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How KARA Designer Sarah Law Found Solo Success After Gap

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The KARA backpack, $437 on <a href="http://www.shopbop.com/backpack-kara/vp/v=1/1562297767.htm">shopbop.com</a>.
The KARA backpack, $437 on shopbop.com.

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Sarah Law has gone from designing everything from scarves to bags for Gap to launching her own accessories line, KARA, in just two years. After just two collections, KARA—whose name is derived from the Japanese root word for "karaoke" (the literal translation for the popular party game is "empty orchestra")—can already be found at Creatures of Comfort, Harvey Nichols, and Opening Ceremony as well as in the pages of Harper's Bazaar, The New York Times style section and British Vogue.

Starting a luxurious, understated bag line was always a goal for the Parsons grad, but the road to realizing her dream was not easy. We spoke with Law about her transition from Gap employee to the designer of her own line, what school doesn't teach you and how to spot the perfect bag.

How did you get a job at Gap right out of college?
"I started working in accessories there in 2008. My senior thesis at Parsons was with Roopal Patel, who at the time was the fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. She introduced me to Patrick Robinson, [at the time] the creative director at Gap. It was a small department, but I immediately started doing socks and cold weather—hats, scarves, gloves, knits. Everything was divvied up, so someone did prints, someone did patterns, someone did design."

Gap must operate on a completely different schedule and scale than a small business. What are the differences?
"[At Gap], I had a team. It was myself (the designer), as well as a production assistant, a sourcing assistant, a CAD person who was developing my prints, and one person for each division. Now, I'm working on developing Fall/Winter 2014, we're closing sales for Spring/Summer 2014, and we're following up on production for Resort. I'm personally dealing with all these things at once. At Gap, I would design a few things and of course you still have your eye on the other productions, but you're not privy to the whole process."

KARA shearling pouch, $202 at shopbop.com.

What did you learn from your time at a big company that has informed your strategy with KARA?
"Gap put a lot of effort into figuring out how things are sold and what items sell. We would have weekly sales calls and I would find out how many of my scarves in which areas were selling and how quickly. In that sense, I was trained to give a customer exactly what they want.

That really helps me when I'm designing bags now. I ask myself, 'How is this being worn?' My customer is different [than Gap's], but I'm still thinking through how [each bag] will be used. And if the store experience doesn't match up with your product, it's just not going to sell or reach the customer in the way that you want."

A lot of excellent stores picked up KARA very quickly. How did that happen?
"I started by making a list of about 150 stores that I would love to be in and then tiered the list out into 'Favorite,' 'More Favorite' and 'Most Favorite.' The higher I got up on the list, the harder I worked to get in touch with every single buyer. It was a big priority for the season. I sent bags to some of the stores I really liked, so they had a chance to interact with the product and get to know it. There's nothing better than someone being able to try it on themselves and see the quality really is fantastic and the price is right. Anytime I got any sort of response I made sure to follow up right away and talk to anybody who would listen."

KARA burgundy leather convertible double-date bag, $380 on Ssense.

There was a lot of learning involved.
"When I quit Gap and started my own company, I didn't actually know when sales seasons were. I had to actually find out from somebody, 'When are my real deadlines?' Which is crazy to think about because I went to design school! There wasn't a point in design school where someone said, 'Let's look at a calendar and explain to you how long it really takes to develop a project.'"

How did you end up finding that information out, did you just ask a buyer?
"A lot of it you find out through mistakes. I had developed all of my product for the original collection of six black handbags for Spring/Summer 2013. When I got to September in 2012, I was like, 'Okay, now I can start contacting stores and introduce them to my product!' Little did I know that the way that you actually do things, the sales season closes at that point and I should have been contacting people for the previous month. It was almost as if I had missed the whole season because I didn't know the process of contacting buyers and stores.

After that happened, I was like okay, I need to write everything down, full clarity. I was really maniacal about it. That was a very good learning process for me. For a start-up business, the hardest part is getting the simplest information and just having all of it together."

So that was 2012, and you started at Gap in 2008.
"I quit Gap around July 2011."

What made you decide to start your own business?
"That was always the plan. It was a really scary thing. I valued my job at Gap and the environment was great. How do you tell someone, even your friends, 'Yeah, I want to start my own clothing line.' Everybody wants their own clothing line, everybody talks about becoming a designer one day. You sort of roll your eyes at yourself.

You just have to do it. You have to change your thinking from, 'When is it going to be the right time? When am I going to have enough experience?' to, 'Whatever happens, I've got to figure it out.' Growing up in the United States, there's this feeling that if you want to do something, you get an education first and then you do it. People are really removed from that entrepreneurial process of 'try everything, be open to everything.' You go to school first, because school means that you're officially qualified. But it's crazy because a lot of the time school is so removed from reality.

Image via KARA.

It sounds like real-world needs aren't addressed.
"It's funny because in terms of a pure design education, Parsons was incredible. But maybe 10% of my job is design and the other 90% is following up on production, getting paid on orders, making sure things ship on time, and then there's the whole component of sales, press and communicating with editors about the new collection and working with your web designer. I can give you a list of 100 things that I have to do before I sit down and design something. "

Why handbags?
"A lot of people can interact with handbags. People who seem like they're not that interested in fashion, they [still] have opinions about handbags. Bags are fascinating because they're a marketing tool for a lot of companies—a signature, an 'It bag,' all of those things. There are so many times when I remember the handbag the girl was wearing but I don't really remember the girl. The bag is wearing the person. Some people have a different feeling about a person based on the handbag that they're wearing. It says a lot. It's really easy currency."

From a design perspective, what do you look for in a bag?
"I'm really maniacal about quality and craftsmanship. On a very personal level, at the moment I don't like flashy stuff. I like bags that are more subdued and not so obvious.

For durability, look for any kind of vegetable-tanned cowhide—you see it on Filson bags, the heavy leather trim. They take some of the best quality leather. The material has to be very good quality because the finishing is not going to hide any imperfections. The leather doesn't have to be heavy to be good quality, though. Quilted Chanel bags are made from lambskin, and they're very discerning."

How do you judge quality?
"One thing to look at is the hardware. Often, smaller companies buy generic hardware from catalogs or small novelty craft shops. If you look at a Céline or a Chloé, there is a person in the company who is totally devoted to designing and making the hardware so that over time it is not going to rust and finishes properly. The easiest things to look for are how smoothly the hardware works, and how heavy the metal is when you pick it up."

· KARA [Official Site]