In our new monthly series, Designer Diaries, digital fashion writer Naomi May chats to the faces behind some of fashion’s buzziest brands to pick their brains on the future of fashion and what an average day looks like for them.
In the pantheon of brands claiming to have a clutch of eco strings to their bow, there are only a few that manage to cut through the noise.
Since establishing her brand in London in 2020 – no small feat given the way in which the pandemic has ravaged the fashion industry – Monika Young has indeed managed to slice through said noise with her eponymous label, Monika the Label.
In its short one-year existence, the brand has begun carving a name for itself with its rodeo-inspired vintage-esque pieces, which Young designs from her home in east London. The former fashion marketing student was implored to finally establish her own brand in 2019, after becoming disillusioned with the state of the fast fashion industry she worked in. As the saying goes, necessity is the m other of all invention and, before long, Young had quit her Berlin-based job, returned to British soil and began plotting her plan for what would evolve to become Monika the Label.
“I like to say Monika the Label is a love affair between Cali cool and London grunge,” Young says of her namesake brand. “It’s inspired by the best parts of the 70s and the badass women of rock and roll. I design sustainable clothes for wild-hearted people who want to make a change and feel pretty damn cool when they do it.”
As she celebrates her label’s first birthday, we caught up with Young to chat all things fashion and what it’s really like being a founder. Here are her Designer Diaries.
What does an average day look like for you?
I love how no two days are the same, but my mornings are pretty consistent. I wake up around 6am (non-voluntarily – it’s when my boyfriend’s work alarm goes off). But it’s worked in my favour as it has allowed me to create a more solid morning routine. I won’t lie, sometimes I fall back to sleep for a little longer but I also like to read in bed first thing to get some initial inspiration for the day, then I’ll try to squeeze in a yoga session before I get ready. I’ll always have admin and emails that I sort first thing, daily, with a coffee. I then check for any new orders that have come in and get those wrapped and posted out. After that, the rest of my day will vary; at the moment they usually consist of calls, designing the next collection, organising upcoming photoshoots and planning the brand’s digital marketing and social media content.
I’m originally from London but only just recently moved to east London after living in Berlin and Surrey for a few years, so it’s been exciting getting to know the city all over again. So, in the evenings I’ll try to see friends and explore my new neighbourhood. I also sneak out on my lunch break to the vintage shops every so often!
Do you have any daily rituals that get your creative juices flowing?
I work from home and I like to start the day off by reading, watching or listening to some sort of content – be it reading a chapter of a book or online article, listening to a podcast episode while I have breakfast or watching an interesting YouTube video. I’m obsessed with The Unknown Vlogs by the YouTuber Kofi – he goes all round London and basically stops strangers and asks them where their outfits are from. There is a lot of second hand and vintage fashion involved and it’s great to see in real life fashion, and not the perfectly curated outfits you see most often on Instagram and Pinterest. I also have a quick browse to see what my competitors are up to. I think it’s key to be aware of what’s going on in your market.
What was your journey into fashion?
My journey started fairly young when I would spend my summers in Hungary with family and would spend a lot of time sketching designs and learning how to sew with my grandma’s best friend. Fast forward 10 years later and I went on to university to study fashion management at Nottingham Trent. I had my first taste of the real fashion world when I interned for a year in the buying department at Anthropologie in between my second and last year of uni.
A week after graduating, I moved to Berlin to work as a buying assistant in a women’s fast fashion department. But as I rolled into my second year in the role in 2018, and having worked with some of the biggest fashion players on the UK high street, it dawned on me that I was a part of the machine that was encouraging overconsumption as part of an industry that was having a detrimental effect on our planet and its people. I switched my high street splurges to weekly trips to the flea markets to sell and update my wardrobe. Not only did my shopping habits change after this, but also my desire to continue on with my job. I just didn’t want to be a part of the problem any longer. I quit my job, moved back to the UK and finally decided to turn Monika the Label into a reality.
Did you have any fears about starting your own brand?
