I sat down with Nicholas Kunz of Nicholas K in her lovely Tribeca showroom to ask questions about her company which was founded in 2003 with her brother, Christopher. The Kunz siblings were born & raised in Arizona. They are members of the Council of Fashion Designers in America (CFDA). Most recently, they have been part of the CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative Program, along with designers such as, Brother Vellies, Sara Beltran, Maria Cornejo, Prabal Gurung, among others. Learn about her story and the CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative Program below:
How did you decide to launch NICHOLAS K?
At one point I quit my corporate design job, and thought I would become a photojournalist due to my love of photography, nature, and adventure. After a short break I soon realized that I missed and really enjoyed design, and was ready to get back into it. It wasn’t that I felt I needed my own brand, but wanted to do something more creative.
What was your career path prior to launching?
I started out at Donna Karan as an intern in the late 90s. After that, I left and went to Coach, where I worked as a design assistant. 2 years later, I was courted back to Donna Karan during the commencement of DKNY Jeans. I later joined Nautica when John Varvatos was heading the jeans launch.
During this role, I realized that I wanted a break from corporate, and felt I’d learned a lot. Since I had always worked for new labels (which have mostly small teams), I was able to learn how to develop fabric and to do everything from scratch. Thereafter, I took some time off, and was consulting for Polo Jeans & Calvin Klein amongst others. Afterwards, Nicholas K was launched.
CFDA + Lexus Fashion* Initiative: How did you get into this program?
We have always been eco-conscious in our personal lives, and the program was a perfect compliment to what we believe and want to deliver to our customer. We knew we had to be a part of it.
We started converting the line by using Alpaca (a natural fiber) & researching natural dyes. However, there are certain issues that go along with this. For example, we received a natural Alpaca color card, meaning undyed (no toxicity). They sent samples and we choose what we wanted to order, only to find that they had run out of those colored animals. Because the fashion industry’s demand for dying fabrics has been so huge, they were only focusing on breeding cream (instead of grey and black) colored Alpacas.
Natural dyes are difficult for commercial use & aren’t really viable yet for various reasons. No one wants to give you a deadline, because it depends on what plant and quantity of plant you need, the weather, drying time, etc. It could be 4 or 6 months before it’s ready.
Once the CFDA started the eco program, we thought, why not? We would be able to meet organizations, foundations, & work with other designers to collaborate on projects. The program participants are a diverse mix & everyone has different issues. Sustainability in clothing is so huge, it’s difficult to decide where to begin. One has to consider the farm, fabrics, weaving/knitting mills, manufacturing, dying, washing, once it gets to the consumer where does it go, etc.
Sustainability is challenging for larger brands because they need to make sure their revenue doesn’t decrease and also with smaller designers since they are limited by manufacturing constraints. The fashion industry has been slow to jump on the sustainability train. The CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative is a 17 month long program, & we are almost half way through.
Unlike the food industry there is no unified global standard like you see marked on organic food. Their are many stages of garment production: yarn source (animal or material farm), fabric construction, fabric dying, manufacturing, trims, labor force/ social compliance, washing, packaging, shipping that need to be considered.
Designers in the CFDA and Lexus Fashion Initiative Photo courtesy of CFDA
What have the workshops, field visits & mentorship opportunities during the CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative been like?
The CFDA team has been amazing. We all came into the program knowing it was an on-going learning process for everyone. CFDA and Lexus have created a unique opportunity to let designers figure out what areas they want to focus on and then give them the assistance they need. There is access to a wide breadth of mentors in marketing, production, sales, etc.
The best part of the program is that it has also become a collaborative process. It has created a platform to share, build and look for ways to solve issues. I feel that many people share the desire to see things moving in a positive direction, but tackling it as an individual can be daunting.
Everyone in the workshops are in movement, but not at final stages. Chris recently came back from a Copenhagen summit, where people talked about what they are doing to upcycle fabrics (after a garment is dead, what do you do with the fabric?). The fashion industry blends everything, for example, nylon & cotton, and it’s difficult to separate out the fibers to reuse them. Everyone is educating each other in order to make the right steps and find the solution.
What lessons have you learned along the way?
How important having an identity is, which no one really tells you. You need to stay focused on a clear vision and not imitate other success stories, since everyone has their own path. After working in this industry for so long, the sustainability factor makes me feel challenged again to learn.
