Karolina Zmarlak, Creative Director of KZ_K Studio, on Slow Fashion
Move the Needle
May 13, 2024
Karolina Zmarlak shares how she has been inspired by slow fashion and led her company in the past two decades towards a direct-to-client business model.

Karolina Zmarlak led the eponymous Karolina Zmarlak, a women’s ready-to-wear collection, when along with her partner, Jesse Jeyes, an urban planner and architect by training, they decided that the collection should utilize the thinking of the made-to-measure process, by creating personalized pieces bought off the rack. The Karolina Zmarlak collection was mainly sold through boutiques and department stores (Saks Fifth Ave and Neiman Marcus, in the premier designer category) and relaunched as KZ_K Studion in January 2016, focusing on slow fashion using a direct-to-client business model.

Buy fashion pieces once, and for life.‍

You’ve chosen to embrace slow fashion; how has that helped your business?

It became increasingly apparent that when we worked through the major designer retail stores, we lost connection with clients, and even our design, as they dictated things like colors and silhouettes. We decided, gratefully, to reduce the layers and maximize the communication between our mills, factories and clients, all mediated through our clothing design. As with the laudable transition of the food industry, beginning in the late 80’s and into 90’s, we espouse “slow fashion.” The essential notion is, know thy partner, whether it be the superb Japanese set of mills we’ve been working with for over 10 years, or the handful of tanneries in Europe. We don’t stray; we don’t shop around; we don’t counter source; we know and trust them, and they know and trust us. As with the “slow food” movement in Piemonte, Ialy, the chef/owners of established restaurants cut off their far flung, inexpensive food purveyors in exchange for local only, one-on-one, relationship based exchanges between themselves and local farmers. Their customers became friends, and were commensurately introduced to their farmer friends, in a closed-loop, trust-based, creatively focused network –as all in this circle of friends know it’s in their best interest to shine among the group, and to provide quality products and delicious innovative plates– a productive, virtuous cycle.

How do you maintain consistent creative growth?

Seriousness in design and execution, precision that demands all my energy, focus and attention is tantamount to inspiration, so that the final product serves a functional, durable and aesthetic purpose for my client. I do it for the demands of the creative process and the pleasure of the sharing. Michelin starred chef Arzak in San Sebastian once said: “be serious, be technical, but always share what you’ve made with joy and a laugh.”

How have you learned to navigate a business with a co-founder?

We are partners, Jesse and I, in all things: life, crime and creativity. We navigate either through the standard process of coming to common truths/agreements: thesis, then antithesis, then synthesis. )r, after 15 years developing kz_k together, we now, more often, move through troubled and calm waters via a common flow of design vision and principles.

What leadership advice has propelled you throughout your career?

Do not give up, continue to hone your specialty, work harder than your employees, believe in yourself, connect honestly and sincerely with all your partners. If you can do all these through doubts and depression, you will lead, intrinsically, by example.

Do you have one secret to your success?

Don’t give up, and know your specialty better than (or as much as) anyone else; that is, be a genuine technician.

Who is a woman you admire?

Charlotte perriand, a true pioneer of modernism in architecture and design. She epitomized the entire movement with her commitment to using technologically advanced materials in innovative fabrications, resulting in minimal and functional forms. Do you know who she was? Few do. She was overshadowed by her male contemporaries. Now she’s a positive shadow force in my life.

What’s one thing you can’t live without?

Kimono, ur 6lb silver shih tzu, both studio mascot and home teammate.


What is one big trend you’re excited about in 2024?

That more and more, women will understand the value of searching out and buying pieces and looks to suit their professional, social and aesthetic desires, produced with a quality that provides a lifetime of use: the ultimate in “sustainability”. Buy fashion pieces once, and for life.


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