Studio Visit: KARA

Words: Sam Wittwer
Images: Sergiy Barchuck

August 31 2016

KARA. The short and playfully opaque name has become somewhat of a code-word in recent years. When uttered in the right company, KARA grants access to a club of in-the-know creatives and fashion elites who have been hyping the young brand since it’s inception back in August 2013. Since then, KARA’s zippered backpacks and structured crossbody bags have become tokens of a particular kind of downtown, New York cool, one that acknowledges the cultural importance of Lisa Simpson and Aung San Suu Kyi in the same conversation.

Despite plenty of recognition – KARA was inducted into the prestigious CFDA Incubator 3.0 Class – the company’s founder and designer Sarah Law remains purposely just out of the limelight. It would have been an easy move for her to stitch her own name into the lining of her bags, but as with all things KARA, Sarah went with the road less traveled; a road paved by the dreamiest multinational childhood we could imagine, by purpose and function, by humor and lightheartedness. And, of course, an excellent sense of design.

We visited Sarah at her studio (at KARA’s beautiful-and-newly-christened Tribeca office) to find out more about the woman who makes the bags the industry loves.

If we can start at the beginning, I’d love if you could tell us a little bit about where you grew up?

Sarah Law: I grew up in Hong Kong; I’m half Chinese and half American. My mom is from Rhode Island. As a kid, we would spend the school year in Hong Kong, and summers in California with my dad’s family, or Rhode Island with my mom’s. Growing up, I definitely had a pretty multicultural background. My dad worked in the Middle East, and my parents met out there. On school breaks, we would go back and stay in Kuwait, and Jordan, and Dubai while he was working. My mom was a great – you’d say homemaker – loved making things, always cooking, baking, drawing and teaching me a arts and crafts. In terms of having a business and getting started, I think of them as references, because my mom had this very strong creative component, and my dad built his own business – he was a very large self-starter. A lot of my interests come from them.

What was it that your parents did that had them traveling around the world?

They’re just adventurous people. My mom is from a small town in Rhode Island and wanted to get out, to do something different. She’s a dental hygienist, and she saw a posting on a board for a job in Saudi Arabia. She was in her 20s in the 1970s, and she took it. She moved to Saudi without anything, and worked in the royal family hospital. My dad was the financial advisor to one of the king’s sons. Everybody that worked for the royal family in Saudi lived on a compound together, and that’s how they met.

My mom was part of a women’s scuba diving club as well. That was a really important activity for her. In the 1970s, while she was in her 20s, she used to scuba dive in the Middle East and South Asia.

It sounds like you grew up in a fairytale.

I think the same thing! My dad used to race cars and motorcycles. At the end of the day, the reason that we ended up working with the factory that we do now is that my dad, in his 20s, used to race cars with the owners of the factory. I’m talking street racing, drag racing; he raced motorcycles. He and his friends, that whole group of guys, were really into cars but didn’t have a lot of money. Now, they are all older men with ‘real’ cars. When they were younger they definitely spent all their free time playing together; driving motorcycles, customizing cars. One of his side businesses was making fiberglass parts for motorcycles.

Did you have a relationship to fashion and style as a kid?

That’s something that I think about a lot; because I didn’t have an outward interest in fashion magazines or going to the mall. It’s kind of funny now that I didn’t have that interest. I did always have a strong interest in having a certain look or style. For me, a lot of it came from an interest in how something’s made, and what it visually looks like. My real interest in fashion came out when I was 8 or 9 or something. I went to a mall and there was a designer from Hong Kong named Vivienne Tam who had a collection of clothes made from Tyvek. That was the first time that I was like, “Wow, that’s actually really, really interesting. That’s something that I haven’t seen before.” I think it struck me from such an art perspective, that I actually started to look at fashion after that.

Can you tell us where you went to school?

I went to Parsons School of Design in New York. I went because I wanted to go to art school, and because I wanted to be in New York City. I only applied to art schools, but being in New York City was a big draw for me. It is such a great city for being creative, because there are so many people here that have an interest in pursuing creative things.

Did you go in there having a particular major in mind, or was it more that you knew this was an environment that you could kind of find yourself in?

I decided when I was in high school that I was going to go into fashion. I became obsessed with it in terms of understanding designers, collections, and full archives of people’s work. I just spent a lot of high school just obsessing over Prada and Helmut Lang, and really starting to understand the different designers who were in the industry.

It’s interesting that you mention Prada and Helmut Lang, because I can totally see that 90’s functional minimalism coming through in KARA’s designs. To go back a bit, I am curious how a future bag designer carried her books in school…

I had that one typical backpack that was covered in patches and people’s writing. When I got to college, one of the first things I noticed was everyone carrying around these big portfolios – due to the type of work we were doing. These portfolio bags were usually made of super cheap paper, and would just fall apart. I started selling massive canvas tote bags, I would sew them over the break and sell them out of my dorm room for $20 or so. Super simple, but really sturdy. It was a great start to understanding the idea of making something that people could use very regularly, understanding not everybody has a big budget.

Can you walk through what you were doing immediately post-grad?

I was working at Gap for about two and a half years. I graduated from Parsons with the ‘Designer of the Year’ nomination. My thesis advisor was a buyer and good friend of Patrick Robinson at Gap, who hired me to design accessories. I was designing all sorts of things: sweaters, scarves, hats. In the last year that I was there, I started to assist with shoes and bags.

