Side Hustle: Sarah Law On How She Built KARA
The duality of Sarah Law’s upbringing is incredibly important to her brand’s origin story, and she emphasizes it accordingly: growing up in Hong Kong, coming to the States for school, and feeling a bit foreign in both places, Law’s narrative can be credited for much of the foundation of KARA, a line of versatile bags for the girl on the go. Looking at fluidity in all its forms — whether that be heritage, gender, sexuality, or race — KARA speaks to the in-between-ness of life, and those spaces we often find ourselves in that are neither here nor there.
After leaving Gap to pursue her own designs in 2012, Law brought her idea for KARA to life (with many bumps along the way). Starting a business is certainly not smooth sailing, but Law offers some sage advice on how to continue striving in the midst of both hardship and triumph. Now, with six years under her belt and a team behind her, we sit down with Law at home to hear more about learning on the go, the importance of authentic content, and that iconic KARA backpack that, in many ways, started it all.
Let’s go back to the beginning — when did you start KARA?
I started working on the company in 2012. Before that, I went to Parsons and then I also worked at Gap doing women’s design for about two and a half years. And then when I quit Gap, I had like a six month or so period of just trying to figure out what I was doing and looking for factories and all that sort of stuff. Everything kind of came together around January 2013, so there was like a year where I was just developing product and kind of really honing in what I was doing. And then we went to our first trade show in February 2013, and our first collection went out into the market in August 2013. So we’ll be at six years in August.
Can you talk about the process of taking your idea and turning it into a reality? What does that look like?
Well, I think one thing to point out is that I feel like we’re still going through that. The company looks really different than the way I started it. You know, I went to Parsons for fashion design. So there’s a lot of things that were happening the first few years there were just based off of general understanding and intuition. Now, there’s a lot more structure in the company. There’s a lot more intentional direction. But the process of getting started I think was really just, coming up with the concept, and continuing to build upon that by trial and error, if that makes any sense. I don’t come from a family that does manufacturing even though I’m from Hong Kong — I grew up in Hong Kong, and I went to school at Parsons — but you know, they didn’t even teach really the calendar for the sales schedule, all that stuff about development. And when you work at a company like Gap, development works differently than it does at a small brand where you don’t have that much pull with the factory. I really just learned from doing it.
Was there ever a moment where you messed something up, missed a deadline or something and had to learn that way?
Well, thank God there’s a lot less of that happening now! I mean it still happens in some ways, but not in any really big capacities. But the first time that happened was actually in 2012 when I started the brand with clothing and bags. Because I went to Parsons for clothes, I did all of the clothes and I did all the bags and I was ready to actually present a collection for sales to be in stores the following year in January. And someone, a friend of mine who helped start a showroom called Goods and Services, said that sales start in September. So here I am the second week of September, the first Thursday, and I literally started to reach out to stores on that Thursday and I wrote maybe like 50 stores. And the people that took the time to respond back were just like, “Hey, just so you know, most people planned their schedule like six weeks ago.” So that first season, I think Barneys saw my collection and Assembly, but they didn’t even have time to see the collection until sales was over and their budgets had closed. So I had designed an entire collection that nobody saw. That’s one example of honestly many where I’ve made huge mistakes and we just had to learn.
Did you stop making clothes after that?
So the second season, the one I did that September, I think maybe one store-bought the clothes and an online store that I don’t even remember the name of. Proportionately, between the cost of making clothes for sampling and making bags for sampling versus the orders that we got in, the money and the numbers were so big that it didn’t make sense to keep doing clothes. It was just really clear that bags had got a specific, really strong response, and the clothing was going to be this uphill battle. And I started the company initially with just money that I had saved, between the end of school and working, so it was an exact amount of money that I had, and I knew ultimately it wasn’t going to cover both when it was coming in. So we just focused on bags.
I always thought it was the backpack that put you guys on the map.
Oh yeah, it was the backpack 100 percent that put us on the map. I think that second season, because I learned my lesson from the first one, I went back and I wrote like 400 stores, like really aggressively, and we heard from 20 of them and out of the 20, 6 stores placed orders. So we started with Opening Ceremony, Lane Crawford, Harvey Nichols, SSENSE, Shopbop, and Creatures of Comfort. But it was because I had learned such a hard lesson the first time that I remember I came back maybe like January 3rd and immediately started writing people. I was like, I’m not going to miss this season.
400 is insane.
