NEW YORK—Merin Guthrie flew into the city just for a hot second, but not for fashion week. The founder and CEO of Kit—a custom clothing company for women—is an outlier in the fashion world. She considers that a good thing.
Guthrie is not the kind of fashion CEO who would come up with a grand design theme or a fast-fading trend. She is a problem solver, who has honed in on the biggest problem, from a woman’s perspective, in women’s fashion: finding clothes that fit well. Like an alchemist, Guthrie has created an antidote to standard sizing and throwaway fashion, in a practical and conscientious way.
“There’s never a bad time for me to come to New York,” she said in an office room downtown. After the interview, she planned on checking out fabrics and some hooks and eyes, picking up some silk lining, talking with her trim vendor, and then flying back to her home in Houston, Texas.
Guthrie wore a breezy black dress with white diamond-shape side panels that created a slimming effect at the waist. It fit her perfectly, looked flattering and incredibly comfortable, yet it echoed a more formal, tightly fitted 1950s dress. That “Illusion A-Line” dress, as she calls it, would get her through a day’s work, taking the subway from one meeting to the next, and could transition easily into the evening for a dinner party.
Finding a dress that is flattering, comfortable, and versatile and that also has longevity is like a silver bullet. And if the dress fits perfectly to your unique body size and shape, and if it is produced ethically in the USA, even more so.
“I could wear this dress probably for the next 20 years,” Guthrie said. Kit can readily control quality as the company’s manufacturing is done in-house. It sources high-quality fabrics directly from textile mills in Italy, France, Japan, and South Korea, and much of the garment construction is based on how it was done from the 1940s, to the early ’60s.
There’s no economy of scale in Kit’s business model. The company has pretty good margins because it doesn’t do wholesale, and while it doesn’t sell in large quantities, it has nearly a zero percent return rate. Also, almost all of its customers become repeat customers.
Most Kit dresses are priced from $185 to $300, skirts from $135 to $250, and tops from $135 to $200 with free shipping.
It’s challenging for Kit to stay below those price points, considering its values. The highest cost is labor. Guthrie made the personal choice of paying her seamstresses double the minimum wage. “I couldn’t imagine paying somebody minimum wage living in a major city,” Guthrie said.
Thinking Up Kit Outside of the Box
Guthrie came up with the idea for Kit when she was working in Washington, D.C., as a nonprofit consultant in the arts in her mid-20s. Like many professional women, she was running around in ill-fitting clothes, dealing with the nuisance of her skirt riding up, her blouse gaping, or the lining in her dress bunching.
She was making enough money to buy her investment pieces—a practical capsule wardrobe that fashion editors recommend. She did not want to shop at any fast-fashion stores like H&M or Forever 21, but she could not afford a high-quality Armani outfit either. There were few choices in between. She quickly realized that most of her friends and many other women had the same problem.
At that time, she was also spending more time with her two grandmothers and her step-grandmother. “Each of them is really unique, but they all have really beautiful taste. I have amazing old dresses from each of them,” she said. Twice a year she still wears a dress that her grandmother bought in Paris in 1957. “It is a beautiful dress, it looks awesome; it’s in amazing condition,” she said, beaming. “I was trying to find the contemporary version of that. It didn’t exist.”
With a background in history and experience in the nonprofit world, she knew nothing about the fashion industry. She kept thinking that surely some company out there would fill the gap.
“It just seemed so ridiculous. If you start to look at the demographics, college-educated women in urban and suburban areas between the ages of 25 and 65, that’s about 50 million people, but most clothing is marketed to 18- to 24-year-old women, or to women over 65,” Guthrie said.
“If I want something that’s between Forever 21 and Eileen Fisher, if I’m not going to go clubbing, but I’m also not going to retire at the Berkshires, where am I supposed to shop?” she said.
About three and a half years ago, she finally decided to solve the problem herself and started planning a clothing company focused on fit, quality, and top-notch customer service. A year and a half later, she launched Kit.
“I am really passionate about making women’s lives easier,” she said.
Because women’s bodies are so diverse, standardized sizes are far from ideal. “I have a good friend who is my exact same height, my exact same weight, but she is really busty and has really narrow hips, and I am fairly flat-chested and I have really wide hips. So despite the fact that we are the exact height and weight, we will never be able to wear the same dress,” Guthrie explained.
With her strong focus on serving women well, Guthrie realized that all the garments would have to be custom made to order—like dressmakers of times past. “I’m thinking of fashion as a service economy,” she said.
None of Kit’s product descriptions have sizes. Instead, customers provide their measurements, height, weight, and build, and other specifications.
She moved with her husband from Washington to Houston, partly because it is one of the biggest port cities in the country, which fortuitously has an ideal talent pool for Kit. Houston is the largest refugee resettlement destination in the United States, most of the refugees are single mothers, and many of them are seamstresses.
Gruthrie feels that if she would have been part of the fashion industry in New York or in Los Angeles, Kit would not have happened. With a starting point that’s backward from the norm—with in-house manufacturing and no sizes—she feels people would have said “that’s crazy.”
Kit has few competitors, and they tend to be specific to one area of Kit’s business—for example, the busy professional woman demographic or the custom-made clothing—but not for all of the aspects that Kit has combined into a wonderful kind of elixir.
“We spend a lot of time talking to our customers. We do two annual surveys and we also get a lot of informal feedback,” Guthrie said. Five or more years from now, Guthrie envisions Kit continuing to grow steadily on the same course—focused on women older than 25.
Right before taking off to the Garment District, she looked at her duffle bag and said: “There’s probably a market for the perfect purse that fits a computer, power cords, extra pair of shoes, and in a pinch a toiletry bag, but also looks nice and doesn’t look like a duffle bag. That would be really fun,” she said, smiling.