Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Focus On Diana Kakkar - CEO MAES London


Diana and I first met when while shooting streetstyle back in 2012, during Fashion Week in London. We met again right before the start of the pandemic when I went to see her factory which at that point was in the East End of London she had done a lot since we first met shooting street style. My assumption back then was that she was a street style photographer and that couldn’t have been further from the truth.


When we sat chatting in a cafĂ© close to her workplace back in February 2020, we didn’t know how quickly the effects of Covid19 were about to change everything. We set a shoot date 18th March but by the 16th of March we were told if we could work from home we should and from here to there we only managed to meet for photography this year.


During the intervening pandemic years Diana remained productive and even surprisingly her business has grown, more on that later. For now as always we start our interview with the early influences in Diana’s life that set her on life’s journey.


Di: I am from India, I was born in a city called Ahmadabad in Gujarat south of Rajasthan, which is known for its colourful clothes and trinkets. Gujarat, is called the enterprising state everyone is a business person there. In India you have different states but unlike the UK or US the languages differ from state to state. This means you can only speak to people from different states if you speak in Hindi or English which is the national language. Then in quite a few of the states you are not taught Hindi either, so then only English and the regional language is spoken.


Mum is from Gujarat and dad was from the North-East of India, they met accidently. Mum was driving, she was running late for something and was driving the way she still does today (laughs) and dad was a passenger on a motorbike with his friend driving. Mum took a dangerous turn and came precariously close to crashing into dad and his friend. Fortuitously mum and the friend of dad’s knew each other. She was saying sorry to him, that was their first introduction.


Because they came from completely different cultural backgrounds - back in the late 70s in India, it was rare to marry out of your cultural background, or your city, or your state. In the 70’s it was more usual in India that your parents found you a bride or groom which is called an arranged marriage. A love marriage is, I guess what rebels do and it was very rare then, and very rare between cultures too, so they had to fight their way through a lot of tradition to convince my grandparents on both sides that this was for them.


My family lives in India still, I moved to the UK in January 2011, you and I met at the start 2012. I remember it was a very cold wet February Fashion Week day.

When I arrived in the UK I went for a job interview and remember the recruiter saying “Diana you interview brilliantly and I think you are really employable but your portfolio is not right for the UK.” I had moved from Australia, where I had lived for a couple of years, my photography folio was boat shots and my design portfolio, was vests. She suggested I walk around Oxford Circus and see what people are wearing in the UK then create designs for the UK market. That was great advice for me and that was why I was taking photographs of people on the street and writing a blog. 


Dv: Is there fashion in your family?


Di: No, no.


Dv: Not in the creative industry at all?


Di: No, not at all, if they had it their way, I would be a lawyer or a doctor or an accountant or have an MBA or maybe be a housewife with children.


Dv: You could still do an MBA someday if you wanted.


Di: Yes exactly, even though I am running a business and we have a growing team of over 15 people on the payroll when I speak to mum she will say “had you done an MBA it would really have come in handy right now.” So no, no-one in my family understands what I do. I think in their heads I am sitting twiddling my thumbs and staring at the wall and sketching all day. I try and send them as many pictures as possible to show them what’s really happening.


I had studied Economics, but always knew this wasn’t for me and was pretty sure fashion was my calling. When I was a girl, I couldn’t find clothes to suit my shape, so I would buy fabric and work with a local seamstress who made clothes for me. That’s how fashion became and interest, for me it was a way of gaining confidence, feeling confident making a change. Then it was the creative process, not only finding the right fabric and the right colours, for me it was more about the technical process of making the clothes. I loved watching the seamstress, she would pinch in a little here and suddenly I am like ‘Oh, I’ve got a waist, I didn’t that’. And she would put in a shoulder pad - this is the early 90’s, and suddenly your wonky shoulder would be balanced. That engineering and understanding of the body fascinated me and sparked my interest in clothes, more than fashion.


