In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
It's not hard to see why Krystle Kemp has worked with Need Supply Co. for over a decade. Although she originally attended nearby Virginia Commonwealth University as an advertising major hoping to pursue a career in brand management, Kemp began working with the Richmond-based retailer after an internship at a project management design studio partnered her with the brand. Fast-forward to today, and she's got her hands full traveling from her Los Angeles office to the Richmond headquarters, developing a unique in-house label and prepping for the arrival of beauty and home goods on the site.
Kemp has watched Need Supply Co. grow over the past 10 years, and has had a hand in everything from branding to launching NEED, the brand's in-house line — and she's just getting started.
What was your relationship with fashion like growing up?
Growing up I didn’t have much access to "fashion" — I went to an all-girls school from five to 15, and wore very ugly school uniforms every weekday and what we called "civvies" (civilian clothes) on the weekends. The retail options in Zimbabwe were super limited, but somehow we still found ways to dress up on weekends out of school. I've been a little clothing and makeup-obsessed since I can remember. I used to style my friends for parties and do their hair and makeup. We'd all go to someone's house to get ready and I generally spent the whole time taking care of everyone else's looks ahead of myself. I also kept a sketch book from the middle of elementary [school] through about 10th grade with my very untechnical clothing "designs". One of my childhood friends had her mom actually make a dress I drew up for her high school dance. I didn't think I would really go into fashion or retail for some reason. It was always more about fun than work, until it became my career by accident.
How did you get involved with Need Supply?
I got involved with Need Supply because at the time I was interning at a design studio, which was sort of coinciding with being my independent study, and we got Need Supply as a client. First we did an informational site with them, and then we launched e-commerce and became partners in the business.
You studied advertising in college. Where along those lines did you decide you wanted to make the jump to fashion?
From the advertising and marketing perspective, a lot of the work I was doing was working with digital brand presence, interaction and presentation. When I first starting working at Need Supply, it was launching e-commerce. I became really involved in the styling and the imagery, which was important when facing and interacting with the brand.
Can you give us a sense of the timeline from when you started working at Need Supply on the digital side and how that evolved to your current role as Fashion Director?
I've been there 10 years now. I spent the first year essentially working for free, helping with a little bit of everything. When I was about a year in, it was a tiny team at the time, and Chris [Christopher Bossola], the owner and founder was doing most of the buying himself. When [the girl I was working for] left, he sort of turned to me because I was there everyday and super involved, and was like, "Hey!" It was really organic. So I started going on all the buying trips for men's and women's and eventually Gabe [Gabriel Ricioppo, Creative Director of Need Supply Co.] also became more involved with buying, so we split the women's.
You guys launched your own line, NEED, this year. Why did now feel the right time?
It's been in the works for about two years, and we’ve finally got around to launching the spring collection. We're making it L.A. and trying to be really conscious about how we're making it and who we're working with. It's a big learning curve; the manufacturing side of the business is obviously completely new for us. It's a strange world to navigate, but I'm super excited to launch fall, and we're already working on spring '17 right now. We just placed the production order for it. I see it [in the works] and I know it's going to be 5000% better [than the first collection] because we're refining, learning and building relationships with the right people we need to be working with.
Can you tell us more about what it was like to go into the manufacturing side?
It's really about relationships, which is amazing, especially coming from a digital background and that perspective of interacting with a brand. The world of manufacturing is like 100 years ago, compared to how we’re working on the front end. So much of it is about being there in-person, establishing relationships with people. They want to talk to your face and you have to hold and see and touch [the garments]. That's obviously so different from being able to just email over a line sheet, select what you want and ship that out. I would say what we’ve discovered is the most important part of manufacturing is building relationships with the right people.
The selection available on Need Supply is so carefully curated. How did that aesthetic translate to designing the in-house label?
It came organically. Gabe and I are the ones who have edited the products that we carry and the brands we carry for the last however many years, and we're the ones who are setting the direction for the product we're making. It goes hand-in-hand. We've discovered over the process of years and selling product, what the customer responds to, who's the Need Supply Co. girl, and it's been amazing to learn that.
You're also expanding into carrying activewear. Tell us about that.
Really, that one is sort of a personal initiative. Wellness and an awareness of the interconnectedness of beauty being active and taking care of yourself is definitely out there in the market, and I would say it's a growing category in general. I run, I've done a couple marathons and on the weekends, you will not find me in real clothes. Gabe [Editor's note: They're married!] is always like, "Why don’t you wear real clothes? All you wear is workout gear." We need to be speaking to this girl, too.
You're also going to be carrying beauty on the site. How does that feel?
We started carrying Linda Rodin's products, because she's awesome. I read an article on her and how she was looking around at the products that were in the market and was like, "Whoa, I don’t want to put this stuff on my skin," and started making her stuff in her sink out of all-natural ingredients. I was like, "Wow, we need to be representing that." We started with Rodin, and once we were on that tic, it was like, "Rose-Marie Swift is this amazing makeup artist, doing the same thing with cosmetics. Let's touch on that." That's been the common thread through all the brands we've added. It's again something that's happened really beautifully and organically, and girls are loving this stuff and really responding to the way we've edited it and made it more accessible.
How long has beauty been in the works, and how did you tailor your criteria?
We've been slowly growing it and really allowing the market to speak to us as we've been growing it for about two years. The selection is very focused on the products, but in line with that, is it all-natural? Is it good for you? Do we agree with the ethos of the brands we’re selecting? The other side is how the presentation is like. We're an e-commerce store, so the packaging and presentation is super important. We have our aesthetic, and obviously the clothes that we carry are in line with that aesthetic. The packaging and presentation of these beauty products needs to be the same way.
As Fashion Director, what would love to see next for Need Supply?
We've expanded into home, and we'll be celebrating 20 years in October, too. I think one thing we've always said — and it's been more of a content focus for us with the blog — is "Hey, our customer doesn’t just wear clothes." They have all these other aspects of their life and for a lot of years we mainly addressed the rest of our customers' lives with [digital] content. We realized that we can also supply the rest of the products for them, and that goes back to the expansion into beauty and activewear. Everything's been organic. It's not like, "We want to create this initiative and go after it." We tested things and tried things and had an amazing response.
What's an typical day for you?
Right now I live in L.A., so I wake up at 6:00 AM every day and already have 200 emails. So I haven't figured that out yet! And our team in Virginia is a lot bigger than the team in L.A. The L.A. office is four of us right now. Richmond is currently split between two offices, so we have one office building that houses merchandising and e-commerce, and another separate office that houses creative, photo studio and customer service. So for me, it's a lot of back and forth between the two for meeting with creative and then back for meetings with merchandising.
What's the makeup of the L.A. team like?
The major focus of the L.A. office is product development and developing the lines and the brand. We have a designer and technical designer who also helps with product development and management. We have two freelance people that come in and out and manage the factories; myself, and Gabe, the Creative Director. We also just hired our intern, who is now the Creative Assistant. It's pretty mellow. The first half of the day is all the meetings with the East Coast. Then they all sort of wrap up around 2-3pm for us, and then it’s product development after. It's two worlds, but it actually fits in quite nicely. The East coast shuts down, and then it's West Coast.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I have a daughter, my little girl. We have a dog, we do a lot of Griffith Park walks. We also own our house, so there's always projects going on.
Best career advice?
It's more about just focus on the solutions and don't focus on the problems.
I have to ask — how did you and Gabriel meet?
I was a shop girl at a store in Richmond and he just kept coming in there all the time. The rest is history.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Homepage photo: Courtesy of Need Supply Co.