Jules McKeen on setting up postnatal fashion brand Sarka London
Sarka London is a new postnatal fashion brand with a focus on sustainability. Absolutely Mama met with co-founder Jules McKeen to find out more…
Q How did you meet your co-founders Rachel and Jules and come to launch a postnatal fashion brand?
A I knew that to launch Sarka London as the go-to style destination for new mothers, I needed to find the right co founders. This took a good couple of years of mining my twenty years of London professional contacts in marketing, but as often happens with start-ups, a personal friend conversation with Jill Easterbrook, the Boden CEO, led to her introducing me to two very close friends of hers, Rachel – an accountant with a background at Soho House and Burberry, and Jules with a background as a buying director at large retailers. We had three major skills covered and are really diverse in how we think and act, so we got cracking to launch in September this year.
Q What made you want to focus on postnatal fashion rather than maternity?
A We had all experienced with our own pregnancies that nobody was addressing the really difficult year postpartum. Women who are into their style and wardrobe, and who have been looking forward to ditching the maternity clothes at long last, suddenly realise that their beloved wardrobe just isn’t fit for purpose. If she’s breastfeeding that has a huge impact for access to her breasts without necessarily exposing her belly and décolletage to the restaurant. With over a quarter of UK births (and rising) being C sections and 75% of UK mothers remaining a dress size up come the baby’s first birthday, we recognised the need for a brand which combined the functional needs of the new mother’s body without any compromise on her look.
Q Describe your design aesthetic…
A At Sarka London we want to help new mothers get their style self back – the ‘no more compromise’ ethos is one which runs through the whole values system of the company. Women compromise enough when they give birth, so we design our collection around there being no compromise she has to make between feeling like her awesome, pre-pregnancy self, and the functional changes happening to her body.
As such, our design approach looks like a simple, clean, Scandinavian capsule collection, but underneath it’s like a swan paddling furiously to support her body with hidden breastfeeding access and adjustable supportive waistbands. We also use super-soft sustainable fabrics which mean our jerseys feel like butter against a baby’s cheek.
The collection is designed to seamlessly fit into the aspects of her pre-pregnancy wardrobe which still work for her. We believe this will help women feel like they still own their personal style identity as they get to grips with their new lives.
Oh – and no infantilising prints! We rigorously tested our collections with customers and the un-gendered, un-frilly, ‘un-mumsy’ style (in the stereotypical way this word is perceived) is a really key aspect to our design ethos. She has, after all, had a baby – not a style lobotomy!
Q What special features does the collection have, and how did you go about designing them?
A In Sarka garments, it’s all about the 007 tricks and helping hands. We know for example that a frustration for breastfeeding mums is remembering which side they fed on last, so we have little Sarka orange ribbons hidden next to the openings so she can tie it as a reminder that this was the last breast she fed from. This balance is so important for milk supply and avoiding mastitis so hopefully it will help keep her on track. Waistbands in our trousers and skirts can pull right up over a belly for soft, C section support, or use the ties on our Ada trousers to pull the waist in tighter as the body starts to slowly reduce over the course of the year.
And pockets! We have a hidden iPhone pocket at the back waist of the Ada trouser so it’s away from the baby if you’re wearing her, and really deep pockets in the Boudicca sweats, Emmeline dress and Sulis sweatshirt – because what mother doesn’t need pockets?
Q How important is sustainability to the business?
A When we set up Sarka London, sustainability had to be baked into our ethos. We wanted to sleep at night knowing we’d done the best we could to ensure we could track our garments back to the sustainable wood, manufacture in Britain, and ensure good working conditions and a small footprint.
As such, our garments are made in the UK with a generations-old family factory and we know the craftspeople personally. They’re designed to last a lifetime too; there’s no ‘fast fashion’ chuck it out aspect to what we do – longevity is designed into the garments’ adaptability. We’re lucky that my co founder has two decades of experience in buying for major retailers, so knows which manufacturers to trust.
But for us, sustainability goes beyond the product. ‘No more compromise’ is our rallying cry for how we behave as a business – we won’t ask our teams to compromise on their families just to be able to work for us, so we operate a ‘radical flex’ approach to employment to encourage mothers (and some dads) to get back to work with us.
Q How did your own motherhood journeys play into your decision to launch a postnatal fashion brand?
A It goes without saying that there’s no better validation for a business need than experiencing it yourself, and missing the speeches at a wedding because I was breastfeeding in a toilet with my dress over my head was definitely one example! Being lied to about ‘getting back into your jeans’ was another – and I think in the last five years the performative motherhood body image issues on Instagram have made this significantly worse for women, as have the tabloids.
I felt for years since then a conviction that this was yet another feminist issue around compromise, and if I waited for the fashion or retail industry to answer this need when those – mostly men – were hurtling towards ‘fast fashion’ narratives, I’d be waiting forever. So who better to build a business designed for a woman’s postpartum style needs than a bunch of women who are pissed off it hasn’t happened before, and have the passion to make it work?
Not content with revolutionising postnatal fashion, Sarka London has launched a campaign to make new parents feel welcome in cafes across the country.
They have produced two simple endorsement stickers – ‘BABY FRIENDLY VENUE’ and ‘BREASTFEEDING FRIENDLY VENUE’ and are asking cafes who welcome babies and breastfeeding to display one or the other in their windows.
As the campaign grows, this will develop into a handy nationwide Google map application that will show Sarka London-endorsed safe spaces for parents with babies.