Many aspiring fashion designers start out with an in-house gig at an established brand — or, if they're incredibly brave and have the appropriate funding — launch their own line after getting a degree or learning the ropes through internships. But sometimes thinking outside of the box can lead to a lucrative business opportunity with very little overhead. Such was the case for Karolina Zmarlak, who turned the independent made-to-measure business she started right out of college into an eponymous ready-to-wear label in just a couple of years.
Utilizing her tailoring training and experience using high-end materials, Zmarlak co-founded her brand with her partner Jesse Keyes, who has a background in business and architecture. She's built her line based on her obsession with how each garment is constructed and its ability to stand the test of time. Though her label is still relatively new, her commitment to using luxury fabrications and focusing on craftsmanship has placed her collection in the designer price point, where she's competing with industry greats like Stella McCartney, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein on the sales floor.
That in itself is daunting, but Zmarlak has not taken a backseat to these bigger names: Not only was she one of the first-ever recipients of the prestigious New York City Fashion Production Fund — which provides emerging designers with below market-rate loans to secure financing and help producing all of their goods in NYC's Garment District — but her pieces have also caught the attention of top-tier costume designers, including the team who dresses Julianna Margulies for her Emmy Award-winning role on "The Good Wife."
Just before fashion week, we met with Zmarlak in her Chelsea design studio — where she heads up a very small team — to discuss how she's grown her business, the advice she has for young designers and the one woman she dreams of dressing. (I'll give you a hint: She lives in the White House.)
Can you tell us about your background in fashion, and when you decided to pursue it in school?
I was lucky enough to have a high school (in Chicago) where there was the ability to take on creative courses. I was interested in photography, and back in those days we still had a dark room, so I got to work hands-on. I think that is sort of what stimulated me towards fashion. After doing that for a couple of years, one of the other courses in my high school was a fashion-sewing course. You think of these silly home economics courses and sewing pillows, but in our case, I got to make my dance team’s uniforms and prom dresses, so it really was sort of developing this interest and love for working with fabrics and style lines. However, I still ended up going to my first year of business school, and then I realized I can do this while I go to a creative design school. That’s why I transferred to the Fashion Institute.
After transferring to FIT, it was a world of difference from going to a standard college and really it was unexpected — the amount of work we had to do. It was very, very hands-on from the beginning, and you had to change your whole way of living because you basically devoted your whole life to this love for fashion. We were in school at eight in the morning every day, and really, you don't have such a great social life — your social life is New York City and your draping lab, your sewing lab in the school. And we were there until two or three in the morning. Just creating, just practicing and practicing. It was a very different type of life.
What was your first "real" gig in fashion?
I started interning and working in the fashion industry during school. I did PR, which allowed me to work with other amazing designers and their samples. Then I was working at Theory, which was still a semi-small company, so I got to be on the inside of the fittings and design meetings. Then I started at Carolina Herrera, which was amazing because I got to do everything from sourcing, to more fabric-type things, to being in the sample room, to getting to see how production was done, and also corresponding with designs. Carolina Herrera, to my shock, was a really intimate company, and when you intern there you get to see every department, what they did and how they all work together and corresponded, which was really neat.
Two years into school, I actually entered what was one of the few major competitions for designers back then, Gen Art. I was the winner for Styles 2005 in the eveningwear category, which I remember to this day. One of the three panelists was Diane von Furstenberg, so it was a huge deal — I was still a student while the other people who were winners in other categories had already started their businesses. I think winning that award gave me a step towards new opportunities.
After graduating school in 2007, I really started working with individual clients out of my studio apartment in Nolita — taking on a few friends who became my ambassadors and I was doing made-to-measure eveningwear: cocktail dresses and things like that. It was seeing how to directly work with women, their personalized needs and really working to individualize pieces for them.
How did you find your first customers? And how did you transition from your made-to-measure business into your eponymous ready-to-wear line?
I think when you are doing something so personal and specific, what happens is a lot of word of mouth spreads; if you do a good job with one woman, she wants to share that and have her girlfriends have the same experience. It was an organic thing that happened for two years. It was an amazing experience and looking at it now, each individual look or dress was like going through the process of creating a collection, but it was specific for that client, for that piece.
After a few years, my partner, Jesse Keyes, and I — who became my partner during the made-to-measure — he was thinking: how do we make this into a larger business? How can we really create this same vision of being able to work in a specific, personal way with women, where there is this idea of closeness with your customer and this made-to-measure process I was already taking part in? How do we translate that and add it to our collection? So when Karolina Zmarlak was launched, it started with that concept. We started with 10 looks where every piece was really thought about; they were convertible and versatile, and some of the pieces were reversible. At that time, in 2009, it was also the recession, so our idea was being supported by women who really appreciated the value of clothing — women looking for something that would go far for them and become something that would be in their closet for many years. They really looked at the wearability of something a lot differently, I think, before the recession started, so we were labeled by a French blog as the “recessionist” collection, which was really fun and sort of added to what we were doing at the time.
