It's been too long since our last installment of "How I'm Making It," so we're reviving the series with a pair of young designers on a mission. Jesse Finkelstein and Katie King design JF & SON, a line they launched just over three years ago and sell out of their LES storefront on 19 Kenmare Street. The line focuses on beautiful textiles and handwork, which they produce out of their studio in New Delhi. As globalization and cheap production overseas sadly forces many designers to produce parts or all of their collections in Asia to stay competitive and profitable (though we laud the many designers who make efforts keep as much production as possible in New York's Garment District), the mission behind JF & SON was to find a way to produce responsibly overseas. Here's how they're making it work.
How did you two meet? Jesse: We met at a factory in the garment district--it was very glamorous. Katie was working for another company at the time and my company was beginning to get itself together and then Katie and I started talking and I brought her over and it became a new thing. We started by trying to figure out how to do production overseas in a responsible way. I really had no clue what i was doing until Katie came along. We learned on the job as we worked together. There was a studio in Delhi that we started almost six years ago and it was six people. When Katie came on board we reorganized the studio and now we're at 60 people. What's your fashion background? Katie: I started out as a costume design major, that's my undergraduate degree. I thought that I wanted to do that for a long time but I was really interested in the way things were actually made--pattern making and draping--so i went back to school to Parsons, got a new degree, and then i met Jesse at a factory. It was called match.
Jesse: I studied political science and visual arts at Brown, then I moved to DC for a year where I was really miserable working for a big company. That was a very tough year for me and while it satisfied my political science side the other side was gnawing at me. My folks do a lot of work overseas (and in India) so I've always been in touch with what they were doing. I was really interested in designing a business that could work overseas responsibly but that could also be a small business. And fashion for me is the most immediate and visceral experience of design.
How did you get started? Jesse: Some of the money came from my previous job in DC and some of it came from my folks who were really generous to lend it. Then setting up in India, we started out with this gentleman who ran the textile division of what would be FIT but in Delhi.
Why India? Jesse: We decided on India because India has the most varied and diverse and vast history of handwork and textile development. Not just every state, but every village in every state has their own textiles. So it made obvious sense to us that India was where we had to begin. And Delhi because it's the textile and apparel capital of India and all the resources are located there.
What's the ballsiest thing you've done to ensure the success of the company? Jesse: I would say the riskiest thing we did was opening up a store in the middle of the recession.
Katie: We stopped wholesaling and just put all of our eggs into the store, and just hoped it would work and it did. The problem with production is often that there are so many middleman and you are disconnected from the people who are making the clothes. We felt the same way about wholesale. We felt disconnected from the customer. When you have a showroom, and buyers, and stores you never really know who is buying your clothing.
Jesse: It comes down to this principle of openness. Customers today really want to be involved in the product they're buying--it's like the food industry. Transparency is the key word. We thought, 'Let's just keep it vertical and do it all in the store.' It also gets the customers involved. Right now we have a thriving customer order business where customers can come in and see us style and not only alter clothes to their measurements, but also change the color and the print.
Katie: We didn't know how people would respond. We just offered it, and people really like it. People want to be more connected to how their things are made and what they wear.
What are your biggest challenges? Jesse: Space. Our biggest challenge is that we have these two companies and they're both, thank the lord, doing pretty well, and it's hard to balance. We need more space in Delhi.
JF & SON is two companies? There's two parts to JF & SON: There's our design company and we have a consultancy and production company so we work with designers and do development and production. We do all handwork and beading and embroidery. We consult for Opening Ceremony, Pat Field, we sell swatches to Vena Cava, the Gap, DKNY, so it's big and small labels. We're about doing production overseas that is fine quality, done on time, but most importantly, done in a responsible way. Responsible in a sense that everyone was getting three times the living wage and everyone was being treated as creative individuals, not just people who were doing rote tasks. It's important that everyone has some sort of autonomy over what they were doing, and that we were connected to every stage of the process.
What are your goals? Jesse: The goal of the company is actually to have many of these small studios in various developing countries working with local craftspeople to take advantage of the local skills and craft to bring to the store. So we started out in Delhi just because it captures such a wide net. We hope maybe one day, Viet Nam.
Who helped you the most along the way? Jesse: We used to work with Koos Van Den Akker. He invented the Cosby sweater.
Katie: He was really big in the '70s. He saw our swatches and was really excited and wanted to work with us so we took him to our showroom and he was like, 'No, no, no, this is not the way you want to do it, you have to have a store and work out of your store.'
Jesse: And we looked at him like 'You are crazy' and then suddenly, I don't know why, we were just like 'Screw It.'
Katie: We thought about it and it started to make more and more sense.