Designer Focus: Cat + King
How did you get into fashion?
We have both been creative from a young age and were fortunate to have always been encouraged by our families to pursue that creativity. Fashion is in our blood, we come from families of creatives. Catherine’s grandmother, an Armenian immigrant who came to America for a better opportunity, did not speak English but used her skills of sewing and patternmaking to make a living and provide for her family. She worked many years as a tailor for a well-known department store and never allowed the disadvantages she faced to stop her from doing what she loved, design. To this day, she is a great role model and source of inspiration for us. Shannon, in a similar sense comes from a family of creative writers, comedians, artists, and even knitting instructors, which both of us specialized in. So it’s safe to say we are a dynamic duo.
We met in our high school fashion program and the rest is pretty much history. Over the years we had the privilege of an extensive education in all areas of fashion design. Once out of college, we both started working for private label companies in New York where we gained a lot of valuable experience and skills that have prepared us to branch out on our own. Having some industry experience under our belts has not only taught us things about the design and production processes, but about running and managing a business. Our experience working in the industry is what pushed us to pursue our dream of starting a line of our own.
What made you decide to start your own label?
It was something we always talked about doing, but it wasn’t until we both started working for mass market fashion companies in New York that we realized, “this just isn’t for us.” With the education and skill set we acquired during our time at The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and abroad in Italy, we didn’t feel fulfilled by the lack of creativity of our day jobs. With the garment district of New York slowly dying, we wanted a change and that’s when we decided to start Cat + King. We had a vision of bringing the handcraft skill we learned in school back to the U.S. and make quality, tailor-made garments accessible to consumers while promoting sensible and ethical production practices in the fashion industry. Our ultimate goal is to expand into missionary work and non-profit efforts to benefit underprivileged families through fashion. We dream of working with local artisans around the world and bringing their craft to an international market in order to create better opportunities for their families.
How do you define your particular style and aesthetic?
Modern American meets Italian classicism is the perfect description of the Cat + King style and aesthetic. We balance our custom feminine pieces with exceptional tailoring, clean lines, and authentic principles you might recognize from Italian old-world couture. A lot of our inspiration derives from Italy, where we studied and truly fell in love with our craft.
What or what are your inspirations and muses?
We love learning about people and experiencing other cultures beyond our own. We are really inspired by helping others and bringing hope and opportunities to people around the world. Our time spent studying in Europe, allowed us to experience many different cultures first hand. While we saw a lot beautiful regions of Europe, we also saw many people and places in need of restoration. What motivates us and the Cat + King brand is our goal to bring hope to the less fortunate around us.
This collection in particular was inspired by Italy and its vibrant culture. We both studied fashion in Italy, so a lot our inspiration when designing derives from the Italian culture and other European influences. However, being from the U.S., what makes this collection unique is the eclectic mix of the modern Americanism and European classicism seen in each of our pieces. The clean lines and structured garments mixed with whimsical patterns and colors will take you to the shores of southern Italy. Our multi-colored silks and medallion laced brocades remind you of the vibrant marketplaces set against the baroque style cathedrals of Palermo. Italy is a special place to both of us - it’s where we truly fell in love with our craft and it will always be a source of inspiration for our work. To add, from a product standpoint, we hope to be as revolutionary as some of our fashion predecessors who have paved the way for emerging designers who want to promote sensible and sustainable fashion. One of our favorite revolutionaries, Vivienne Westwood, once said, “buy less, choose well, and make it last”. These are the guidelines our brand foundation was built on.
Tell us a bit about your recent collection. What’s the story behind it?
Being that it is our first, it is very special to us. This premiere collection represents new beginnings for us. As young designers, it can be very discouraging at times to think about breaking into this industry. With fashion changing so much and at a rapid pace, how does a designer find their way? This premiere collection is really a way to tell our story and the story of anyone who is at a point of discovery in their life. Cat + King stands by hand crafted, sensibly and ethically made products and we want to share this cause with the world. Bringing our "code of conduct" back to the industry is the motivation and inspiration for our brand.
Do you think you have a responsibility as a designer to respond to the social and political issues of our time?
Fashion has a powerful platform in the world and it can be the cause for great change. So as designers, we do want to use our industry to bring awareness to various issues we feel strongly about. We support fair trade fashion practices and sensible sustainability, meaning our products are created cruelty-free. Eventually our goal is to carry out our fair-trade commitment into missionary work. We want to connect artisans, from the developing world, to the profit chain of fashion.
In your opinion, what’s the problem with fashion today?
