Katy Parkes decided to design some rucksacks. Then Kennedy City Bicycles picked up on her skills and asked her to design some cycling bags for her. Then Ally Capellino took notice. We grabbed coffee and talked about what starting a small business and designing from scratch has been like. Then we talked about going on a ‘big walk’ across France and a naked party in the Pyrenees back country.
Claire: Hi Katy. What do you do?
Katy: I’m busy! I make rucksacks for Dereks. Dereks started in November last year and I went full-time on it in April. It’s always been my intention to be self employed. I’ve always been very bad at being employed. At the time it happened when the risk was so low – it felt like a huge leap but a necessary step. So I went full-time, or started to, in April/May. In May when this bike company called Kennedy City Bikes in De Beauvoir Square commissioned me to make them bike bags, that’s when I was really able to say ‘this is it!’ It was like a separate thing. The verification from a very professional outfit really gave me that confidence to do it. And with all the money up front to work on a new design, again, was a long-term project that let me fly with it. A real challenge is the confidence to say ‘this is my job’. And I still don’t think I really say it.
Claire: So how did Dereks come about? How did you decide ‘I’m going to make some bags!’
“I was at Look Mum No Hands and a lady looked through the window wearing one of my rucksacks. I just squealed.”Katy: So, it’s the winter before 2012. I had a year of muddling around. I’d worked in a bookshop for a bit and camerawork (which I’m in no way qualified for). Then, last summer I went home. The first steps were getting used to being responsible for my own money. For me the next logical step was setting up a business, I suppose.
Claire: I love that that’s your logic.
Katy: Yeah – something like that. I wanted to do something off my own back, instead of people paying me for bits of work here and there. Going full-time was huge for me. In my head, it is all made up of tiny steps so I hardly realise anything’s happened. From an outsider’s point of view it might seem like a big thing, but when you’re working on it every day and it’s such a small little idea, I wish I could step back and see ‘ooh it’s become a thing now!’ This might be the point to stop and say ‘oh, I deserve to go and buy myself a beer!’ It’s so hard to do that when it’s just you.
Claire: Ah, just wait till you’re behind someone at the traffic lights and you see ‘aha! They’ve got my bag on!’
Katy: So, it happened! Oh my god, it was amazing. I find it laughable that it happened because there’re probably about 60 of my bags in London – a rough estimate. I was at Look Mum No Hands and it was one of the bags I made for Kennedy City Bikes (so they’re based in De Beauvoir square, it’s a bike cafe) and a lady looked through the window wearing one of my rucksacks. I just squealed.
Claire: What spurred you into creating the bags and Dereks?
Katy: I made a huge list of things I enjoy. Two things came out of it. Climbing mountains and making stuff. So I thought about it. I don’t think enough people think about what they genuinely enjoy when they’re job hunting. I’ve got two friends who, after university, moved indefinitely to Thailand. They’d spent some time on their gap year there and last year they travelled around the world. They did 25 countries on $20 a day.
They just had their backpacks. At one point they came to London and we went out for a drink. Just listening to them, I know so many people who dream about that sort of life and it’s so doable. You’ve just actually got to commit to the idea. They’re a couple and maybe that makes it easier. But just seeing them, how little they had on them, and how happy they were. I just thought there’s a real thing in the fact we’re so laden down in stuff. And the thought came together: backpacks enable things to happen. Whatever it is. Going to work, climbing a mountain or a day trip to Brighton. It’s the enabler for these things. I thought I’d love to build something that would help be part of something else like that.
Claire: Tell me about process. How do you make them?
Katy: Well, then it was like: how do I make a rucksack? The ‘secret’ is that it’s just a 3D rectangle with a few elaborate flaps and pockets. Basically, I spent last summer teaching myself how to make a backpack. I could sew already. I’ve always made my own clothes.
