I was introduced to Katy Parkes by Lewin; one of the founders of 'Look Mum No Hands', the brilliant cycle cafe in Old Street, and former interviewee of Masters of Many. Someone who has never really seen herself as an employee, and has had a go at many things, Katy now designs her own rucksacks via her brand Dereks. What started out as a simple design and sales model, she is now reinventing the entire retail process to be more transparent and customer focused, with some exciting ideas in development. I caught up with her to find out more...
Tell us about your journey to date...
I always knew that I wanted to be self employed. I did an arts degree and went into book selling. I got to a point where the risk was not that apparent, in terms of having a go at doing something on my own. I could always work part-time in book selling and I had low expectations, with no big goals of setting up my own multi million pound business. I just wanted to be able to be flexible and financially spontaneous every now and again.
I started working for myself in 2012 and have done loads of things since then, some of which I realised I didn't enjoy. The first thing I set up was an art gallery. It's still going, but I realised it wasn't creative and essentially I was just putting on events, so after doing that for 2 1/2 years I wanted to do something else.
What I wanted to do ultimately was to be able to climb mountains, and I wanted to do something that gave me an excuse to do that. So I thought about making back packs. It started as a simple idea - to make a product that people buy, but think about my life first. I've been doing it for 2 years, and now it's become more of a project in sustainability, in handmade vs. luxury and asking huge questions about retail models. I'm surprised that that is what interests me, but there are lots of artistic projects and variants in what that financial exchange can involve.
How is the retail model different from the norm?
It's very much in the process of happening. When you buy a bag, you see the exact costs of everything involved: the rate I pay myself an hour, the costs of the zips, the leather, the canvas, how many miles the product has travelled, and you get to see what the profit is. There is a real transparency there that isn't in the fashion industry at all.
With price transparency there is also traceability. It forces me to ask my suppliers how benevolent their process is. I'm documenting the process. I'm a small customer for these businesses, for example my canvas is from the same company that Barbour uses. I know I don't have a lot of buying power, but it's interesting to see how they react to the questions I'm asking.
I'm also doing a 'pay what you can' exercise every month. One day where, through all the information that is there about the time and cost that has gone into the product, people pay whatever they can afford. It's interesting to see if it's something people are comfortable with, or something they feel awkward about. I think a lot about the affordability of things. Someone said to me ages ago that my bag should be luxury, but I reacted against that. A backpack means we can cycle and climb mountains, it's a necessary product. Really what they were referencing is that a luxury item shares a similar price tag to mine, so then it's about talking about why they cost that. The time it takes to make the product, whether it's sustainably resourced, is everyone in the process being paid well. Does it qualify the product as luxury, or is it a whole different realm of being handmade, long lasting and sustainable consumerism?
I'm also experimenting with making waste free bags. I'm making prototypes now of jugging balls and baseball caps with the corners you cut off. People don't have to buy them. It's about asking the consumer if they care about this enough to pay an extra £15, if it means that there will be nothing in the recycling bin from their bag.
All of it still results in a backpack available for money, but it's trying to think about what is behind the actual transaction and that should it be more than the price tag. Should that even be the first thing you see or should it be the fact that everyone in this process receives a working wage?
They're all questions that I'm asking. I try and consume well, since setting up this business, and through meeting so many people that make things for a living. However, I still haven't resolved what the right thing for me is. I don't want it to come across as an earthy high minded business. It's more about asking if this is something we care about. It's all about asking questions, not in any way to draw assumptions.
What did you do originally?
I studied in history for my education, but I went to quite an arty school. I've always sewn clothes, but not for a living until 2012 when I first went self employed. After that I did it for a few friends and made a few wedding dresses for exhibitions. The sewing meant that I wasn't afraid to have a go at making money out of it despite having no formal training in it. I did a few days at Ally Capellino. She started in the same way and 30 years later she has a world famous and successful business.
I was living in London and when I quit full time book selling, I went back to my parents house for a summer, I bought 20 metres of backdrop theatre canvas, lots of screen printing and fabric paints, and started painting fabric in garish colours and creating boxes for bags. The first one was bright red and it was huge, like having a post box on my back. It's been refining it from that bag really.
If you can imagine any object three dimensionally, you can sew anything. The sewing is just like putting the glue on. The fun bit and the creativity and the engineering is drawing up the pattern and understanding how the fabric folds and strains. All the bags I make are based on paper models, which helps me see where I need to cut, sew or pleat. So actually making a bag is the easiest thing in the world.
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress in your new venture?
I was really lucky that one of the first things I did was contact a guy called James, from a bike company in East London, asking them what they thought of the bag. They really liked it and I made an exclusive bag for them. There were two other bike companies in the first month I was then making bags for.
Weirdly now I'm pulling away from that model, as a big thing with handmade products is to be affordable as possible, so therefore I don't really work on a wholesale structure. But, it's about balancing it with people like James who was there from day 5, and the publicity I got from being in touch with his more established business.
The hardest thing is recognising and congratulating myself. I've had periods of being very sad in terms of working on my own. In January last year I told my boyfriend that I'd made the most I'd ever made, even though I thought it was going to be a terrible month. He said I have to tell the whole story, and that it was something I'd been worried about for ages. I'm getting better at realising and saying well done to myself.
