Today we’d like to introduce you to Kathrine Zeren Gilmer.
So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I studied apparel design in college and went on to work as a designer for Abercombie & Fitch after I graduated. After being there for 4 years, I left so that I could spend about a year traveling and volunteering overseas.
Around that time, socially responsible companies like Toms and Apolis were just starting to become popular concepts, and a friend and I were discussing the possibility of using business and design to promote social justice. She had already spent years traveling and working in underserved parts of the world–whereas I had not–and knew that I would need a more immersive experience and not just a few weeks in one of these places to get a more realistic sense of the needs and possibilities.
After a year spent in various parts of Europe and South Africa, our paths started to move in different directions, so I decided to move back home to Houston for a bit. I ended up taking a job teaching art at a local high school, and decided to stay, especially after meeting my (now) husband almost a year later.
Around that time–April 2014 to be exact–was also when I decided to take the plunge with starting a line of my own. A lifelong tomboy, I had always been inspired by menswear–even in my womenswear designs–and thought that men’s accessories might be an interesting challenge. After working in corporate–almost fast–fashion, I also wanted to set certain parameters in the way I was going to do business. This led me to decide that I would produce my line exclusively in the United States and to only use fabrics that were sustainable in some way. I’ve now expanded to making soy candles and soap (made using all-natural ingredients and scented with essential oils) and have some womenswear items in development.
In 2017, I also co-founded a new company with 6 other Houston creatives called Pretti.Cool. It started out as an excuse to hang out and talk about our work, but then we decided that we would be better off by pooling our resources and talents to create something collectively. What resulted was a line of homegoods ranging from concrete vessels and ashtrays to ceramic planters, coasters, and tea towels.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 4 years since I started my company. I’ve certainly come a long way and learned a lot about what it takes to run a business, from building a website to managing inventory and tracking sales data.
Apart from a Kickstarter campaign that helped me raise enough money to fund my initial factory order, my company has been entirely self funded–with additional help from family now and then. While this has made growth slower, it’s also forced me to slow down. I can be very impatient and have a tendency to rush into things, so I think that I probably would have made even bigger mistakes along the way, had I the means at the time to do all of the things that I had wanted to do. Time has taught me to be more patient while also more willing to take certain risks–and to not beat myself up I happen to take a chance on something that doesn’t work out.
I’ve also learned that no one is good enough to do everything all of the time. While it’s good (and even important) to learn about every aspect of your business, it’s not healthy to try to wear all of the hats for an indefinite period of time. I’m finally at the stage where I’ve realized that my company will only be able to grow as much as I give it legs to grow–and my legs are just not that long, haha. Just as two heads are better than one, having another person you can rely on in business is invaluable.
Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Kathrine Zeren – what should we know?
I like to think of my company as a lifestyle brand that currently specializes in men’s accessories (neckties, bow ties, pocket squares), candles, and soap. We also have some womenswear items in the works, which is really exciting.
As I’ve said before, my line is American made and sustainably sourced. It’s not that I was opposed to producing internationally, but I knew that until I was in a place where I’d have enough oversight or leverage to ensure that working conditions were safe and that the workers were being paid fair wages, I didn’t want to risk being a victim of ignorance. Even though some companies in the US don’t always follow the labor laws, I think it’s important that such regulations exist. I also have always tried to form more personal relationships with my factories, and am so happy to have finally been able to find a local factory here in Houston that I’m able to visit on a regular basis.
In terms of using sustainable fabrics, I realize that “sustainable” can be a vague term. For me, I choose to define sustainable fabrics as ones that are made with all-natural or recycled synthetic fibers. When using cotton, I also strive to use only cotton when possible, since the pesticides used in inorganic cotton can be carcinogenic. I read somewhere recently that the cancer rates among farmers growing inorganic cotton are drastically higher, regardless of whether that farmer lives in India or Texas. I also try to use natural fibers (such as hemp) that require fewer pesticides in general and are easier to grow.
Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
Determination and (lately) grace, both for myself and others. It’s all too easy for me to work myself into the ground, and it’s no small victory that I’m learning to set healthy boundaries and to take time off to spend with family and friends.
- Neckties – start at $78
- Bow ties – start at $58
- Pocket Squares – $32
- Candles – $32
- Soap – $16
- Website: kathrinezeren.com
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @kathrinezeren
- Facebook: @kathrinezeren
- Twitter: @kathrinezeren
- Other: Pinterest – @kathrinezeren
Taylor Brown, Bethany Brewster, Chris McGee, Jeff Gilmer