The persuasive powers of the art department helped this fashion legend into her career, and away from painting and decorating
I'll never forget my headmistress because she was always well turned out and I admired that. Miss Chadwick was so well dressed that she constantly looked immaculate. There was something about her that I thought was quite special. She used to read Vogue and I suppose there must have been some connection between us because she would give me her copies when she'd finished with them. I started collecting them from that moment on, so I have issues dating back to 1977.
I went to Southborough Girls' School in Maidstone, Kent, and there was one teacher whose lessons were always fun. Miss Oxley used to take us for what was then called "world of work". I was keen on painting and decorating, so she would specifically set up projects to nurture that creative flair and ultimately her guidance was quite a turning point.
Apprenticeships were the big thing back then and as we were coming to the end of school I expressed an interest in becoming a painter and decorator. At that point, it was something I felt I could go into, but Miss Oxley and the art teachers had other ideas. "You can't do that," they said. "Think of all those ladders. You will be out in the cold." They obviously felt that I wasn't looking at the big picture and that there was something a bit more "me" that I could do.
Eventually they got together and said: "Look, we're going to take you to a fashion show at the local college," which was then the Medway College of Art in Rochester. It was the end of year show and I was quite impressed, but it still didn't occur to me that this was something I could pursue. I'm a hands-on person, so painting and decorating seemed more immediate whereas design was something that needed to be studied. Thankfully, their combined powers of persuasion helped me to see the light and I ended up doing a fashion course in that college for three years. So that's how I fell into the whole thing.
I have fond memories of that because they did steer me into a career that I hadn't considered until that point. Having said that, I was very much into my fashion. Creativity is something that's natural to me and I'd always be doing it one way or another. I was lucky that my teachers had the foresight to tell me where my talents lay. It didn't come from me, it was more a case of: "This is where we think you should be heading."
I think what I took from that was to always encourage people to work within their strengths and not push them in an academic way because not everyone suits that. It's just a case of trying to pinpoint people's individual qualities and supporting them to work towards that. When I look back on it now, it would have been interesting to see whether I would have been successful if I had pursued the vocation I was originally leaning towards.
I met my partner when I left college and he came on board with me straight away. We managed to build a great company together, but whether he would have had the same interest if I was in interior design, I don't know.
I'm a great believer in fate and that what will be will be. This is the path I took and there are no regrets. Still, it's nice now to be able to sit back and see where it has all come from.
Karen Millen established her business in 1981 and sold it in 2004. The company now spans Europe, the United States, Asia, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand. She was talking to Cian Traynor.