Dv: What a wonderful way to learn, by watching, by seeing and as you say the engineering of putting it together.


Di: Exactly, she used to work under a tree. She didn’t even have a kiosk, she was working under the tree on one of those manual machines, which you had to press the foot pedal down and work with your hand and I was fascinated ‘how do you coordinate your feet and your hand and how is all of that going together?’ I was mesmerised from the very beginning. Then I got my own Singer industrial machine that you had to move manually that I learnt to a sew on.


Dv: Was that something you specifically asked for?


Di: I think we inherited it from one of the house’s we moved into. I used it mostly for mending. 


As I grew older and went to college to study business and Economics but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to sit behind a screen looking at excel spreadsheets all day trying to figure out how to make money. Laughs, which I am doing now anyway, but I knew I wanted to learn a skill, a skill that would live with me forever.


I finished my Economics degree and went back to mum and said, ‘let me try fashion and if it doesn’t work out I can always fall back on my economics and statistics degree. She was resistant but because I had done well in my degree I managed to get a scholarship for the fashion course, for everything except the first year. I fought really hard to do this, that’s how I got into fashion.

Dv: Now you have 2 degrees, what was your next step, where did you go next?


Di: In 2008, I fell I love and moved to Sydney to be with him. I have had two defining moments in my life the first was moving from India to Sydney, I had felt I was at the peak of what I could achieve there and the move meant I had start all over again.


Dv: Who did you work for in Sydney?


Di: My first job was working for a small vintage boutique call Barbarella vintage. The owner was descendant Hmong Vietnamese and she was supporting a Vietnamese factory, producing everything in Vietnam and selling in Sydney. She needed someone who could speak the technical language of fashion, so I was translating all the designs technically to produce overseas. I then moved to Ben Sherman, which was very interesting because I was suddenly thrown into UK culture and the best way to understand the UK was to study the music and there was a lot of Pop and Mod culture coming through. When I was studying fashion I had wanted to study at LCF or Central St Martins, because McQueen had studied in London you want to study in London too. So, my next move was to London.


Once in London and after the interview with a recruiter who I suggested I use photography to get a feel for London style, I found I really loved taking photographs and my design sensibilities changed. I started finding myself again and started almost redefining myself. It also meant removing anything I didn’t want in my life at that stage. I then split with my ex which was very painful, so this shift gave me a renewed energy.


I tried to run away to figure out what was happening to take this pain away and moved to New York, to work with Scott Schuman, The Satorialist. I loved working there and learnt a lot about how the blogging industry works in New York. I still think America is 3 to 5 years ahead of the UK when it comes to that, so it gave me a glimpse of the future and what would happen if I continued down that road.

It made me realise what I was actually missing was the clothes. I loved fashion, but I actually loved the clothes more, the making and the engineering of the clothes.


I had come to a stage where I had to choose New York or London. While it was in New York it pulled into focus that London, in spite of memories of my breakup, was home. My girlfriends were here, my friends were here, I had a support system here. I moved back to London, and started interviewing for a pure garment manufacturing or garment technologist job and got a great break with a Canadian designer based in London called Erdem.


The second life defining moment was when I was working with Erdem. I wanted to be back in the clothes industry I wanted to be around fashion. I walked into that atelier and I could see the pattern cutting and I could see the sewing and I was like ‘Oh my god, I’m home. This is home.’, I found myself again.

It restructured everything, any frays or split ends in my life. All my knowledge, started flowing really easily, it meant that whatever I had learned, what my experiences were, were coming out more naturally. I was really passionate about the product. I was really passionate about the process, it completed me.


Dv: You wanted to do your own thing. What gave you the impetuous to step forward and do that?


