This is the first in a series of sponsored posts where we look behind the scenes at American clothing company, Karen Kane.

Last week Greg and I spent a day at Karen Kane Headquarters in Vernon, California, touring their design rooms, factory floors, despatch area and all the satellite sections that make the operation flow and function (go backstage to find out how this all came about).

Karen Kane is a family based business with Karen herself as head of design. Husband Lonnie is in charge of production and finance, and eldest son Michael is director of marketing. Michael also has the challenging task of launching the company’s online store in July.

Karen Kane custom built their premises 18 years ago and they are HUGE (150,000 square feet). They produce five labels (Karen Kane, Karen Kane Women’s, Karen by Karen Kane, Fifteen Twenty, and Red 23). Karen herself designs for all of them, together with her lead designer Myung, who has been working with Karen for twenty years.

Greg and I were greeted warmly by Karen and Michael at reception. Karen was casual yet uber chic in skinny jeans, black silky blouse (her own design), wedged sandals and gorgeous chunky silver jewelry. Michael looked hip and cool in tapered grey jeans, slim-fit button down shirt and industrial boots. Right from the outset I knew that this was going to be a fabulous day.

We headed directly to a conference room that contained the final samples and info sheets for the next six months of delivery. Michael had laid out beautiful design illustrations and photos of fashion shoots on the conference room table. Karen Kane actually shoots the photos for their look books in this room. I was itching to look through the rails of final samples, but restrained myself until later.

As I expected, my buying days came flooding back as soon as I walked into the Karen Kane building, and before long my head was exploding with questions. Over the next few hours Karen would answer every one of them with with great insight, humble grace, infinite patience, and a confident dignity that one rarely sees in the Rag Trade. Without question, Karen is a leader at her game.

We started in the “Work Room”, which is where Karen’s design process starts. It is filled with trims, swatches of fabrics, drawings, sketches, photographs, outfits for modeling shoots, and all sorts of other things that fuel those creative juices. Karen has other designers that create final computer aided sketches of clothing and outfits, but for Karen, it’s still about a small sketchpad and an old fashioned pencil. She sketches her ideas and sticks them on big white boards with swatches. After mulling over her ideas and tweaking the sketches, she’ll have the designs sampled up in the Sample Room. Once that happens, the design receives an official style number in red ink.

Karen sketches up many, many designs, but only the best make it onto her big white work boards. The designs that don’t make the cut are not discarded, but stuck to the edge of a large table just in case she needs to return to them later. They are thrown away at the end of a retail season.

Next we went to Karen’s office, passing several important support functions on the way. In one room, two fabulous ladies were ticketing and assembling the final samples for Karen Kane’s nationwide merchandising staff. We passed the fabric ordering room, where it’s a full time job to order the right fabric for garment production (the lovely lady below surrounded by fabric swatches). We also passed the Human Resources, Customer Service and Accounting Departments, and everyone was as friendly as can be. It was great to see an overview of the support functions that make it all happen, and a reminder that the clothing manufacturing business has millions of moving parts.

Karen doesn’t spend too much time in her own office (that’s beautiful Karen sitting at her desk), because she spends most of it in the Work Room, Sample Room and in other parts of the factory overseeing the design process and attending to the hundreds of queries that come up in a day. Michael told us that it’s not uncommon to see a queue of 20 people waiting to speak to Karen at any point in the building.

Clothing designers tend to work around 9 months in advance of products hitting the store shelves and Karen is currently designing for Spring 2012 (Spring 2012 Fashion Week is in early September). She collects fabric swatches and ideas and puts them into separate drawers that are each associated with a particular month of delivery. And yes, there is a separate room and additional staff required just to manage the process of sample fabrication and trim selection because Karen Kane designs and manufactures five labels.

While Karen’s design focus is one season, the company actually juggles three seasons at once. They are currently designing for Spring 2012, producing Fall 2011 and managing the sales for Spring & Summer 2011. Although I loved hearing about the beginning of the design process in the Work Room and seeing all the support funcitons, my favourite part of the day was what came next: the Sample Room. We’ll cover that later today, so stay tuned.

This is the first in a series of posts sponsored by Karen Kane:

  1. Design at Karen Kane (this post)
  2. Karen Kane’s Sample Room
  3. Clothing Production at Karen Kane
  4. Karen Kane’s Trim and Dispatch Departments
  5. Karen Kane the Family Business

For more information you can follow @Karen_Kane on Twitter or like their page on Facebook.