Kirrin Finch: Oral History

Laura and Kelly Moffat for Kirrin Finch were interviewed on September 19th, 2017 at 12:00 pm by Kelly Reddy-Best in their home in New York. The interview was 46 minutes. The oral history transcript reflects the history of the brand at the time of the interview.

Oral History Transcript

REDDY-BEST: Thank you guys for doing this interview. Can you each tell me a little bit about your backgrounds. Where did you grow up, and when did you move to New York?

LAURA: I am from Scotland. I grew up in Scotland and I moved to the United States for college. I played golf, so I had a scholarship. Then, after college I moved to New York, for graduate school and did the whole PhD-and-science-thing and then, I didn’t want to do that. Then, I went into marketing and then that sort of evolved into being interested in starting a business.

KELLY: So, the straight path.

REDDY-BEST & KELLY: [laughs]

KELLY: [laughs]

LAURA: “Ye olde winding path.”

REDDY-BEST: Yeah.

KELLY: I grew up in New Jersey, and I went to university up in upstate New York. Then, I came back to New York to be a teaching fellow. It’s kind of like Teach for America, but in New York City. So, I taught in the public-school system for eight years and then we kind of said, “hey we have this idea – what do we think? This is crazy! You know, we don’t know anything about fashion,” and then we turned our crazy idea into a reality.

LAURA: Mm-hm, Mm-hm [affirmative].

REDDY-BEST: So, Laura,—you were in marketing, and then, Kelly—you taught in public schools. So, if you two were going to describe your personal clothing styles, what would you say about yourselves?

LAURA: I definitely have always been a tomboy. I think that is the easiest word to describe my style. Now people kind of use the word “dapper,” which I think is kind of more formal. Sometimes, I may describe myself as “dapper,” but I definitely lean more towards “tomboy.” I really just like jeans and a t-shirt – or jeans and a shirt. I literally wear jeans and a button up shirt every day and then a cool pair of shoes. That is what I am most comfortable in.

REDDY-BEST: Mm-hm [affirmative].

LAURA: I never wanted to wear dresses growing up and I was very uncomfortable even as a little girl. I remember a specific incident where my mum put a dress on me when I was five, and I had a complete meltdown. For whatever reason, I just felt uncomfortable. So yeah, I think I’m definitely a tomboy.

REDDY-BEST: Mm-hm [affirmative].

KELLY: I had a similar experience growing up. Every Wednesday – the compromise was that because I had “Library,” I would wear a dress that day. On the other days I would be able to wear pants. That was kind of the compromise because all the other girls wore the dresses, and I just, for whatever reason, I knew that that didn’t apply to me. That didn’t make me feel comfortable. I would say now that my style is definitely – it tends to be a little more formal than Laura’s, but the same – that kind of tomboy – dapper realm. Until I realized that [tomboy-dapper style] was an option for me, I really didn’t care. I just kind of wore whatever. If [something was] fashionable and in style – it wasn’t something that I felt mattered to me because it didn’t and I didn’t matter to them.

REDDY-BEST: Tell me about your shopping experiences, such as when you were looking for clothes or shopping for styles, before you started Kirrin Finch. What were your experiences like?

LAURA: Terrible? I mean…

KELLY: [laughs]

LAURA: That is why we started a company. I never realized it in regards to shopping because I always felt horrendous afterwards. I never really understood why I felt terrible afterwards. I just thought it was, “Oh, I don’t like shopping.” It wasn’t until I started think more about my style, and about why it wasn’t available that I started to realized that it didn’t exist. And I think for the most part, going to stores, either it wouldn’t fit me because it was too small, because, basically, I’m not like American sizes, I don’t even reach the average normal size in America, so I’d be literally at the bottom the of the pile, pulling up the last size. That didn’t make me feel good, and then, secondly, everything was super frilly and feminine, and I didn’t understand, “why did I feel bad, why was my style not represented?” Then, I would see stuff in the men’s department and be like oh that’s kind of what I want to wear and I would try on and it wouldn’t find out of there, so then it was, “this is a totally demotivating experience because there’s nothing, nowhere, in neither department that worked,” and then I think, less so in New York, that sale associates can be… depending on where you go. I think less so in New York, because people are like, “We get it, gender-fluidity, everyone shops everywhere, not a big deal anymore,” but definitely, a few years ago, people would say, [higher voice, California accent] “Ma’am, the women’s department is upstairs,” and I’d just say, “yup I’m leaving the store right now!”

LAURA & KELLY: [laughs].

LAURA: So, yeah, it was terrible, terrible experience.

KELLY: Yeah, I mean, I remember very distinctly the first time I went to the store, to specifically buy men’s jeans, and I was terrified, because, I was watching the buying process, but I was like what do I do, I have to try them on, because I didn’t know from a sizing perspective, I had no idea what size I would be, so then I had to go to the dressing room, and thankfully the person that was there was super-super receptive and they were like let me help you and totally into it and I went to school at Binghamton University in Upstate NY. And stereotypically, upstate isn’t as progressive as New York City typically, so that experience could have gone both ways…but it isn’t like New York City is in this bubble. But, it was a very liberating experience for me to be able to go in and I look back now, fit terribly, but it was, oh! finally something that allows me to express myself in a way that makes me feel more comfortable.