Di: My boyfriend Josh is from America, he had been in the UK 21/22 years, mostly in London. He was at a stage where London was tiring him out and he wanted to live a slower pace of life, he wanted to move out of London. The only place I was willing to move to was Margate because I really, really like it there. I could see he needed change and wasn’t happy and that was affecting me too. So although I loved what I did, someone I dearly cared about was suffering. The conversation had been on the periphery for 4 or 5 months, maybe longer. On the 18th of September the day of the Erdem show, Josh resigned from his job. He had told me the Friday before he was going to resign on the Monday saying ‘I have been in this job 11 years, this is my first step towards moving out of London and living a slower life. I want to live closer to work. I don’t want to be on the Central Line in the rush hour, I really want to take control of my life.’ I was fully supportive of that.


Then he kept pushing me, you know you have so much fashion knowledge, why don’t you create a connection between India and the UK, you know people are really struggling to make their collections, you can make dreams come true. You can use your skills and experience and connect them to manufacturers in India. I had done it in the past with other designers but had always felt there was a lack of communication between manufacturers and designers when they are in two different countries. They don’t speak the same, not the language, but the same language of fashion. I could see that that’s why the partnership between designers and manufacturers weren’t working and manufacturers were getting a bad name. I wanted to support India and I wanted to support the designers here because they had the visions I believed in but was struggling to create a bridge between them.


The initial thought was to set up a small studio in Margate to help designers achieve their vision. Then if there was a bigger production we could take that to India and I could go and see the family etc, etc.


The more we talked the more we realised there was a gap in the market, where designers didn’t have manufacturers they could trust with their vision, that’s when we decided to set up MAES London. MAES is seam spelt backwards. The core essence of MAES London is that we are an extension of the designers. We work with designers and help them create a collection which they are proud of so that when they walk into the sales room they know     that what they are walking in with is a really good product. Then if they choose to produce with us we could take it to India.


This was our initial thought because we were thinking really small, thinking we would have maybe a 2 or 3 person team maximum. This was the business idea, we started looking at numbers, then we both quit our jobs. We released quickly that Margate was not going to work as all my connections were in London. To start we took a small studio in Hackney Wick which was close to home. Josh wanted work to be in walkable distance, he didn’t want to take the train and he wanted to reduce his carbon footprint. 


Dv: And you are still working together?


Di: Still going strong. I am still the CEO, so I have the final say. We have learnt how to agree and disagree with each other. Those are the big challenges when you are working and living together regardless of whether the person is your partner or your best friend. You have to draw your boundaries.


Dv: It is good you come from different directions and have different strengths.


Di: He really compliments the skill that we need in the business. I feel I am the initiator and he is the processor and I am the doer, so he has a big chunk in-between. I start something, he processes it all, makes the systems and I execute it, we make a good team. He definitely challenges me daily, to be the best version of myself. That’s the beauty of working with a best friend because they understand you.


So, there we were setting up a small studio in Hackney Wick and our first client is with us still. We started with one designer making their collection. 


Dv: Who do you work with now?


Di: Confidentiality doesn’t allow me to say outright, we do however work with a lot of London Fashion Week clients I would say 95% of our clients showcase at Paris Fashion Week, London Fashion Week or Copenhagen Fashion Week. Most of them sell in Selfridges, Harrods, Net-A-Porter, Matches. Both Men and Womenswear. We are set up do Women’s sampling and production and we have one Menswear client who creates a genderless, gender fluid collection.


Dv: Lines are blurred a lot now and a lot of brands are putting both Men and Womenswear collections down the runway at the same time.


Di: It all becomes flatter. I think it is better for the fashion industry because you would say that the collections are becoming more concise and more thoughtful. I think it’s high time the industry was going through this new way of thinking or we would just come back to a situation where we are overproducing and under selling. Or there would be so much deadstock.


Dv: The way you produce allows people to work in a more sustainable way.


Di: I think the main thing is, because we are based in London and we are a small studio, we can make smaller collections and smaller productions. We are not looking for 1000 units to be produced with us. We help designers produce even the smallest of smallest of collections.


Dv: I guess it also allows them to quickly extend the collection if something is selling really well. And keeps their carbon footprint lower. They can also see the people who are creating the clothing for them and they know that they are being treated in an ethical way.