Sustainability is becoming a conversation in fashion. If everyone was conscious and made baby steps to do something, it could be a radical change. There needs to be people who do it first, so that others realize they should be thinking about this.
How did you find production partners & factories to work with?
We found production partners through trial and error. When first starting out, no one wants to work with you. Begin small, & always have a back up plan. Know that if doesn’t work out, you have someone else that can fulfill the order. When you start out, start domestically. If you want to go overseas, make sure it’s somewhere you like to go since you’ll visit frequently.
What does designing a collection look like for you?
It’s abstract & organic. When I design, I want people to see it & know it’s by Nicholas K. It’s an identity that should be shown in each and every piece, not just the whole look.
Early on, we worked with multi-brand showrooms. We found that everyone has an opinion on what’s in and what’s selling, florals are in one season, tomboy the next, etc. We aren’t about designing trends. Consistency is exactly what we want.
In order for a brand to exist, you need to be unique and identifiable. There are so many brands out there that become similar and merge into one. No one tells you this as a young designer. Know what your message is. Always have a strong POV (point of view); don’t feel discouraged or dilute it.
What is a typical week for you?
A little bit of everything. Nothing is typical.
What are both of you & Chris’ roles within the company?
Christopher handles more of the business. My husband handles art direction, digital, photography and photoshoots. My role is the designer amongst other things. We all have different skill sets.
Where is NICHOLAS K sold?
The main retailers are Free People, Intermix & ABC Home & 30-40 speciality boutiques. For the last 2 years, we’ve been focusing on developing our website and moving direct to consumer with a handful of select retail partners that we can work closely with.
Any advice for someone thinking about starting their own company?
Get production partners set up. You can have amazing designs, but finding reliable production partners isn’t easy. The first season we were producing in New York & had so many issues. To the point where the day before it was due, the factory said they couldn’t produce it. There was one problem after another. They didn’t want to take accountability, lost the fabric, etc. There is not a perfect formula for success, and since production is so difficult, one must figure out what will work best for them.
Lastly, focus your offering. Know what you do well and execute on the product. Offering too much dilutes what makes you special and can increase difficulties on the logistics side.
Does your role require you to travel?
I used to travel a lot to India, China and Hong Kong. It was great because we would do side trips since we were already halfway across the world. While there, I would visit factories, have fittings, work with pattern makers & production people to make sure the garment was executed properly in production.
What is NYFW like for you?
A lot of work, but it’s fun. I have a vision in my head starting 5 months before the show, so getting to see it come alive is amazing. You’re pulling all this energy out for 3 weeks of your life for 15 minutes down the runway. The intensity is so strong, you feel like collapsing afterwards.
How do you pick makeup, hair & nails for your show?
We’ve been lucky to use the same teams over and over. We have developed relationships & have long-term partnerships with Stila and Aveda. I usually have an idea for the look and work with the lead artists to perfect it. I get additional ideas from them on what they’re inspired by. 2 days before the show, they come in and do the hair & makeup test, then we see them at the venue. It actually happens really fast.
What does casting a show with models look like?
We cast for 5 or 6 days, which is long for a brand, and we see 100-200 girls. They come in, we take their photo & they walk. We try to use a lot of the same girls each season and we also try to pick a diverse runway.
What does the fashion life cycle look like?
The factories handle a lot, so we don’t really see it go from fiber to fabric. If we’re buying yarns, or if we need to dye them, we will send them lab dips and ask to dye it that color. Next, yarns/fabrics get shipped to the manufacturer who does the prototyping. They come back to us and we fit the prototypes. We send the prototypes back with comments and then get the sales sample for shows & buyers. Once we have the sales samples, we place the production order. With Ecommerce, we can do production orders upfront. It’s easier to order ahead of time from the factories.
How has the internet changed things in fashion?
People can go online to find things they can’t find in the stores. Ecommerce is becoming a huge platform for us. Each season it’s consistently growing. People don’t want to go multiple stores to find one thing they like. It’s easier to go online and see a large variety & price match. Hanger appeal vs. featuring product online is an interesting concept.
One would think that it’s difficult to sell a $1K and up piece online since the customer can’t try it on or touch it. However, brands can showcase the piece in a way that makes more sense. For example, we have a dress that can be worn 4 different ways, which isn’t something you would immediately know when perusing in a store. We can showcase this online with a model.