What sets a garment apart from simply being another shirt on the rack to being a piece of wearable art is thoughtful, intentional and functional design — and no one considers the importance and power of design when it comes to the creation of fashion more than Karolina Zmarlak and Jesse Keyes. A fashion designer and architect respectively, the pair — who are also life partners as well as partners in business — are the founders of KZ_K Studio, a New York City-based fashion brand that was created on the design pillars of modernism, sustainability and versatility.
The brand presents two collections per year — one for the cold seasons and one for warm seasons — which includes such offerings as lightweight shirt jackets, reversible tops and trouser-inspired darted pants in the warm weather collection, and matching cinched jackets and pants, blazers, sweaters and dresses in the cold weather collection. Each piece is designed with multi-functionality in mind and are built with materials that will retain their quality through consistent wear — the garments can transition, convert and reverse to create a number of silhouettes and styles on their own or paired with other KZ_K Studio pieces, which means that they will be staple pieces in shoppers’ closets for years to come.
Always a lover of fashion and all things creative, Zmarlak studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where she was able to hone and refine her design technique — and develop the skills that would become the groundwork for KZ_K Studio.
“I believe that in order to really be a great designer, you have to understand the fundamentals and have the technique behind the image of fashion,” Zmarlak said. “For me, that was very particular.”
After Zmarlak graduated from the FIT and entered into the fashion world amidst The Great Recession, she saw a unique opportunity to follow her ambition to create her own brand. “Jesse and I were already collaborating in our personal life and work life … We were coming up with a lot of different ideas, and we talked about doing a made-to-measure type of atelier,” Zmarlak said, “which turned into what you see to this day: a ready-to-wear line.”
The brand took on its first life as a small capsule in 2009, and in 2015, Zmarlak and Keyes reassessed their process and what the future of KZ_K Studio might look like in the long-term. “Instead of doing the regular sort of fashion program and only working with stores, we evolved to be direct-to-client and found new ways to partner with stores that made our business sustainable,” Zmarlak said. “We could design and work in a way we felt was going to be the future [of the brand] for the next 20 to 30 years — because we want to be in this for the rest of our lives.”
KZ_K Studio’s atelier model is just one element of the brand’s DNA that sets it apart. Not only is the brand inspired by the fashion houses of old — where clients would work one-on-one with designers to develop and create pieces together that would form their own personal collections for a season or more — but it also takes inspiration from what Keyes called the architecture studio mentality. In this model, rather than creating a product (or, in this case, a garment) and then trying to convince clients of why they need it, the designer and the client form a relationship wherein both parties understand each other’s abilities and needs — and the product that comes from this dialogue compliments both’s aesthetics.
“Over time, you develop that deep, loyal, design-oriented relationship,” Keyes said. “Clients come to us because they know we’re designing clothing that works, functionally, and [is] aesthetically pleasing.”
“The differentiating factor [of KZ_K Studio] is twofold,” Zmarlak continued. “It’s definitely in the product, which has evolved but has always stayed within the value system of multi-functionality, and also with that architectural thinking and atelier-style connection with the client … The client [comes] back over time and is really connected not just as a customer, but as part of the success and part of a community.”
Architecture also informs KZ_K Studio’s garment offerings as well. Each of the brand’s biyearly collections are “concept driven,” Keyes said, and are inspired by the works, aesthetics and artistic movements of noteworthy architects and artists. Zmarlak and Keyes often travel to and immerse themselves in the international settings that inspired their designs.
“We had a Barragán collection, so we went to Mexico City and spent a week and a half studying all of his art, architecture and history, and integrated some of those elements that make sense — like some color coordinations, details in fabrics or even finishing some of the details in the studio that we were inspired by,” Keyes shared.
The brand’s most recent Spring/Summer collection paid homage to Madam Clicquot and Picasso’s last 15 years of work and life, some of which he spent in Mougins, France. “[In the collection], you’ll see beautiful, couture colors done in our sort of minimalist, neutral way,” Zmarlak said. “Madam Clicquot was this incredible woman who took over a failing business from her husband who passed and made it what it is today.”
The Fall/Winter collection was inspired by Charlotte Perriand, a well-known French designer and architect who lived for almost 100 years. “She was one of the first product designers, and many people consider her an architect … She never received the credit, but she was really prolific and worked with new materials and textures,” Zmarlak said. “The collection is sleek and minimalist, but with amazing sculptural details.”
“When you live in an incredible city, especially here downtown, it’s everything from what you can see … to really thinking about what Charlotte Perriand was looking at, and the materials that she was working with in the 1920s — and how [they are still] incredibly modern today and utilized in product design,” Zmarlak continued, expanding further on where she finds her inspiration as a designer. “When you’re searching and seeking out techniques and well-designed products, the themes interconnect and you have an archive of it all in your brain. It builds on itself.”
Multi-functionality & Sustainability
Multi-functionality is at the core of KZ_K Studio’s mission — and this focus on the mutability of pieces informs many of Zmarlak and Keyes’ choices when it comes to the fabrics and techniques that it takes to create them. The founders take pride in their relationships with their factories and manufacturers — most of which are located in New York City’s Garment District, in addition to continued collaborations with mills and tanneries located in Japan and France, respectively — and work closely with them on designs and learning new and unique techniques for their multi-functional garments together.
“We’re doing the sampling and all of the manufacturing with these teams,” Keyes said. “It goes hand in hand: those factories that we, over time, have figured out how to become deep partners with, from our perspective, are the best factories because they have the highest level of technique and quality.”
This commitment to quality ties directly into the brand’s sustainability goals. Many of the KZ_K Studio’s garments are made with recycled fabrics and plant-dyed materials — for example, sweaters in the Fall/Winter collection, which were designed in collaboration with the brand’s Japanese partners, were made from fabrics that were dyed with food waste that was collected and repurposed by a Tokyo-based food project.
“The ultimate meaning for sustainability to us — as with architecture, too — is how well-built the structure is and how well- built the pieces are. If [the garments] last for a lifetime of use — for 20, 30 and 40 years — then that’s the ultimate in sustainability,” Keyes added.
KZ_K Studio’s New Downtown Home
Zmarlak and Keyes’ commitment to truly listening to their clients and satisfying their needs with garments that are long-lasting, good for the environment and timelessly classic sets the brand apart from its competitors — and will assure that the brand will be an important part of the fashion industry for years to come. The brand has just moved to a new space, the Great Jones Street Studio, which provides a central meeting ground where the founders, their team and their clients can come together to create, learn and explore.
“We had an opportunity to take over this whole floor downtown, in the neighborhood that we so enjoy, and be able to take a space that’s really an extension of that same design ethos,” Keyes said, “and make each space [in it] purposeful, interconnected, multi- functional and flow. [We] utilized all these techniques and materials with two things in mind: that same modernist, multi-functionality and styled minimalism.”
“We always say we don’t want to be looked at as a fashion brand,” Zmarlak concluded. “We keep calling ourselves a design studio, and I think that that’s the exciting part about having this space. It’s sort of coming full circle, and keeping it sort of relatively small [means] we don’t have to be the next giant — it really is something that the passion of the work can be really fantastic and fulfill one’s life in a way that’s smaller and intimate.”