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Former student's alternative fashion brand set for global growth

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Published on 20 August 2021

Mel Williams
Mel Williams

The creative force behind an alternative fashion brand set for international expansion has revealed how her degree experience at the University of Sunderland helped shaped the artist she is today.

Mel Williams founded Phat Kandi in 2019, and as creative director she is on a mission to create a brand for “bittersweet misfits, the dreamers, the rule breakers and the overlooked, to feel at home”.

Phat Kandi recently secured a major deal when it was chosen as one of the independent brands to supply HMV’s new pop culture stores across the UK - part of the retailer’s 100-year celebrations.

Mel, 49, from Whitley Bay, who studied a BA (Hons) in Animation and Games Art at Sunderland between 2004-06, has fulfilled a life-long ambition to create the brand, which offers a range of products including t-shirts and bucket hats, using a combination of her distinctive handwriting, illustrative skills and fashion design experience. Mel explained: “I’m so happy to be part of HMVs exciting new pop culture concept stores. It’s a big break and we’re a perfect fit for their customers who want something alternative to the norm.”

She added: “I have always drawn since I was a kid, especially cartoon characters, but ended up working in television as a production assistant and researcher for a number of years. Then in 2004, I decided to pursue my passion for creativity and applied for the animation programme at Sunderland.

“The programme was the best one in the area, and closest to me. It ticked all the boxes and was certainly where I got my love for character design, which I’ve been able to bring into Phat Kandi.” 

Mum-of-three girls, Mel says one of her biggest regrets was not being able to complete the final year of her degree, as she had to relocate her life to Bangkok, where her former partner began work.

But Mel never forgot some of those crucial degree skills to help develop her brand and eventually set up Phat Kandi, which has led to working with distribution agents based in London, Germany, Spain and the US, to help promote her brand. She has also landed a distribution deal in America with Hot Topic – a Goth and alternative clothing retailer, with stores across the country and online.

Mel explains that her artwork for Phat Kandi is licensed out to manufacturers and distributors, she provides a style guide of all her creations, which they can download and play around with, it’s then added to various apparel. “We get the royalties for the artwork, which is under the Phat Kandi brand, and they distribute it,” added Mel.

While it took Mel a year to set up her business, she says she always remained determined and motivated – inspired by her dad, Alan Picton, himself a cartoonist.

"I have always been inspired by dad, I used to watch him for hours as a kid. He worked as a milkman then after his shift would work through the night drawing his cartoons, he would send them off to newspapers and got rejected for years. Then he finally got a break in The Sun, with his ‘Marriage Is..’ cartoon. He did that for two years and then started his own greetings card company for 25 years – Graphic Humour. He never gave up and I didn’t want too either.”

Timing has also been the key, according to Mel, as Covid has changed the way people want to shop. “Consumers are sick of the same old bland stuff and want something a bit different and to stand out from the crowd. “Our customers are predominately 18-30 and female – our brand message is about embracing your misfit – feel different – it’s the key and people are really hanging on to this right now.”

Mel says to open her own store would be the dream one day, and advises any creative students just starting their own careers to never give up.

“Always push yourself to learn new techniques, or software, have a clear vision and a goal of where you want to be, don't give up and be sure to network.”

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