Designer and Entrepreneur Merin Guthrie wants to dress women well- just the way they are
Merin Guthrie grew up sketching dresses in the margins of her notebooks whenever she got bored in class, but never considered a career in design. After years in the non-profit world, where organizations are driven by how best to serve a community, she realized that women were not being well-served by the fashion industry. Her company, Kit, dresses busy women by making clothes "just as awesome as they are."
FAST FACTS ABOUT Merin
Where she’s from: Pasadena, California
Grew up with: mom and dad, two younger brothers
Education: Bachelor’s degree in history from Davidson College
Where she lives now: Houston, Texas
Growing up she wanted to be: something competitive, like a lawyer
Now she’s: Founder of her own clothing company, Kit
What were you like growing up?
I was always a really independent child, and I was a huge reader. When you’re a kid, and you have two younger brothers, you look for a way to escape the noise and the violence of having brothers. For me, that was always reading. Reading gave me a sense of what the rest of the world was like, because growing up in southern California is such a specific thing. My mother started to encourage me to read about other places, and think about other places. I got this travel and adventure bug at a young age. Any time I had an opportunity to travel, I would, but beyond that, I would read about different places and different people. It just made me so eager to see what the rest of the world was like. That just got stronger as I got older.
I enjoyed school. I’m a super-competitive person, so I worked hard probably just because I always wanted to get better grades than my brothers. I always chafed against teachers who had a one-size-fits-all mentality, and I pushed back really hard, and that’s something that I get from my family. We’re a super-loud, argumentative family, and I was not necessarily appreciated by most of my teachers. I don’t think I had a teacher who really, really, really understood me, probably until I was in the sixth grade. I wanted a challenge, and without it, I coasted along.
Reading just made me so eager to see what the rest of the world was like.
Who were the adults that were important to you when you were a kid?
My parents were really important to me, but really, my grandparents were so influential. I grew up living a half-mile from my dad’s parents, and they were some of the coolest people I’ve ever met. They never treated us like children. My grandfather would give me any book out of his office. That’s where I picked up a habit of reading biographies. They played such a huge role in my life. I always knew that if there was something I really wanted to do, and my parents didn’t get it, that my grandparents would be my advocates.
My grandmother had tremendous style, whether that was art or fashion or architecture or food, but she was also really smart. My grandmother was the first female president of the student body at Pomona College. I remember her taking me to see “Evita,” the movie, when it came out, and then went to a Catherine the Great exhibit. I think she was doing that very intentionally. Maybe because I didn’t have a ton of adult influences, she had an outsized influence.
How did you get interested in fashion and design?
I was born into a family of women who have really beautiful taste. My mom said that I would flip through magazines when I was little, and would look at dresses. I have photo albums of dresses that I cut out from magazines when I was six or seven. When I didn’t find a class very interesting or challenging, I would sit in class and sketch dresses, all the way through high school. I don’t know if anyone encouraged me, really. I always loved art classes, and definitely my mom was a super-big influence there.
When you were younger, did you ever consider a career in fashion?
I never once thought that would be a job. I was really good at history. I have a weird, crazy memory for historical detail, and I’m a really competitive person. I always thought that I would go to law school, and become some super-competitive lawyer, or run for the Senate. Nobody ever said to me, “You could go to art school. You could go to design school.”
I went to a liberal arts college; I was a history major and an art history minor. I graduated from college, and I moved to Washington DC. I was really passionate about working with people and helping people, and so I worked in the non-profit sector for the first six years I was out of college, and I really loved it. I never during that time regretted not going to design school. It just literally had never occurred to me.
How did you reconnect with that interest in design and fashion?
I’d just gotten married. My husband worked in finance. I knew that he was going to want to go back to business school. I had made really great connections in the non-profit community, and so I said, “Okay, I’m going to start working on some smaller non-profit consulting projects, and build a consulting practice for myself, because that’ll give me a lot of flexibility to figure out what I want to do next.”
