Karlia Lykourgou is a criminal barrister and founder of Ivy and Normanton, the first outfitter specialising in court wear for women in the legal profession. The company is aptly named after Ivy Williams and Helena Normanton KC, the first two women called to the Bar of England and Wales, in 1922.

An entrepreneur at heart and advocate for women in all spaces, Karlia also happens to be the daughter of clothes manufacturer and the granddaughter of a dressmaker and this, to my mind, makes her story even more interesting. 

Her family has been in the fashion industry for many years, she tells me: ‘This made me think more about how things are made… I grew up with [that] understanding.’ 

Continuing our walk down memory lane, Karlia recalls how, when she was getting ready to go out, her Dad would call her over and inspect her clothes: ‘He would tell me how he could have made that better… or that he wanted to make one of those. So, when I started buying my own court wear, I went into it with the same sort of eye.’ 

(c) Jane Lawson

Karlia (pictured above) was firmly set on a career in law rather than fashion: ‘I wanted to go into law because I wanted to save the world. I wanted to be a human rights lawyer.’ She now enjoys a thriving criminal practice at Doughty Street, one of the leading chambers in the country, which she joined in 2019 as a tenant. 

So why did she decide to launch a court wear business alongside her practice? Thinking back to her pupillage, Karlia explains: ‘I was about to go into my second six. I started with two men who looked very dapper in their court attire and I wanted to look as good as they did.’ 

She went to buy a shirt and it ‘fitted like a school shirt’. In that moment, Karlia was struck by the limited options for court wear for women barristers compared to their male counterparts. 

‘Considering how hard I worked and how long it took me to get there, I didn’t want to feel “less” than them,’ she says.

I wonder if Karlia’s strong sense of social justice influenced her decision to start the brand. Beating me to it, she suggests: ‘Maybe this idea of societal change that I always believed in so strongly is one of the reasons it manifested in a way I hadn’t anticipated… to try and create equality for women at the Bar in this under-served, under-considered area.’ 

Karlia proudly describes to me her ‘statement of intent’ – to be the first ever legal outfitter specialising in legal attire for women. She does, however, clarify that there once existed a much smaller distributor who sold women’s court wear, among other pieces, on Chancery Lane. Ivy and Normanton was created with the express intention to provide court attire for women lawyers, a mandate which sets it apart from any of its predecessors. They have developed a range of collarettes, collars and bands, shirts, studs and cufflinks and recently launched a court hijab.

She strikes me as an innovator, as someone who isn’t afraid to create something new, however frightening. ‘I’ve always had an entrepreneurial itch,’ she tells me. ‘I’ve always liked to think outside the box.’

This resonates with me, as does the strength required of women who spearhead large-scale and meaningful projects.

Karlia thinks back to a conversation she had on this very subject with a friend who suggested ‘men tend to have a lot of self-belief… women will often doubt themselves.’ Although anecdotal, this reflects findings from a Hewlett Packard internal report which showed that most men will apply for a job when they meet 60% of the requirements and women apply only if they meet 100% of them. 

‘I suffer from the same doubt that other people do,’ Karlia confesses. What, in my mind, makes her a true innovator is her dedication to see those ideas through: ‘When I have an idea, it fills my mind until I have to do something about it. Not everyone feels that way,’ she adds. 

How does she deal with the inevitable feelings of discouragement? ‘When I get discouraged, there’s a part of me that tries not to think about it too much… tries not to talk myself out of it… so I am more prepared to take the risk.’ 

I suggest to Karlia that others may have taken what already existed and replicated it. She considers her response carefully: ‘Ivy and Normanton has perhaps been well received because we identified a pain point and tried to address it, rather than making more [of what already existed].’

She had noticed women barristers complaining about their hair getting caught at the top of their collarettes. Some would pin their collarettes to their top to stop them riding up. So, she started out by amending the shirts and collarettes to better fit women. ‘I’ve tried to identify the problems and solve them.’

Karlia’s unique appreciation for the influence of clothing on women’s confidence shines through: ‘Some women lawyers don’t want flowery lace. They don’t want to come across as ultra-feminine when they are doing a job that doesn’t have a lot of women in it.’ She ensures that her designs are tailored not just to the visible issues but those that are not often articulated. 

(c) Jane Lawson

She continues: ‘That’s why I put poppers at the top. That’s why I put strings on the side. That’s why I started to create some equality between the shirts available to the men and the shirts available to the women.’ 

After several rounds of pupillage applications, her place at the Bar was hard won. ‘It took me four goes to get pupillage and so it means a lot to me to be here.’ Through Ivy and Normanton, Karlia ultimately ‘wants to put out different images to cater to [her] demographic, to represent [women] more’.

When did the idea for Ivy and Normanton first occur to her? Karlia jokes, ‘I remember thinking at the time this is probably a terrible idea!’ Karlia began crafting her business plan in March of 2016 and ‘chipped away at it [on my own] for four years before launching in June 2020’.  

The brand was originally self-funded. ‘As a criminal pupil, I didn’t have a huge budget to start this with, so I had to do a lot of the different aspects of the business myself’. Her legal background came in very handy as it began to grow and she threw herself into applying for trademarks, drafting contracts, finance and marketing etc.  

Karlia recognises that her business and practice have ultimately benefited one another: ‘I’ve always been aware that as a self-employed barrister you are a business and your clients are the customers, so it’s important to give them a good service.’ Starting Ivy and Normanton gave Karlia a greater appreciation of this – ‘having an idea of business facilitates your practice in law…[it] creates a sense of commercial awareness'. 

As we near the end of the interview, we chat more about Ivy and Helena’s experience when they joined the Bar 100 years ago. 

‘Knowing anything about their stories is to know what sort of resilience they had.’ Karlia continues: ‘When you realise what other women have had to go through to do this job, it makes it more special.’ Helena was the first to practise at the Bar: ‘At first, she couldn’t get any cases… the kind of work that she got was the kind of stuff that other people didn’t want. So, for her to rise to then become King’s Counsel was really extraordinary.’ Karlia beams now: ‘I’m very proud that this company is named after [them], because they were the first and we are the first.’

Diversity and inclusion is the brand ethos of Ivy and Normanton and a personal passion. Karlia notes: ‘I also want Ivy and Normanton to be welcoming to the trans and non-binary community at the Bar.’ Karlia’s appreciation for the sense of community among women barristers is palpable. She says: ‘It’s nice to have a start-up with such a strong sense of community so soon.’ 

As we near the end of the interview, I ask Karlia to name a woman of modern times who she is inspired by. Overwhelmed with the breadth of options, she says: ‘I try and surround myself with information and insights from all sorts of women doing all sorts of amazing things.’ 

When pressed, Karlia’s list of inspirational women does not disappoint: ‘When I’m thinking what am I doing here or why am I doing this, I think of Sheryl Sandberg and her book Lean In… times when I’m feeling tired, I think of my Grandma and how strong she was… when I’m contemplating what it is that I want to achieve – I think of all the amazing Doughty Street Women and all the amazing things that they’re doing.’

Karlia ends with this: ‘And when I just need some motivation because I lack confidence in that moment, I listen to Barbara Streisand… to get me going! I draw from as much female energy as I can. I surround myself with it.’ 

The Firsts is a new Counsel interview series by Dami Ojuri profiling trailblazing women barristers and uncovering a very personal account of their achievements. This interview will appear in the April 2022 issue of Counsel.