Karen Gee, Founder of K A R E N G E E started her online fashion retail business in 2013 with no retail experience whatsoever. Having built the business from the ground up, as she puts it ‘solely based on an idea’ Karen has rapidly grown a steadfastly loyal clientele. The brand is a favourite with celebrities including Lisa Wilkinson, Melissa Doyle, Samantha Armytage, Mel McLaughlin, Danielle Spencer, Sonia Kruger and Sylvia Jeffreys. Her website famously crashed with the demand unleashed when Demi Harman wore one of her designs to the Logies.
The designs are any busy woman’s dream come true. The fit is customisable, and dresses are made from a trademarked fabric that does not need ironing, is ethically sourced, and is machine washable. We love that they are made to suit women of all ages, body shapes and that Karen’s aim is to make all women feel special and beautiful in her designs.
How do you use technology and impeccable customer service to make bespoke dresses for customers?
I had a strong vision of what I was aiming to achieve with my brand and a real determination to see my plans come into fruition. When I launched Karen Gee four years ago, I had not worked in this field before, and had no idea what I was doing in terms of producing dresses. I worked tirelessly day and night, calling, emailing and meeting with people to explore any and all opportunities, learning resilience as it was at this time I was constantly hearing the words ‘no’ and ‘it is not possible.’
My dream was to have every KG garment individually patterned, cut and produced in Australia. I was told to give up as it would be too costly. I started the brand with a pattern maker, a web designer and myself. Together, we created a basic online space and spent up to 20 hours a week travelling. Dropping off and picking up garments from manufacturers all over Sydney and delivering personally to customers. While today it is not feasible to still deliver our designs this way, we have maintained the same personal feel within the brand.
Our new website allows you to shop a certain look, save your details and customize your own garment. I also use social media to interact with my customers and ensure that we are not simply a brand that creates a dress, but a brand that empathizes and truly cares about what the buyer wants and how she feels. Karen Gee was formed to make every woman feel special and beautiful. Through technology we are able to reach a broader audience, and run campaigns such as Campaign Confidence and KG Beauty Promise. We can reach out to women and really make a difference to their lives.
Your clothes are ethically sourced, you can travel with them, they’re non-seasonal, they don’t need ironing and they can be put in the washing machine. How did you source materials to ensure it would meet the needs of the modern woman, particularly when you had no prior fashion experience?
I have lost count of just how many fabrics we have tried and tested during the journey of KG. I wanted nothing but the absolute best, and I wanted a fabric that would achieve everything the brand stood for. We aim to make all women, no matter their size, shape and age, feel beautiful in a dress. So, the chosen fabric needed to do things that no other fabric could. We did finally locate the perfect one, but still worked on it further using special techniques in house to give it a unique quality. This is trademarked to Karen Gee and is now called KG BODYLUXE.
Women are also offered the opportunity of a custom service. This allows them to individually customize the dress with panel ways, colours and a host of other bespoke details that guarantee they will never have the exact same dress as someone else. Through this service we ensure that all needs of a modern woman are met. Customers are given the opportunity to be as hands on as they wish with the design of their garment. It is not simply a dress, but an experience.
How did you manage the accelerated growth of the business when so many celebrities wore your designs early on? How did you maintain excellent customer service through this growth period?
We didn’t get much sleep, the energy was high, as were stress levels. I am honoured to have created a brand that has been welcomed into the wardrobes of so many and that continues to be loved, coveted and worn by an array of beautiful and inspiring women. This brand does not feel like work to me, it is a true pleasure. As any entrepreneur will admit, there will always be days where nothing goes right and where you question your own decisions.
However, any and all negatives are far outweighed by the extreme positives. I am doing what I love every day, I am helping women feel special and I have created a brand that makes a difference. The growth of the business was not something I could foresee. With such a clear vision of what I was creating, strong brand ideals and an incredible growing team, we have simply evolved with the brand and are constantly meeting new targets. Each goal we reach and every woman that we help is a conscious decision to keep going and to keep getting better.
As time goes by, you are able to make better, more confident decisions from the mistakes you have made. It is vital to me that I do my best to create a happy, but effective working environment. This ensures that production runs smoothly and customer service continues to be exemplary. It is so important to keep reinventing yourself. My team loves this brand almost as much as I do. This is shown through their work and the way in which we deal with our wonderful customers.
Tell us about opening your first flagship store and how it’s an extension of your unique brand experience?
As we were initially an online based store, limited capital, I felt it was best to put a large percentage of funds toward a low level but user friendly website that allowed for smooth operation. From the very beginning this brand has had a strong aesthetic, with a simple and timeless design. These elements are clear in every webpage structure we have had over the years. We used strong images to highlight our core values and my designs, and of course, money was allocated to high quality fabrics.
As the brand grew at an accelerated rate, we began putting more money towards these areas to create a spectacular online forum for our customers that ensures they are getting the same experience they would receive in store. The growth of the brand saw a demand in women wanting to actually feel and see the fabrics, thus the flagship store was born. We chose Chifley because of its location and prestige, and hope to expand this idea in other cities as opportunities arise. Having this space has made the experience even more special. It is a true pleasure to meet with as many lovely ladies as I can! Having the flagship store is also a value add for online customers both in Australia and overseas, as it allows us to offer what is in store and ship immediately.
What has been your greatest challenge?
To me, a challenge is a positive hurdle as it motivates me to push harder and learn as much as I can along the way. I have realised you can worry, stress, read into things way too much, when it is much easier to face things and deal with it as best you can. When the brand first began, we had to learn very quickly to multi task and take on roles that might not have been in our comfort zones.
I have learnt how to build a business from the ground up, and while that definitely comes with challenges, they are well worth their weight in gold. I have struggled the most with technical systems and this was a constant issue to begin with, but with determination, we got there in the end. Fortunately, I’m now in the position to have appointed an expert in this field, which I believe to be a truly great investment. I just have to learn now to stop micro managing, step back a little and put more into what I love doing best in the business, and place experts in the roles they love.
What are you most proud of?
I will never get use to the feeling of absolute joy and excitement of seeing women wearing Karen Gee. Also regularly seeing women in the street wearing Karen Gee, and women calling me to say, I felt fantastic today in my Karen Gee dress.
The root of my success, drive and work ethics, comes from the support and love of my family, and the solid up bringing I enjoyed. I was raised to work hard, strive for what I believed in, and I am forever grateful for the lessons my parents taught me. While having five children and running a business can definitely test your juggling skills, I have always felt that my family has given me the joy and the fulfilment that I needed to be able to really put my all into something this big.
Further, to have a partner in life that not only loves you unconditionally, but encourages and supports each day, is enormous. Andrew is my biggest supporter (my beautiful Mum will argue that – and she is too), and is so so proud of what I have achieved. He sees that it makes me happy. He actually knows a lot of the names of KG Dresses, and will call me at work and say “I saw this person wearing KG Purpose on Channel 7 today, or someone at his work was wearing a KG. I get a laugh out of that. He is becoming an expert!
What’s one piece of advice for future female leaders?
Don’t ever feel like your dream or your passion needs to be validated by somebody else, their view is just an opinion. Go with what you know is right. I was consistently told that my plans would not work. It was incredibly intimidating, and yet here I am. If you have enough determination and belief in your idea and passion to create that idea, then you will make it happen.
It might not happen as fast as you would like it to, or it might take off quicker than you ever expected, but you should always persevere and enjoy every single moment. Success to me is not defined by how much profit you can make, but by how happy it is making you. Do you love it? Are you passionate about it? Do you believe in it? Good, go for it! And if it doesn’t work the first time, get back up and try again.
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