My friend Emma and I said, “We’re going to start a blog, and for 30 days, each of us is going to wear a different pair of shoes, and put it on the blog.” We had so much fun with it. Then another friend who had recently started an arts and fashion magazine in DC said, “I’ve got this magazine, and I’m trying to grow it, and if you ever want to help, let me know.” I did everything from styling photo shoots to covering the Running of the Brides, Filene’s Basement’s annual wedding dress sale.
All of a sudden, I was doing fashion projects with Emma. People would just ask us to do stuff, and we would say, “Sure.”
The more I was around this whimsical side of fashion, the more I realized that aspirational, glamorous fashion leaves a lot of people behind. Coming from the non-profit world, there’s always a mission: how you want to help that service community? How you want to effect change for that community? I looked at the fashion world and thought, “how well is fashion serving women?” I began to realize that nobody was saying, “Wow, I’m super-passionate about real-life, regular women, and I want to serve them well, and how I want to do that is through clothes.” Once I realized that, it was like a switch went off. For ten years, I had never thought about fashion, and then a year later, I was like, “This is what I want to do.”
How did you take that realization and use it to start Kit?
My non-profit consulting business was growing pretty nicely. That was where I was earning my income. My husband went to business school in Texas, and shortly before we moved, one of my good high school friends asked me to design and make her bridesmaid dresses. I had made two dresses in my entire life, and she had seen me wear one of them. I said, “Of course I will. That sounds like so much fun.” I was learning about how would I do this. It was all so hands-on, because it was just me. I was sewing everything, and it gave me this tiny, tiny, tiny glimpse into, “If I want to build a company, everything I’m doing now will have to happen.”
I wanted to understand what I would have to do, and so, I started creating a list of things that I needed to understand. I started to understand them, and then I started to do them, and it just snowballed. I kept pecking away at my to-do list, and I was still consulting. I thought [design] would be my side gig.
About a year in, I was like, “I’ve checked off a quarter of the things on my to-do list. I’m actually doing this.” It was time to sit down and have a conversation with [my husband] and say, “Hey, I actually don’t think I want this to be my side thing. What I’ve envisioned demands a hundred percent of my time. I’ve done my bit these past couple years in supporting us. Now you have this great degree, and you’re going to get this great job, and maybe it’s going to be your turn for the next couple of years to support us, while I start this company.” I think he probably saw that coming before I did. He was like, “Cool. That sounds fair.”
Who are the people you work with to make your business run?
Mostly they’re a lot of really kick-ass women. When you start a company, there’s a lot of stuff that you have to do that you’re not super-good at, and it all has to be done right away. We’ve got a lot of people who help in a soft way. My sister-in-law works for a big law firm, and she does pro bono work for us. One of my brothers does digital consulting. He’s been really helpful when it came to anything digital. When I’ve worked with cool people over the years, or known cool people, I’ve always put them on a list in the back of my head, and said, “If I’m ever in the position where I’m able to, I’d want to work with them.”
Everybody I work with came to me through someone, and they almost all came to me through women. I found seamstresses through my childhood friend Dana. She said, “My Asian-American philanthropy group does a lot of projects at this organization that works with recently-resettled refugees, and they’ve got a tailoring workshop.” If I have learned anything from building this company, it’s that the best way to build something is to build it through people, to really talk about what you’re doing, to share your vision with people.
Who are your target customers?
We are our own target market. Busy women, that’s our target customer. We happen to know lots of busy women. We have a really different message from most clothing companies. Most clothing companies talk a lot about how you should aspire to something better or different, thinner and sexier and prettier and more stylish, and you should wear this, and if you do, it will help you get there. And we say, “That’s bogus,” and we think you’re awesome. We would just like to make clothes that are as awesome as you are.
How do you connect with your customers?
We do that in a couple of ways. We get people through regular search traffic. The vast majority of our early customers were friends and family. We do a lot of networking amongst our customer groups. We have trunk shows in different cities. Then we started to do a lot of press.
We should treat every customer as we would my mom and my best friend, and frankly, we should treat them better. That guides how we interact with customers. We have customers who bought something on our web site, but now they’ll send me a text message, or call, or email and say, “I love that blouse. Can I get two more?” And I’ll say, “Sure. I can go ahead and process that sale for you, and do you like the collar that way? What colors do you want?”
