This is Karen aka Reddskin. I’m not entirely sure how I first became aware of Karen’s work, but I know that I would have been attracted by her eclectic sense of style and her use of African prints. A mother, trained dance teacher, educator, fashion designer, plant whisperer and all-round lovely person, Karen is the epitome of a multi-hyphen creative. She is also who I want to be when I grow up (we are already both Aries, that’s halfway there…) 💛
So let’s begin with Reddskin. Some of you either from or familiar with the Caribbean, may not need all 3 guesses as to how she acquired this nickname… Growing up, Karen struggled to fit in. Brought up in Banbury, Oxfordshire, there weren’t many other Black people. Her parents tried to assimilate, which, for Karen, meant lots of English food. Anyway, when she was 21, Karen’s mother offered to type up her dissertation and purchased her a plane ticket to Barbados, so that she could visit her family for the first time. #Result! Karen returned home, and a nickname that she had picked up in the Caribbean, ‘red-skin’, stuck in her mind. It’s a moniker that alludes to those Black folks with a redder, lighter skin shade. Rather than take offence, Karen chose to embrace it.
Although she has been sewing for as long as she can remember, Karen’s foray into fashion started with making bags to sell at her daughter’s school. She eventually dropped the bags, focusing instead on women’s clothing and making outfits to help women feel amazing. Reddskin, the fashion brand, was born.
I’m not even joking when I say that this woman’s story could be a BBC drama. Her life has enough twists and turns, gravity and levity, to hold the attention of even the most plot-driven viewers. And the visuals! Can you imagine?! Anyway, when we spoke, Karen told me that she has done two things in her life that have gone against the grain. The first was leaving her emotionally abusive partner and father of her two daughters, something that she spent two years planning and realised that she had to do for herself and her girls. As if that wasn’t standing ovation material enough, in 2015, Karen did the second thing and left her 30-year career as a teacher to focus on the thing that she was truly passionate about – designing and creating fashion. Soon afterwards, she sustained an injury that led to a period of immobility (frustrating as hell for anyone, but especially for a dancer) and was subsequently diagnosed with anxiety and depression. She suddenly no longer wanted to sew. Then, an aunt, who had been very ill, passed away and Karen was tasked with dealing with the will. She then had to take some time out to care for her daughter who was going through some stuff. She managed the will situation and, as her daughter got better, Karen’s depression got worse, culminating in a period where she didn’t want to leave the house. She stopped looking after herself and couldn’t give a damn how she looked. As someone who had “power dressed” while she was teaching, this was a seismic shift. Karen realised that she had to seek help and, through therapy, began to heal 💛
Rather than wearing any old thing, she started to make conscious decisions about what she would put on each day. More and more, she began to wear the clothes that held happy associations for her and #wearyourhappy came to be. Like me, Karen is a trainer junkie. She also enjoys mixing textures and patterns. She wears what she likes, what makes her feel happy and confident. For Karen, #wearyourhappy is about more than just clothing. She has even written an e-book about it! Clothing evokes feelings and she is a big fan of dressing from the heart. Today, she creates clothing for women who want to feel happy in what they are wearing. To be honest, I watch the videos that Karen posts of her customers doing their catwalks in her creations, and even I am beaming from ear to ear 😁
Karen is an ideas person. If something doesn’t exist, she will create it. As part of her healing process, she realised that she needed to see people, but also that she needed people to come to her. Hence, Tuesday Thrills Craft Social (TTCS) was born! A monthly craft club that anyone at any level who loves crafting (and is above the age of 16) can attend (subject to booking – the events are held at Karen’s home). Previous crafters have been knitters, crocheters, jewellery makers, bookbinders, sketchers, embroiderers and paper cutters and quilters + many more. What started off as a “selfish” (Karen’s word) way of managing her own mental health has turned in something that has helped so many others. It is a safe, nurturing and relaxing space that people tend to come back to again and again.
Not one to miss an opportunity when it presents itself, earlier this year, and with the help of a little crowdfunding, Karen took her three decades of teaching experience and four decades of sewing experience global. Volunteering with RE:13 Global, a social enterprise supporting start-up aspirations among communities in Zimbabwe, she delivered workshops on business and enterprise skills and on creative and sewing skills to young people. After leaving a successful teaching career to pursue a career in fashion, she was out there teaching people how to do what she is so passionate about. If that ain’t Kismet, I don’t know what is 🌟🌟🌟
More recently, earlier this month, and for the second year running (cos #representationmatters), Karen ran a couple of workshops on how to make a reversible obi belt and a how to make a vegan leather crossbody bag (oooh!) at the Knitting & Stitching Show at Alexandra Palace. She also participated in The Loneliness Lab, a project looking at altering spaces and places around London to end loneliness.
