Women in the restaurant industry have few options for pants that are comfy and stylish. This brand is changing that.
Maxine Thompson – Founder, PolkaPants
Just because you’re working your buns off in a kitchen doesn’t mean you can’t make said buns look and feel good. That’s the rationale that led Australian-born, London-based designer and chef Maxine Thompson to launch PolkaPants, a line of super cute, practical and versatile pants exclusively for women in the restaurant industry.
Thompson spent years working both in kitchens and fashion design; as a result, she became extra sensitive to the glaring lack of stylish as well as functional clothing available for women in the industry. While an increasing number of brands like Hedley and Bennett are making stylish coats and aprons, women’s chefs’ trousers are still usually one-size-fits-all and susceptible to all kinds of damage. According to Thompson, most of them are unsexy and uncomfortable as ever—but thankfully, Polka Pants is here to alleviate that.
Say hello to Maxine Thompson and the PolkaPants story.
GIRLS ARE AWESOME Hi Maxine. How did you get started with PolkaPants?
Maxine Thompson: I started working in kitchens when I was seventeen. When I turned nineteen, I switched to working in fashion design in New York. Meanwhile, my sisters and I were writing a cookbook. I thought it was weird that we were publishing a cookbook while none of us were trained chefs, so I felt one of us needed to pursue culinary school to give the book more street cred. I had already enjoyed working in the kitchen so I volunteered to do it.
I moved back to Australia and worked in an open kitchen. The days were long, the weather was hot, the place was tiny and I was frustrated that I couldn’t find any clothes to wear in the kitchen. Obviously since I’d worked in fashion, I cared about the way I looked. Even while hot and sweaty. I began to think about making some nice and comfortable trousers for myself.
I moved to London three and a half years ago and started asking around, ensuring that it wasn’t only me worrying about my looks in the kitchen. Starting with through market research, talking to industry insiders and then actually launching the product took about eighteen months.
Did you doubt your idea in the beginning?
I wasn’t sure it would be something people would care about. I feared I would encounter arguments like, “why would you care about what you look like in the kitchen? It’s about the food. It’s not about being stylish.” But it turned out that my idea was addressing a problem many women were having.
So you see your product filling a gap in the industry?
Definitely. Many companies are making aprons, which have become rather trendy, and a friend of mine is currently working on a collaboration making chef’s shoes for men. But no one is making trousers for female chefs.
What were the flaws with regular pants you’ve worn in the past in the kitchen?
Lots of them would get easily damaged because they were not made to last in the kitchen. The seam would rip, or the zipper would break halfway through a service. Then you would have to tie up your pants with twine, or find a stapler, or try to make the pants stay up with an apron. Sometimes, you’d scrub down the stove at the end of the night, your clothes would get wet and all of the dye from your cheap trousers would come off on your chef whites. I have destroyed many chef whites because dye from my clothes came off and left a black stripe across my white jacket.
Why is it important to you to be stylish while working in the kitchen?
It isn’t as much about being stylish as it is about being comfortable. I believe that regardless of profession, if you feel comfortable with how you look you will always work better. You can’t really settle into what you’re doing when wearing something uncomfortable, in the kitchen or anywhere else. Normally, restaurants provide a uniform: it’s usually a one-size-fits-all, with pants you have to roll four times at the waist that you’ll still be tripping over because they’re so big. They are neither practical nor comfortable. And with style comes comfort.
Don’t male chefs have the same need for stylish, fitted pants?
They do! I get more and more men approaching me asking if I’m going to do a male line. There are many brands doing nice male chef’s clothes today, however, so I don’t see myself doing that. I’d rather focus on clothes for female chefs, because no one else is doing that at the moment. It’s rather crazy and people are always saying, “of course there’s a need for this!” when I mention it.
What is the style inspiration for the trousers?
The style goes back to 1940s egalitarian wear, which began as work wear for women. The trousers are built to last, quite sturdy, and flattering on many women’s body shapes. I design trousers that look good on all women regardless of hip width or waist size, or whether you are pear or apple shaped.
Yes, but we have started doing custom colours and lengths because the pants are cropped. If you are any taller than I am – over 5’5” – they can become quite short.
Besides the flattering fit, are there any other advantages to wearing Polkapants?
They are high waisted, which is practical in the kitchen where you bend down a lot, climb up onto shelves or lean over things. When I worked in the kitchen, my executive chef would put a spoon or coin down every time he could see your bum crack. I got keen on high waisted pants because of that. Also the high waist makes you feel tucked in, and it suits the chef’s jacket or just a white T-shirt.
You’ve travelled a lot. Have you picked up style inspiration from any of the cities?
New York, definitely. I lived there for three years. I worked at Chanel a year and a half before I went to culinary school, also in New York. I loved it there. That city has an incredible freedom of expression of style. When you step out onto the street at eight in the morning on a Monday, you will see people dressed up. It seems that everyone is happy to be themselves and don’t worry about how other people perceive them.
What makes these pants different from regular pants?
First, the material of cotton and stretch makes them easy to move around in, and easy to wash in the machine. They are low maintenance trousers. Second, they have a quality jeans zipper that won’t break or split during service. Third, they have a few practical details on them like a back pocket for a note pad if you are a waitress, or simply for your phone. And there are two belt loops that you can put your tea towel in.
How does your creative mind in fashion merge with your creative mind in cooking?
Chefs sketch out how they are going to play out dishes and research seasons to see what is trending. It’s not that different from working with fashion: it takes the same amount of research, dedication, and focus on what is going on in the world. I once went for a job interview in New York where this guy said that he could not understand how I could be a chef when I had worked in fashion, as if the two can’t correlate at all. I see them both as creative processes.
The biggest trend in London at the moment is Tacos. One person does something in food and then everyone catches up on it, and now there are like seventeen taco restaurants. It’s the same in fashion: everyone is wearing crop tops and high waisted, mom-inspired jeans.
What do you think about the gender balance among chefs?
There has definitely been an incline in female chefs all over the world. I see it especially in New York. Jobs in hospitality have now experienced a shift towards being perceived as legitimate career paths rather than just something you do because you can’t get a job or get into college. People are now aspiring to become chefs. It is still male dominated – hospitality is still a boy’s club – but it is starting to change.
How do you sense the change?
Guys seem quite excited to work with women in kitchens because they bring a different energy and style of work. A lot of male chefs comment when they see me wearing PolkaPants or see my branded tote bag. They recognize it and say, “I heard about you from the girls in the kitchen, they love your product!” They acknowledge us and are excited about it.
Is that also what you hear from female chefs – that they love the pants?
They all love it. It’s about more than pants now: it’s become a community which the pants strengthen. It supports a network of female chefs. February last year was the right time for me to launch the pants because it let me tap into a big movement with women in hospitality. It has been a relief for most women to wear PolkaPants.
Can you tell us a bit more about the community?
It became clear to me when we had the launch party in London. I looked over the room and saw all these women who work in food. Most of them knew each other from Instagram or Twitter or the restaurant industry, but they’d have never really had a chance to meet each other before then. Every time we launch an event or something, all the women in this community come together.
What is in the pipeline for PolkaPants?
We just want to focus on trousers and doing one thing really well. We began to do a stripe denim pair for the summer and we’re going to do dungarees for the fall. Otherwise, we will collaborate with other brands, perhaps with an apron or jacket company.
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