By Caroline Jumpertz
Meg Kinney is the owner of and designer for the fashion label and retail stores bearing her name. She launched Meg in 1994, and currently has five stores in the USA and Canada.
Meg started out making skirts and selling them in her neighborhood as a teenager, from there it was fashion school and interning, all the while learning from her mistakes and getting help at crucial turning points. Her expat parents were instrumental in guiding her through challenging times.
After nearly going bankrupt as a wholesaler, Meg tried retail and built her successful business from there. Meg lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with her husband, also in the fashion industry, and their daughter.
Q: Your mother and grandmother both owned clothing boutiques in Canada where you grew up. What’s your earliest memory of fashion?
A: My earliest memory of fashion is my mom coming home from work, all glamorous, heels and hats. She was so funny because obviously she’d get dressed up to go to work, and then come home and put the sweatpants on and be a mom.
She opened her boutique when I was 5, and had it for 10 years. I would go there on the weekends and I would sit in the dressing rooms and watch people get naked and put clothes on.
My mom had a row of seamstresses that did all the alterations and they were these amazing Polish ladies who were super sweet to me, and taught me how to do stuff.
My mother and her business partner would take me on buying trips which was fun. I would go to hotel rooms and watch them buy collections.
It always felt like I was hanging with the grown ups, and I liked that.
Q: Do you remember your first sale?
A: I had to spend a summer at my grandmother’s house in this tiny town in Canada. Her boutique was called “The Fashion Shop”. She had signed my brother and I up for camp and I was like “I don't want to go to camp, I want to hang out at the store.”
I did my very first sale at her shop, it was a grey floral brooch that I coordinated for someone. I remember feeling quite chuffed; I was probably 8.
Q: How much of your aesthetic now comes from your mother and grandmother?
A: I think the truth of it is there was always a level of practicality in both of them. I saw, from both of them, what clothes need to do for a woman, versus just adorning a woman.
I’m literally watching my mother as a working woman, and a mother in the 70s and 80s and the level of functionality that she had to have in her life and in her day.
And my grandma, what’s so funny about those decades is there was always a little bit of flair that had to do with wartime. There were details in that generation, like a hat or brooch, that were never forgotten.
It wasn't about abundance, but there was that flair that somehow got lost. I recognized that in both of them and I think I probably carried that through.
Meg Kinney in her Williamsburg store.
Q: Could you describe your aesthetic?
A: I think that it’s feminine, it’s utilitarian and very timeless, functional, classic clothing.
Our niche is that there’s a lot of versatility in it.
Q: In your 20s were you already heading down this path?
A: The quick story is: at 14 it was either rock star or fashion designer. I was a really horrible student so at the end of the day my parents were really supportive of me doing something I really loved. I was making clothes at 14 and selling them in stores around the neighborhood and it was clearly my jam.
So they helped me get into fashion school, meaning they did all the research for me, and off I came to New York to go to FIT.
But I got through my degree, kind of, and then I started to intern, and super-lucky stroke of my life, by chance and off a job board, I found myself at a factory. At this factory, on 25th Street, they produced all of the coolest independent young designers of the early ‘90s. And those kids were all in their 20s too. I was maybe 20, and they were maybe 25.
When I think about the pressure they must have had, and how young they were, because there was big backing money behind them. It was high stakes. But everyone was so naive, all we wanted to do was have fun.
I was one of those people, I was like: “I’ll get your coffee and chocolate bars, because I sort of suck at everything else, but I just want to be in this space, I will do whatever. I will watch and I will see and I will sleep here…”
People were sweet and they respected the fact that I was going to be the biggest tryer in the room. And because they were all young, everything was exposed. There were tiny sample rooms. We’d stay up all night with two sewers, one cutter, three pattern makers me and a design assistant, and the main designer, and develop what was a super-huge fashion show. It was awesome.
Q: Who gave you a great piece of insight or advice at this time?
A: Byron Lars was one of the designers that I worked for and I really like, and he was part of that family. I remember one three o’clock in the morning, Chinese food on the desk, and I said “How does a person get from A to D? Because in school they teach us all the trade but they don't tell us how to start. How do you start?”
And he said to me: “I went and found some sample fabric, put together a line, and then showed up at [Henri] Bendel’s for open call, and proceeded to schlep my wares.”