LAURA: Yeah, like, I lived in Los Angeles for my undergraduate, and you know Los Angeles is a very kind of scene-y place, you know it’s all, it’s very, feminine focused place, I think, and so for a while, I was wearing skirts and little tops, because that’s what everyone else was wearing, and I felt better to fit in with people than to feel like an outsider and have to dress differently,

KELLY: Mm-hm [affirmative]

LAURA: I look back at some of the outfits I was wearing in college and I’m just like, “oh my God.” I mean, I think people feel that way in general, regardless of what they are wearing, because I’ve seen Kelly’s outfits in college…

KELLY: Not cute. [shakes head & Laughs]

LAURA: She was probably the most unfashionable person –

KELLY: Thank you.

LAURA: They were really unfashionable.

KELLY: Good thing we started a fashion brand,

LAURA: Yeah [laughs].

KELLY: [laughs].

REDDY-BEST: How did that idea for Kirrin Finch, come about?

KELLY: It really came out of our own personal frustration, because all of a sudden we realized: “this is an experience that’s really uncomfortable for us,” and it was really going through that moment of, “Oh! This kind of sucks,” to then having some clear idea on why it was uncomfortable and why it wasn’t working and then being, “well, there’s your problem. We’re two relatively intelligent people. We could solve this.” Then, it became, “Okay. Well, we need to educate ourselves about fashion, ok fine.” I took a bunch of courses at FIT. Laura has a background in marketing. We gradually went from knowing nothing, to knowing a lot more now.

LAURA: Mm-hm [affirmative]. Yeah, I think we both came to the same conclusion. I think, in hindsight, we didn’t really realize how bad it was until we both talked about it and then, as we talked about it as a shared experience, and then with other people, it was, “Oh yeah, that doesn’t exist.” I have so many button up shirts, or rather, I did, until I gave them to Salvation Army. I had so many button up shirts from men’s stores, that I literally wore, once or twice, because I really wanted them to fit, but they really didn’t fit because I have hips, you know? So, it was, to suddenly realize, “Oh, why doesn’t this exist?” There were a few brands, kind of just beginning to touch on that space, but no one had really taken a huge step forward. I don’t know, we just kind of thought, “We should do it!” Neither of us were, “super passionate” about clothes. It wasn’t like we were these designers that were already really passionate about clothes, and it was, “shift our design over here.” We really looked at it from a business perspective and, obviously, from a personal perspective.

KELLY: Yeah! Totally selfish.

LAURA: yeah, it was basically, “let’s make a clothing company where we can basically have clothes for ourselves and our friends… right?”

KELLY: [laughs].

LAURA: And that’s still kind of how we look at it. Honestly, if we can make something, that both of us want to wear, for the most part, I think there’s decent-sized audience for that.

KELLY: Mm-hm [affirmative].

REDDY-BEST: What is the significance of the name, how did you come up with that?

LAURA: Yeah, it’s interesting! So, when we first decided that we were going to do this, we were like, “okay, let’s come up with some names.” So, we’re brainstorming different names and “Kirrin Finch” was one of them. We were originally thinking about how we identify as tomboys, and that there are a lot of people out here who are tomboys, and whether they are gay or not, doesn’t really matter. So, we’re kind of thinking “tomboys,” and is there something that we can do with this? Then we just thought about how I’m from Scotland and Kelly’s from the U.S., and Scout Finch is American tomboy, and Georgina Kirrin is a tomboy character from an U.K. book series, and we just put the two names together to form Kirrin Finch, and then we kind of put that name aside.

KELLY: I committed to it, initially.

LAURA: I was just – you know, I’m one of those people, where I literally can just deliberate forever and ever and ever and ever. So for the next nine months, we literally deliberated on so many different names, and I say, “No, I don’t think that’s it, I don’t think that’s it,” and regardless…

KELLY: …It took.

LAURA: No – for sure! We then did some market research with some other names, and ultimately, we came back to that name, but, it literally was one of the first names we came up with, and I think it still rings true. You know, when you read about these tomboys in young adult literature they’re very free,  for the most part. They’re not worried about what they’re wearing, and they’re just playing and they’re just doing whatever they want. You don’t really realize when you’re that age, that there are these societal constraints. They haven’t quite put pressure on you and told you not to do these things, so you just have that attitude of just being yourself. I think that really rings true for the company as well.

KELLY: And I think that a lot of people hear it and they think that it is actually a person. “Kirrin Finch” almost sounds like a person’s name.

REDDY-BEST: Mm-hm [affirmative]

KELLY: And there’s an association with that character notion. You know, it embodies who they were.  I also happened to be a librarian when I was teaching, so I just had to…

LAURA: [laughs]

REDDY-BEST: [laughs] Can you tell me about the different roles you both play in the company, and what a typical day might look like?

LAURA: We have specific roles, but sometimes they just go up-and-under because we’re running a small business. So, my official role is that I am the director of marketing. So that is comprised of managing our website; media; email; search engine optimization; and doing all the various things that are digital marketing, because we are an e-commerce brand, so we do the majority of our business online, but I also do other things, such as shipping fulfillment, and designing… So yeah, seventy percent of online stuff and then the shipping; the logistics, and operational stuff. Kelly does most of the operational stuff.