Claire: I’m very jealous. I’ve been on a few dress making courses and it’s fantastic to work in a studio but the second I think about doing it at home it’s hampered by the cat, the table that’s too small or some of the million other things going on in London. Which is a shame – my Mum used to make all my clothes and I love that.
Katy: I think it’s so true what you say about space. I am exactly the same with yoga. I always think I should be able to convert it to practising at home, but when I get home it’s gone! I need to have someone telling me what to do. I need that space to put the half an hour aside.
Claire: No cat to walk in front of you mid-sun salutation.
Claire: Was it a bit upgrade to go from sewing your own clothes to making backpacks? What was the transition like?
Katy: It’s easier to sew a backpack.
The first ones I made were so big. Backpacks are a lot smaller than you’d think. They’re only 28cm wide. The first one I made was a huge red monstrosity about 50cm wide. That was an interesting thing to learn! For a while I thought ‘god, it’s got to be so original!’ but I think a lot of products have an annoying gimmick or quirk and I’d think: ‘does that really need to be there?’ It was a very big thing to realise: they don’t have to be quirky, they’ve got to work.
Claire: Tell me the detail behind the bags. Where do you source the fabric?
Katy: They’re all made by me, in my studio. All by hand. I wish I could show you the process. I’ve always made stuff. Once you’ve cut it, the exciting bit is sewing it up and it suddenly stops being 2D and becomes a real thing. It’s all hand made and always will be. It’s handmade, but not luxury. It costs what it really costs and my profits are incredibly small. I know who i want to be able to afford it. I’d rather make less money and enable people able to afford it.
All the canvas is Halley Stevenson from Scotland. They do a custom dye, but I have their flat black, red and blue – and I love their blue. The nylon is European. All the brass is recycled brass taps and doorknobs; it’s melted down in the midlands in Warsaw, and repurposed as eyelets. It’s not on this one [gestures at bag] but all the brass buckles are, too.
The big challenge of next year is getting it all British sourced and as recycled as possible.
Claire: So the bags that you wanted to make first, were they for cycling?
Katy: Yes. When I did those initial drawing up of designs, I definitely imagined them for someone who would cycle. I didn’t realise quite the market for cyclists. There’s a real trend for outdoor sports and it’s changing and growing all the time. I might not be saying that in five years. What I’ve realised in doing this all is that I can change. I don’t want to be pigeonholed. I’m in no way terrified in saying ‘that was good, but I’ve got another idea’. I don’t like the idea of a career being an entire identity.
Claire: I have a friend who makes an effort to avoid starting conversations with: ‘so what do you do?’ But instead asks ‘So how is your life?’ He says it starts lots more interesting conversations. I kind of love that.
Katy: We do ask that a lot don’t we? I think it’s the first thing most people ask. I think it’s interesting that that’s your identity. It’s such a mundane question – like someone asking ‘what’s your favourite colour?’ And we judge each other so much on it in a dark way, that I like to think I don’t do.
I’ve also had a go at doing some coats (which I’ve got in the pipeline but i’m not going to do for a while because when you bring in sizing it’s just a whole new field of pain). What’s interesting is, before the bike company commissioned me to make leather bags, I’d never used leather. And that was a learning curve. The precision you need to use leather is so unforgiving. They’re just about to launch the saddle bag that I’ve made for them. And it’s tiny! It’s been a huge lesson in precision sewing and taking the time, and a great challenge. Dimensions are everything, so bringing down that huge red 50cm bag, creating something the perfect size.
And patience. It does take a long time to make. I start with a role of waxed cotton and a roll of nylon lining, and that’s all I have. Then it is just making straps, padding, and all the pieces.
Claire: Tell me about these saddle bags.
Katy: I’ve dropped off the last ones at Kennedy City Bikes and taken some photographs. It’s quite an interesting one. It’s in line with the bike – normally it’d sit under the bike, but it continues in the same way as the bike. [Shows photos on phone] It was a great thing to learn. I wonder if I saw yes a bit too much. Someone’s asked me to personalise a bag, so I’m learning how to personalise them now. I wonder where I get all the time to learn and do all of this!