When you started to fully focus on your namesake line, how did you prepare for that in terms of getting funding and planning your branding?
For us, we’ve grown very organically, but in the beginning it was just something we put together ourselves, and as we grew the company we’ve had investors that have gotten involved which changes and adds specifications to your brand and growth and what you are able to do. And what we have currently — which I think is a huge deal — is that we were the first recipients of the NYC Fashion Production Fund [along with Rosie Assoulin] which was started by Mayor Bloomberg and taken over by Mayor De Blasio. Just this September, we were given the award at the Gracie Mansion with the CFDA present. What that award has changed in a major way is the way we are, on one hand, able to run our company because the city of New York is behind us and finances our orders. It’s a huge support for us to be able to develop and really get structured and professional when it comes to our relationships, which are all in the Garment District in New York City. It also allows us to be able to market ourselves and really be a company that is made in America and work towards these elemental things that we really care about when it comes to our look and craftsmanship and fabrics that we work with.
Once you had your collection completed, what did you do next? Did you cold-call buyers? How did you get it on people’s radar?
A lot of my friends who are in the industry, we’ll all agree on one thing: The initial outreach into the industry and committing to a brand is harder than anyone can imagine. It is definitely a work in progress. Other than something that is visionary and very creative, and no matter how much talent you have as a designer, the fashion industry is a business. The commitment from a store to take on your collection is a partnership, and is an investment from the store’s perspective. It has to be a partnership where they feel you are serious enough and you can handle everything from being able to produce a product that is of the highest of quality and pleasing its clientele compared to the brands they already have — and a lot of these companies have been around for many, many years. So for a young designer, you have a lot to prove with a lot less people and funds behind you, but you still have to be at the cutting edge with design and competitive with the price points. Lastly, the make and craftsmanship and the quality have to compete with the companies that are already there. I would say it’s a huge challenge and takes many, many conversations and trials and sort of back and forth before these partnerships become whole and become established.
What was your first major coup when it came to being picked up by a retailer?
I think from the very start, the cool story for us was having our first trunk show and our first store appearance at the famous store Takashimaya, which was on Fifth Avenue and sadly no longer exists. Basically, to me, it was sort of like this iconic store that I really loved and thought was its own world. But what felt like we'd really "made it" was when we got our first order from Saks Fifth Avenue. I think no matter what, when you’re a young designer, it is a validating moment when a department store picks you up. It's a very specific and long process, and so when that order comes through — especially in the category where we are, a very specific price point category. It sucks in New York — we are sitting on the second floor which is a designer sportswear floor, with some of the greats in the business. You know, we are with Stella McCartney and Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. It’s sort of an exciting moment, but at the same time it is super nerve-racking and scary because we are competing with them, and driving our own small world within that clientele that has a specific expectation from what they are used to in this luxury price point.
When you run into road blocks along the way, how do you deal with them without getting completely discouraged and maybe wanting to give up?
To start your own company is almost halfway insane! I think every day is filled with these internal lessons and messages — the difference is when you first start out, every problem is overwhelming and dramatic, whereas when you progress in your business, you learn that you are going to have 101 problems every single day and it’s about taking each one on and turning them into something that will be developmental and help your company to the next point. If you're having an issue with a retailer, or with producing something, or with a fabric mill or with a client, it’s almost a voice telling you you need to adjust something or look at it a different way.
I think that when you are a young designer, there is a lot that you want to prove; you want to showcase your talent and your ability and there are a lot of voices that are around you and that are maybe taking you in many directions. So for me, the key thing that got us to focus on our own vision was when I really started to work with retailers and clients through trunk shows. So, this is kind of a neat fact: in the past few years I have personally been at 120 trunk shows. It sounds like something that is really insane, but it has been the key to how I started to really perceive my collection and narrowing down these things that became a focused vision. The feedback is everything. Taking all of that and really continuing to focus the vision.
Give us a brief description of the Karolina Zmarlak woman.
One of the most important things for us has been to establish who our key client is, and I would say for us, specifically, strong women who are fictionalized by someone like Julianna Margulies on “The Good Wife.” And on the other hand, someone in the whole political world and news world like Mika Brzezinski, who’s on “Morning Joe.” I think women identify with her in this way of someone who is in this boys’ club, this men’s world of politics and news. And she’s someone who I also really look up to.
What are your short-term goals for the brand?
Short-term is definitely dressing Michelle Obama. Top of the list. And then I would say, becoming part of the CFDA.
What's your number one piece of advice for an aspiring fashion designer?
Take your time and while you are in school, go and get the experience. Go and get your hands dirty. I think that the companies you should be working for are both young brands like ourselves — where you will really be involved in every single part of the process — to a bigger brand where you are getting to see many years of experience and probably doing something that’s very specific. Really get that hands-on work under your belt, because it will help what you learn in school, and also help you hone into what you really want to do, what is your personal focus. I think that’s important.
This interview has been edited and condensed.