KELLY: Yeah, so basically, my “official title” is Director of Operations. Right now, we’re in production so I am going into the factory every day. We’re very lucky because we manufacture in midtown Manhattan. I spend a lot of time on the train, back and forth. Sometimes I am just dropping off supplies, or grading and marking – all those kinds of things are actually at our fingertips, which is really, really fortunate. I mean, there’s obviously pros and cons to manufacturing locally and manufacturing overseas, but manufacturing locally allows me to be in the factory speaking to people. So, I am always doing a lot of that kind of stuff. I manage our events and when we do popups and that kind of stuff. It just depends. As Laura said, right now, as with any small business, and it doesn’t matter if you’re in fashion, or running a general store, whatever it is—it’s all hands on deck.

LAURA: Generally, I’m comfortable behind the computer screen and Kelly’s comfortable in front of people,

KELLY: [laughs] yeah.

LAURA: That’s kind of how the roles get divided. I do a lot of the customer service, but it’s from behind the computer screen. She’s doing the customer service that’s people facing

KELLY: That’s a pretty good explanation.

LAURA: Yeah, yeah.

REDDY-BEST: What are the aspects of starting a new clothing brand that surprised you?

KELLY: Oh, we’ve learned so much.

LAURA: Mm-hm [affirmative]. I think that in the very beginning, our biggest reservation was, “Oh, we don’t have a fashion background, how we can do this?” Initially, I think, it was, “How do we do this?” In hindsight, in some ways, I think it was easier than I thought it would be and, in other ways, I think it’s harder than I thought it would be. It is actually relatively simple to start doing something in fashion. Now there’s plenty of resources. It used to be that you there was this secret directory. We couldn’t find factories and you had to know someone. Now, there’s all the online resources and there’s easier ways to find a pattern-maker and a factory. There are factories that do small minimums. That part was less difficult than I thought it would be, but other stuff, like the quality control. We don’t come from a fashion background, so knowing what to look for – should it be twelve stiches per inch? Or should it be fifteen stitches per inch? Being able to have a discerning eye for that stuff has been a learning curve. I mean we’re definitely…

KELLY: …we’re always learning.

LAURA: We’re always learning. We’re always learning regardless, but I think some of those are more the finer points of what goes into a garment. For example, what fusible do you use? Do you do it this way, or that way? Not necessarily having the knowledge from being at a design school. That was challenging. The other challenge, that we face on a daily basis from marketing and brand perspective, is that we design clothes for people that sort of identify as tomboy or androgynous or are looking for kind of a menswear inspired look, and with that, it becomes, a “niche market.” In some ways, the best way to build a brand, where it can be, “I truly adore you and love you,” is to go after a super-super niche market, but I think, with that, comes, “is the market size big enough to sustain financial success?” I think that’s where a lot of the queer-focused brands, have really struggled, because, in choosing that market, you’re saying, “yes, there is an unmet need,” but that market is inherently smaller than the general mass market. So, we’re always fighting this battle of, “how do we get a bigger audience, without losing our core audience?” It’s literally the kind of constant battle we have when we’re writing copy on the website, when we’re developing product. It’s this tension point between making money and satisfying the audience. And they don’t always necessarily agree with each other.

KELLY: Mm-hm [affirmative]

LAURA: [to KELLY] what would you say?

KELLY: Yeah, no think you’ve hit on the major issues. I think, saying that one of them is figuring out how to make a garment. I think we were very lucky, because we had some really amazing mentors -which, even with that, you know… I remember the first time I went in to do some grading and marking, and first of all, I had never heard of what grading and marking was. I couldn’t really understand why one was different from the other, and then, we went in and we were talking about, changing the color and how this was going to change this. Now, even this past week, I created match lines, and having a conversation with the guy that we work with and felt, oh, I finally knew what I was talked about and then they sent me the email the last night and I was like, “Yes! All this time I’ve finally figured it out!” And then he throws me a question and I’m say, “I don’t, I don’t even know what you’re asking me right now, Paul.” But, you know, it’s a matter of learning and each day, also being like, “let’s acknowledge, ok I need help with this, and that’s okay.”

LAURA: Yeah, I think we’re lucky because in the very beginning, we knew that we needed help with fashion and so we applied to become part of the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator and we were accepted. I think, what was really nice about that place, is they have a sample room there, and they have a pattern-maker and a production person, and we’ve worked with those two people through all of our development, and all of our sample making. So yes, if we hadn’t had that, I think it would have been more challenging, because they were able to help guide us. We have an office space there. We’re part of a sort of accelerator that has a lot of different brands, like menswear, jewelry, homeware, so we were really lucky we had people that we could ask, “where are you getting your labels from? What thread should we use with our buttons? What’s a good factory?” I think when you’re sort of a solo entrepreneur or just a couple people who don’t necessarily come from the fashion background, you might not necessarily have those contacts. So, I think that for anyone that’s starting a business -it is really great to find the mentors or a network of people that can help you, because you obviously can’t research everything online.

