Caroline Belhumeur has a knack for knowing what women want to wear. Having spent the last 10 years at Club Monaco, where she was, in the end, ultimately responsible for everything creative (design/stores/eCommerce etc), chances are you have at least one of her designs in your closet. Now, she is taking her years of expertise to Vince. Caroline’s minimalist tendencies and attention to detail are in sync with the clean-cut wardrobe staples of this mega brand. This week, Caroline’s designs start to trickle into the store. I can’t wait to see her personal stamp on the brand; I have always bought Vince pieces but feel like there will be many more to come. Plus Caroline, in person, couldn’t be lovelier. She seems to be happier behind the scenes and is fun and low-key cool. Kind of what you expect from Vince. They are going to be a perfect match.
Please talk about your background and how you got to where you are now. I’m originally from England, raised outside Bristol, so a countryside girl. Then I moved to London to go to Kingston University. I was picked there by Calvin Klein, who used to go the colleges and pick out students. This was the early 80s. He brought me to New York, which was a dream. In those days, you either worked in New York or Milan. I was very lucky to be there. I worked with him and also worked on the jeans line for a couple of years.
I had always specialized in menswear when I was at college. So I worked for a couple of men’s companies in New York, which was a great foundation for me because I learned a hell of a lot about fabrics and tailoring. I did a lot of work in the mills in Italy. I went to Asia and learned about sweater making. Those were the formative years of my career.
Then I took a little bit of time off when I had my first daughter and worked freelance. As I had my other children, I juggled being a mother with working freelance. It was amazing that I was able to do that. I think, as a designer, you’re able to do it a bit more—to work at home and then go and present. Then I ended up working almost full time at a small company called White + Warren.
From there, I had a friend who worked at Theory and she wanted to work on the idea of a Theory luxe line. We proposed it to Andrew Rosen and he was behind it. So we worked on that for a couple of years together, which was great to be working in the Theory organization. Club Monaco then reached out to me and asked me to join them. I had always loved Club Monaco and the aesthetic, so I left and joined them. I was at Club Monaco for 10 years.
Recently, the new opportunity with Vince came up, and I needed something different. I saw that there was such a love for this brand and it just needed some love given back to it. So I joined Vince in May.
What did you take away from your years at Theory and Club Monaco? At Theory, I was working very closely with the pattern makers. For me, it was going back to what I had learned so much about in men’s tailoring and when I was at college. When I was at Club, I learned about retail, stores and how to present things, which I had never been involved in before. That was a tremendous learning for me, and also having a big team and working and helping develop a team–it’s the most amazing thing when you get that right.
What was your title at Club Monaco? I started off as V.P. of Women’s, and then I went to S.V.P. of Women’s and Accessories, and then Creative Director. So I was overseeing stores, eComm and everything creative.
How is it different at Vince? Vince was much more a wholesale model. I think the original founders weren’t so geared to retail. That’s something that I hope that I bring to them; how to sell, how to look at the brand as a brand.
What do you love about the Vince aesthetic? To me, Vince is a great brand for luxury that is simple, timeless and season-less. Our design studios are in L.A. so it’s the idea of layering rather than big, heavy, chunky clothes. It’s luxury sweaters, outerwear and beautiful pieces you build into your wardrobe. I don’t buy a new wardrobe every season, I depend on my clothes to last. We design with that in mind. We wear them around the office to make sure they don’t pill or they don’t stretch out.
You test drive everything. Absolutely, because we all wear it. I want to see everybody in the studios wearing it because they love it. We layer in some fashion pieces. I don’t wear crazy fashion pieces, but I like to have something that has a little twist to it.
How do you think what women like to wear has evolved lately? There’s a casualness that everybody’s really adopted which is great, because we all want to be comfortable. Everyone wears sneakers now and not just to wear to work and then change your shoes. You’re wearing them and it’s accepted.
Say you’re going to work and you’ve got a dress pant, but you might wear a sweater that has a sporty element to it. Maybe it’s sweatshirt inspired, but you wear a blazer over the top of it. There’s a crossover of when it’s work wear and when it’s weekend wear and buying clothes that can answer both occasions.
In you career, what has been one of the hardest things to deal with that perhaps surprised you? What has been the easiest part? When I first came to Club, the team was very disjointed. I found it quite difficult to try to take that apart and rebuild it. Because for me, I don’t want to go in somewhere and fire everybody. I want to give people a little time to see–in a creative world it takes time. But also to find a team that will gel together and have the same aesthetic, yet still make you sit up and think, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m not thinking of it like that.’
The easy part? It’s any time I feel connected to the ground. If I believe in it, I feel that I can contribute to it and I feel passionate about it, then it’s not difficult for me. If it’s something that I don’t in my heart believe in, then I find it very difficult.