Starting a business is always a scary leap to take as there is never a 100% guarantee it will work out. I had always had some sort of structure and safety net – straight to university from school and then university straight into a full-time job. So the idea of having no structure and no guaranteed income terrified me! But the desire to create my dream brand outweighed the fear.
When I moved back to the UK to start the label, I picked up a part-time retail job to keep me afloat in the lead up to the brand launch and worked as hard as I could in my spare time. I also decided to start my own brand in less than normal circumstances during the height of the pandemic. It’s certainly a challenge none of us have ever faced before, and initially, I had a huge panic as it really threw things up in the air. There was a point where I thought the brand may never happen. It was quite an anxiety-inducing and bizarre time for everyone. In terms of the business, the factory had to shut down, which put a halt on production and therefore pushed out the launch date. I was originally supposed to launch in April but ended up doing so mid-July 2020.
While I initially freaked out, it was also important everyone involved was safe and healthy and we made sure production restarted only when it was entirely OK to do so. Even when the factory reopened, social distancing measures were put into place at the studio and the seamstresses worked on the collection mainly from their homes. But I learnt a lot from those first few months in lockdown and went on to launch in the summer and it couldn’t have gone any better! It really made all the hard work worth it.
Let’s say you’re prepping for a new piece – what’s the first step on your journey of designing it?
Definitely a huge inspiration hunt. IRL and URL – I’ll head out to the shops and markets to seek out key shapes and prints. I love creating a load of mood boards afterwards to bring my ideas altogether. My design process is fun as the label is basically an extension of my dream wardrobe, so I also like to brainstorm what’s currently missing from my closet and turn it into a reality.
Where do you turn for inspiration?
The label is strongly influenced by vintage fashion and silhouettes, which I’ve updated with a modern twist. Even down to the prints, which I hand-draw myself, a lot of them derive from my obsession with the 70s – the Camille dress, for example, was inspired by a vintage scarf I found at a Berlin flea market last year.
Fashion is a saturated industry – how do you cut through the noise?
I think having a strong vision and brand identity is so important. Nowadays, a brand is 50% the product and 50% the branding and overall identity of the brand. In such a saturated market, you need to stand out. And if you have a genuine story to tell and sell, people with value that, and are more willing to invest in you and your product. The brand is an extension of my own style and personality and it’s been great seeing people respond so well to something that comes pretty naturally to me.
Nothing is forced. I think it’s important to take time to sit down before you even start designing a product and figure out your brand values and goals, your customer identity and how you’re going to help that customer with the product you provide. I worked on this for a good couple of months or so to make sure everything was clear before the design process even began.
If you could go back in time and give your younger self a piece of advice – what would it be?
Good things take time! I was (and sometimes, even now, still am) in such a rush to achieve a certain goal or reach a certain point in my life when, really, it’s important to look back at everything you have already achieved so far and life isn’t one big rush. Just like when I was initially disheartened that the brand launch was pushed back due to the pandemic, it worked out better in the end with that extra time to fine tune every part of the business.
What does the future for Monika the Label hold?
Our next big goal at MTL is to work towards a circular economy. Last year, our first step was to offer our garments on rental platform By Rotation and this summer we launched with Rotaro at their Carnaby Street pop up. At the end of this summer, we will be launching our own take-back scheme, encouraging consumers to send back their unwanted MTL garments to us in exchange for a discount voucher towards future MTL purchases. We’ll upcycle (and mend, if needed) the returned garments and resell them as an Archive Collection.
We’re also in the process of forming a partnership with Oxfam so garments that are beyond a reselling state will be donated to the Oxfam recycling scheme. I also want to work with more charities to give back to the community. Last year, profits from our face masks were donated to two charities: Healthcare Workers’ Foundation and YoungMinds. This year, profits made from selling our GuppyFriend wash bags will be donated to Stop! Micro Waste, which is an organisation that aims to educate about plastic pollution and clean beaches from plastic waste. I’m so excited to see the brand grow and I would also love to have my own shop one day.
Images: courtesy of Monika the Label.