It was insane. But you know, our outreach now is ultimately not actually that different, which is sort of funny. We sell to about 50, just over 50 stores now, but yeah, they pick a targeted list. The process is exactly the same, but it’s like super refined now after seven years and there are a lot more relationships there, so it’s a lot easier. The brand really was started by the backpack and that kind of built our business in the first three, four years.
It’s amazing when you make something that everyone maybe didn’t even realize they needed or wanted, and then soon as they see it, everyone has to have one.
Yeah. You know, I think that on the other side of it too, the funny thing is that when you’re designing, you can tell if you think something is aesthetically interesting or has a functionality to it that sort of changes the way you might dress, or there’s a practicality that you’d think would make someone buy it. But I think it’s very hard to put your finger on that, that thing that’s just gonna blow out. You know? And I think in hindsight it’s easy to say that my brand is defined by that style and it does make a lot of sense. On many levels, between like the aesthetic look of the backpack and I think what it represents — to present a handbag that’s a backpack. I think that says a lot about our type of woman. But at the same time, it’s just funny because, as a designer, you’re just trying a lot of different things. And I am staying within a certain language, but it’s hard to say sometimes what’s really going to do well.
How would you describe your customer? Who are you designing for?
An important thing to point out is that the name of the brand KARA comes from the Japanese word for “Karaoke”, which means empty orchestra. And the concept behind the brand is tied to my background. So I was born in California, but I grew up in Hong Kong and my mom is from Rhode Island and my dad is Chinese. The brand is really about this concept of self-expression identity. When I was growing up in Hong Kong, a lot of people constantly reminded me that I was American, and then I came to the US for school, people would just say I was Chinese. It was a very shocking contrast. And in that way, I’m really trying to design a product that has some sense of international quality to it, and that speaks to people that have this sense of duality, whether it is about where they grew up, or maybe even very literal concepts of identity or gender or sexual preference. It’s a lot of those things. It’s that experience that I feel like I’m trying to design for.
How do you feel like KARA has evolved since that first collection?
I think that I have evolved a lot. The inherent quality of the products is still there in that I’m always trying to design something very simple, that is very translatable across style. Like, you could have one style, and someone over here has an opposite style, but both people can wear the product. That’s sort of my biggest goal. But then I think where we’ve really grown is that I’ve learned a lot more about design and manufacturing, and a lot more about storytelling. When I started working on the brand in 2011, 2012, I felt like a lot of people weren’t really clear from a marketing communications perspective of the difference between Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and everyone was just trying to do all of it. And now at this point, our focus is really channeling all of our visual energy through Instagram. That way of storytelling, even when I went to Parsons, was never a conversation. If you want to be a designer, you need to know how to do that — how to create content, create a brand, and speak to people. Now, I think, you can’t start a brand if you don’t know how to do that.
If you could give your younger self advice, what would it be?
Well I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned lately, that I kind of started to forgive myself for, is just understanding how difficult it is. When you make mistakes, you lose money and you lose time. And when you look back on them, it’s really easy to identify, like, oh, that was such a stupid decision. And sometimes it’s extremely painful. But I think that now I understand that this is a really difficult thing, starting a business, To try and speak to so many different people — that’s just hard. And you know, I don’t come from a situation where we have a big investment, so if we don’t make a certain amount of money, or if we lose an account, that’s budget that get cut from our potential, you know, expenses or marketing later on. Sometimes, particularly when you don’t have the experience and you read about all these people in the paper, you just kind of feel like, How come I’m not figuring this out faster? That’s difficult sometimes, but at the end of the day, I’m doing something organically and I’m doing it based on what I am responsible for, the money that I know I can handle. So I think that that’s a really powerful thing. And then I think on the other side of it, you kind of just have to do it because you love it. You know? Because there’s a lot of really difficult parts of running a business. You work really long hours, there’s a lot of it that doesn’t ever go on Instagram that is just not glamorous. And it’s, you know, arguing with people and negotiating with people on certain things, fighting for the brand in certain ways. It’s a very real experience and you have to believe in the bigger process to keep it going.
What do you see in the near future or further ahead for the brand?
I think the two things for me are continuing to tell the story of the brand, and then on the other, it’s the content that we make. To me, the content that we’re making for the brand, and these projects with other people, are just as important as the product itself.
Which is a really kind of evolved perspective that I don’t think a lot of designers realize yet.
It makes it really fun because it really adds another level or layer to the product. So that’s one big focus. And then for me, I think just to really nail down these in-person events and for people to experience the brand, not just digitally, I think would be really amazing.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Clara Hirsch
Stay tuned to Milk for more creatives we love.