What inspires you? I am inspired by people around me, having those creative conversations, a flow of ideas, and people around me who I can trust to tell me what they think. I don’t want anybody who’s just going to say, ‘yes, yes’ all the time. Then I’m always looking at things, whether it’s finding a vintage book, or looking at furniture, a beautiful chair or a 70s leather couch. I find architecture very inspiring too. Things that have textures interest me.
What motivates you? Fashion is constantly changing, which is a good and bad thing. Luckily, I like things. I’m always looking at the next thing and I’m always looking forward to things. Or, if I’m working with a brand that has a great story, I find that motivating, because you’ve got a foundation that you can build on and you can get everybody else on board.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: I am a team player. I listen to my team, and I really enjoy that part of it. I tend to be optimistic and I think that helps too, because you’re always looking forward and thinking about what could be great. And being open minded. I love music, and I’m always trying to find the next music that’s going to inspire to me. I spend quite a bit of time listening to Forecaster Radio and my kids send me stuff. I don’t want to get stuck in an era.
Role models: I think there are lot of really great women designers right now that are doing a great job and representing what women want to wear.
Still, there aren’t enough….
I know, right? I don’t know why, but it’s taken a long time. But it’s interesting to me how all the big brands are hiring, a lot of the time within a company, and a lot of the time they’re the women.
To date, what do you think has been your biggest success? My family. My marriage–still having fun and the humor and interests we share. And then I don’t know if I can claim my children’s personalities as a success, or whether they are just what they are. They’re good people and contribute to their communities and do the right thing. I don’t know whether I can own that, you know?
I say yes.
Then with work, to do something that I really love is a privilege for me.
What has been a failure or a dud, and what did you take away from it? Every day I’m making failures. It might be, ‘Oh, let’s try this quality and this fabric,’ and it comes back and we’re like, ‘Oh, my God.’ So yeah, we make failures all the time, but you don’t learn anything if you’re not failing, do you? After all these years of being in the fashion industry, I’m still learning things.
Best career advice you’ve received or would share with somebody else: A pattern maker once said to me in very broken Italian, ‘You do everything from your gut’. And I was like, ‘Yeah, I kind of do.’ That’s something I tell people, to always go with your gut. Because generally that’s the right answer.
Life goals: I see myself staying in fashion for a while, because it energizes and motivates me. Though I’d like to have a little bit more time to do things that I want to do too, because it is very consuming. Eventually I would like to be involved in colleges–working with students and bringing my knowledge to them.
Daily goals: To help take Vince where I really think it can be, there’s so much potential there. And to get my kids into a college they like. After that it’s up to them! Probably to exercise a little bit more than I do. And to make sure I’m outside. I love being outside; the more outside I am, the better balanced I am.
Daily rituals: Because I like to get up early, I work out and then have a cup of coffee. When I’m in L.A. I leave the doors wide open and the sun comes through and I do a lot of thinking about what I want to design next, ideas and stuff. I love doing that—having my cup of coffee and the sun is coming up, it feels very optimistic, inviting, sunny.
Favorite motivational/inspirational read: Because I find that some of these books get a bit preachy and then I think, ‘shut up’, what I tend to do is, if I’m reading something and I see something motivational, I’ll type it into my Notes [on my iPhone]. So I have a whole notes section of things that just are, ‘Yes, that sounds good,’ or ‘Yes, this is right.’ I have no idea where they come from.
How do you unplug? Listening to music, being outside, going for walks with my dog. Those kinds of things.
Hidden talents/hobbies: I horseback ride, English style. So that’s an unwind as well as a hobby. And hidden talents, when I grew up, my mum would make a lot of things. She was always sewing or reading. We used to gather fleece from the barbed wire from the sheep and we’d take it back and we’d card it and then wash it. And then we would spin it on the spinning wheel. So I know how to spin.
You can make yarn?
I can make yarn and knit.
It sounds like my mum was a hippie. She wasn’t really, but she was very crafty, which is probably a very big influence in my life.
Do you collect anything? Not really. I collect things when I’m somewhere. Say if I’m on a beach walk with somebody, I’ll take a piece of wood home with me.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: We went to Rome as a family last spring. It’s hard to get everyone together. We had a great time and the food was amazing.
Favorite small indulgence: I really love perfume, and I’m always trying to find an interesting new scent. I bought this one, I don’t remember what it’s called. It’s by this English guy and I’ve never seen his stuff since, and it smells like an old church. And the other one that I really love is Beachwalk by Replica Maison Margiela. My kids recognize that smell as mom.
Album currently on repeat: Juana Molina, she’s from Argentina. I found one album and then got her others.
Lucky charm: I have this little Buddha I got when I was in Singapore, he’s always in my makeup bag. I just feel happy when he’s there. If it’s not there, I’m like, ‘where’d he go?’
Favorite hour of the day: The morning, especially in the summer. I get up around 6:30. You’re filled with optimism for the new day, and the sun in the morning’s really nice and light. I like hearing birds. It’s quiet.
Follow Caroline: Instagram.