Deola Charles, founder of knitwear label Ille De Cocos, talks us through her route to launching a minimalist luxury brand.

In 2015, Deola Charles launched Ille De Cocos, a knitwear brand which quickly garnered a devoted following thanks to its beautifully soft, understated luxury wardrobe essentials. Having forged a successful career in head office merchandising across various fashion brands – deliberately chosen for conspicuously not falling into the cut-throat stereotypes of the industry – Deola nonetheless became disillusioned with the tokenism she saw and, ultimately, the lack of representation of people of colour in fashion, across campaigns, catwalks, and positions of seniority.
The answer? To go it alone. Steeling herself for the road ahead, she took the plunge in 2015 and, while juggling entrepreneurship with motherhood, has carved out a stellar reputation in just five short years. Check out Ille De Cocos’ beautiful collection here, follow the brand on Instagram here, and find out why pouring her energies into being her authentic self has felt both like an act of defiance, and ultimately enabled her success.

You founded Ille De Cocos in 2015. Can you tell us a bit about the brand and how you came up with the idea?

Ille De Cocos is a collection of soft, luxury essentials designed to slot effortlessly into your capsule wardrobe. Since my mid-twenties I have been investing in well-made essentials that are interchangeable, pieces that can be worn across a variety of outfits and all year round. I’ve always spent less on trends and more on minimalist ‘forever items’ that look and feel beautiful to wear. This has really formed the core of my knitwear label. From the yarns that I choose to the colours and design features, every detail stays true to this philosophy. Versatility is key.

What is the significance of the name Ille De Cocos?

Minimalism can sometimes come off as safe and bland, things I’ve never aspired to be. Minimalism is not about a lack of anything, but the perfect amount. I deliberately chose a name with a playful edge to reflect the mood I wanted to create. The name Ille De Cocos is a real conversation starter! It translates to the Island of Coconut, which is tiny unspoiled nature reserve off the cost of Costa Rica. It has a nice link to the brand, since all of my pieces are made from 100 per cent natural yarns.

What was your fashion background before you decided to launch your own label? And what were your experiences like?

My background is in retail head-office merchandising – the numbers side of things rather than visual – working for some of the UK’s most iconic premium high-street brands. This industry has quite a reputation for being cut-throat, thanks to a few unsavoury characters who have led and shaped the culture. I was careful in choosing ‘nice’ companies to work for and this paid off in so many ways. I heard countless stories from colleagues who witnessed or endured horrific bullying and humiliation at previous brands. Having avoided this awful cliché I was able to enjoy working with incredibly talented people, create beautiful product and travel to some pretty awesome parts of the world. All whilst working incredibly hard, which was easy when doing something I was deeply passionate about.

As the only black woman in a position of leadership, I was glad to be a part of progress but simultaneously disappointed that certain aspects were taking far too long to change. Seeing campaign after campaign featuring exclusively white models was difficult to comprehend, especially whilst living and working in multicultural London well into the 2000s, surrounded by a very diverse team although not in senior leadership. When change did arrive it was in the midst of tremendous panic, to fill a quota for expansion into the US market where race was a ‘sensitive issue’. The directive was specifically for a mixed-race model in a handful of shots to tick the box. So basically racism with a side of colourism. This particular episode was a turning point, tainting not only my experience thereafter but everything I had contributed up to that moment.

What led to your decision to branch out on your own?

Experiences like mine in the workplace go way beyond office politics and are sadly shared with so many black and brown people here in the UK and globally. I had so much to offer intellectually and creatively and an overwhelming desire to get back to what I was passionate about. For me entrepreneurship has been a path to career fulfilment and crucially, self-preservation.

What were the biggest challenges when it came to starting out?

Actually having the guts to get started was the greatest challenge of all. In creating something of your own and putting it out there without the gravitas of a company behind you is incredibly daunting. At the beginning the imposter syndrome was very real and admittedly it still creeps in from time to time. The best thing I ever did was to put the product in front of potential customers at as many pop-up and trade events as I could. Listening to feedback firsthand and meeting many of my customers personally has been a game-changer. When she loves something the confidence boost is immeasurable. And when something isn’t right you learn to take it on the chin and make changes. My customers are still at the heart of everything I do.

Five years on, what are the challenges of running your own business?

I started on this path before becoming a mum and it was certainly a lot easier to juggle in the early days, focusing all my energy on growing the business. Looking back, I failed dismally at achieving a work-life balance. My daughter is now eighteen months old and I have learned to prioritise family life, a lesson I am eternally grateful for.

The Covid crisis has raised all sorts of new challenges that have superseded what I may ordinarily have faced this year. Retail pop-up events are a hugely important part of what I do, and I sadly had to cancel what was scheduled for spring and summer. Focusing solely on online is new for me and I am very much still learning. I have been blown away by the incredible support and loyalty of our customers during this challenging time. I have received so many messages of encouragement along with a healthy flow of orders. It has been incredibly humbling.

What’s your favourite quote?

Honestly, anything by Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou. A particular quote of Toni's that I love for its simplicity is ‘Correct what you can, learn from what you can’t’, the perfect mantra for any entrepreneur. If I find a particularly good quote, I like to pin it up for a motivational boost.

The websites I use most frequently are…

I spend far more time than I should on social media, especially Instagram and Pinterest which are both great sources of inspiration, information and discovery. Instagram has been useful for finding and reaching out to other small business owners, helping me to grow my network and explore potential collaborations. I am ‘old-school’ in a sense and always keen to move conversations offline to meeting face-to-face or at least a chat over the phone. This year has served as a powerful reminder of the importance of physical connection and how bland life can be without it.

I am who I am today because of...

What my mother taught me about racism. My first memory of a racist encounter was at infant school, just before my fifth birthday, where I was labelled a probable thief by a classmate because of my race. I went home in need of answers and reassurance and learned that in these situations, the moral high ground was ALWAYS mine, end of discussion. I became very used to rising above micro-aggressions. My desire was not to challenge the nonsense of it all but instead to pour my energy into being my authentic self, which in itself is an act of defiance. This has meant taking up space in areas where people who look like me are in scarce representation, from attending one of London’s top private schools to ascending to a position of leadership in the retail luxury market. Always with the quiet confidence that I have the right to pursue my ambitions to the full. Fast forward to my 40s and I still have the same mindset.

The best advice I give to others starting out is…

Be prepared to fail. It is inevitable. And you will learn more this way.

In five years I would like to be…

Able to look back at 2020 as a year of change and progress. This pause moment has prevented us from continuing to look away, allowing us to re-evaluate our sense of community, both locally and globally.

By Nancy Alsop
July 2020


Clary & Peg

Nancy Alsop


Nancy is a magpie for the best in design and culture.