The chef turned fashion designer who’s making waves

***Rachel Khoo would like to thank all the inspiring people who helped make the Khoollect studio a hive of creativity. Although the Khoollect studio’s doors have now closed, you can keep up with Rachel’s newest adventures on and on Rachel’s Instagram and Facebook pages – and, continue to enjoy the Khoollect website’s stories and recipes, which will remain available.***

Chef turned fashion designer Maxine Thompson is making waves around London and beyond with her beautifully tailored, chic and oh-so-comfy chef’s trousers for women. After working long, hot, sweaty shifts in countless restaurants around the world, Maxine gave up the search for a pair of cool, comfortable, durable trousers, and decided to design her own. PolkaPants was born. Maxine shares the story of her quest for the perfect pants…

A Day in the Life of Maxine Thompson

Tell us how PolkaPants got off the ground?

I got serious about making PolkaPants on a commercial level when I moved from Australia to London two years ago. I started speaking with female chefs and discovered the vast majority were frustrated with the lack of options available. Having studied and worked as a fashion designer (in my more glamorous past life), I had the benefit of being able to sketch out some designs, draft a pattern and sew some initial pairs. I began user testing, and from there, further developed and refined the product.

Polka Pants

Has it been a strange transition going from the kitchen back into the world of fashion? 

As touched on briefly above, I have had some experience working in the fashion industry. I took a break from cooking in my early 20s and studied Fashion Design and Business Management in Brisbane, Australia. I landed a job at CHANEL in New York in their business analyst team (yes, think The Devil Wears Prada). It was then that I realised my home is in the kitchen, so I left my position and enrolled at the International Culinary Centre (formerly French Culinary Institute) in New York. It’s nice to finally combine all three of my degrees (and it makes my Dad very happy that I’m actually using them all!).

It sounds like female chefs are pretty excited about some hot new kitchenware …

The response has been overwhelming in the best possible way. Everyone seems to be really happy with them and the way they wear in the kitchen. I’ve had a lot of food stylists and photographers also praise PolkaPants, as it’s given them the option of wearing a comfortable and stylish alternative to jeans on shoots.

A photo posted by Polka Pants (@polkapants_) on

Are you still working in kitchens or is PolkaPants now a full-time job for you?

PolkaPants is now my full-time job (which is exciting, but also terrifying). But, I’m still doing some casual shifts in kitchens around East London and cooking for private clients. I love being in the kitchen too much to completely give it up.

Tell us about any new or exciting projects you’re working on right now?

I’m working with female professionals in various trades to discuss what garments they would like to be able to wear to work. I’m also working on a PolkaPants pop-up store, opening in March 2016 for a couple of weeks (stayed tuned).

Best Kept Secrets

I khoollect a few…  

Cookbooks. It’s silly because I have lived in four countries in four years, but my cookbooks always come with me. And clothes. I adore vintage clothing. I moved home from New York with 10 suitcases.

A photo posted by Maxine Thompson (@maxijazz) on

What’s your favourite item in your khoollection?

One of my Japanese knives – it sounds ridiculous but it has a black handle that has multi-coloured glitter in it. It took me two years to find and I adore it.

Three recipe books you couldn’t live without?

  • The Complete Asian Cookbook by Charmaine Solomon: This is like the bible in our family and was the first ‘serious’ cookbook that I learnt to cook out of.
  • Feasting with Bompas & Parr:  I adore Bompas & Parr and I’ve been following their incredible journey since they started. I love their whimsical approach to food. Who doesn’t want to eat a leg of ham covered in edible glitter, or a dirty martini with a pickled octopus tentacle?!
  • Delicious Jewels by Tasmin Day-Lewis and Hemmerle: My Mum gave me this book for Christmas a couple of years ago and I never let it out of my sight.

Your easy go-to recipe?

Homemade pasta. Honestly. It’s the easiest and fastest thing to make, and not to mention cheap. A pasta machine is one of the best investments you’ll ever make… and then all you need is flour and water. For the sauce try:

  • tinned tomatoes, some olives and anchovies;
  • green peas and ricotta;
  • fried garlic, chopped parsley, chill and some good olive oil.

What’s your happiest food memory?

There’s so many, but one magical moment was when I was living in Tasmania. A friend of mine surprised me early one Sunday morning and took me diving for abalone. After braving the cold water and managing to pry some off the rocks, we went onto the beach, shucked them, and tenderised them (by beating them with a rock). We then cooked them in a wok on the beach with a portable gas burner and served them sliced paper thin with chilli, parsley and lemon. Sea to stomach in 15 minutes. Heaven.

Who’s your #khoollectcrush?

My older sister. She left her job as the head of digital marketing for a big company to train to be a pastry chef in Tokyo. She was the main inspiration for me taking a leap and making PolkaPants a reality.

Urban Favourites

Where do you call home?

I’m from a little town in Queensland originally. But after moving to Tasmania from New York (big culture shock!), Melbourne became my second home. So, craving the city lights, I would often fly to Melbourne for my two days off.

What do you love most about Melbourne?

You can’t get a bad cup of coffee, and there are places open at 6am. Good luck trying to find that in London!

Your favourite place in Melbourne for coffee?

Lune Croissanterie. Best croissants in the world.

Best spot for breakfast in Melbourne?

BARRY in Northcote. Crisp pork sub, kimchi, kewpie mayo with toasted peanuts and coriander.

Favourite place to eat dinner in Melbourne?

The Town Mouse. I had a shaved raw squid and apple dish there that I still go to sleep dreaming about.

Where you go for fresh produce?

The Vegetable Connection. My best friend (artist Billie Justice Thomson) used to work there and painted the windows. It always felt like hanging out in her pantry when I shopped there.

Your favourite place to get culinary inspiration?

Eating out in general. It’s important to always taste and try different things. You have to constantly challenge your palate and open your mind to trying new things. Read, watch and talk about food to whoever you can.

Ideal lazy Sunday?

Im really terrible at doing nothing. I’d like to say ‘lay in bed and drink tea’ but that’s not me. Now that I’m living in London, I usually wakeup, have coffee and breakfast, then wander down to the flower markets, followed by Lily Vanilli for cake and more coffee. I finish the day surrounded by friends, a pint or three and a home cooked dinner.

If you didn’t live in London, then where?

New York. The most incredible city in the world. It was so great to live somewhere with such diverse seasons. It’s just amazing going to the farmer’s markets on the first warm weekend in Spring; the stalls are flush with flowers and greens after four months of root vegetables. I’d move back there in a heartbeat.

Are you female? Do you work in an industry that requires an uncomfortable uniform? Tell us how you think your uniform could be improved in the comments below.

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Read Maxine Thompson’s advice on starting a new business venture.

Maxine had input into Khoollect’s Melbourne local’s guide.

Visit the PolkaPants website.

Find Polka Pants on Instagram – Facebook – Twitter


Product photos by

Megan Cullen