Today our chat with Asiatica’s design and production guru Kate McConnell seems fitting as we’ve been reflecting lately on our unique differences as a small clothing atelier.
Here, Kate puts into perspective how it all goes down and the important role she plays at Asiatica.
Q. How long have you been with the company?
KATE: I joined Asiatica in 1996. It is the perfect fit for me. I use my knowledge of fabrics, how they are made, textile history and clothing construction daily. I received my BFA in Textile Design from the University of Kansas where I was first exposed to Japanese design and fabric history.
I enjoy soaking up every bit of information I possibility can about the way our company works as a small design atelier with its impressive Japanese textiles collection housed within our luxury retail store. It’s an informal education that's built upon my formal education.
Q. Describe what your job entails?
KATE: My job holds a wide variety of responsibilities; managing our staff, taking care of clients and their orders, maintaining supplies, cutting, fitting and traveling to trunk shows working with the customers. My primary (and favorite) responsibility is my creative role in how to use the rare and unique textile inventory we have, which I consider a “library” of fabrics.
Q. The kimono library is one important distinction that sets Asiatica apart, but what else is different?
KATE: We make and sell our clothing in real time in our workshop in Kansas City. We only make what we think we will sell and what will showcase the fabrics we collect. We do not invest in making a large volume of garments when we create a collection. We sell primarily at our national trunk shows and online, as opposed to producing in advance and wholesaling to other retailers. The trunk show sales make up the largest percentage of our business.
Q. Why do you think that is, considering we are in a time when online sales rule over retail?
KATE: Because traveling to our customers and dealing directly with them at our trunk shows is a rare service to this loyal following, and a nice surprise to new customers. We've developed wonderful relationships with these women and we pride ourselves on the personable attention we give to them.
Q. Can you talk about process and the challenges?
KATE: Designing at Asiatica is a journey. It is inspired by what we see when we travel around the country, travel for fun, travel to Japan to find fabric, kimono, and inspiration for what we make. As a designer, I have learned from Elizabeth how to milk these trips for maximum visual adventure and, of course, culinary adventures too.
After we come up with our styles, as I mentioned, the key question is always what fabric or combined fabrics to use for each garment we make. This is the most challenging thing for me.
Our fabrics fall into three categories:
The vintage Japanese fabric from the kimono collection represents pattern, the modern Japanese fabric from NUNO represents texture, and the basic luxury yardage represents solids.
I most enjoy working with the vintage Japanese fabrics. There are thousands of possibilities and actually more limitations than one might imagine.
I consider the possibilities of pattern scale in relation to the style and size of the garment I think we should make. I consider the pattern of the fabric; does it need to be matched? Will that take extra fabric? What is the weight of the fabric? Better for a blouse or jacket? What is the condition of the fabric? Perhaps I should pair this pattern with another pattern or two, which leads us to our “scraps” of fabrics.
Q. How are the kimono prepared to be put into use?
KATE: The kimono gets disassembled and then each long and narrow piece of fabric gets inspected and marked for holes and stains. We then rate the fabric, roll it up, then each rolled up, disassembled kimono is meticulously organized in our "stacks."
Q. Where do you get inspiration for new styles? Does what's happening in fashion at large have a strong influence?
KATE: We are always looking at what's being made by a wide variety of favorite designers. We design our shapes and styles as a small, collective committee with Elizabeth leading the way. We collect ideas constantly and sit down twice a year and sort through the possibilities, working with our pattern maker.
An important part of the design process is how we build upon what our customers respond to, including new and fresh ideas, as we continually replenish the stock as the clothing sells. We always add and subtract new shapes, trusting our gut that the new choices will make our long time customers happy, and also intrigue a new consumer base.
My new favorite pieces for Spring 2017:
Lounge Dress in Black Silk with Summer Flowers
A simple, long straight sided dress with V-neck front and back and a short sleeve-cuff. Comes with a sash of similar or contrasting fabric. Here it is shown in vintage Japanese black summer-weight silk with printed pale blue, green and white summer flowers. One-of-a-kind.
Cocoon in Black Linen
A generous wrap to be worn as an envelope over any other pieces. The drama is in its angled shape and loose drop-shouldered sleeves, horizontal seam andangled round patch pockets. It is pictured here in a soft, drapey Italian linen.
Size: One size fits most
Fabric Options: Many options with varying prices.
Paris Pant in Black Japanese Linen
A shaped, cropped, curve-leg pant with an exposed button front and slanted front pockets in black Japanese crumpled linen.
Size: Small. Other sizes (XS-S-M-L) available by special order.
Caftan in Color Blocked Orange and Black Silk
An easy, rectangular, long dress with a V-neck which can be worn as a dress or tunic. This one-of-a-kind example is made of two vintage Japanese tie-dyed silks: the top in a geranium and black vertical tie-dye; the bottom in an ottoman black silk damask with small white tie-dyed circles.
Fabric Options: Many options at varying prices.
Mizu Top in Double-weight White Linen
This chic blouse has a partial “mandarin” collar on a rounded neckline with a button front. The hem is slightly longer in the back and is rounded to meet in a triangle at the side seams. The blouse is sleeveless with a flattering curved shoulder in European double-weight linen.
Size: Medium. Other sizes (S-M) available by special order.
Color Options: Double-weight linen is available in black, red and white.
Kate’s recent inclusion in IN FASHION (Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.) sheds more insight on her broad knowledge of textiles and craft, plus the varied roles she plays at Asiatica.
Kate McConnell of Asiatica
Meet Kate McConnell, designer and Production Manager for Asiatica. Asiatica is a unique retail store located in Westwood, Kansas, a suburb in the Kansas City metro area. Operating since 1977, Asiatica features a wide variety of merchandise curated from Japanese art and culture, including antique and modern Japanese objects, and one-of-a-kind fashions made from vintage Japanese kimono fabrics, contemporary artisanal fabrics from Japan, and other luxurious textiles.
Unlike most retails stores, Asiatica is unique in that it also functions as an atelier and production facility of the collection of contemporary Asian-inspired fashions marketed through the store and through a nationwide program of trunk shows. McConnell manages a production team of six employees, and all of the cutting and sewing is performed on-site, producing about 1,000 garments and accessories each year. Knowledge of garment construction, design, fit, fabrics and alteration is essential. Because of the one-of-a-kind nature of the products, very little technology is used in the process. For each collection that is produced, decisions on design, fabrication, and size selection are made, and then each garment is cut individually, and each pattern is drafted and graded by hand. As each collection is developed, the production work is managed through weekly and daily goals to be performed by the production team.
McConnell’s lifelong experience in sewing and clothing construction eventually led her to earn her BFA in textile design at the University of Kansas. Since vintage textiles are central to the product design, textile history and knowledge of fabrics is essential, and all of this background provides a perfect combination of skills and experience. Creative inspiration also plays an important part of this process. To this end, McConnell is active in the regional arts community and researches design and garment construction ideas on an ongoing basis.
Asiatica’s unique fashion line is promoted and sold through an extensive trunk show program. So, in addition to her production responsibilities, McConnell travels to twenty to twenty-five cities each year, working with clients across the nation. The ability to call upon a wide range of skills to meet each day’s challenges is essential. In addition to technical and artistic skills, McConnell emphasizes the importance of organization and communication skills as part of excellent customer relations.