Claire: I think that’s amazing. But it must be strange, to be self taught and have no real regulations or rules around what you’re creating? I mean you know it works, but there’s a difference between factory quality control and something high quality truly handmade like you’re doing.
Katy: I’m so alarmed at how quickly the bags are going. I got offered a part time role at Ally Cappelino.
Claire: Oh wow, I love her bags. She does one of my favourite summer rucksacks.
Katy: Such gorgeous bags. I did a day in their studio. I was very honest and said ‘I’m completely self taught.’ I think maybe the reason she wanted me to be there was because she started in the same way, in her bedroom, completely self taught, too. But I learnt so much in that one day. It was going to be two days a week, ongoing. But it just seemed a little bit too much to give up. The opportunity they were offering me was incredible and I in no way qualified – they would have had to be teaching me the whole time! But to see that incredibly professional outfit – I mean, they don’t make stuff there so I’d have been working in repair and design – but even then I did a bit of pattern making and the main designer looked after me for the whole day. It was interesting because I realised that I like that I’ve worked out the way that works for me. Just because I don’t have all the snazzy tools and the wonderful set squares and the insistence on 6mm seams and the little clippy bits, it still works. My backpacks still work. It was such a good way to spend a day. And it’s a wonderful company. I think they make the most good looking bags, I really do. So that’s exactly what that was – a professional insight into the industry where I was just like ‘wow’.
I actually employed my first person this weekend. She was helping me with woodwork and pattern cutting for the Kennedy City Bikes saddlebags. It was fun, letting someone into my process. That’s a huge thing for me. I think I’d probably feel like a fraud because it’s completely self taught. Having someone there to see it in actions, and telling them how to do it: I wondered if they’d turn on me and say ‘what the hell is this!’ But I want it to remain small. I want to continue making my own bags.
Claire: Why did you call it ‘Dereks’?
Katy: When I went to see James Kennedy of Kennedy City Bicycles (who I’ve been doing projects for), he asked me that, too. He said – in a very eloquent way: “I’ve named my business after me, what about you?” But I don’t want to business to be named after me. There aren’t any pictures of me.
Claire: You’re right. It was hard to spot you in this cafe without being a 45 year old man with an anorak.
Katy: I wanted a British name, and I didn’t want it to be trendy. I saw ‘Banter and Scoff’ yesterday and I don’t want to be this hipster trendy thing. My guardian from when I was growing up is called Derek. He’s one of the best people I know, he just charms people instantly. He’s unwell and 10% of our profits go to charity. So this year they’re going to Parkinson’s UK because that’s what he has. It’s not really named after him but when I thought of a British name and I think he’s the most wonderful person – and I love the anti-fashion name! I love that you think he’s going to be be-speckled with glasses, and then they meet me and it’s great.
There are no ‘Dereks’ on the bag though. It’s all about this logo, and this is probably what people think of when they think of the bags. It’s got four symbols. ‘x marks the spot’ like a treasure hunt, there’s a mountain as the challenge, there’s the geographic symbol of the thunderstorm to show adversity and then the flag is success – ‘you’ve made it!’ That was a fun doodle day.
“I think we’re obsessed with making things that aren’t complex seem overly hard.”Claire: I have questions about climbing up mountains. You’ve mentioned you like that. When did you discover that you liked climbing up mountains?
Katy: I’m one of four children and every year from the age of five my parents took all six of us to the Lake District. We got marched up mountains. Me and my little brother, who’s two years younger, would moan and moan at the back. I remember one year him being so moany that Mum said ‘next year we’ll go to Paris and look at the shops’ or something. My Dad actually retires next year and he’s going to walk to Rome from our front door. I think we’re obsessed with making things that aren’t complex seem overly hard.
