Kaelen Haworth on How She Launched Her Namesake Label Nine Months After Graduating

It’s hard to believe Kaelen Haworth, a Toronto native, presented her first collection at NYFW in 2010 just nine months after graduating from Parsons. Yet she proved that a strong vision and refined taste trumped lack of experience (to be fair, stints at Jenni Kayne and Stella McCartney meant she wasn’t entirely green). In the last few years, her simple-with-a-twist has become even stronger--and a collaboration with 'it' girl Hannah Bronfman has given the up-and-coming label some buzz too. We caught up with Haworth in her sunny Nolita studio to chat about how she made it in a new city--and shitty economy--and why we can expect to see many more awesome collabs from her in the future.
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It’s hard to believe Kaelen Haworth, a Toronto native, presented her first collection at NYFW in 2010 just nine months after graduating from Parsons. Yet she proved that a strong vision and refined taste trumped lack of experience (to be fair, stints at Jenni Kayne and Stella McCartney meant she wasn’t entirely green). In the last few years, her simple-with-a-twist has become even stronger--and a collaboration with 'it' girl Hannah Bronfman has given the up-and-coming label some buzz too. We caught up with Haworth in her sunny Nolita studio to chat about how she made it in a new city--and shitty economy--and why we can expect to see many more awesome collabs from her in the future.
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It’s hard to believe Kaelen Haworth, a Toronto native, presented her first collection at New York Fashion Week in 2010 just nine months after graduating from Parsons. Yet she proved that a strong vision and refined taste trumped lack of experience (to be fair, stints at Jenny Kayne and Stella McCartney meant she wasn’t entirely green). The last few seasons has seen her simple-with-a-twist vision strengthen. For fall ‘13, luxe fabrics like printed organza, metallic jacquard and laser-cut leather offered a sophisticated spin on 90’s grunge. “It’s all about figuring out how to make something that’s really special, beautiful and interesting but that you can literally wear every day,” she muses. Amen.

Music-obsessed Haworth (who’s no stranger to DJing and loves listening to records with her husband) recently teamed up with her pal Hannah Bronfman on a Coachella-inspired capsule collection. The resulting range of elevated festival ware will come as a relief to anyone whose a bit over flower crowns and cutoffs. The mix of thigh grazing shorts, silky longline blazers and breezy leather jackets all have the Kaelen touch and look as effortless in Palm Springs as they do on the streets of New York—just check out Phil Oh's shots of Hannah, dayum. (It's all available for presale on Kaelen's site.)

We caught up with Haworth in her sunny Nolita studio to chat about how she made it in a new city--and shitty economy--and why we can expect to see many more awesome collabs from her in the future.

Were you into fashion when you were younger? Kaelen Haworth: In high school, I was pretty advanced for Oakville [a Toronto suburb]. I wasn’t really making clothes as much as deconstructing them…ripping, dying, shredding. I don’t know what my style was. I had those Aldo 10-inch platform moonboots, which were pretty crazy. I didn’t study fashion for under grad; I did English Literature at Dalhousie in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Did you always see yourself in New York? I came directly to New York after I graduated, so I could go to Parsons. Everyone said I was going to love New York because of the fashion scene and everything, but I didn’t love it right away. It’s hard to go from living in a house to a six-floor walk up with no air conditioning! New York isn’t very friendly at first. That was seven years ago, so I’ve definitely found my bearings since then.

What was your experience at Parsons like? I studied fashion merchandising, but ended up doing more design classes. I almost failed merchandising math, which is basically grade three level. So I switched to the creative side and felt so much more excited about what I was doing. I didn’t think there was a possibility that I could have a career in fashion until I moved to New York, so it was nice to finally feel that possibility. The Parsons community and teachers were amazing.

You started the label just a few months after graduating—how did you know you were ready? It happened really quickly. Being from Canada I guess I kind of had a timer, [because once you graduate, you need to find work in order to stay in the country.] I always knew I wanted my own business, but never thought it would be so young. I graduated when everything with the economy went south, so I couldn’t really get proper full time work—there were no opportunities, not even bad jobs—so I was helping style and doing odd jobs. It became a now or never situation, and I just decided to go for it. It came down to whether I wanted to go back to Canada or stay in New York and launch the business. I guess I just always knew I wanted to be here.

What was that first collection like? Small, more of a capsule really. It was definitely less wearable and more conceptual. It went well actually. I did a little presentation in an abandoned warehouse, and afterwards Intermix picked up a couple of pieces. That was really good for me, because Intermix really invests in their labels, so that was helpful and definitely helped make me feel a bit validated.

How has the label evolved since those early days? It’s like night and day. I am still thinking about a lot of the same things as when I started, but now it’s a much bigger picture. At the start it was like, this is fun—I want to show people my stuff! But now it’s like I am creating a brand and an identity, and I want to make something that will grow with me. The reality is, when you’re young and you start a business, you don’t get the experience from other jobs; it all comes from yourself. It’s hard because you are making mistakes at your own expense, and there’s no safety net. It’s intimidating.

So what were some of those early challenges? In the beginning I wasn’t thinking as much about the sales. It’s difficult to start with a concept and carry it all the way through to the person who is going to buy it. It’s balancing the creative side with the practical side and thinking, how does this translate?

What were some milestone moments for the label? Blake Lively wore a coat on Gossip Girl during the height of that show, and that was very exciting. It’s amazing the power celebrity has, people actually started paying more attention after that. Solange wore some pants at a festival in London. Mindy Kaling looked beautiful in one of our dresses recently. People just really respond to celebrity, it’s crazy! But cool.

Photo: Phil Oh

Photo: Phil Oh

Tell us about the capsule collection you created with your friend Hannah Bronfman—how did that come about? I know Hannah through her boyfriend [Brendan Fallis] who is also Canadian but we met here. During Fashion Week I helped direct her a bit, putting outfits together for her. A few months ago we were talking about Coachella and how the street style there is a bit depressing. It’s all cutoffs and flower crowns, which is cute and suited to the festival, but she didn’t really want to wear that. We created the capsule around her ideal: Coachella wardrobe for day and night. The result is a bit brighter for me, white, mint and bright pink. It was about taking a tailored approach, but making it breezier with fabrication and combinations. Like there’s a leather jacket with perforated leather sleeves. The collection feels very Hannah—Hannah in the desert! It’s clean, modern, bright and youthful.

Did the experience make you want to collaborate again in the future? Yeah, definitely. I work really well with other people. I like collaborating. There are so many interesting people that I know, so it’s so fun to utilize other creative people to foster your own ideas, and together come up with something really cool.

Is opening your own store on the agenda? Yeah, I think that would make a lot of sense. It’s a great way to connect with the customers, because, yes, I get sales reports but I don’t hear that feedback. It would be really cool to have a space that is my brand world. It is hard to get people to perceive the brand the way you do, so to have the ability and space to allow people to walk into your world.