It was during a stint in a fine dining restaurant that chef Maxine Thompson grew weary of her uniform. She had just graduated from the French Culinary Institute in New York, and found herself in Tasmania, cooking a ten-course tasting menu each night in a team of just three. Working tireless hours wearing itchy, ill-fitting chef’s trousers sparked an idea in the former fashion design student, who noticed that like her, most of her female peers were stuck wearing unflattering kitchen clothing designed for men. “I just couldn’t find any trousers that I liked to cook in.” Maxine explains. “They were always hot and baggy. I started buying trousers from high street shops but the fabric would get wet and bleed all over my chef’s whites. So I just started making my own.”
She grabbed some material and cobbled together a pair of soft, high-waisted kitchen trousers – the first ever pair of Polka Pants. “They were modelled on a pair of jeans that I found in a thrift store in Tasmania for about three dollars.” Maxine explains. “I absolutely loved them.”
After Tasmania, Maxine moved to London, where she began meeting more female chefs, cooks and caterers in need of better workwear. “I just got talking to more girls about it and realised that we all had the same problem.” She says. “That’s when I decided to make a go of it. I got a really horrible corporate chef job to save money to launch it, and then was experimenting with fabrics and fits in my spare time.”
Polka Pants’ core range consists of three trouser styles – black, houndstooth and the signature black and white polka dot in light, breathable cotton. With a high waist, cropped ankle a gold side zip, each pair is designed to reflect the style of the 1940s Utility Scheme, which championed simple, functional clothing made to last. They are supple, figure-hugging and, frankly, damn stylish – as at home in the kitchen as they are on the dancefloor. Trust us. That 3% elastic goes a long way.
Since launching eight months ago, Polka Pants has set off as many ripples in the fashion world as it has in the food industry. Publications like The Telegraph, The Observer and The Guardian have sung the praises of these revolutionary trews, while Vogue named them “The Most Stylish Chef’s Pants Ever.”
We paid Maxine a visit in her Hackney studio, where material swatches hang beside press clippings of loyal Polka Pants fans – culinary stars like Gizzie Erskine, Lily Jones and Olia Hercules. She hands us a sample of the newest design, a pristine white pair with the bold Polka Pants label stitched onto the back. She tells us a few cheffing tales from her past, recalling the time she “splattered pig’s blood all over the basement of a restaurant” while making black pudding, and on another occasion “dropped a vat of freshly made gnocchi on the floor” minutes before service began. It was then, perhaps, that a good pair of trousers might have been needed most.
Polka Pants has come about just in the nick of time, as the food world does away with the old school mentality of macho, male dominated kitchens. Women are storming the industry, with more female chefs, food writers and food culinary entrepreneurs than ever before. Particularly in the capital, where Maxine’s one-woman venture has been embraced. “Food here has really taken off in the last 3 or 4 years. It’s become the trendiest thing.” She tells us. “I don’t think this could have worked anywhere else. The London food scene is the perfect platform. It’s an absolutely phenomenal place to be at the moment.” That said, Maxine is working hard to stretch her trousers further afield. “It’s great being on people’s radars in London,” She says. “But the challenge is extending the reach further. What about a woman who owns a deli in Manchester, or a cook in Cornwall? That’s what I’m focusing a lot of time on at the moment.”
With a rapidly changing and diversifying food industry, it seems (well) fitting that female cooks finally have the opportunity to wear something cool and comfortable in the kitchen. “There’s a lot of talk about women in the industry surrounding Polka Pants. That’s a really nice thing that has just come naturally.” Maxine remarks. “There’s a network of support being created that we haven’t really had in London before. It feels good to be able to play some part in encouraging that.”
Words - Meg Abbott
Portraits - Issy Croker
Polka Pants' Photography - Megan Cullen