Last week I had the chance to meet with Alice & Jennifer, the founders of Kindred Black, and learn about their backgrounds and the process that led them to start their own shop. I was blown away when I first came across the site earlier this fall (& wrote about it!), and meeting them and learning about their dedication to selling thoughtful, responsible products was incredibly inspiring. Read on to learn more about Alice & Jennifer, and check out their site to see my holiday picks! It was quite difficult to narrow down my favorites…
WHAT MADE YOU START KINDRED BLACK?
We both had been at our jobs for a long time and for the most part loved what we were doing––creating products and a brand experience, the storytelling involved, the gratification of seeing a business run and be successful––but we wanted to do it in our own way, with our own vision behind it. We were both in fashion and getting sick of all of the waste, the crazy disposability of a seasonal wardrobe, the thousands of plastic bags and harmful chemicals. We wanted to find a way to combine our background and love of good design with our desire to do something more sustainable and better for the environment.
WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND?
We both worked in the fashion industry for years. Jenn had her own band merchandise company and then oversaw design and production for several accessories companies. Alice has a background in photography, design, and branding. We worked together for the past 8 years basically running a company – Jenn as COO, Alice as Creative Director. We have a complimentary set of skills where there’s a healthy overlap, so between the two of us, we can tackle a lot.
WHAT DRIVES YOU?
Having a chance to do what we love on our own terms, it’s a dream for both of us. We’ve been involved with developing companies before, but there were always constraints based on who we worked for, what their aesthetic was, or which direction they chose for their company. They were amazing learning experiences but to truly dive in and own every decision and aspect of what you’re doing, it’s wonderful and eye-opening at the same time. Also, the overwhelmingly positive response from our customers has been so motivating…we started the company thinking – we’re going to do something in fashion that is sustainable and kinder to the earth and the people behind the manufacturing, and we’re going to do it whether people care about that or not. We won’t be in their face about it but we want that to be part of the experience, if only for us. But people have been so supportive and so positive and have written in just the nicest comments. It’s made us even more committed knowing that there are so many people out there that do care about doing the right thing for this world.
WHAT IS NEXT?
We have so many plans. Expanded categories, more collaborations and partnerships with non-profits, more travel to find special products, and especially new Kindred Black brand pieces. We’ve always planned to manufacture our own line, in fact that was how we had planned to start the company, but we need to decide when the timing is right for that. In the meantime, we’re looking for physical space because it would be super fun to have a small spot that’s a showroom and where we can meet some of our customers face to face.
WHAT ARE YOU EXCITED ABOUT?
We’re really excited for our first full year of business. We launched in October, after most designers were deep into fall and the holidays were nearly upon us. We had to hit the ground running and then it’s rush, rush, rush, to get gifts to people. We’re really looking forward to full ready-to-wear seasons and having some time to more fully develop our categories and a lot of the ideas that we’ve been storing up for so long.
WHERE DO YOU LIKE TO SHOP?
We try to travel as much as possible for our shopping, that was one of the reasons we started Kindred Black – discovering regional specialities and coming across off-beat products with great history is something we both love. The holiday season grounded us a bit and we actually discovered that day or weekend trips to places nearby that we’ve been taking for granted can be just as exciting. The Hudson Valley, Connecticut, Pennsylvania…there’s some great craft going on right in our own backyard.
WHY IS AMERICAN MADE IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Manufacturing was once one of the foundations of the American economy. Nowadays working factories are few and far between, and often the craftsmen working in them are in their 60s and 70s. One company we work with – Lotuff Leather – has set out to train a new group of artisans to continue their heritage quality process. We’re always looking for scenarios like this, otherwise there won’t be anyone left to foster American craftsmanship. A good example is cowboy boots. There used to be an abundance of small workshops and cobblers all across the west creating the symbolic American shoe. Now there are only 3 factories left in the US making them, and not for long…
That being said, just because something is made in America doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for the environment. We were looking for leather and found a great old tannery right in Chicago. After doing a bit of research we realized that that tannery was a major polluter of the surrounding area and that local residents had been trying to years to get them out because of all of the chemicals they were dumping into the area’s groundwater. It’s never simple but if we’re going to try to bring back American manufacturing in a big way, we have to be mindful of how that’s going to impact our environment.
WHY DID YOU LAUNCH AN E-COMMERCE SHOP AS OPPOSED TO A BRICK & MORTAR?
It’s what we know best. We have experience in both, but we never really paused to decide which way to take it – online felt like the natural way to begin. We can reach a much larger audience online and completely control the experience – the imagery, the stories, the customer service. We would, of course, love to have both – brick and mortar, it’s in the stars for us, it’s just a matter of when and where.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU FORM HAVING THE INITIAL IDEA TO LAUNCHING KINDRED BLACK?
We started talking about doing something a few years back. There were a lot of ideas, but it was all very loose and we never could commit to any concrete plans. A little under a year ago, with some new year resolutions weighing on us, we decided to take the first step. And that was coming up with a name, doing all the paperwork, getting our domain and social media handles – which collected dust for another few months while we got up the nerve to leave our jobs. By June we knew what Kindred Black was going to be, we starting doing studio visits, traveling to find product, placing orders left and right. August and September were crazy – photoshoots, building the site, sourcing eco-packaging, copywriting, retouching – and then we launched in early October. So really the bulk of it was done over 5 months.
HOW DID YOU KNOW YOU HAD A PRODUCT THAT PEOPLE WOULD WANT TO BUY?
We didn’t know and that was scary at first! We know what we love and we tested product assortments out on friends and family. There are always things that we both love, but say ‘who the hell is going to want to buy this but us?’ – but then it sells. We have such a varied product range from ready-to-wear and accessories to apothecary goods to one-of-a-kind objects, it’s impossible to know for sure about every single thing. But in general, if we both like it, we figure someone else is bound to too. Sometimes you just have to trust your own taste.
HOW DOES YOUR PAST EXPERIENCE WORKING FOR A RETAIL BRAND INFLUENCE YOUR CURRENT WORK?
It pretty much influences everything we do. For almost every scenario we find ourselves in we can reference our past life, a situation that gave us the experience to know the right way, and more importantly, the wrong way to move forward. Working in-house for a brand, we really got to sink our teeth into every aspect of running a business – the importance of the little dirty details, how vital good customer service is, how important it is to stick to your guns.
HOW DO YOU DETERMINE WHAT PRODUCTS MEET YOUR STANDARDS?
We have a set of guidelines we run every product by and it has to meet at least one of them (but preferably more). For clothing – is it made local to the designer? Are they responsibly sourcing materials? When it comes to beauty, we look for natural, organic ingredients and low-waste packaging. Home goods – is it craftsman made? Is it something that you’d pass down to your grandkids? We also carry a large collection of one-of-a-kind vintage and antique pieces – there are already so many beautiful things in the world, why buy new when you can have something that already exists and is of higher quality than a newer, more disposable version. It really helps to have a set of rules, with so many designers creating incredible things that we love, it would be completely overwhelming to narrow down an assortment.
(images c/o Kindred Black)