KELLY: Right, and it ended up also benefitting us because we’re naïve. When we wanted to do around seventeen different styles to begin with, had we had any idea how difficult that would’ve been. After when we went through the whole process, Tara, our mentors, was said, “you never would have done this if you knew what you had to do to make a whole [new?] styles,” and I was like, “yes, you’re absolutely right, but we did because we wanted to make it.” Right, so you figure it out.

LAURA: We now see ourselves being a bit different because we look at stuff now and are like, “that’s going to be really difficult to produce. Our factory is going to charge us more for that or whatever,.” So, we have sort of started getting into that mentality about balancing what’s great for design versus what’s great for what’s going to get produced. What is logistically and financially feasible production.

KELLY: Which is probably a good place to balance it. [laughs]

REDDY-BEST: I want to talk a little bit about some of the business-related topics. So, how do you identify trends, how do you look at fashion cycles? Especially when you don’t necessarily see this reported in the traditional sort of fashion trend avenues. So, where do you look for those kinds of ideas?

LAURA: Yes, well good question. We don’t tend to look at more formal trend subscriptions. I know, at one point, Kelly was using them a little bit, when she had a class at FIT.

KELLY: It’s amazing! Really interesting.

LAURA: Amazing resource, but I think honestly, I think the way we look for trends is that we look at what people are wearing on the streets, what people are wearing in magazines, or online resources. Those are where you look, especially in New York, because New York is always a bit ahead of the curve, so if you start to see people in the streets and you’re like, “Oh, I keep seeing that, you know that, thing, or that item.” New York is already ahead of the trend curve as it is, so I think that makes it easier. The other thing for us is that we’re obviously making menswear inspired women swear, so we’re constantly just looking at menswear, right? Looking at what are the trends in menswear and retail too. Going to stores, looking through the racks, we do a sort of competitive-like shopping trip and go to the stores one day and go into various stores, similar to APC, Club Monaco, Opening Ceremony, and just kind of see what’s out there. I love also looking at fabrics. I get a lot of my inspiration from going to the fabric shows and just seeing what fabrics I am seeing over time. For example, there’s definitely been, for the last year and a half, I would say, like a big push towards prints and floral prints,

KELLY: Mm-hm

LAURA: That’s maybe beginning to go away, but what you see and then, who’s producing- when they’re producing the fabrics, that’s essentially setting the trends for what’s going to be out there. Because they’ve also done all of their own research, to determine what fabrics they should produce based on, Pantone colors and this and that. Whatever goes into that magic box of trend stuff. I think just keeping an eye on the street and what people are wearing, is honestly the best thing. Because we want to produce things that people want to wear every day. We’re not aiming for the runway, we’re not making couture.

KELLY: I think also, one of our goals is also that there are all these kind of iconic pieces out there. [ touches shirt] This a good example. It’s a buffalo check, and that is a staple. You look through J.Crew’s catalogue ten years and you look at it today and you see the same kind of thing that you see as iconic menswear and that hasn’t been accessible to our customers. And so, allowing for them to actually find it and go with this – instead of having the experience where we would go into a dressing room and be like “oh my god, I’m going to make this fit me,” I mean, come on, I finally stopped wearing – purchasing men’s button ups. Because they’re not going to fit me. They are not made for me, and especially not right now, with two babies in my belly. [laughs] It’s allowing that access, where they just weren’t able to get it before.

LAURA: And I think our goal is to make timeless designs so we don’t necessarily want to always be following trends because trends tend to come and go. We are focused on being more ethical and sustainable, and so if you focus on trends, that stuff is being thrown away in two years. If you look at H&M, Forever 21, all that stuff goes into the landfills. Zara, every year they’re just filling up and filling up the landfills, so if you focus on things that are the classics –

REDDY-BEST: So, are there any, um celebrities or style icons, that you might like look to for your inspiration, or that you look to for aesthetics, in a business?

KELLY: Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of people, especially, older generations, are like, oh, look it, [begins laughing] Ellen DeGeneres- have you reached out to her, and we’re like, “Ellen DeGeneres does not know who we are.” I mean, she’s a pretty cool chick, I would love to be her friend, love her to wear our clothes, she also has her own line, but, there’s a lot of kind of younger celebrities that are kind of pushing the boundaries that you see. You see some of the women’s soccer team, that was all of a sudden are wearing tuxes in very public appearances. That was kind of breaking these boundaries of what women typically have been perceived of and what you should wear, especially in formal setting. That’s tricky nuanced experience, and I remember the first time I wore a suit – to our wedding and how liberating that was for me. I don’t want to wear a dress and that’s okay and-and I’m sure it was very similar for them to be able to express themselves in that way.

LAURA: Yeah, I think that’s a tough question and I think people ask us that all the time.  Kelly is right, people will send us an email, and they’ll be like, “hey, I just had—I just thought, why don’t you reach out to Ellen DeGeneres and get her to wear your clothes,”

KELLY: (laughs) yeah!

LAURA: And it’s just like…

KELLY: There’s a few other people that probably are a little more approachable—

LAURA: Anyway, Ellen is incredibly stylish, I love her style, I think she wears really nice stuff. I think she’s very lucky to have, probably a tailor that makes everything for her, so that it looks perfect.