You’d think that this was enough to be getting on with, but no. Presenting to you: Wear Your Happy LIVE! Karen claims that she is better in person, so has put together an evening with friends, talking about women’s style, health, diet, nutrition, fashion and mental health. She wants to share what has worked for her in a way that makes the women who attend feel that they have had value added to their lives. So, she is holding an event on Thursday 8 November in South-East London. There are still some tickets available, so, if you like the sound of this, please don’t tarry (I love this word!): click here!
I know you’re going to fall in love with Karen as much as I did. Enjoy…
Hey, Karen! Please tell us a bit about yourself
I’m a 56 year old, black woman of Barbadian heritage with two grown up daughters, one of whom just moved out (sobs and cheers simultaneously). I’m based in South East London. I am a fashion designer and sewing tutor and founder of Reddskin, making beautiful handmade clothing for women to cherish (*grins towards camera*). I spent 28 years as a teacher (dance then textiles then as a pastoral leader) in the British Secondary Education system. It was fulfilling and stressful and I loved it. But teaching changed. Much as I love teaching, I have no intention of returning to education full-time. Because I value my life and myself more now. However I do daily supply teaching at a local school from time to time. Because mortgage!
Girl, I know that struggle! However, swings and roundabouts, cos I’m guessing that, with grown up daughters, at least you don’t have responsibility for anyone else in the mornings…
Nope. Well, I do have an immense responsibility and duty to me. I make sure that I am looked after. I know that sounds odd and I know that I’m fortunate in that respect. But, at my time of life and at this juncture in my career, I’m all about checking I’m good mentally before I do anything else. After I wake, I drink a pint of water, talking to Joyce, my spider plant, and giving her some of my water. I then set my alarm for 15 minutes and journal. Another 15 minutes for reading (my previous book was Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes and I’m now reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari), then I drink some lemon tea, meditate, stretch, affirmations. I am generally useless when I don’t meditate or stretch, but I am also gentle with myself. some days I don’t journal/meditate/affirm, but I always have my lemon tea! I like doing my life at my pace. Before, routine was everything. Now, I don’t feel that so much. I am trusting that what will be, will be.
This is my philosophy too! And whew! I am chilled AF right now. Mornings sound so blissful in your house. Hydration also sounds like it is on point; however, can we talk about breakfast?
I’m a great lover of big breakfasts. Food is a wonderful thing, no? Hot lemon and rosemary tea. An orange. An apple. Porridge with ALL THE THINGS (banana, seeds, coconut flakes, honey and anything else I can fit in the saucepan frankly. I like to get all my nutrients in first thing then I can eat crap for the rest of the day and feel less guilty!). Builders tea. Well if that builder likes oat milk, that is. That’s a typical breakfast if I’m not rushing out. On a teaching day, the lemon tea goes in a travel cup and gets sipped as I walk to work! Then its caffeine and fruit the first break I get!
Karen! We are soul sisters!! I love everything about this breakfast (apart from the banana in the porridge 🤮, but we can work on that…) Back to your day, let’s talk about “work” and what that means for you.
And THIS is why it has taken me so long to write this. Here comes the science part. ‘Work’ takes many forms. It’s occasional teaching as mentioned. That’s a relatively early start at 8.30am, although I don’t like doing it and the universe is telling me to stop, so I’m revving up to say I’m not doing it anymore. Monday is admin day. It’s emails and writing blog posts and sending proposals and boring stuff like that. I might start that nearer 10am, then sit in a cafe and make a black coffee last a long time. If I have a commission then I’m going to the studio to sew. It’s a leisurely 15 minute stroll through the local park. So pretty! I struggle to call it work to be honest. Best part of the week!
Well damn! *marvels at the variety of the work and reassesses whole, entire life* As a freelancer, who often works from home myself, I find that I get very easily distracted without the structure that office life can bring. Is this something that you struggle with?
