Rhian & Huxtable
When her childhood dream of being Mowgli from The Jungle Book didn't work out, Rhian Kempadoo-Millar turned her attention to costume design and took her first steps in a design career that has led her to sell flat-caps and baker boy caps around the world. She speaks to BQ about her business, Kempadoo Millar Headwear.
What is it the company does?
Kempadoo Millar is a Leeds-based designer of luxury British-made headwear, specialising in stylish flat caps and baker boys.
We work closely with local Yorkshire mills, artisans and manufacturers to create headwear pieces that have been enjoyed by lots of people across the globe.
Our offices are based at the prestigious working woollen mill, AW Hainsworth; holders of a royal warrant to supply HM The Queen.
Established in 2013, we’ve grown to sell hats in 28 countries around the world including Malaysia, Burma, Dubai and Russia. The US is our largest growing market outside of the UK.
Our caps have been worn by HRH Prince of Wales, actor Idris Elba and most recently, world champion boxer Anthony Joshua who designed his own custom-made cap.
Describe your role in no more than 100 words
My passion lies in the creative aspects of the business so I enjoy designing the new collections and spending lots of my time sourcing and meeting local textile suppliers.
I manage a small distribution team and coordinate other aspects of the business including marketing and manufacturing.
Each day varies hugely depending on the time of year and responding to opportunities or issues as they arise. No two days are ever the same.
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
When I started out in this industry, I trained in theatre costume design at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. I then stayed in London and worked as a costume designer for Sony Playstation, using my design skills for video games.
After my two sons were born I moved back to Leeds to work as a freelance designer & enrolled on a millinery course at Leeds College of Art in 2010.
The focus was predominantly on ladies’ hats but my tutor commented that I often wore men’s flat caps.
I think this was inherited from my Scottish Jamaican father who passed away when I was 10; he always wore bright unusual caps. My final project was called ‘can you still make a flat cap in Yorkshire?’. This focussed on the declining textile & manufacturing trade in the region…and the idea for Kempadoo Millar was born.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
Positivity, creative thinking, resourcefulness, risk-taking, listening and having a strong vision.
Being a good leader is also recognising that you are only as good as the team around you and trying to bring out the best in people.
If you can make work feel fun and share the opportunities that arise with the people around you, everyone feels invested in the vision and the journey.
I have amazing mentors who I go to for different advice; there is nothing wrong with admitting you don’t know something and asking someone who does. It saves a lot of time and a lot of money.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
The biggest challenge so far has been juggling raising my two boys as a single mum and setting up a business.
They were 10 & 12 years old when I first started, so I still had the school run and had to finish by 3pm. I had to get up at 5.30am and then work after they went to bed at 7.30pm so I could always drop them and pick them up from school. The early days were very, very hard physically, financially and emotionally. It was such a risk to us as a family.
The boys have been amazing through the inevitable highs and lows of running a business - my 17-year-old even helps with the accounts now.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
I enjoy running or hanging out anywhere outdoorsy with my fiancé and our springer spaniel, Huxtable; they are quite similar, they are both always so upbeat and enthusiastic.
We have a big family so there’s always something going on, birthdays, meals and events. My mum has recently moved to Portugal so we are spending lots of time exploring over there too.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be Mowgli from The Jungle Book. That didn’t really work out, so my plan B was a designer as I was always making things and dressing up when I was a little girl.
Whilst studying for my GCSEs my textile teacher suggested costume design and it seemed to tick all of the boxes so this is what I went on to pursue.
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
Trying to be all things to all people. I’m definitely learning to delegate and I know my limits now.
It is very important to take a break now and again and come back full of creativity and enthusiasm. I have started to take my weekends back for myself as I have learnt this is vital for my own wellbeing, my family’s and the business.
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
We have had a fantastic two years of growth; we hope to keep up this momentum and drive brand awareness and sales nationally and globally.
There is a huge opportunity to expand our ranges and markets; we still have lots of the world to explore. It’s a very exciting time putting together our next five-year strategy.
My vision is to be the leading, luxury headwear brand and to play our part in promoting high-quality British-made products worldwide.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
Be realistic. It can feel demoralising if you start by putting pressure on yourself and the business in year one. Playing the longer game can be equally rewarding.
Listen and take advice from people who have done it themselves and done it successfully. Find people in an industry as close to yours as possible and see if they would be willing to mentor you.
Most experienced business professionals love to share knowledge and help start-ups.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
The sacrifices that you have to make. I didn’t realise just how much we would have to give up; including holidays, savings, weekends and even the car at one point to keep the cash flow moving.
And that really being in the fashion industry is incredibly hard work; 98% graft… with the occasional bit of glamour & prosecco thrown in!
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