At that time my parents lived in the Middle East, so I went off and worked with the Indian tailors in the Middle East and put together my first 12-piece collection out of gauze, which cost like 25 cents a yard. I came back with my friend Fred, who was my roommate at the time, and said “Let’s sell this!” and we booked appointments all over town, anybody that would let us get in front of them.
It wasn't until the 12th one, which was Pat Field, who bought it.
And we almost didn't go to that appointment. I was like “I don't know if I want to go, we’ve seen 11 stores and no-one wants to write an order…”
But we did. That started my first collection. I think we sold $6000 that season, I didn't know what the f*ck I was doing in any way, shape or form.
So I started again every season I’d try, try, and then I almost went broke, in wholesale, because you just do, it’s a disaster.
Q: Why is wholesale so hard?
A: Your margin is this big [holds fingers very closely together], you eat every f*ck-up. It was also the end of boutique retail, so a lot of times people would test young designers, but you’re not their bread and butter so to pay you is really not high on their list. The combination of all of those things made it touch and go.
My parents lent me $5000 to produce my first line, and that $5000 sustained me for two years of attempting to do a wholesale business. And then I had all this returned merchandise, whatever, and I was sample-sale-ing out of my Chelsea apartment.
My parents moved to Hong Kong, so I went to see them and I was on a plane and I thought “If I opened a store and I lived in the store, I would only have to sell 10 dresses to pay my rent, and then I could sell this stuff every day, because I have all this overstock and I have no place to liquidate it.”
So that’s how I started in retail.
Q: So the move from wholesale to retail was your biggest turning point?
A: Yes. You really have to be honest with yourself when it’s head against a brick wall.
Q: At what point did you recognize it was your life’s passion?
A: At 14 when I was making these poppy Liberty Print skirts with elastic waistbands and I knew that there was nothing I could do better. This was easy to me.
I’d wake up in the morning and want to cut things out and sew them. What was scary for me was that I knew I wasn't great, technically, I was not the best pattern maker, I was definitely not the best sewer, so that stuff scared me along the line, but the idea of wanting to make something, I could never stop that.
I feel like in a strange way it was lucky for me, because I could have gotten bogged down in a lot of technical stuff, but my desire to get work out there that I felt like I wanted to make, was stronger. I managed to learn a lot from all those people that I worked with that there’s ways to do that besides sitting at a sewing machine by myself every day.
Q: So your entrepreneurial instinct was stronger than your fear?
A: My desire to put something out there of my own, and then weirdly my experience in production, made me know that it’s not smart for me to sew every single piece.
Q: If you had unlimited resources, what would you do?
A: I know, right? I think that all the time; what if I had unlimited resources? I hate to say it but now that I’m old I’m a little bit practical. After having weird franchises and living in L.A., and all these different moves that I’ve made throughout the 20 years of my career, I have a really beautiful solid business in New York with an outpost in Toronto, Canada, so my goal is to expand that core.
I want to be the New York woman’s store. I want to be, like, anyone that’s in the know “That’s where you go to get your goods,” because we know you, we’ve got everything you need, we’ll tailor it if you need and our price point is yummy.
Any woman between the ages of 28 to 65: let me be your store.
My goal is I would want to open maybe four more stores, and then I might consider the concept of partnering with somebody and we could take it to other cities. But I don't want to manage it slowly, I don't want to manage it independently. I would like to partner with someone who’s skilled in all of that.
If everything went to sh*t, and if its just me in one store, selling, every day, what I’ve made, I’m fine with that. If it’s me in 10 stores selling a bunch of ladies a bunch of stuff, that’s really exciting.
Q: It sounds as though every scale works for you
A: As long as I can get up and do it, I really don't care.
When I find the right spaces I will open more stores, when I feel in my gut that the real estate is right.
Q: Do you feel that you’ve made your passion into your purpose and livelihood?
A: I’m missing the ‘give back’ part. I hope to get to that in my 50s. When I’m hiring these little girls, I can be their learning curve. Let me be their first time using a skill set.
That might not be my smartest move, but I just remember, in your 20s, it is hard to find opportunity or a place where things are transparent and you can see how everything is working and be able to attempt to use your skills.
It’s pretty luxurious to have an idea, see it get produced, and then have it responded to, and I love to give that to the girls that work for me.