KELLY: I’m happy to reach out to Abby Wambach as well, and have her wear our stuff, you know?

LAURA: I think Ellen Page is also someone who would be good too. I like her for a number of different reasons, because I think she really is just herself.

KELLY: Mm-hm [affirmative]

LAURA: I think the reality is that there are not many. The reason why we always struggle with this question, and why we always end up back at the same four or five people is that there are not a lot of people in the public eye, that are recognized for wearing something more dapper or tomboy-style. You always see, people go to award shows and Rihanna wore a suit, yeah, she wore a suit with six-inch heels

KELLY: [laughing] Right.

LAURA: You know, and it’s “menswear-inspired,” and you’re like—“not really.”

KELLY: I mean yes, but for a moment, as opposed to a lifestyle, right?

LAURA: Mm-hm [affirmative], yeah so there’s a lot of women. Kate Winslet wore that suit for whatever it was, the Vogue shoot, and she looked amazing, but that’s not her everyday style. So, for someone who’s everyday style is, kind of the look that we’re looking for, there aren’t too many people out there. The fact that we have a hard time coming up with the answer, I think, says that there isn’t necessarily this one person that everyone’s going to for style inspiration. To build on that point, I think the place where you do see a lot of that is through the fashion bloggers. There’s obviously a big movement now, through blogging and Instagram and Tumblr of these women or people that maybe identify as genderqueer that are really doing amazing looks with menswear and androgynous wear. We’ll definitely look at that and those people are doing a great job creating visibility, but it’s not necessarily the visibility in mass media, it’s visibility within a small like sphere of Instagrammers, right?

KELLY: But it’s interesting because, I think that there has been a trend of general acceptance within general society, and as a result, some of these Instagram-famous people have actually gone on to walk for some of the menswear brands.

LAURA: That’s true.

KELLY: During New York Fashion Week last year, you see She’s a Gent.

LAURA: [unintelligible]

KELLY: yeah, they’re-they’re…

LAURA: They’re walking for big menswear brands on the runway, so they have an androgynous look, so you know they’re being kind of…but it’s hard to know. Are they walking because they have this…they’re almost as if they’re men, right? So, it’s not necessarily that the clothes that they’re wearing aren’t necessarily designed for women, so then, how do you reconcile that?

KELLY: I think it’s tricky because the-the fit of many of those brands work for a very – we’re talking, you know, 5% of people that perhaps identify as women or trans or genderqueer and it’s tricky because if you don’t have broader shoulders and…

LAURA: Tall, skinny.

KELLY: Yeah, they’re not making those clothes for you, so that presents obviously, the same problem, where we go back to problem in the fall we started this company. Fit is important and part of actually what makes you look good, right, is that clothes your clothes fit you. It’s not just that you’re wearing cool looking clothes. It’s that they are meant for your-sized body and I think that there’s, obviously also the way it’s cut. Also, there’s a push towards more inclusivity through sizing. Though just generally…and that’s obviously also really important. We size to 18 for our shirts and that, for a small brand, to take the amount of that much inventory is, you know, tricky. We want to continue to push that boundary. We’re coming out with some pants and we’re doing sizes 0 to 18. It’s a matter of being able to grow as a company so that we can continue to help those people.

REDDY-BEST: Kelly, you said you had taken some classes at FIT – which ones did you feel were most helpful inform your knowledge for the company?

KELLY: Well, seeing as I knew nothing, all of them! [Laughter] It was funny, I remember I took this course and was learning just about fabrics and stuff, and I came back with my little eyeglass and I was all excited and-…

LAURA: She had this crazy little – I don’t even know what it’s called – and she was like, “I’m going to look at the fabric weave every time we buy a fabric.” She’s literally never used it.

KELLY: No, that’s not true! I did it in our first fabric show!

LAURA: I don’t even know where it is.

KELLY: I know exactly where…

LAURA: She had the thing – it was this little crazy eyeglass that she would be looking down at the fabric with, and she’d say, “Ah, the weft is like this with the warp.  The warp is like this.” [KELLY laughing] and I’d be, “It looks good.”

KELLY: [laughing] Right, so, [laughs], I think there’s re[inaudible] of technical stuff, which is really important, because then you least have some concept, right? And then there’s the reality of how actually we look at the fabric now and choose it. My pick-glass, I think is what it is actually called—thank you very much. It is sitting in my top drawer at the office,

LAURA: You should use it.

KELLY: Yeah, [laughs] , because not [inaudible] as much use although I’m sure my professor would be very, very disappointed, but understanding literally warp and weft was important. I had no idea, right? I also took a course in stitching and came back to the office with you know, I was like, okay, these are all the stitches that [inaudible] [laughter] and I now know how we’re going to make a shirt. Well, needless to say we’re not using many of those stitches. Most of the time people don’t use half of those stitches, but just understanding – I didn’t even know that there was more than one!

LAURA: It’s true.

