time difference has also been frustrating. London is 8 hours behind LA so if there are any queries it takes an extra day to sort out.
In the UK we have a London store and warehouse in Berkshire where we process mail order. In the US we’ll be doing mail order from the boutique – but that will be the only difference between the two.
8) September 8th is your official open day…are you doing anything special for Fashion’s Night Out?
I’m going to be in LA for the first couple of weeks so will be there for Fashion’s Night Out. It’s very exciting as in London our boutique is not in a main fashion area so hasn’t been able to take part – it’ll be our first time!
I’m bringing over elderflower cordial to make our signature WKD cocktails and will also have a case full of chocolates from London company the Vintage Patisserie so refreshments will be very English and the same as what we serve in our London boutique.
We’re planning a US/UK window with a couple of bespoke corsets: one using the USA flat and one the British Union flag. Our LA team are really excited about the event, so it should be a lot of fun.
9) Any closing remarks?
People often ask me if I’d preferred to have lived in the 1950s. I always say no! Even 10 years ago it would have been unthinkable for a company of our size to open a store the other side of the world. I said to my husband a few days ago that I always thought our second store would be in Manchester or Edinburgh! Technology really has opened a lot of doors for small companies, they just have to make sure they take advantage of it!
Thanks so much for your time, Katie! I’m looking forward to stopping by while I’m visiting Los Angeles later on this year.
Do any of my L.A. readers plan on stopping by What Katie Did’s new boutique? Let me know what you think in the comments!