Di: They are a few things we think about. By offering lower MOQ’s (Minimum order quantities) by saying that we can produce 25 units or 65 units we are enticing designers to be more thoughtful when they are producing clothes which means that they are producing or are choosing to produce only the stuff that has been sold or confirmed sold by retailers. This means you are not sitting with loads of deadstock in your warehouse. Gone are the times when fashion should have a shelf life, you should be looking at more sustainable classic pieces.


Dv: You are working high end, so you are creating pieces that are beautifully structured that people want to keep in their wardrobe forever.


Di: The garments are made to the highest standards, so they will last longer. The fabrics are beautiful, we specialise in silks. We try and stay away from cheap fabrics which don’t stand the test of time or are bad for the environment. Our designers choose to use fabrics which are more beautiful, structured and come from reliable sources.

Our supply chain forward and behind us is so solid that we feel that what we are doing is really thoughtful and we are conscious of what we are producing. The clients selling the clothing are also thinking about this industry on a bigger scale, not produce, produce, produce to sell at minimal price for throw away fashions sake.


Dv: When you started MAES London, you said it is seam back to front. How did you come to that?


Di: One of the first names we came up with for the business was Ada, we were thinking of anagrams, we played a lot with these, with different words and we were on the 25 bus coming back from the gym when Josh suggested I write down everything related to fashion. The name had to sound classy and luxurious with quality. It needed to sound lovely when you listen to it. We wrote down a few words and because we had been paying with anagrams, I was reading things backwards and MAES really struck a cord. Everyone liked it, it sounded good, it sounded international it sounded like a person and then we found out it is one of the Netherlands most popular surnames and in another language it meant mum, it had positive ever growing solid synonyms with it so we were sure this was it. It is MAES London, seam backwards because we truly, truly believe that if you get it right from the first stage then you have a really good product.

I look at it like if you were designing a house and you have the most amazingly beautiful designed house, but if your base, your foundation is slightly wonky your most beautifully designed house will be wonky so we believe that the foundation or seam of the garment is the first stage and you take it from there. 



Dv: When I interviewed Dilys Williams she mentioned a collective of product designers who believed a product that couldn’t be taken apart, fixed and put back together again has failed from the beginning, which is what you are saying about your seams and foundations.


Di: If the foundation wasn’t right, we wouldn’t be able to unpick a garment and put it back together.


Dv: Where you manufacturing from the beginning?


Di: We started with the intention of manufacturing locally, with the intention of sampling not production. We were sampling for the client and then decided to produce for them. We started with one sample and they took it to market and realised it was really good and they wanted to produce 30 of them and it was a best seller so then they wanted us to produce 50 of them and since then we have been in the cycle of growth with our clients. I think that’s the joy of having a small family run business, because you engage with the client you see them grow. One of our first clients from May 2018 came to us with 5 units and we recently produced 350 units for them that’s the growth the brand has seen, and we have grown with them and for us to be a part of that, is really rewarding.


Dv: Do you work with students as well?


Di: The client I mention was a student and is now selling in lots of Parisian & English boutiques. The beauty of MAES London is that we are such a good support team, we love supporting our designers. We are championing their growth because the more they grow the prouder we get and that means the more opportunities we have to bring their design and visions to life and that is the joy we get out of it.

So that is MAES London, we do sampling production and pattern cutting for designers.

However we can’t work only with students as we invest a lot of time grooming them to be production ready. My point being, we are very selective of who we work with. Our selection works like this: People, Planet, Product and Price.



Dv: How do you see the future for MAES London?


Di: We are very lucky to be in London and to be producing locally is a privilege.

At MAES our core message is that we are here for designers, enabling them to create beautiful products. That holds true even more now than before because this is their livelihood and we want to make sure they know that we are there to assist them through their development, production sampling journey.


Making their dreams come true.




Website MAES London


Instagram @maeslondon






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