Teenage runaway and fashion designer Karina Hesketh has battled illness to return with a fantastic eclectic collection. She speaks to Hannah Davies.
ENTERING designer Karina’s small, but cosy, Heaton home is like going into the seamstress’ turret in Sleeping Beauty.
Strewn across eclectic pieces of painted wood furniture are patches of leather, spools of thread, designs and papers.
Dominating the room is a massive sewing machine placed by the window to make the most of the light.
Karina, 52, is a self-confessed obsessive of Eastern Europe and Russia (just that day a friend has sent a package of vintage buttons from the Ukraine) and her designs burst with inspiration from what used to be East of The Iron Curtain.
But of course this is Newcastle, and Karina has put her passion together with oodles of creativity and decades of accumulated skill to launch her first design collection in two decades.
Those who were into fashion on Tyneside in the 1980s will remember Karina’s Bigg Market-based fashion label “Karin Hesketh”.
But Karina’s creativity has a much longer history.
“I started making clothes for Tiny Tears and Tressy dolls when I was about six,” she laughs.
Karina was born in South Shields, her mother had been a sample tailoress in the 1950s and she passed on her knowledge to Karina. When Karina was little, she’d sell outfits to her friends for sixpence each, or swap them for a comic.
With the 1960s in full swing, and a lack of suitable shops in South Tyneside, a teenage Karina would try to copy dresses from the latest Biba catalogue with pieces of fabric she’d find in South Shields market.
Local shop holders would notice her striking clothes and often ask her where she got them from, which encouraged her in the idea she could maybe sell her own clothes.
A logical step would have been for Karina to study fashion. But she wasn’t keen on that idea.
“I was a bit of a rebel,” she smiles, “I didn’t want to stay at school at all.
“When I was 16 I just decided to take off down to London to see what was happening there.”
After taking the National Express Coach down, Karina was faced with the reality of living in the capital.
Life wasn’t particularly easy for the teenager, hundreds of miles from home and knowing no-one.
“I did get homesick,” she explains, “but I could always make ends meet.
“If you know how to sew you can always pick up bits of work.”
Karina began by working on stalls in Kensington Market, renovating vintage clothes as a sideline.
She then got a job with a design company called Miss Mouse.
“I wasn’t designing for them at the start,” she recalls, “it was more of an office job.
“But they would often ask me where I got my clothes from. When they found out I made them myself they shoved me into the design department.”
Karina was beginning to make a name for herself in London, but she was still very young and becoming increasingly homesick.
“I was too young to be away for such a long time,” she suggests.
“I missed being away from everything I knew and grew up with.”
Karina returned to the North-East when she was 19, shortly after she met her (now ex) husband, and moved to Warwickshire in 1978.
Again her sewing skills provided Karina with a job and she began working in the costume departments of various theatres around the region.
Karina returned to live in the North-East, this time in Newcastle, in 1982.
The time was right for her to create her own label, she had acquired a wealth of experience and was bursting with desire for a creative outlet.
“Karin Hesketh” was set up; originally it was just Karina herself (she dropped the ‘a’ because she was sick of people misspelling her name).
From its beginnings as a stall at the Grainger Market, the label was an instant success.
Soon she needed to move to bigger premises, this time at the Bigg Market, and to take on more design staff, then a factory to produce her high-end leather designer gear.
Karin Hesketh was sold to upmarket, independent boutiques throughout the country; she had her own section in Fenwick’s French Salon.
Her primary model was a former Miss Newcastle named Tonia Pallister, who was soon to marry former Newcastle United director Douglas Hall.
She was at the top of her game – but then everything just stopped, in 1987.
From the expression on Karina’s face, it is obvious this was a traumatic time.
“It was a terrible year,” she explains quietly, “everything was too much.
“My marriage broke down, I gave birth to my second child and I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.”
Karin Hesketh fashion label stopped dead in its tracks.
Debilitated by her illness, dealing with the fall-out from her divorce and struggling to cope with bringing up two children – Rebecca, 27, and Nathan, 19, something had to give. It could be nothing else but the business.
“I continued creating things and making clothes, but all of my energy was devoted to the children really from then on,” she says quietly.
Karina also had to suffer long periods of illness.
“Oh it’s awful,” Karina explains of her illness, “when it flares up you just feel so weak you can’t do anything.
“It’s like you’ve been run over by a truck a hundred times and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.”
In the years after her fashion label, Karina did huge amounts of research into fashion history, and became absorbed in Eastern European and Russian design.
This culminated in her visiting a number of Eastern European countries.
“I’ve been to Berlin and Poland, they have fantastic flea markets. But the best place I’ve been has got to be Budapest. The flea markets there are fantastic and the buildings are incredibly grand.” Karina toured around with her new partner, searching out vintage finds, antique cloth, fittings, knick-knacks and anything else which caught their eye.
And then, a bit over two years ago, a friend needed a bag and assumed, knowing Karina’s background in leather design, she would be able to create her one.
“Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time researching,” Karina explains. “I’ve been practicing, honing my skills and developing patterns.”
A characteristic of her bags are their new take on vintage styles. From old French buttons to Polish door fittings, they have all found their way in.
And you can be guaranteed of the exclusivity of your bag. “I only make 10 of each design,” Karina enthuses, “and they are in different colours.
“There is too much conformity in the high street at the moment, you see hundreds of people all wearing the same stuff.
“I want people to know that’s not going to happen if they buy one of my bags.”
The other amazing thing about Karina’s bags, in addition to their craftsmanship and gorgeous designs, is that they are so inexpensive.
“People say I’m ridiculous,” Karina adds, “but I want ordinary working women to be able to afford one of my bags.
“Designer bags are ludicrously expensive and out of reach for most people.”
With Karina’s current bags retailing at between £130 and £165, and a normal high street leather handbag costing similar amounts, they are definitely affordable.
Karina loves creating the bags, despite it being often gruelling work.
She explains: “People think it is a “nice” job making hand bags but it is actually quite a dirty job.
“And I won’t tell people where I get my leather from, it’s taken me decades of research to source them.
“They treat the leather, but I tell them which colours I want.”
What is certain though is the bags are in demand. And Karina is working overtime to keep up the supply.
They have appeared in fashion magazines, are stocked in trendy boutiques and people keep on buying them (I couldn’t resist buying one myself, a gorgeous purple doctor’s bag).
Despite, or perhaps because of, her previous experience, this time Karina has said it is just going to be her running the business.
“I don’t want to grow any bigger,” she explains, “things become unwieldy and you basically train people to become your competition,” she states firmly.
I leave Karina pouring over old pictures of 1940s stars like Katherine Hepburn, looking for inspiration.
Karina’s bags might never become “massive”, but it’s a joy they exist for the North-East women who can buy them.
For more information visit www.karinasbags.co.uk or visit Skirt, High Bridge Street, Newcastle.