Q&A | Kate McMahon of Kakoon

If you've been reading this blog lately, you've probably noticed that there's been a repeating theme that orbits around the virtues of staying small. This pertains to stores, manufacturers, makers, and it even came up this past weekend in Napa with a winemaker who keeps production purposely under a certain amount of cases so he can really be part of the process.

Kate McMahon, the founder of the Santa Barbara-based hand-knit sweater company Kakoon, is another perfect example of someone who believes smaller can definitely mean better. The sweaters are gorgeous and classic and, yes, knit by hand, which adds, I think, an intangible quality to a garment. In fact, as Kate and I emailed over the past month she sent along a Patti Smith quote that really resonated.
Kakoon has had a cult-following for years, but Kate recently opened a small (but mighty) space in Santa Barbara. We wanted to find out more about her philosophy and her brand as she's made this baby-step towards growth while very much intending to stay small. More from Kate below.
How did you get your start?

My mom taught me to knit when I was 16. I've been knitting ever since. In 1987, I was working in a small boutique in Santa Barbara wearing one of my sweaters and a clothing rep visiting from LA asked me who made it. When I answered that it was my own creation, she immediately took me on as a vendor. As a result I rented an historic renovated barn on a side street downtown and enlisted 15 contract knitters and a couple full time staff to help me produce the 450 sweaters we were making a month. That was 28 years ago... and the evolution of my small cottage business, known then as Kate McMahon, has morphed many times. 

Are all of your pieces still knit by hand?

Every sweater is hand knit by Ruth, my one knitter, and me. Ruth hand-looms each sweater and I do all the finishing work which includes ribbing (cuffs, collars, plackets, pockets, etc.), and sewing, attaching buttons and labels, and blocking.

Does the limitation of making sweaters by hand put a clear ceiling on what you can produce per season or per year?

My ability to produce is very limited due to the the hours that go into making each sweater. There are no shortcuts when all the tasks are done individually and by hand. Because of the attention and energy that is invested in the process, the sweaters are infused with a subtle quality that I believe can be felt by the wearer. It is quite a magical thing.

Have you ever considered how you would grow and scale larger or did you always want to stay small?

When I started my business I felt energized and unstoppable. I knew designing and knitting were my gifts and passion and I had a style people related to easily. I wanted to express myself in a big way. But luxury goods businesses are unique in that when times are tough sales plummet. It's not like everyone needs a $500 hand knit sweater. I experienced a couple significant economic down turns that caused me to adjust my business model, and taught me some valuable lessons. In the process I've refined my design aesthetic to reflect what I resonate with personally—elegance, simplicity, quality, and comfort—essentials for everyday. And I created a business model that enhances the quality of my life. I want to be inspired and challenged by my work. I want to show my kids how to be independent, passionate, and productive on their own terms. I want to make beautiful, timeless, and useful things that people appreciate and cherish.

I've always thought it's better to have a cult following than a huge following, what are your thoughts on that as someone who has a cult following?

So this leads to what I appreciate most about being small, and that's connecting with my clients one on one. The  nature of the custom design process allows me to know my clients personally, and I've grown to have a loyal following. It also helps to live in the community where I was born and raised. Some clients have been collecting my sweaters for 20 years. It's very satisfying to be involved in their lives over a long period of time. I guess you could say that at this moment I'm in the "cult" phase of my business, but that is not to say that i wouldn't welcome a bigger customer base. It would have to come without too much pushing though.

What's your biggest motivator?

My biggest motivator in doing any thing these days is to live a balance life. To have time for family, passion for work, energy to recreate, and ability to travel. Designing and knitting have afforded me all of these things and have been a constant source of pleasure.

Check out the Kakoon collection >> right here.


Liz said...

Both the interview and the Patti Smith quote really resonate. Thank you for sharing!

SilverEdit said...

Beautiful and precious!

Ann Marie Lawson said...

Love the work and the philosophy.

Alan Kozlowski said...

I have one of these magical creations and wearing it is like being in a cocoon....I cherish it and love the work so much