Karen Millen is the future of fashion. She has a vision of what women want to wear, and it works. Photographs by Sheridan Morley
If Karen Millen was based in America, she would have taken over half the universe by now with collections, diffusion ranges, sunglasses, hair products, stockings and candles. She would have flagship stores in every large capital and would throw ludicrously extravagant parties whenever she opened a new shop. As it is, however, Karen Millen, 36-year-old mother of three, was born in Maidstone, Kent, where she still lives and works, and is quite happy right now to conquer the wardrobes of the British working woman.

Millen is a quietly unassuming character. "I never anticipated we'd achieve all of this," she says, adding that she has never been all that ambitious. "I've kept a low profile. I'm quite a private person. I'm not interested in being a personality. I just get on with what I like doing best."

To those who go to Karen Millen in search of good tailoring at affordable prices, a crochet top, or a pair of comfortable, stretch trousers, the woman behind the label might as well be a fictional character, a mere marketing ploy. But Karen Millen really does exist. She left Medway college ("nothing fancy"), began in business by setting up a sewing machine in her parents' house and selling clothes at the fashion equivalent of a tupperware party to local women around Maidstone. From time to time, she sees someone walking around still wearing an outfit from those days and she cringes. She has come a long way since then.

In a decade, the Karen Millen empire has expanded from a shop in Maidstone financed by a bank loan and an overdraft, to 24 around the country. The company's turnover is approaching pounds 24m. "The parties were a word of mouth thing," says Millen, a small, blonde figure with a pair of heavy black- rimmed specs perched on her nose. "It was quite a struggle to start with, but at least we had a good customer base."

The British high street has more fashion at affordable prices than any other country. Karen Millen straddles the ground between high-level designer and chain store: she does not plan to expand much more, because she wants to keep an air of exclusivity about it.

What is surprising is the quality of the tailoring, the fabrics and the attention to detail. Trousers are lined. Jackets are top-stitched with heavier yarn than the lowest common denominator would usually allow. Buttons are made of horn, and Millen hints that she uses the same fabric mills as some designers who are out of reach of most women's budgets. "This country is brilliant for retail," she says. "I wouldn't like to be anywhere else - look at how many shops you can open here. High street retail is so good, we don't need the top end."

The secret of Karen Millen is that she has cut out the middle man. She and her partner, Kevin Stanford, have been involved in the manufacturing, fabric buying, designing, pattern cutting, packaging and selling of their product since the beginning and they know how to get the best value for their money. What Karen says she lacks in ambition and drive, Kevin Stanford makes up for. They met on holiday in Morocco 16 years ago and set up in business shortly after. "I've got all the confidence in Kevin. He's very ambitious," she says. In turn, he has faith in Karen's vision and her understanding of what women like her want to wear.

"In the early days, work took over our lives," says Karen. Nowadays, they employ 80 people in the office and warehouse alone, and six months ago they appointed a new designer. For the first time, Millen feels she can take a step back and have a proper maternity leave with her new-born baby before returning to work after the summer. "Up until now, I've been able to work full time. My weekends are my own and I don't work too late so I can see the kids in the mornings and evenings. The children come first." Living five minutes away from work helps. Despite the family, she does not have plans to launch a childrenswear range, and wants to continue concentrating on what she knows best, womenswear. The range of bags - well-designed and good quality - is expanding in response to women's needs, and there are the inevitable plans for a possible fragrance.

More than most of the successful designers who leave college in pursuit of their own rarefied collections, Karen Millen is the future of fashion. Her clothes sell. They are washable. And they are in tune with women's lives. In true hands-on Karen Millen fashion, however, it is not seeing a woman walking down the street in her clothes that gives her a thrill. It's seeing one of her fleet of lorries speeding down the motorway at night. "I get a real kick out of that. It's like a big carrier bag on wheels"n