I probably could name 99 percent of our customers, and we’re starting to get bigger. They’re all really cool. I like talking to all of them. We grow pretty organically, because sometimes we’ll have a customer who said, “I was at my monthly ladies’ luncheon, and I was talking to my friend, and I said that I really liked her dress, and then she told me your whole story.”
It’s about the story. It’s about our mission and our philosophy, and a lot of that springs from how we view what we do, which is we provide a service for our customers, and everything arises from that.
There’s always something to be learned, and that’s the common thread of my life, that I love learning new things, and seeing new things, and rejoicing in that.
What fills your time outside of work?
I love gardening. My mom was a gardener, and when I was little, I thought it was so uncool. As I’ve gotten older, I really like plants. My mind is always moving at a thousand miles a minute, and now what I love more than anything is to sit in our small city yard and dig up plants and replant them, or weed for hours at a time, mostly on the weekend, because you can’t hurry plants. It’s totally different from my day-to-day life. I started gardening as this stress relief, anxiety relief thing, because I felt so much calmer when I had a couple of hours to sit out in the garden.
Some of it’s being outside, but then I really saw how much I was learning from it. We had a freeze a couple weeks ago. Everything was frozen. Finally, a couple weeks later, I started clearing out some of the leaves and the branches, and I noticed every plant, when I cut away at the dead leaves, you could just see new shoots coming just above the ground.
Plants are so much more resilient than you would ever think, and really, we are too. That’s a lesson that I’m learning from the plants that I can internalize: that as I go through my crazy days, I know that I am like the plants. I can be really resilient. I can survive things that I didn’t think I would be able to, and I learned that from gardening.
There’s always something to be learned, and that’s the common thread of my life, that I love learning new things, and seeing new things, and rejoicing in that. Now I’m learning about bulbs, because why not? Why not bulbs? Why not grasses? Why not these books? Why not just go ahead and learn this thing?
What advice would you give someone who wants to start her own business?
To people starting companies, take as much time as you can before you hit Go, before you tell everybody what you’re doing, before you throw up that web site and say, “I’m selling dresses.” You only have that kind of underground time once. Once you start a company, it’s game on. There’s no, “Oh, we’re just going to press Pause for a little bit while I take a breather.”
Running a business is not for the faint of heart, particularly not a small business, but if you like learning and you like challenges, and you like doing new things, it’s the best possible thing you could ever do.
You’ve got to learn on your feet so quickly, whether it’s customer service, or production. I learned pattern making. Pattern making is geometry, and I was terrible at geometry. It took probably six months to design our first two garments, and that was two and a half years ago. And now, over the last three and a half weeks, we have designed, drafted patterns, and have finished patterns for 80 styles that we’re going to launch this spring.
I’m 33, I’ve worked in two different industries now. I have plenty of time to do other things.
How did you picture your life as an adult, how does your life now compare to that?
When I was younger, I was really concerned that because I went to work in the non-profit world, that path just wasn’t as linear. I thought, “I am probably doing something wrong,” but it all works out. Whether you have that straight path, or whether your path looks like you were playing Twister for ten years, like mine, it’s totally going to be okay.
I never imagined running this company. I probably imagined that I would have kids by now. While I really used to care about how other people perceived what I was doing, I totally don’t care anymore. What I care about is that I’m happy, and I have a great husband, I have great friends. I don’t sleep nearly as much as I should, but I’m doing something that I love. It’s rewarding, and that’s what matters. It doesn’t matter what I thought I would be doing.
I have this crazy bucket list of things that I would love to do at some point in time. I don’t think about it as, “Wow, if I choose to start this company, I’m eliminating the possibility of those other things.” Instead I think, I’m 33, I’ve worked in two different industries now. I have plenty of time to do other things. You can do something for ten or 15 years, and then you can decide that you want to do something else, and you’re not making that decision because you failed at that other thing. If you live within your means and you save money and you create flexibility for yourself, then you can go ahead and make that transition. There’s a freedom that didn’t used to exist.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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