KELLY: So…

LAURA: I also took that, I took a merchandising course at FIT and , which I think was probably more helpful than your stitching class

KELLY: [laughing] I have – I disagree

LAURA: So that was helpful. I learned. What I think what was good about the classes, is that they were places where we didn’t feel intimidated to literally be like, “I-I don’t know what grading is, but I literally have no idea,” and then just ask the questions. And we’re older students so there were younger kids in there, I was asking questions. I’m asking, “What is grading?” “What is marking?” “How do you do this?” because I’m paying for this.

KELLY: Right.

LAURA: I have got to know. It’s not like when you’re a young kid. You’re in continuing education, and people are just so excited,

KELLY: So underrated.

LAURA: So, that provided a space for us to build a baseline, so then we had a bit of credibility, because we’re- especially going to the factories, if you don’t have a certain baseline of understanding, they’re going to take you for a ride, right? They’d be like, “oh, that’s a hundred dollars apiece,” and you’d say, “I don’t have any reference for that, so okay.” Or, you know, “we’re going to do this if you don’t know the answers.” I think it’s really hard to have a good conversation with your factory or your pattern-maker or whatever, because they’re in a business too, so, you have to be knowledgeable. As we’ve become more knowledgeable I think we’ve done a better job of finding better factories and are negotiating better and speaking up for what we want. What’s the deal-breakers, what’s not a deal breaker – we had no idea in the beginning, so I think the more you keep learning – the product can get better as well.

KELLY: You remember when we went to our first fabric show?

LAURA: So, embarrassing.

KELLY: It was so, it was really ridiculous, the-

LAURA: This was a defining moment because it was so bad. We were both so nervous. I think it was Premiere Vision or TexWorld or one of those, it was at Pier 94, or 54 or something. So we’re like okay, we can do this and we were both really nervous…

KELLY: Pep talk!

LAURA: Because we had no idea – we didn’t know that you get the swatches for free…

KELLY: Well, not every company gives you swatches, but the majority…

LAURA: So, we watched a couple of people go into the booth, and we go[whispers] “Okay, let’s do this.” and we would then look at the fabrics and pretend that we knew what we were doing, and say, “Oh that’s nice, that’s nice…”

KELLY: Took out that glass.

LAURA: But Kelly’s defining moment was-

KELLY: [laughing] I can’t remember if he was asking me if I wanted headers or if I wanted the cards, and he kept sayng, “okay, so you want the whole header sent to you,” and I was like, “yeah, yeah,”

LAURA: We were, okay. We pulled out the card, and we were looking at it and she was said, “I’d like to get some, I’d like to, you know, get a sample or something, right?” I think maybe we used the word “sample,”. So, he was asked, “yeah do you want?”

KELLY: [overlapping] Yeah, that’s the word.

LAURA: “Do you want headers? Or do you want sample yardage?” And Kelly was replied with “yes.”

KELLY: I just kept saying it

LAURA: She just kept saying yes, and he was asked, “No, but do you want headers or sample yardage?” and she’s like “yes.”

KELLY: [laughing] I did not feel like I could say, “I don’t know what you’re saying to me.”

LAURA: Right, so clearly, we wanted the header, because we didn’t want to purchase any yardage yet, but we just didn’t know that there was a difference.

KELLY: [laughing] Yeah.

LAURA: We just kept saying, “yes” and hoping that something would happen. I don’t remember what happened, but I think he eventually was just, “okay you guys are crazy.” He’s like, “I’m giving you some headers and we’ll move on from there.” That was pretty bad.

KELLY: [laughing] Yeah, yeah, that was big moment.

LAURA: We took [unintelligible] from the corner and [unintelligible] what the difference was, so that we could move onto the next one.

KELLY: [laughing]

LAURA: We’ve come a long way

KELLY: Yes, ha!

REDDY-BEST: So, can you tell me a little bit about the products that you offer right now? And then just describe what’s going on with them and then what you are hoping to expand or currently expanding with that?

LAURA: Sure, so we started out with button-up shirts. I think number-one reason was that we did some market research and we asked friends, friends of friends, and people we thought were in our target audience, “what’s the one item that you are looking for?” In our small market research survey, the button up shirt came up a lot. Now, this was two or three years ago, and there are a lot more button-up shirts available now. Also I think that’s not the tomboy signature look, but for women who don’t wear dresses, I think a button up shirt is really versatile. It can be dressed up, it can be dressed down, and it certainly was what we were wearing. So, I think we felt comfortable starting there. So, we’ve been doing button up shirts. We started the development of them a year ago. They’re really challenging, and the difference between pants and button-ups is that with button-ups there’s definitely a little bit more wiggle room, in terms of fit. It doesn’t have to sit right against your skin, but, with pants, there’s not a lot of wiggle room. There’s a lot of components to it that we don’t think necessarily about. There’s the waist, there’s the hips, there’s the calves, there’s the length. Do you want it be, more up? Do you want it to be tapered, or straight? What material do you use, are you going to use stretch, or not stretch? It’s quite fun, though. I mean we’re coming out with them in a couple of weeks. We’ve already had some people interested in them. We’ve done some pre-orders already, and so, that’s kind of the next challenge. I think, when it comes to our customer base – pants are really tough. Especially because, if you’re wearing jeans – you’ve got a skinny pair of jeans and you’ve got stretch in them, and it’s not a big deal. I think you can get them a lot of different places, but when you want to wear something that might be a little bit more formal or something to wear to work it’s really challenging because you’re already in that weird place of choosing between super-skinny or boot cut or straight and the materials might not necessarily be right. Men’s pants have a lot more cool, textured materials, so we’re coming out with “chinos” – khakis, that have really interesting colorful details inside the pockets, and the things that you tend to see in menswear that you don’t see in women’s wear. And then, in terms of the additional development, we’re making a couple more shirt styles. We’re expanding from our range that we have right now. We’re putting together a dress shirt, which is longer. It’s a more formal style for work, and then, maybe later on, we’re making a mandarin collar shirt. So, we’re just expanding our offerings to hats. We’re working on a blazer right now. I think ultimately the goal is to be able to put together a full outfit – that you could literally shop at just Kirrin Finch for your entire outfit. Sure, that’s not going to happen tomorrow, but I think that’s the ultimate goal: that you would be able to buy almost everything that you would ever need, for our customer base, from us. We’re just going to continue working towards that. Development is expensive, so you can only do development for a certain amount of time because you have to build up the amount of cash to be able to do that. So, we’re kind of at the point now where we’re beginning to go back into development and put some cash into that, with the hope of returning that over time.

