As part of our founder series, we speak with Imogen Johnson-Gilbert about moving into bespoke tailoring with Kipper & Chalk.
You have been sewing since you were 13 years old. Where did this passion come from?
I was actually sewing even before 13 - I began by making clothes for dolls and teddy bears. My Barbie had a blue check suit that I was particularly pleased with! My mum made things like cushions and curtains so I suppose that’s probably where my love for clothes and textiles started. At 13 I got a sewing machine and started learning properly, first with patterns from Burda and Simplicity and then making my own patterns. The satisfaction I get from finishing a project is a wonderful feeling.
How did your time training as a tailor on Savile Row impact your understanding of ‘fast fashion’?
Working as a tailor exposed me to the human side of the garment industry. It made me keenly aware that every garment is made by someone somewhere. Why should their experience be different to mine just because of geography? Would I be happy if I made something which someone disposed of after 2 wears because they had been snapped wearing it on Instagram? The term “sweatshop” originated from the hot basement workshops of Savile Row but they have come a long way since then. I’d like to see the phrase become completely obsolete as we become increasingly aware of where our clothes come from.
You previously founded Gillian June, a womenswear label offering a contemporary take on traditional tailoring. What made you switch your focus to Kipper & Chalk?
The customers. The bulk of my business was bespoke clothing and suits. Even though Gillian June was ostensibly a Ready-to-Wear brand, that’s what people seemed to want the most. And although I was able to explore that a little bit with Gillian June, I felt like as the brand developed and evolved, it was time for a new direction and focus.
What was the most important thing you learned from Gillian June and how does this influence how you run Kipper & Chalk?
That’s a hard one as running Gillian June was a very steep learning curve. I have learnt to trust my gut and to not try to please everyone. I am more comfortable speaking my mind if I think a customer might be making a bad decision, e.g. asking for something to be tapered too tightly. I am extremely proud of everything I make and want the garment, and the customer, to look their best.
I think I’ve also learned to be a bit tougher and a bit more cynical when dealing with suppliers - to research more rather than taking people at their word. Particularly when it comes to greenwashing, some people will say anything to make a sale. But equally, I’ve learnt the importance of building relationships and the human side of business.
We love the playful name Kipper & Chalk. What does it actually mean?
A Kipper is a female tailor. When women first started working in the trade, they were nicknamed Kippers because they would always work in pairs, so they could ward off unwanted advances from overfamiliar tailors! And chalk is one of my most useful tools, I use it to trace out the patterns, mark any alterations and sketch in sewing lines. I wanted this new name to reflect the focus on tailoring.
Kipper & Chalk offers a bespoke collection, but you decided to continue to make a small selection of ready-to-wear items. Why did you decide to pursue this path?
Our limited run of linen trousers mainly came about because I wanted to experiment with block printing onto a textured cloth and I really wanted an excuse to work with this particular block printing team! I was in Bangalore and had planned to visit their studio anyway so I took 50m of Irish linen with me. I’m also working on a collaboration with an artist to create some unique textiles that we hope will make art more accessible (but which still allows the artist to make a living!) The third project is about experimenting with the limits of recycled textiles and should be available early next year. So rather than feeling like a RTW brand, I would describe Kipper & Chalk as a custom tailors that occasionally wants to share something really special.
Ethical fashion is an extremely broad topic. What is your definition of ‘ethical fashion’?
As you say, “ethical fashion” is a broad term (as is “sustainable fashion”). In my head, the term “ethical” refers to the human side. It’s concerned with how people in the supply chain are treated, whether or not they’re getting a living wage, what their working conditions are like and, crucially, that they’re respected. As someone who makes clothes too, the question I always ask is “would I be happy to swap workshops?” If the answer is no then I shouldn’t expect someone else to work in those conditions.
The sustainable side is the industry’s impact on the environment. Where were your fabrics made? How far has everything travelled? How was it dyed/farmed/processed? Was there a better alternative you could have used? These are all questions I bear in mind when making decisions at Kipper & Chalk.
How do you try to live more sustainably in your personal life?
My boyfriend has always been a keen environmentalist. He was heavily involved in a court case that successfully sued Royal Dutch Shell for an oil spill in the Niger Delta. When he showed me pictures of that kind of pollution I got really strict, really quickly, about recycling and consumption. Last year we tried to go plastic free for the whole of July and it makes you realise how much single use plastic is out there! The experience definitely had a lasting impression on me and has changed the way I approach things like grocery shopping.
What do you look for in other clothing brands that you support?
I want a story. I want to know that their motivation is more than the bottom line. But I also want nice fabrics - I think my main issue with fast, cheap fashion is the poor quality of the materials used – some of it is really nasty! Like a lot of people, I don’t want my jumper to give me an electric shock.
How would you like to see Kipper and Chalk grow and expand?
In the short term, my goal is to get more customers to think of tailored garments when they’re considering what new clothes they need. I want to show people that tailored clothing can be affordable and accessible. I also want to increase awareness about repairs and alterations to clothes people already own. Small alterations don’t cost as much as most people think and they extend the life of much loved items of clothing – it’s win-win! Making a garment last as little as an extra 9 months reduces carbon and water waste by up to 30%. It’s a really easy way for people to give the environment a little bit of love.
Longer term, my dream is to open an atelier in the UK so I can encourage a new generation of makers. I want people to experience the joy that comes from producing a physical product, to see that making clothing is something to be proud of, and to help re-develop Britain’s once thriving garment industries.