Photos by Madara Freimane , story by María José Contreras
Sophie McKay is a London native whose career evolved from the ready-to-wear designs at Burberry, to creating Bar Jewellery, a minimal jewellery brand with a vision and ethos rooted in transparency, ethics, and responsibility towards the environment.
I met her for the first time back in November in a café in Central London - that was a couple of months before The Duchess of Sussex appeared in public wearing one of her bracelets and the popularity of the brand grew dramatically. Since that day I've followed and admired her talent, the graciousness of her minimalistic pieces, and her commitment to sustainability.
This week I sit down with Sophie at her studio on East London - where she hand-finishes all the designs - for a further conversation on moving industries, finding inspiration, and overcoming challenges.
You’ve worked for big brands such as Burberry and Versace. Why did you decide to move from fashion design to jewellery and start your own project?
When I first started in fashion it wasn’t really a conscious decision, I actually wanted to be a hairdresser when I was younger, that’s what I was really passionate about. Then - I don’t know how - fashion kind of found me. I always liked being creative and loved illustration and drawing. When I graduated I didn’t know if I wanted to work in fashion design or illustration. I always thought of fashion as an elitist world and I wasn’t sure I could fit in - but then I graduated and got a job at Burberry straight away, which was amazing. It was a great first experience in the industry, I loved the balance between being creative but also tuned into the business side. I learnt everything about building a collection, fabrics, production, working with factories, selling. I had an amazing, busy few years working for luxury fashion brands but after 8 years I couldn’t see myself doing it long term - I really wanted to create my own brand.
So you already had that entrepreneur’s bug inside you
Yes, definitely. I have always loved business and had been selling handmade clothes and bags online since I was about 16. When I made the decision to start my own brand it felt daunting but also very natural. I decided at the beginning to work in a sustainable and ethical way. I was freelancing at the time, I saw that so many brands weren’t aware of their social and environmental impact and I found that very frustrating. I was designing so much and became disillusioned and confused with the industry. Why were we producing so much each season, do people need all this stuff? I feel there’s still a lot that could be done to stop people from consuming so much.
Did your experience in the fashion industry give you all the tools to start your own business in the jewellery sector? What are the main skills that you took with you?
Yes I apply so much of what I have learnt in the fashion industry to my own business. I think having a general understanding and awareness of all aspects of the industry has been a real advantage. From the design process where I’ve learnt to create interesting and beautiful products that are still commercial, to production, where interacting with factories has been really useful skill to have.
You’ve been working in fashion for the past eleven years. How's the industry changed during this time?
I am still consulting within the industry and one of the biggest changes I have seen is the shift towards sustainability. Almost every fabric mill now has a sustainable part to their collection or a recycled range. About two or three years ago it would have been a couple of fabrics, but now it’s a whole range, with fabrics that people actually want to use. I’ve also found that my freelance clients now want to move towards being more sustainable and that's really good. Also with jewellery, people are talking about it more. There’s a lot of recycling in the industry already, precious metal is so valuable that it would be uneconomical to not melt it down and reuse it. Most suppliers are introducing more sustainable elements and are more interested in it, whereas just a few years ago they just told me I was crazy to be considering it, a lot of people asked me “why are you doing this?”. It's hard to know the exact numbers but a lot of silver and brass is already recycled in the UK, as far as I'm aware, silver is around 60-70% and brass almost 100%.
Tell us a bit about your creative process. Where do you find inspiration?
My creative process is informed by the materials use. I work a lot using the lost wax casting method, where I can create interesting sculptural shapes with the wax and then cast them in metal, you can melt the wax, file it and mould it. I’m quite fluid in the process and I find it very inspiring to start to create something and then allow it to change; I never really fix on an idea at the beginning. One of my main inspirations is the Modernist era, I really love the fact that all the work from that period, whether it’s sculpture, or furniture, it’s all just really bold and quite simplistic for its time.
What are the main things you have learned so far from this experience?
When you run a small business you have to wear so many different hats. You are the PR person one day, sending press releases the next day you might be a sales person and working on pricing, you have to be really adaptable. Designing is the part that is the most natural and I find the easiest, because it’s what I’m used to, but I’m proud of how I’ve managed to adapt and learn all the other different aspects of running a business. I suppose even things like packaging, understanding the day to day operations and other small things about running a business.
How’s this journey shaped the woman you are today?
I think it’s probably made me more confident about my abilities, the fact that I can learn lots of different things and turn my hand to anything I want to do. It’s also made me more resilient, in terms of putting myself out there and not worrying about what people think, accepting that some people will like what I do and some people won’t, that's just the way the world works.
Sophie is wearing the Oscar top, the Frederick top, the Helmut top, and the Karl trousers in ivory.