KELLY: Part of the reason the of why we were in development for pants for a year, is because fit is so important to us. We do something that apparently is unconventional. We had no idea that everyone wouldn’t do it this way – “this is how you make a sample, right?” We test it with our fit model and then we’ve had these fit events for every time we release an item. When we released our shirts and when we released our pants. So, we invite around 30-40 people or whatever, and we have them try them on with us and our pattern maker. Then we interview them and we look at what is going on with their body, and what is happening, and what do they like and what do they not like. Then we take that information and make the necessary adjustments as a result. So, because, as we said, pants are tricky! As you know, all these people that are going to fashion schools know that, but [laughs], it took us 2 or 3 iterations of it because we really weren’t happy with exactly where we were. Now we’re working on a maternity shirt,

LAURA: Ah, yes.

KELLY: Yeah, it’s selfish.

LAURA: If you’ve ever tried to find maternity wear for people that don’t wear big flowy dresses, the options out there are terrible.

KELLY: It’s either a tent or…

LAURA: …A lot of stretchy stuff. No one was really taking on that opportunity. There was a brand that was, but it didn’t continue or whatever. So, we’re going to make a maternity shirt, because the reality is – if you go online, and try to find good examples, it’s just – it doesn’t exist. I think it’s inherently challenging because, as a someone who’s pregnant, you supposed to be feminine, so there’s nothing for me. It’s very difficult to figure out what the look is supposed to be, because I think a lot of people don’t necessarily think that there are masculine-identifying women that are going to be pregnant, right?

KELLY: It really kind of blows some people’s minds. Sometimes you’ll see people look and then do this double take at me. They’re like, “I’m very confused! You have short hair, you’re wearing a button-up, but you’re pregnant! How?” And it’s, “Well, okay, the reality is you could make a baby regardless of – I mean you can’t just make a baby, but you could certainly carry a baby regardless how you identify — whether it’s feminine, masculine, or on the spectrum.”

LAURA: Yeah, so I think the goal, is to always be thinking about how can we provide options for people that can’t necessarily get it from the mainstream fashion places.

REDDY-BEST: So far, what makes you two most proud? Or, what is something that’s happened along the way that you feel the most proud of?

LAURA: I don’t know. I think it’s still just being around. I know that’s kind of crazy to say that, but we’ve read all read the statistics that say most businesses fail after one year, and takes people three years to make a profit. I think also, knowing how many queer-owned businesses, or businesses that target niche markets like ours, go out of business really quickly, the fact that we’re still growing, and we’re seeing, month over month, growth, from a sales perspective. We have a lot of repeat customers, I think what might be one of the things I feel the most pride about is that we have a lot of repeat customers and loyal customers that come back, time and time again. That gives me a lot of hope, and validates, that there is a market opportunity for us, and that we just need to keep continuing. We just have to continue down the path, but yeah, being around after two and a half years and still growing? It’s great, I think it’s impressive, especially for someone to start a small business targeting a niche market.

KELLY: I’m proud we’re still married. [laughs]

LAURA: [laughs] yes!

KELLY: Working with your spouse is a challenge.

LAURA: That’s a whole other course. I think that’s maybe psychology or some sort of psychology course. Marriage 101.

KELLY: Yeah. I’m also really proud there’s been so many – we’ve been very fortunate – we’ve gotten a lot of really positive press from these mainstream places, similar to Fast Company and Cosmopolitan. These places where it never would’ve even occurred to me that they would have an audience.

LAURA: Marie Claire came to interview us. My mom’s reading Marie Claire! Clearly no one from Marie Claire then went and bought Kirrin Finch items, because it’s a completely different demographic, but we were in Marie Claire and everyone’s moms emailed us and Facebooked us. They were, “Oh my god, I saw Lauren and Kelly.” It wasn’t like people of our age group. It was literally people’s moms were opening up Marie Claire and saying, “Oh my god, Lauren and Kelly are in Marie Claire.” I think it speaks where there is this mainstream trend, for androgynous, gender-fluid, gender neutral, unisex. The mainstream is starting to notice, we just happened to be around. It’s kind of, “right place, right time.”