With fast fashion taking over, it has become harder for independent, emerging designers like ourselves to get their footing in this industry. Fast fashion, although inexpensive and convenient, takes away from the foundation this industry was built in. There is a lack in quality and creativity, at least from the fashion we see here in the US. Even though we are a small emerging brand, we’re confident that we will have an important place in the industry due to our craftsmanship and expertise in our designs. In the same sense, there are always going to be customers who will make the investment to choose quality and responsible clothing manufacturing over department stores and fast fashion chains. These customers have a deep understanding and appreciation for the industry and the workmanship of each item, and they will not compromise.
Has your relationship with clothing changed as you delve into the fashion world?
I think it just makes you more conscious of what you're buying and what you're putting on your body. Working for mass market companies in New York City, you see the 'behind the scenes' of the fast fashion industry. It's a lot of copying and not a lot of designing. It's a competition for who can get it faster and who can get it cheaper. That's the whole reason we started Cat + King. With lack of creativity in design and production being outsourced to overseas factories, it has made us more aware and eager to do something about it. We don’t want the garment district of New York city, once a thriving clothing manufacturing epicenter, to keep dwindling down to dusty fabric shops and trim stores. We want to revive the fashion industry that once was by bringing hand-made back to the U.S.. We want to bring the same opportunity to other artisans around the world who also love their craft and want to keep the art of design alive in their region.
What is the biggest misconception about being a designer?
There is this misconception that fashion designers are self-absorbed elitists who are not conscious of the world around them. We feel it is our mission to bring awareness to more ethical fashion practices and to promote sustainability through our collection. The focus should not be on us but on a beautifully handcrafted collection that has an impactful message behind it. Our ultimate goal is not about fame or making millions of dollars, it is about brining joy to those who need it – such as empowering underprivileged women around the world. We want to bring them a piece of hope that has been lost; this is what motivates us as designers.
What are the trials and tribulations of being an emerging designer?
Financing, putting a reliable team together, having a production plan, gathering all the proper resources, I mean the list goes on and on. It's a learning process in the beginning and yes you make mistakes, but it's all about perseverance. Learn from your mistakes and grow from them. The discouragement of making it in this industry is the biggest trial designers face because there is no guarantee that your audience is going to be receptive to your designs. But the hope and confidence we have in our collection overcomes that discouragement.
What do you feel are the most important ingredients in building a brand?
In our opinion, the most important ingredient to building a brand is first and foremost to establish an identity. It’s important for any brand to have an identity and stay true to it. All of the well-known fashion houses that have been around for years are easily identified by aspects of the brands that have become iconic or synonymous to the name. That’s what we hope to accomplish through our made-to-order model. Especially in a media driven world, the message has become just as important as the product. We stand by our message to bring handmade back to the U.S. through ethical production practices and to provide women with unique, tailor-made pieces.
That's what makes us stand out as a brand, we're not just another fashion collection for women, we are a premiere atelier service for tailor made to order women's clothing. Historically speaking, there have always been custom clothing services available to men. For example, if a man wanted a new suit for work he has access to multiple tailor shops or stores that provide custom suit services. However, from a women's point of view, there is really nothing out there that is easily accessible for a custom-made garment and we'd like to change that. In doing so, we also want to eliminate other deviating aspects of shopping such as finding the right size or the perfect party dress. Women come in all different forms and we are here to accommodate each and every one.
With that said, good team work is just as important because without it the essence or identity of our brand wouldn’t be. Fortunately, beyond being business partners, we are best friends who have known each other for many years, so great team work comes naturally for us.
Can you talk about the genesis behind Cat + King's mission to support US-based manufacturers?
Having worked in the New York fashion center, it saddened us to see the dwindling garment district. Once home to the city’s largest manufacturing industry for clothing, the garment district continues to dissipate as production is outsourced to overseas factories. Buildings once filled with sample rooms of skilled workers are now emptying out as rents become unaffordable. Fabrics and trim store who once supplied big corporations are now relying on hobbyists to keep their businesses up and running.
As emerging designers, it is frustrating that our resources are becoming limited in one of the greatest fashion cities in the world and we want to change that. Our hope is to start the trend and bring handmade back to the U.S. while supporting fair trade fashion manufacturing. By spreading our message, we hope to encourage other designers to do the same by supporting the surviving resources that are left in the area and throughout the country. Let’s collectively, as a fashion community, build the garment district back up to the to the fashion epicenter it once was and prompt the change needed to support U.S. made products.