Merin Guthrie is the Founder and CEO of Kit, an innovative Made in America clothing start-up changing the way clothes are made. Their e-commerce platform provides an antidote to standard sizing and throwaway fashion by offering custom fit clothing based on each individual customer's height, weight, build and muscle mass.
I felt very strongly that the fashion and retail apparel industry served women poorly. Nearly everyone out there is designing for and selling to an 18-24 year old customer who is trend-driven. But I was in my early thirties, looking for well-made, great fitting clothes that were responsive to my life and needs. And I couldn’t really find anything.
I felt like, “Wait a minute… I would be a good customer. Why is no one designing for me?”
I have a general belief that fashion is a pretty negative space for women. It is, after all, an industry that markets this ridiculous aspirational lifestyle, telling us all the things that we aren’t – skinny enough, tall enough, sexy enough, stylish enough – and then promises that their product will magically fix that. I wanted to build a company that says to our customers: “You are awesome and we love you. We’re making clothes as awesome as you are, because Superwoman needs a cape.”
I had SO many doubts going into this! The greatest was that I would fail. I’m a really type-A, over-achieving type, so failure is scary for me. Here I was starting a design-focused company and I had no design background and very little entrepreneurial experience. What could go wrong, right? In my mind, pretty much everything. But, ultimately, it was a fear of failure. What would I do if I failed? What would people think of me if I failed?
But then I asked myself if I would always regret not starting this company. Not at least chasing the goal of making amazing clothes for real women. And the answer was an unqualified “yes.” No matter how scary, it was just something I had to do. If I didn’t, I knew that I would always regret taking the safe route.
I’ve genuinely been surprised, throughout this process, by how generous people are. I asked (and continue to ask) a lot of people a lot of questions. From friends who were in design to friends who had packaging expertise, I leaned on a lot of peers for their knowledge so that I could shorten my own learning curve. You would be amazed at how much people want to help you succeed.
Beyond that, that you will figure it out. Whatever “it” is, if you work long and hard enough, you can figure it out. Even without going to design school. Or business school. I can’t tell you how many things I knew nothing about two years ago.
Sourcing fabric is a good example. I literally knew nothing about sourcing fabric. I went to a couple of textile mills in South Carolina and saw that that was a dead end. So I research textile trade shows and figured out which was the best for me. Then I started to find mills that I liked working with and beautiful fabrics. I began to understand the challenges of working directly with textile mills. And while I’m by no means an expert on sourcing, I just wrapped up our Fall/Winter textile sourcing and I probably spent 10% the amount of time on it as I did our very first fabrics. I just learned on my feet and figured it out.
Throughout this process, I’ve learned that I am much more resilient than I thought, and that it is an acquired skill. In the early days of Kit, any bad news would throw me, even though I told myself that I needed to be thicker skinned. But then I began to see how, over time, some of those small screw-ups or minor disasters actually led to better products and better processes.
Success doesn’t actually teach you anything. Only failure forces you to really learn a lesson, and so I really had to learn to face those tiny, daily failures and use them as a pivot: what do those lessons tell us about how can we improve upon what we are doing? And over the months, I became thicker-skinned and more able to actually channel failure into positive change.
Also, it’s okay not to know “how things are done.” Innovation is stifled by institutionalization and fixed processes.
We went through several patternmakers and graders because they just couldn’t get on board with the idea of making patterns for a three dimensional body that wasn’t mathematically correct all the time. As it turns out, some measurements don’t actually correspond to others as closely as you would think. And so we needed to make patterns – and garments – that reflected reality, not geometry. But that’s not how patternmaking is done. I’m sure that the first handful of patternmakers thought that I was an idiot for not knowing their way of doing things, but, ultimately, we didn’t want the industry standard. As women know well, clothes don’t fit particularly well, and those clothes are a reflection of patterns. Our goal was much higher than the status quo.
I think this is similar to feeling like you’re under-credentialed. I get asked a lot if I’ve attended or would like to attend business school. And I haven’t. Nor do I plan to. Right now, I can actually leverage those skills for free, because two of our major investors are spreadsheet obsessed, financial modeling MBA types. But, eventually, I can hire an MBA. What I can’t hire is someone with my passion for what we’re doing here at Kit. You can’t learn passion in school.
The skills that have been the most beneficial to me are definitely thinking and learning on my feet.
I went to a workshop recently (Project Entrepreneur – I would highly encourage fellow female entrepreneurs to check it out), and I took a session on iteration with the CEO of Rent the Runway. She talked about how much they iterated in the early days of RTR, and it prompted me to start thinking about all the changes we have made over our first year in business. And that list is SO long. Almost all of those changes were not things we planned or anticipated. We just see the need to improve something and we do it. And we do it while we’re in the midst of our day-to-day operations. It can be a huge mental leap from your day to
My career advice for everyone would be work with really great people. Kit succeeds because of the people behind it. They are willing to go all in, and they are all incredible, bright, supportive women. I certainly wouldn’t be here all by myself. So don’t think about your career as a silo. Your success is largely informed by the people who work with you. Surround yourself with good people; they will raise you up.