I am Queen of Procrastination (although I’m aware I may share this title with many creatives). So working from home is putting the washing on and hanging it out. Or getting caught by crap TV like CSI Miami or Will and Grace reruns. Recently, I’ve been redecorating my eldest daughter’s old bedroom. We’ll ‘gloss’ over the fact that I fell off the ladder spectacularly and spilt half the paint everywhere. Alone in the house like a fool. I got a good telling off for that. I should have been finishing an e-book draft. *rolls eyes*
And I shall gloss over the fact that you have just described CSI Miami as crap TV. Let’s move on. Do you stop for lunch?
Always a late lunch. West Indian bun. Grapes. Hummus. Toast and peanut butter. Cup-a-soup. Whatever’s in the fridge. This sounds terrible but its true! I’ve recently discovered potato waffles. My toaster is my friend.
*Silently mouths “recently discovered potato waffles” while virtually side eyeing Karen* With lunch being so late, does that mean dinner is late too? Who makes dinner in your household?
Dinner is around 7.30 to 8pm if my youngest daughter is home from work. I am not a natural cook. I actually envy those people who cook to wind down and experiment with dishes and recipes. Not me. Don’t get me wrong I brought up two children who are still alive and I’ve never poisoned anyone. But…well anyway my youngest likes to cook. (YASSS!) But as she has been out all day we take it in turns. She’s vegan and loves to play with flavours, which works for me. It means I get some nutrition in as well. I have been known to have kettle crisps for dinner when she’s away. Ssssh!
My dear, I have been known to eat kettle chips for dinner while watching my girls eat their lovingly prepared and nutritionally balanced dinner. This is a safe space. I won’t share your secret… So, when you’re not eating crisps, what are you having for dinner? I want details!!
Veg stir fry. Fried tofu (I never thought I’d ever write these words. I’ve become one of those people who does tasty things with tofu) Lots of delicious things with veg basically. I like to make a tomato salsa and soak and boil some pulses at the beginning of the week and sprinkle that sh*t on everything I make. I say ‘like’…I mean when I am organised and I’m being sensible. Adulting comes in waves with me.
Lol! I was with you up until the tomato salsa 🤮 What happens after dinnertime? Does self-care wrap around the day for you?
Wine. Masterchef. Port. Netflix. A craft project. Did I mention wine? I have been known to do my nails (badly). Here’s the thing. Since leaving teaching (three and a half years ago) I have struggled to balance my work and my life. They melded into one. I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing more, forgetting that I worked a stressful full-on job for almost three decades and then it tried to kill me! I deserved a break but I wouldn’t let myself have a proper one. Very late last year, I suffered a sudden onset injury that literally stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t walk without extreme pain and my doctor had no idea what was happening. After some wallowing, and a chat with a very wise friend, I started to do some reading into the link between pain and the mind. I was forced to look at HOW I plan my week and deliberately schedule downtime. Sounds obvious but I have NEVER done that. I’ve always been working on something or beating myself up for not working on something! Bonkers! The body keeps score. So now I try not to work in the evenings or at weekends. It’s been hard and its early days and I have stretched my definition of work somewhat. But weekends are blissful because I no longer feel guilty for not finishing ALL THE STUFF! I’m lucky I know. I saved and planned financially so I’m not panicking about losing my home toooooo much (yet). And my Plans B, C and D haven’t been needed. These days, if it doesn’t feel right, I’m just not doing it. I work hard to stick to this mantra but I feel much better physically and mentally for it. I’m improving.
I have to insert a GIF right here:
These are powerful words! *wipes tears from face* I think I need to lie down. What time do you go to bed?
I have an alarm on my phone that screams at me to go to bed at 10.30pm. I snooze it up to 4 times nightly! So I AIM to be in bed and turn my phone off by 11pm. I’d say I manage that maybe 4 times a week.
Sometimes I wonder how anyone gets anything done while the snooze button exists! 🤷🏾♀️ How heavily does social media feature in your day?
Oh maaate. I’m human. I don’t really want to think about how many times I check my phone. When I’m feeling low I try to avoid social media because it messes with my head. Got that whole comparative paralysis thing going on. I have a rule that I don’t touch social media in the morning until I’ve made a dent in my self-care routine. Most days that’s a good move. I also removed the Instagram and Facebook apps so I have to either go on my iPad or my laptop to check in, which has been a great help. In the past, I have lost hours of my life (and a bunch of brains cells) scrolling.
If you’re not already doing so, you must follow Karen on Instagram!
AND AND AND, if you are into podcasts, Karen has recently recorded a Live Three Sixty Conversation with, my girl, Tamu Thomas that you can listen to here