I first ran across K/ller Collection two years ago at a Wythe Hotel pop-up. When Katie told me about how they make their jewelry – in the U.S., with approved casters and recycled materials – I promised to hit them up for an interview. Yet I held back. Why? Intimidation. These two chicks are just on another level. Even more so, when their sustainable practices won them the CFDA/Lexus Eco-Fashion Challenge earlier this year, perhaps finally proving that it is cool now to care. Instead, I stalked their stuff at my favorite NYC stores, including ABC Carpet & Home, Bhoomki, Kaight, and Swords-Smith.
Fuck it. I need to get these amazing designers and their work up on EcoCult. Lo and behold, another sweet sustainable brand introduces my shy self to them, and they invite me to their DUMBO studio for a visit! When I arrive around 5 pm on a summer afternoon, the founders/designers Michael Miller and Katie DeGuzman are still busy at work on some jewelry pieces, Michael weaving leather and Katie working on silver and quill earrings.
Carefully arranged on the wall are five years of their work: necklaces, earrings, rings, and pendants in raw metals like brass and natural shapes like porcupine quills and fish jaws exude a spirit of rebellion only temporarily corralled into submission. This is the kind of jewelry that a cool girl who is too busy partying to care throws in twos and threes over her slinky tank and shredded jeans.
I also notice that they've carefully decorated their studio so that everything is black, white, and brass: black and brass paper clips, black and brass furniture, white painted walls and drawers, even brass-colored duck tape on the furniture. That is attention to detail.
Their intern Kat slips out and leaves us to our conversation, which covers their creative process, their favorite places to eat in Brooklyn, and yet another dirty secret about the fashion business. Here it is (edited for clarity and conciseness):
Katie: This is like the last day of finishing the new collection, which will start shipping in the middle October. We actually have a really short lead time in comparison to the fashion calendar, the way ready-to-wear works.
Michael: Clothing is a lot more time consuming to make. That’s one of the reasons why Katie and I love jewelry. It’s instant gratification, it’s easy overhead.
K: Most things are made to order, but some things we keep in stock for trade shows or if we know they’re quick sellers. Double quills we make a dozen out of time. They’re our most popular piece.
So you don’t have a PR person working for you. It’s all word of mouth?
K: We’ve had a few people work with us doing some a la cart things, but we don’t have any full time help. For the most part, it’s been us.
I would love to hear about the CFDA awards. What was that like?
K: It was awesome. (Giggles) We were so surprised. Designers and agents from the trade shows were the ones who nominated us to apply, to even let us know about this award. Then the process of doing the application and really looking into our business practices, and seeing how, without even necessarily knowing it, we were a sustainable company. When we set out to start the business, we knew how we wanted to work. We wanted to be in charge of the production, really be super hands-on with everything. And also who we chose to manufacture with, how they do production, that all came together to make it a sustainable company and have a small footprint. But the backbone for us was made locally, sourced all in the U.S.
M: Things get lost in translation when you’re working with someone overseas, and you overproduce and over-sample. I hear my friends in the industry complaining about it all the time. The designers change their mind, and now they’re revising all their samples. If they could be there making the samples themselves, then they wouldn’t be spending a million dollars in development. And I know that that’s a real amount spent in some industries, in one season.
K: We work a couple different ways when we’re designing a piece. A lot of our things are off of natural products, like the quill, that’s always been the backbone for the collection and continues to be. We’ll take that natural element, make a mold of that, take the waxes and form those into different things, and then take metal, and form that into different things.
M: (She shows me an elaborate metal piece composed of quill shapes to form a sunburst.) That’s from the quill, cutting it and reworking it. Every collection has at least one of those elements. It’s really cool that this natural yet very graphic and severe shape can be revised so many different ways.
K: This is the fine collection. (She shows me a miniature brass quill charm.) This stemmed from quills originally as well. We call all our collections evolutions. You take something that you’ve had for years, and you pair it with something else, and with something else, and all the sudden you have this whole different look. It can be simple, or rock and roll, or elegant. We encourage you to wear your own amulets with our pieces.
M: People can see our language. It’s clear what we like. We aren’t going to suddenly change our identity in the next collection. You get more followers that way.
Do you get a lot of repeat customers?
M: Oh, absolutely.
Do you have a woman in mind?
K: That was how the collection started. We already had the same aesthetic, so it wasn’t hard to do. I would think that’s how a lot of designers work, if they’re designing for their own sex. But we have transgendered rockstars to grandmas who wear our jewelry. We have some more prettier things, like our petal pieces, which are probably a little prettier than what we would wear. But we know we have that customer who likes organic, sweeter things. But we always try to have the juxtaposition between sweet and soft. So maybe it’s got a couple blackened pieces on it. But it is definitely more a downtown girl, love someone who can layer. Our tried and true customers have a bunch of pieces.
M: They pile it on.
I would love to hear about your New York life. You try to run your business consciously, so are there restaurants or bars that you love that reflect that?
K: I love Roberta’s. We had my husband’s 40th birthday and our engagement party all in one – 5 years ago. They’re a great example of doing things locally. I think they were one of the first places that started doing the gardening thing.
M: Another pizza place would be Pauli Gee’s in Greenpoint; they also buy locally from the rooftop gardens. And it’s really good pizza.
K: My other sort of secret favorite place my husband always makes fun of me for is the new Whole Foods in Gowanus. It’s really nice. Whole Foods is really expensive, but what they have is amazing and they support so many local brands. I brought my mother-in-law in there this past weekend. She lives in the Philippines, and she kept going, “I love America!” She was taking pictures of the salad bar. You can get a glass of wine and have food, people can bring their kids. I love Gowanus anyway. So you can look over the Gowanarrhea.
Ew, that’s evocative.
K: Yeah, that’s what locals have called it for a while.
Where do you live?
K: Park Slope.
M: Williamsburg. I started when it wasn’t quite what it is now. I don’t want to be that girl who’s like, “I was there before everyone else!” I was just on the edge of that transition. I lived in the artist’s loft, a raw space. When my husband and I got together we lived in a little nicer space. But I love Williamsburg. I kind of avoid the train now. I can ride my bike to work or take the ferry. I can take the bike path all the way down.
Oh, I hadn't thought of taking the ferry!
K: I love the ferry when I go to Williamsburg from here. It’s so nice! It totally changes your commute. Otherwise you have to take the L to the F or whatever. So much more civilized. It’s nice as a calm down after working all day inside, instead of going down into the subway.
M: Even during rain and snow I’ll take it.