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Social Impact: Founder of socially responsive label Kitri, a champion of thoughtful fashion and reclaiming the female gaze through fashion.
The beauty of a constantly evolving skyline is that it serves as opportunity for emerging brands to call East London their home. It’s an opportunity we catch Kitri Founder Haeni Kim in the centre of when we meet her outside of the office in Clerkenwell.
The move to a bigger warehouse and a more developed space is testament to the rapidly growing fan-base Kitri has; only two and a half years old, the brands bold colour, unique patterns and grown-up styles have seized the attention of many different women; from influencers to businesswomen, mums to creatives.
With such a firm finger on the pulse on the next move of a woman’s wardrobe, we’re surprised and intrigued in equal measure when the impeccably maroon-suited Haeni reveals that fashion design wasn’t her original career path:
“I always imagined myself to be on the business side of fashion. I was in marketing mainly and then I got a job as a CFO’s assistant, then I was a marketing and sales manager at the very high-end spectrum based in London. I went to Shanghai and worked at a manufacturing firm, I’ve been at pretty much every point in the process; from hundreds and thousands of units to eight pieces crafted from Italian atelier. I saw both sides.”
So when did the idea of Kitri fit in with all of this?
“I decided that high-end luxury wasn’t for me, I didn’t feel like it was relevant to my friends and how we dressed. Kitri was born out of the vision that there was nothing between this and mass production.
From a business perspective as well, its an incredibly expensive industry: it’s all about margins, by the time you sell to the wholesaler and then they sell to the retailer, you get an incredibly expensive product; the customer isn’t getting what they deserve from that either.”
Although hailing from a background in business, it’s incredibly clear to Haeni that, unlike most modern fashion business, her process is rooted in her customers. We ask her if the human connection is something she feels is missing from the industry:
“When you produce en masse, you lose a connection with your customers and what they want. Another thing we wanted to uphold was limited quantity: there are so many brands who are doing amazing things but are producing in ways that are several damaging to the environment; their businesses become homogeneous and everyone is wearing the same thing everywhere you go, but the Kitri woman stands out, is thoughtful in her purchases and wears what makes her feel special.”
“Limited quantities mean we can really take a tight control of our responsive business model as well, we only produce what our customers want and need and only replenish when there is demand for it.”
How many can be in a run of a product for you?
“It can vary from 25 to 100 to 200 but, ultimately, the customer decides what we produce.”
But when you’re manufacturing pieces that fulfil a want and aesthetic that so many women want, where do you draw the line? Case and point the Gabriella dress: a Kitri classic that, after it graced New York Fashion week on Charlotte Groeneveld (a.k.a. The Fashion Guitar), the then not-even-one-year-old brand was completely overrun with orders for the coveted dress. However, where most brands would have fulfilled the 800-strong waiting list, Kitri chose not to.
“With the Gabriella dress we had no idea it would happen; it was a maelstrom that we weren’t ready for, we were under a year old, and had no idea of how many to produce. We started a waiting list, but we just kept getting inundated with pre-orders. As a founder, it feels horrible to disappoint customers, but we replenished once and it sold out in an hour.
Customers were angry, they were waiting for it to drop, but once we’d replenished a third time, we made the decision to stop. We didn’t want to flood the market with the same garment, and fashion is always about looking forward; we didn’t want to become the brand that peddles the same stuff all the time. We still have a waiting list to this day!”
Haeni says her vision for the brand is typified in three words: feminine, grown-up and practical, but it’s a style that has only recently become popular. Midi dresses, long sleeves and high-necklines would have noses turned up at them only three years ago, when we ask her it seems to ignite a personal passion:
“There’s a huge move towards uber-femininity, which probably comes from women not wanting to dress for the male gaze anymore and wear what makes them feel comfortable. There’s always the pendulum that swings, between owning your sexuality and finding power in covering yourself up.”
Is this something you’re aware of in the studio?
“We constantly have this debate in our studio, whether we should have more short lengths. My husband is part of the business, he takes care of logistics, when it comes to design we always try to guess the game of what the customer is going to love. He’ll say ‘why did you put that through, you look like a witch’, but I like it when those styles often sell the best; I’ve only ever dressed for myself.”
It’s the desire for individuality that’s driven the fashion industry for the past few years; a constant consumer desire for new styles every day has made a Titanic that’s difficult to turn around, it’s something Haeni agrees is the problem with the industry, but tells us is a much more complex issue.
“As consumers we’re conflicted. We want new things all the time but want it made thoughtfully; how do you balance those two conflicting factors? That’s the puzzle we’re trying to solve for ourselves as consumers. As a brand, though, it means we have to be responsive to our customers, that we’re thoughtful and sustainable, that we only produce items that our customers want.”
So you’re there to meet that basic need for this new kind of consumer?
“Right, but you don’t always want to wear a white tee all the time, you want pieces that are trend driven that makes you feel current and a reflection of our time, because that’s what fashion is.”
With such a thoughtful and fresh look on the industry we can’t believe it when Haeni reveals that her original career path was seemingly far from the one she finds herself at the helm of now:
“I came over to the UK when I was twelve to be a ballerina, but it was only when I was nineteen I decided to change direction; when I realised my second passion was fashion.”
We remark on the stark contrast between the two paths, but Haeni tells us they’re more alike than we might initially think:
“The relationship between fashion and dance is so interesting: when you’re performing and rehearsing, you live in the clothes: its all connected. I love the fluidity of fabrics, the movement of clothes and the comfort. I don’t like restriction or being uncomfortable. As a brand, we don’t want anything to overshadow the woman, who we believe should always be the centre of attention.”
It’s that moment that something catches Haeni’s eye behind us in the Clerkenwell restaurant we’re sitting in. Our eyes follow her gaze and settle on a woman in striking yellow who breezes weightlessly through the restaurant. The table is silent until she leaves. A couple of seconds pass before Haeni turns back around in her chair with a smile. The last words she said have just been spoken into truth.
“That’s a Kitri top. She looks so great.”