KELLY: Totally!

LAURA: It’s cool to be recognized in the mainstream.

KELLY: It’s not even that. I mean the recognition is cool, for our brand, but the fact that we are part of this group that is pushing this boundary is what is cool, right?

LAURA: Sure, to be apart, and to be included.

KELLY: …And to make the solution. There’s a lot of people who see a problem in the world – regardless of what the problem is and we saying, “okay, there’s an issue, what can we do to help be the solution?”

REDDY-BEST: Could you talk a little about who your customers are? How would you describe them and where are they located?

LAURA: Well, obviously, about 80-90% of our customers are based in the U.S. Maybe another 10% are based in Canada and maybe another 10% are based in Australia. Those are our three big markets. I would say our customers have a very similar style to us. They probably would identify as a tomboy or androgynous or dapper. Most people would not consider themselves to be feminine and wearing dresses. Although we do have a lot of customers that are comfortable in a button up shirt on one day and then are maybe comfortable in a dress on another day, because the button up shirt – it doesn’t mean that you can’t wear a dress tomorrow. However, I think the majority of our customers identify as sort of androgynous or tomboy. They look to menswear and really like menswear, but they can’t find the right fit. So they’re looking for the style and aesthetic of menswear, but they need a fit that takes into account your boobs, or your hips, or a shorter torso length. I think that’s, on a very generic level, how people would describe themselves.

KELLY: Yeah,

LAURA: How we would describe them.

KELLY: [inaudible] Often, professionals, enjoy people that are like that wear this. They need something that they can wear to work, right? So, it’s something that makes them feel as if it is appropriate, but they can also wear it out with their friends and feel comfortable, at a barbeque or whatever.

REDDY-BEST: How did you approach creating an ethical business model and then how do you sustain that, in such a competitive market?

KELLY: When we first wrote our business plan and thought about what Kirrin Finch was going to be, we had the idea of, “Oh yeah we’re going to do recyclable packaging and you know, do some stuff.” We really, honestly didn’t know  the extent of where we could go with sustainable fashion. We were really lucky, because when we joined the Brooklyn Fashion +Design Accelerator, it allowed us to push the boundaries on so many things that we didn’t know were even there, within the sustainable and ethical sphere, from a materials stand point. We think a lot, about what we are using – things like upcycling. When we make a button up shirt there’s lots of little pieces leftover, and maybe a marker – you have an extra foot or whatever here. So we would make pocket squares, and bow-ties out of that extra fabric. We make them into pockets in some of our other shirts and on our t-shirts. So, we’re just getting creative, about the ways that we can make sure we use the resources that we have. We also do a lot of support within the community, so we’re targeting from an ethical standpoint, women and the LGBTQ community. For example, we do a film screening and collect donations for the Forney center. We do that once a year. We have done some other fundraisers, and we donate to the Human Rights Campaign for silent auctions – that kind of stuff.

REDDY-BEST: Is there anything else that would be important for me to know about your brand, about your background, about your story that we haven’t already discussed?

KELLY: You’ve stumped me.

LAURA: I think we’ve discussed everything that I would think to discuss. I don’t know.

KELLY: I just think that, in general, it’s encouraging to me that there are more brands, in this space.

REDDY-BEST: Right.

KELLY: People are starting to make different things, right? There are shoes, there are shirts, there are suits, and there needs to be more options. We don’t live in a vacuum and the best thing that could happen for our community is more competition with lots of other brands doing really cool stuff, because we want options for ourselves too. It will take us awhile to get to shoes at least!

LAURA: Mm-hm [affirmative]. I think the only thing that we haven’t really talked about how mainstream fashion brands tend to kind of grab onto whatever is trendy right now and then they run with it in for a year or two, and then they move on. So, clearly mainstream fashion brands are now grabbing on to trends like unisex and gender-neutral. H&M came out with their unisex line and so did Zara. A lot of them were flagged for it because the products were basically just big sweatshirts or big t-shirts because if you’re designing for completely different body types, it’s really hard to make something fit really, really well. So, I’m not sure what will happen with that. Will it just be a fad that passes, and then the small businesses that are truly doing it because they are passionate about it and because they are trying to meet an unmet need, will just continue on? I just worry that, what will happen to people like us, who are a small business just trying to make it day by day if we have to compete with Zara or H&M or John Lewis in the U.K. or Selfridges or whatever? What happens to us? I just hope that people can see through the fact that that is just a trend and that we will just continue to keep moving forward and satisfying our customer base the best that we can.

KELLY: I was thinking about someone who’s modeled for us and also is a friend and is helping us out with a pop-up at the DapperQ fashion show this past week, and they were saying that one of the things they really love about our brand is that when someone tries on that shirt, it’s a moment that you see in their face. It’s, “this was me. For me.” I want there to be more of that for the people that our brand speaks to.

LAURA: Mic drop, boom!

 

 

 

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21st Century Queer Fashion Brands by Kelly L. Reddy-Best & Dana Goodin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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