Words Kirk Truman
Photography Astrid Schulz
“I worked as a critical care nurse at the University College Hospital. It gave me my determination, discipline and hard-working ethic. It is still what drives me today, it is a strong contributing factor to who I am and the brand itself…”
Like the many that do pass by the cobbles of Grafton Mews to view the quote “invisible permanent clothing” inscribed upon the wall of number 15a Warren Street, I have come to stop in my tracks to query at the meaning of this riddle. Behind the greenery that has come to dress the curb-side of this shop front is what I once assumed to be the suited location of a spa, a yoga studio, some lavish retreat. I can confirm it is the latter. Carin Mansfield unveils to me the meaning of the writing on the wall and the philosophy, the story behind the brave venture which is Warren Street’s first fashion store, In-Ku.
The home of the Universal Utility brand, In-Ku is the first standalone store of its kind for the brand that has previously been available through the likes of Dover Street Market London & Tokyo, Egg London as well as a fleet of Comme des Garçons stores in Japan. The story of Carin’s brand does not begin in fashion, far from it in fact. She began working as a critical care nurse at the University College Hospital (UCH) here in London. Working in nursing, Carin learnt from nursing the meaning of a strong work ethic, discipline and determination – a lesson that is still carried with her today. After nursing, she started working as a start-up stylist in the 1980s. Over a decade later she landed a role in film wardrobe or, as she jokingly calls it, ‘washing actors socks at 3am in the morning…’ Her creative career began whilst working in this industry – learning and understanding how to make clothes amid networking within the industry.
Carin realised that her timeless, day-to-day, non-seasonal garments, with their ‘worn-in’ look and feel, filled a gap in the market, and in the early stages, she began developing a number of patterns and designs. Carin tells me of these surprising beginnings: “It was an accident that I started making clothes really. I thought I’d make a few frocks, people told me that I should try to get it into a store.” She began to produce and design her first collection and soon developed a suitable umbrella with the Universal Utility (UU) brand. Her designs for women are proudly masculine and simplistic, with a folky edge. The outfits and shop offer a unique and suited shopping experience – in one light an art gallery, another a clothing boutique, Carin has certainly come a long way since she first wholesaled her clothing to Knightsbridge based store Egg.
The level of long-lasting quality offered by the brand is something that Carin had come to love and admire from her days in South Africa where, during the apartheid, black South Africans chose to invest in high-quality clothing over cheap generic garments. Strong and durable, it offered a level of dignity and respect that the high-street never could. Although the quality of the Universal Utility brand is reflected in the price on the label, the product itself is visibly worth it and certainly made to last – something that the high-street could never follow, what with competitive pricing for garments that barely make it past the weekend.
Carin made the decision to ensure that at all costs her clothing would be produced to the highest quality and standard, thus making for one of the primary ethics of the brand. A rarity today, all of Carin’s products are made in England by London based seamstresses and cutters with 40 years of experience, all of whom she has worked with since the beginning. Though Carin feels there is quality in foreign manufacturing, she feels that the ethos of manufacturing, say for instance in developing nations, is unfair and that, although the quality of the produce is visible, the quality of the life and living of the workers is not. This is something she doesn’t want to be associated with her brand. The manufacturing techniques used to produce Carin’s line are somewhat anachronistic in today’s factory made, assembly line garments, but the quality is an exceptional outcome.
Her clothing sold for around 6 years at Egg until she made the decision to become more focused on the Japanese market. The Japanese market appealed to Carin due to the Japanese outlook on clothing itself, something she feels complimentary to her own product; quality focused, practicality over appeal, non-trend orientated and branding-free. Her brand is popular in Japan, so much so that it’s often simply known as ‘UU’ in the Japanese world. To date, Carin has worked alongside Rei Kawakubo for 10 years collaborating on the Japanese Comme des Garçons Edited Black project.
Whilst at the wholesaling stage, Carin was putting incredibly long hours into producing her line, which were becoming increasingly tiring – it wasn’t unusual for her to work well into the night. During this time, her brand was sold to many Comme des Garçons stores in Japan. This form of business however, soon showed that the income did not reflect the energy and sheer passion she was putting into her work. Making the choice to never borrow any money and with no financial backing, Carin made the brave choice to put the days of wholesaling behind her, so much so that she declined an offer to have her product made under license by Comme des Garçons. Funded entirely by herself, Carin decided that it was time to begin working independently, and the search for a home for the Universal Utility brand began.
Her eyes set upon central London, Carin had begun to look at Covent Garden, though soon came to the realisation that the location was unsuitable. She explored various other locations in the West-End until she stumbled upon Fitzroy Square where, she relays, “I thought to myself what a lovely square, I can’t believe I’ve never seen this wonderful place before.” From there, she wondered along Warren Street where she discovered the small shop space just past Grafton Mews where, today, you’ll find has become a fitting home for her brand.
When looking to open the store, Carin discovered that many brands have similar names to her own, as well as a shop-front side to their business, places like ‘Universal Clothing’ and ‘Utility Clothing’. She knew that giving her store the same name as the brand would prove problematic. Carin tells me about the inspiration behind the stores new name, “I didn’t want to call the store universal utility. I created the brand about 18 years ago” she says, “the name In-Ku has been challenging as many people don’t know what it means. In-Ku is the home of the Universal Utility brand, not the name of the brand. The word ink came to mind, I thought that I can’t just call it ink so I looked up the Japanese meaning for ink which is In-Ku.” I ask if there’s any other significance to the name that can be found and Carin answers with an explanation that fits perfectly with the store, “A Japanese friend of mine told me that the two characters have different meanings. The ’in’ means stillness or shadow, the ‘ku’ means emptiness or sky – both had a lot of relevance to my own spiritual beliefs. In-Ku without the hyphenation is a broad a term for ink or dye, but with the hyphenation separates the two characters into a much deeper meaning.”
I have come to learn that the quote on the façade of the store ‘invisible permanent clothing’ is a perfect symbol for Carin’s philosophy; timeless and subtle, high-quality clothing. Today the brand is worn by the likes of Donna Karan, Ronnie Newhouse and, Comme des Garçons designer, Rei Kawakubo. The store itself is a peaceful minimal space. The ground floor and basement are similarly sized, though there is a warren of small narrow floors above the ground floor where clients can venture too. It’s asked that people remove their shoes when entering so that they can feel at home in the space and themselves. There are plans in the works to start selling the most special, authentic tea available, as well as a range of high-quality baskets. Carin is at the store most days of the week and welcomes anybody to visit and view her collection, though, if you’re worried you might miss her, she is also available by appointment.