Chef and fashion designer Maxine Thompson was fed up with the limited choice of chef trousers for women so designed her own and last month, launched PolkaPants: the coolest kitchen-wear on the market. Gizzi Erskine is already rocking them…
Maxine is 29, was born in Australia, and now lives in east London with her twin sister and her sister’s husband. She’s changing the way female chefs dress, one PolkaPant at a time…
Are you a morning person?
Yes. I love the mornings – especially if you are up VERY early, it’s almost as though you and the city have a secret. There’s no point being grumpy in the mornings, as long as a cup of tea is close, its going to be a good day.
What time are you up and what do you do first thing?
Now that I’m self-employed I’m up a little bit later.. when I had a full time job, I had to be at work at 6am, which meant up at 5, quick cup of tea and 30 minute cycle to work. Now I’m generally up about 7 (try and go for a run or swim three days a week), I usually have coffee and breakfast with my sister, Skype my parents (back in Australia) and then head to my studio by 9 or 10am.
How might the rest of your day pan out?
I’m still a one man band at PolkaPants, so my day involves responding to emails, packaging and shipping of trousers (standing in line at the post office!), stocktake, research and development of new products and generally trying to get the brand out and about amongst media, chefs and other like minded people who might be interested in PolkaPants. If I haven’t exercised I usually try to, then perhaps meet a friend for a pint, cook dinner or eat out.
I knew I wanted to start my own business
Did you always plan to launch your own business?
I’ve known for a while that I wanted to work for myself (my parents had a late career change and started their own company) so I’ve seen how hard it can be working for yourself. Initially my mum was a teacher (who made skydiving suits for a living after she had us) and pappa was a lawyer. Together they started a tech company that was one of the first in Australia to install wireless internet into hotels and student accommodation. Seeing them go through the hard times and the good and seeing what they achieved really inspired me to take the leap.
After studying fashion, you were working as a freelance chef – describe the clothes you were made to wear?
Working as a freelance chef you have a little bit more flexibility, although is does depend on the client. I would usually wear the ‘original’ pair of PolkaPants I made and a black turtle neck. Some clients would request chef whites, but it is generally a bit more relaxed as you tend to be cooking in private homes.
Deciding to make chef trousers
At what stage did you decide to design your own women’s chef trousers?
The idea came about when I was working in a restaurant in Tasmania, Australia in 2013. It was an amazing little restaurant that did 100 covers a night with the choice of an eight or 10 course tasting menu that changed every day. With only three of us in the kitchen, the days were long and hard, and service was hot and sweaty. I could not for the life of me find a pair of chef trousers that were cool, comfortable and durable enough to work in for 14 hours a day.
I went through hundreds of pairs of store bought trousers and none 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 matter into my own hands and started to make my own.
I got serious about actually making them on a commercial level when I moved to London two years ago and started speaking with female chefs and discovered that the vast majority of them experienced the problem as me and were becoming frustrated with the lack of options available. We were limited to baggy trousers from Denny’s, chain store trousers or to cook in jeans.
Having studied and worked as a fashion designer (in my more glamorous past life) I had the benefit of being able to sketch out some designs, draft a pattern and sew some initial pairs. I began user testing and from there further developed and refined the product.
Designing the chef trousers…
What inspired the design?
The design is inspired by the ‘fashion’ of World War II when clothes were about rationing, simplicity and practicality. There are similarities between the WWII ‘make and mend’ movement and the modern day kitchen environment. You often don’t have the time to go out and buy new trousers, so you have to ‘mend and make do’ with what you have. Emphasis on wartime fashion was less on the clothing and more on the accessories – vibrant hats and scarves, for instance – and again, this has be re-appropriated by women in kitchens.
How are they made? (what materials, where are they manufactured)
PolkaPant chef trousers are made locally in north London in a studio in Finsbury Park. They are made from 97% cotton, with 3% stretch and the cottons are sourced from the UK and from Turkey. The polkadot screen print was designed by Bristol-based artist Victoria Topping.
How did you get word out about PolkaPants?
I’ve been very fortunate that I have a couple of very loyal female chefs as unofficial brand ambassadors. Word has mainly been spread through social media, which has been a very interesting exercise in itself.
Other chefs are on board
How have other female chefs reacted?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve received several emails, twitter messages and Instagram comments from female chefs, food stylists and ladies who have bought the trousers for every day wearing saying how happy they are with the fit and style of the trouser.
What came first: a love of food or a love of fashion?
Tough! I’m not quite sure, sewing and cooking are two of the first things I can remember doing. My mum comes from a big family, so she taught me to sew from a young age, and I was obsessed with making my friends cushions on their birthdays! Bu then cooking is also something I’ve always done… my twin sister and I used to break into the pantry and pull down containers of flour and crack eggs to make ‘pancakes’ on the kitchen floor.
Are you still cheffing – and if so, where?
I am in bits and pieces. I just finished helping out at Pidgin in Hackney, but now just working privately and helping some chef friends out for dinners and events.
Being both the creative and business mind…
So you manage both the creative and business sides of the company… how is that for you?
Yes I do, it’s tough sometimes to juggle the financial side of things when I just want to be mucking around with new designs and fabric samples. But it’s also a nice challenge. I have my twin sister helping me do a lot of the branding and art direction (she’s a genius). It’s fun though; I’m almost having to ‘preschool’ myself in terms of business and fashion.
You were born in Australia, how long did you live there?
I was born in Brisbane and lived on the Sunshine Coast until I was 18, then moved to the UK for two years, back to Brisbane to study for four, then to New York for a few years, back to Australia briefly and then FINALLY back to London..
And what made you settle in London?
My dad is English, and I fell in love with England when I lived here when I was 18. It has always felt like home!
My dream for PolkaPants…
What are your dreams, career-wise?
Career-wise, hopefully keep building PolkaPants to big a global female work-wear brand for women who work in all industries.
And for your personal life?
Get married in a leopard print dress!
If you could wake up anywhere tomorrow, where would it be?
My parents’ house in Queensland, at dusk, beside the outside fire with a glass of champagne and a cheese platter.