Maxine Thompson: Founder of PolkaPants
Maxine Thompson, founder of PolkaPants, solves the problem of uncomfortable workwear for female chefs by bringing together her two passions: food and fashion. I chatted with Maxine about her journey into entrepreneurship and her passion for all things functional, ethical and designer.
Tell us about your brand. How did it all start? What do you love about PolkaPants?
The idea came about when I was working at a restaurant in Tasmania, Australia in 2013. The restaurant did 100 covers a night with the choice of an 8 or 10-course tasting menu that changed every day. With only three of us in the kitchen, the days were long, hard and fast and service was hot and sweaty. I could not for the life of me find a pair of trousers that were cool, comfortable and durable enough to work in for 14 hours a day.
I went through SO many different pairs of trousers that I bought from high street stores - I even tried cooking in high-waisted tight jeans one night, and almost passed out I was so hot and uncomfortable! None of the trousers I tried fit the bill – they would either lose their shape, a button would fall off, the crotch would split or the fabric would bleed onto my chef whites when I was scrubbing down at the end of the night. I was fed up with spending money on unsuitable products, so I took matters into my own hands and started to make my own.
What I love about PolkaPants is the amount of incredible food-obsessed women all around the world who I have had the pleasure of meeting, either via social media or email, who have since become good friends. It’s been such an amazing adventure and I feel so lucky to have new friends around the world, who are all bonded together by the PolkaPants community.
Paint the journey for us. How did a Queenslander set up her business in London?
I am fortunate enough to have a British passport (my Dad is English), so moving to the UK on a permanent basis was easy for me. I moved to the UK, and had the idea of PolkaPants in my head, but wasn’t exactly sure how to go about it in terms of setting up the business or even how to produce in London. While I was figuring out all the logistics, I was also working as a chef in a private bank. The job was from 7am–3pm Monday to Friday, so I had time in the evenings and at weekends (and during lunch breaks) to answer emails, design, have samples made, develop the business plan, and everything else in between.
Your brand is hugely successful. PolkaPants are worn by celebrity chefs, shipped internationally and featured by Vogue! In all of this, what has been the sweetest success for you personally?
Seeing people wearing PolkaPants! My stomach still does a little flip whenever I see someone wearing them. Being written about in Vogue just after we launched was also pretty surreal, as after all my years of working in fashion, it took something to do with food to get into Vogue!
Ethics, along with style and function, play an increasingly important role in business. Tell us about your approach to this?
Ethics play a huge part in the business model for PolkaPants in two main ways, through our environmental practices and through ethical labour practices. In terms of our environmental practices, our fabrics are milled in Turkey and our trousers are made in London. Using European-sourced fabrics and having our production in house in London allows us to reduce our carbon footprint. We use a pattern placement system in our production process that allows maximum use of fabric and results in minimum fabric waste. All of our screen-printing is done in the UK, with prints that we repeat every season so screens are not wasted, and can be reused time and time again.
In term of our ethical labour practices, all employees at the production studio we use are paid a London living wage and overtime. They work in a clean, safe and abuse-free environment. Our office is above the production studio so we can easily keep an eye on labour practices and cleanliness.
What is next for PolkaPants?
We have a few exciting projects and collaborations in the works for this year but we are mainly focusing on our core product, making it the best that it can be and keeping our community excited and engaged with the brand.
Moving to London can be challenging and setting up a successful business is certainly demanding. How have you maintained your momentum?
It’s a total rollercoaster but I think it really helps to have a network of other small business owners that you can talk to. Running your own business can be a very isolating process, you can feel that you are alone and that no one understands what you are going through, when the truth is there are a lot of people in the world who have been through, or are experiencing the same struggles as you. It is very refreshing to go out and find these people just to chat, laugh, cry and bounce ideas of each other. Someone who doesn’t deal with your business every day might see it in a completely new light and offer up a great idea that you couldn’t think of because you were swamped with admin, tax and customer service.
I also think it’s really important to make some time for yourself; to exercise, see friends, cook, go to the cinema. It can be hard as with social media and technology, you can feel as though you can never switch off, but it really makes a world of difference if you can.
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Images © PolkaPants