On the up · 26 September 2016

Karen Henriksen: Turning the UK’s designer hat market on its head

karen henriksen
Karen Henriksen has some advice to small business owners: “Know yourself well first and foremost”

Re-interpreting classic hat designs and styles by experimenting with pattern-cutting, Karen Henriksen has spent her 12 years as a small business owner giving the UK market for contemporary headware a run for its money. Business Advice caught up with her to find out more about her venture and the importance of playing to your strengths in business.

(1) Who are you and what’s your business?

I’m Karen Henriksen, director at Karen Henriksen. I create contemporary headwear for men and women, designed and handmade in London. We present three collections of headwear each season: women’s, men’s, and couture (for women).

(2) How long have you been around for?

I started my venture 12 years ago.

(3) How do you make money?

Designing, making and selling men’s and women’s hats through both retail and wholesale channels.

(4) What makes you different and why should people take notice?

The hats I design and make are instantly recognisable, through a singular approach to pattern-cutting and a passion for combining practicality with what could be described as a milliner’s aesthetic and flair, by striking a carefully considered balance between innovation and accessibility, and combining style with functionality.

I have a background in model millinery, so I bring a milliner’s aesthetic to everyday headwear, alongside a passion for beautiful and practical fabrics from Britain, wherever possible. The results are a twist on classic hat styles, yet they remain reassuringly familiar.

(5) What was key in terms of getting started?

After working in the millinery industry during the 1990s, I went to the Royal College of Art where I did a master’s degree in millinery between 2001 and 2003. Although I had previously learnt a lot about the trade and many of the technical skills, the RCA crucially gave me the opportunity to find my own design style.

My collection in 2003 featured a range of “windswept” sculptural millinery on a grand scale, including over-sized and exaggerated versions of classic headscarves, caps, hoodies and sou’westers. This developed into a re-imagining of the classic flat cap, and from that to a small range of unisex, asymmetric caps, which became my Windswept collection. This in turn led to further re-interpretations of classic hat styles, through exploratory pattern-cutting, which remains at the heart of both my men’s and women’s collections.

For the business, moving into a studio at Cockpit Arts very early was crucial for gaining lots of advice and support, and still is. And our participation in a UKTI export mission to Japan, also very early on, opened up opportunities of exporting around the world.

(6) What’s your biggest achievement to date?

Perhaps being one of the very few people who are able to make a full-time living, and run a viable millinery business, while competing with much larger companies in the particular sector of hat design and production. I’m also very proud that next year will be my tenth year showing at Premiere Classe, the leading fashion accessories trade show held each season during Paris Fashion Week.

(7) What setbacks have you had along the way?

Mostly the same as other young businesses like the global recession, and also the terrible tsunami in Japan. Of course, now we’ll have to see what happens with Brexit.

(8) In five years’ time, I will be…

Up to my ears in hats!

(9) What one tip would you give to others starting out?

Know yourself well first and foremost – What are you good at, what would be better to let others do for you? It will save you lots of time and headaches.

(10) Who are your business heroes and why?

Elizabeth Gomersall, the owner of my stockist Hatwoman – a beautiful and very highly regarded hat shop in Hong Kong. A lawyer by trade, she has established herself as one of the best hat retailers in the world, bringing a lawyer’s attention to detail to her enterprise. Not to mention that Hong Kong is arguably an unlikely location for a hat shop!

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Fred Heritage was previously deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London.

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