Then on my gap year I spent it walking and then my first year of university I did a GR 10 which is through the Pyrenees. When I finished university I did the GR 5 going into 52 which is the East coast of France. So, the GR stands for Grande Randonnée – so, ‘big walk’. They are walking routes all over Europe. The GR 10 which goes through the Pyrenees goes from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
Claire: That beats going up Scafell.
Katy: The GR 5 actually goes from the Atlantic, but if you can imagine the Atlantic like North West off France and if you then follow that whole border of France, I think that whole border is the GR climb. I did not do the whole thing! I flew to Nice, got a 1 Euros bus two hours north into the hills and then walked back to the sea. Incredible. And it cost my five Euros to get the bus to the airport from the sea. I was like ‘wow, I went 200 miles on a 1 Euro bus.’
So now it’s just my favourite thing to do. I think there’s nothing better than waking up, walking 20 miles, eating a huge meal, drinking a bottle of wine, falling asleep, waking up and doing the same thing. Day after day after day.
Claire: Are you a solo walker or do you take a friend?
Katy: Short distances I do quite a lot of walks on my own, because it’s amazing how hard it is to organise people. I think it’s interesting because when it’s just a day it tends to be quite spontaneous. ‘God I need to just go!’ But I love walking with people. I think the conversations you have after not doing anything else for a week are incredible. And the amount of food that you talk about – it’s incredible! I remember when I was doing the G10, doing it with a friend, Will. We planned probably about 40 dinner parties. It was the main topic of conversation. It was all about being clean and smart, and warm and well-fed.
Claire: And not wearing heavy boots?
Katy: Exactly! And not carrying 15 kilos. And sleeping in shepherds’ huts in the hills. We saw some amazing things.
Claire: Was that your accommodation?
Katy: Yeah well, all these routes are very walked-through. A lot of people who live there make their money from living on the Grande Randonnée. So you would stay there but quite often it’d be a hut that however long ago shepherds would have stayed in. Quite often there was water – not necessarily hot – and there’d be no one there. You’d just leave money in a pot. But it was great.
The conversations you have with people you met, too. There’s something about being on a mountain that makes people interesting.
Claire: What was one of those amazing things you saw on one of your walks? I was thinking: when I was talking to Tom, he said he’d cycled through a Sussex Downs route with his Dad and they’d ended up staying in a barn because they’d miscalculated how far they’d go. They ended up sleeping on hay bales.
Katy: It is like that. I remember my sister and I did the GR 52 climb together. It was this one night, after a really horrible day. It must have been June, so we were high up but there was snow which was melting. So you’ve got this sheet of semi-melting snow on the top of the snow which makes it very sloppy. We spent the whole day traversing this slope, sliding down 40 metres. Whoever wasn’t sliding was shouting ‘grip!’ because otherwise we’d slide off the side of the mountain. So we’d had a horrible day; very scary. We’re used to walking hard and being out of breath, but it not actually falling off.
We finally reached this hut, having walked into this lovely low green valley. We were probably about 7,000metres. We could see a hut at the end and there was a wonderful German man who gave us two of his hot chocolate powder sachets. It was just so .. needed. I remember us pulling out some crushed dried apricots and doing a bad trade-off. That was amazing.
But the best thing I saw? Was when we were in the Pyrenees basque. I keep meaning to research what saint day it was but we could see the whole of Spain seemed to have come up into the mountains on this day. We’d gotten used to it being just us and maybe a few other people, and always being able to sleep in a bunk instead of getting our tent and sleeping bags out. It was a kind of ‘no room at the inn’ kind of day. It was a beautiful alpine scene with people swimming naked in the streams and we just set up our tent, and when it’d all gone dark all the beacons lit up along the mountains. I could probably see about eight. There were just so many languages going on furiously. A huge booze up. And when you fall in front of that completely accidentally it was really magical.
The next day it was all gone. They’d all gone back to work and we continued on our own again. It was very strange – almost to the point of ‘did that actually happen?’
Claire: Thanks Katy. That was ace.