I always wanted my own company. Even while I was at the Gap, I was working on my own business at night – I would go to the market, buy old rugs, overdye them and sell them at the flea market. I always had an interest in making stuff. Around the time I was 25, I felt like I didn’t want to wait any longer to actually start a business. It wasn’t so obvious for me to do bags, but in a way actually initially started with accessories I was designing: bags, sample clothing, shoes. I was really just trying to see different things. Bags became a really easy thing to focus on because I just loved how their was no fit involved. With clothing, there’s always the conversation about how it relates to the body, but bags are very democratic. It’s easier for people to participate with bags. That, I think, was the big interest. I was fascinated by bags, being able to work with the materials and structure. So I kept in that direction.

What do you feel you learned in those early years – before you started your company – that was most valuable to you?

I think the biggest contrast between school and work, is that school is so free. You get to working and you suddenly have so many limitations; whether it’s what you design, who it is designed for, how much is it going to cost or limitations in the working environment. Maybe you work with people that you don’t like, or people that you don’t get along with; the language barriers or cultural barriers. If you’re working with manufacturing from China, or Vietnam, or Italy, or Spain; there’s always cultural differences that come into play. I think that people, particularly if you are going into fashion, don’t actually talk to you about that. A big part of being a good designer has a lot to do with communication and understanding how something is going to work for people, how it’s going to be used by the end wearer. Further down the road, what happens to the product at the end of the work cycle. All of it comes into the process.

 

Where did the name ‘KARA’ come from?

The name comes from Karaoke, which is Japanese for empty orchestra. Around that time I wanted to start KARA, I decided I didn’t want to use my name. I wanted something simple, just kind of like a funny factoid. I always wanted something that means nothing. This is kind of an odd story, but there was this Japanese electronics company with a massive name that was five different people’s names smashed together. After WWII they re-branded and they just used the name SONY, because the owner of the company thought it was a funny American slang word. For KARA, we also wanted something like SONY; positive, easy to pronounce and memorable.

Of course that begs the question, are you into karaoke?

We have team dinner, and parties, and they tend to involve karaoke in K-Town in New York. I love karaoke. I love to get wild. I also love to perform. I think a part of karaoke that people don’t realize is essential – it’s not all about singing. It’s really all about the delivery, sometimes when you are really a bad singer you’re actually a better karaoke performer.

I think that people really believe in the idea that what you can do has a value.

Do you remember the first time you saw someone you didn’t know wearing one of your bags in public?

Oh yeah. It was funny because where I was living in Manhattan, I never saw anybody with my bags, but I had a lot of friends sending me photos of people that were wearing my bags downtown. It was probably eight months after we started and I saw this woman at Dover Street Market. She was wearing a stowaway, which is a crossbody bag in a camera bag style. She was wearing this amazing silky pajama set and one of our bags, she had great style. I’ll always remember that.

Not long after that, you were inducted into the CFDA Incubator. How was that experience?

I would say that the most important part of it was the other nine brands, just having other people around. I started the company in my apartment, and spent a lot of time alone trying to figure out what I was doing. It was really nice to transition into an office and meet different people working on different products, going through the same problems that I was going through as a small business with just a single person. I think that was really cool. The American fashion industry has a lot of people interested in helping other people out – mentoring and helping them get it right, sharing information and lessons. It’s a really positive environment. 

Is that something that you feel is unique to America?

In general Americans are interested in community and collaboration and working together. There is a clear sense of the bigger picture and forward momentum in the United States that people really value. There’s not much hierarchy here. I think that people really believe in the idea that what you can do has a value. If you are a talented designer, people will see that and often try to help in some way. If you have an idea people believe in, they will try to help you.

As the company grows, how is your role evolving? Are you less involved in the design work, or is that something you hope to maintain?

I’m 100 percent still involved in the design side of the business. My interests really are in the following the process from the initial idea to the product. As I build the business, the biggest thing that I focus on is finding people to do things that I have no interest in, yet find myself having to do on a regular basis. I love art direction, and photo shoots, and the more creative stuff. I’m not interested in marketing and PR strategy. I love talking with buyers, understanding people; but I’m not interested in the sales pitch. I find that as my company grows, the business people that I am looking to hire and add to the team are making it possible for me to just focus on becoming a better designer.

Can you speak to the design process internally?

It starts with a style, a silhouette. I look a lot at what is missing in the line, listen to feedback from the customers, and listen for what my friends are really interested in. “We should have this, we want to have that.” The initial development process really begins with the actual way the bag looks, the structure, the materials, the color, and the details. A lot of that comes from some new specific interest that I have. Recently, we decided to 3D print in the office. It’s a new process. We’ve been looking at a lot more metal items and details, just small things. I find myself drawn to a lot of shapes and forms. I think over the next year you will see a lot of that in the production.

Where did the inspiration come from for this season in particular?

I started designing a year ago for this fall’s collection. Around that time, we were looking for a new office space in preparation for moving out of the incubator. We were thinking about this new space and what we wanted it to feel like, the layout and the general environment. I am very interested in Scandinavian design; what their type of interior is, in their furniture. Looking at 1970s Scandinavian interiors, that really is where we got the color palette from. The full collection for fall has specific textures: shearling that looks like shag, and felts that look like wool upholstery. We also kept that elementary color palette of those Scandinavian interiors: yellow, the deep reds, and navy. It played into all the different types of interior designers or shapes I was looking at.

Is there a five year plan or where is KARA going from here?

My goal from the beginning was to do five years of just bags. Just to focus. People always ask me, “What are you going to do next?” and honestly, at the moment I’m not 100% sure it’s fashion. I think there might be something in the exploration of space, furniture. Things like that. I know that my intentions are not soley in fashion. I’m really interested in exploring the freedom of working in the design process, and how you can fit your life around design.

Sergiy Barchuk is a photographer based in Brooklyn.