How often did you feel like ‘it’ wasn’t going to work?
Rally often and really recently! Only two months ago I whatsapped a friend saying 'I think today I'm unemployed'. Then the next day I reemployed myself, then the next day I was unemployed again.
I'm in the early stages of realising that I don't want to run the business as just making bags and selling them. I realised I'd been making the same bags since I began, so I stopped making them, made 4 new ones and starting thinking about the process itself of making and selling. So it's a transition to these new ideas. It was less about 'can it continue financially?' and more about 'am I still interested in this?'.
You've obviously worked in different jobs, and the business now entails lots of different roles. What do you find difficult about managing the different sides of the business?
I found it really hard when I was living in London and doing it. I didn't move to London to work, I moved there to be near all my friends. Making the choice to move to Berlin has given me time and space as the business requires so much work.
For the last 2 years I've probably worked six days a week, every week. In Berlin, nearly everyone is self employed. I feel like I live in a larger, lighter, better space and there is a basic thing of enjoying being in the room that I work in. I really enjoy the financial side, which surprises me. It's the moment that you can say well done to yourself and I'm good at keeping a constant flow of what's going in and out. I still find the Marketing the hardest. It doesn't come naturally to me to tell people what's going on. I feel uncomfortable assuming that people will be interested in what I'm doing.
What do you do to spur yourself on when you get the fear?
I stop working and do a day and half of wandering around. It helps being in Berlin, as there are so many places I'm yet to explore. I'll have a break from all of it.
I've also found that social media is a lovely way of meeting other makers. I'm part of a female creative collective in London. There are woodworkers, ceramicists, a photographer, and a coffee company. We meet once a month and have regular email threads. It's been amazing being part of a group of women trying to figure out how to turn their products into businesses that pay for rent, food and holidays, and it keeps me going. It can look so seamless on social media, but actually talking to them you understand that everyone is trying stuff out and finding things hard.
What or who do you find intimidating?
One thing that I've only just started to do is send bags to bloggers. It's on my to do list to send one to a blogger based in Australia, called 'Carryology'. They are real geeks about bags, and I find it intimidating giving a bag to be reviewed and judged, rather than someone asking me for a bag. If it doesn't go down well I wonder if I'll feel deflated, after investing so much physical time and energy. I'll send it next month...
What makes you feel good / powerful?
I don't know if necessarily a backpack is something I'm suited to making, but I do have a good brain for designing things. However, the most powerful thing is flexibility. About six weeks ago I decided on a Saturday to go on holiday on the Monday. I booked a train, went to the Alps and spent 10 days climbing. Not many people can do that.
What’s the best compliment you’ve been given?
Someone on my Instagram recently said "you were born to do this, you're a natural maker". I was like "whoa, that's really nice!"
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
Definitely enjoying the moment. I've never even thought about legacy before!
How do you define success?
I would say that the power that we have in this world is how we earn and spend our money. Being able to choose how much money I want to earn is an exciting thing. Sometimes I don't feel like working that much that week, so I'll consciously not earn that much, because I don't want to work that much.
A few of my friends who are employed by someone else have decided to take working a day less, rather than taking a pay rise. Being able to choose when and how much money you want to earn is the new definition of success.
Where would you like the business to get to?
I would really like the money from the sales of bags, to pay enough money to enable me to employ people on a formal contract. I think that's a wonderful thing to be able to do. I'd like to continue to move towards creating a sustainable and transparent business; and to have enough money to allow the time and energy to constantly explore new ideas. I don't have dreams of a huge business, at most it would be six of us working - that's a nice number.
How do you start your day?
I found it so much healthier, in terms of mental health, to have a strict structure when you're self employed. I wake up pretty early and go for a run, and then tend to get the nasty bits of work done as soon as I get back, before I have breakfast. Then I do emails over breakfast. Then I do any sewing that needs to be done, until it's done. Then I have another break where I do social media or plan a newsletter.
That's normally about 5pm, so at that point I've been sewing from 10am to 5pm. Then it winds down from there. If I'm not doing much in the evening, I'll still be thinking about work, scribbling down ideas, or sewing a random pocket until I go to bed.
How do you come up with new ideas?
In terms of esoteric ideas, it's just talking with people, seeing other peoples work - pottery , wood working, florists. I watched a programme on Netflix called Chefs Table. Chefs are complete workaholics and I found the level of detail that they go to really inspiring. That made me think of seeing all the materials I use as ingredients, so of course it's important to pay attention to how they're grown.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I set up a wallpaper business when I was 5; drawing bits of paper and telling people that was what was happening. I wanted to be a writer for a long time and I still like writing for fun. It wasn't really one thing.
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
I look at how different many of my contemporaries' lives are versus my parents' generation. I think I would like them to think from early on that they can do anything, not just the subjects that school teaches you. I'd encourage them to go to work before university, which is quite a European thing. I want them to realise that it's alright to change your mind. It doesn't show a failure, it just shows that you've had a new idea.
Single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
I remember my dad (who is quite a serious man) once saying to me "This will work Katie", when I was doubting the business. I thought, if Dad says that it obviously will.
To check out Katy's backpacks, go to www.dereksbackpacks.com