New York City designer Gene Kagan is creating a style revolution with his contemporary sportswear brand, LOLA & SOPHIE. Kagan presents a modern system of dressing based on interchangeable items that work together to form an entire wardrobe – one that goes from day to evening, weekday to weekend, and season to season with ease. BELLA sat down with this master of casual chic to talk style, comfort, and multi-function fashion. Listen in…
Let’s start at the beginning — Fashion is in your genes! Tell us about your background and how you got into the industry.
When I was about 12 years old, I was absolutely enamored with fairy tales especially those by Hans Christian Andersen. My most favorite was The Snow Queen. This was the original story behind the mega successful movie Frozen. I wanted to make a dress for the Snow Queen herself! She was always dressed in beautiful white with sparkles and furs. Where does a 12-year-old find a piece of fabric in Soviet Russia [where Kagan grew up], you might ask?! My mother’s closet, of course!! She had a stash of curtains that looked to me like perfect canvases for my sartorial aspirations. Thankfully, she wasn’t upset when she eventually found her “extra curtains”!! As a matter of fact, she encouraged me to take classes and learn how to make clothes. When I was 16, my family moved to Southern California where I followed by passion and studied fashion design.
How did you come to live and work in New York?
I came to New York for a short visit about 16 years ago and fell in love with the city. It sounds like such cliché, but after the sleepiness and laid-back-ness of southern California, New York City was a breath of fresh air, an incredible inspiration. The energy of city was simply intoxicating. At that point I was finishing my studies at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, and contemplating my career and my life in general. Upon returning to Los Angeles, I sent my resume to about 30 prospective New York employers. I received three phone calls back. One of them ended up being my first job in the New York fashion world – as an assistant designer for Federated Department Stores’ Style & Co. line.
You pride yourself on being a New York City-based designer. Why do you keep your business in New York City?
There are many fashion companies that have design/back office operations in New York’s Garment Center; however, there are very few that actually manufacture their product here. The concept of having your production in the Garment Center is so old that it’s new again!! In fashion, we are fascinated with vintage, you know! I spent half of my fashion career in imports. I traveled the world and spent weeks on end in India and China. That was very romantic; however, I remember that every little production issue became a big production issue, because it would take weeks for us to see the problem and then weeks to fix it. When I started my own business, I discovered that there’s still a whole world of manufacturing right here in the city. I found sewing contractors, trim dying, cutting services, etc. It was almost too easy for me to control production, because I would go to the factory every day and check the product that was being cut and sewn. Later, I realized that proximity of production also gave me a great competitive advantage. Today’s market is so unpredictable, buyers are scared to invest too far in the future. With importers they have no choice. With me, they do! They can place orders two to three months before delivery! I have several customers that would order a few pieces of a style to test, then would order 150 pieces if they sell it quickly. I can make it for them in two to three weeks! Buyers like that quick reaction.
How and when did you decide to launch LOLA & SOPHIE?
I launched LOLA & SOPHIE with a Spring 2009 collection of mainly tops – three silhouettes in 10 different color ways, all priced under $100. Since then I have tried to refine and expand the line to include dresses, pants, skirts, and outwear to give women a full range of wardrobe options. With LOLA & SOPHIE I am always thinking “How do we make casual fashion chic again?” A lot of what I do is intuitive – talking to women and understanding what they want, honing in on different body shapes, and then designing pieces that are cohesive and wearable. I think my LOLA & SOPHIE pieces have always been instant transformers. They make a woman move differently and can change the way she thinks and feels about herself.
Where does the label’s name come from?
Lola is a 4-pound long-haired Chihuahua and Sophie is an 8-pound Havanese (4 lbs of hair!). I love dogs and, it turns out, so do girls of all ages and shapes! Having LOLA & SOPHIE picture on the hangtag, I think, is a huge part of our success.
How did you develop LOLA & SOPHIE’s concept – “a modern system of dressing based on easy pieces and interchangeable items that work together to create an entire wardrobe that goes from day to evening, weekday to weekend, season to season?”
I observe women of all ages, sizes, and lifestyles. I listen to their fashion complaints and get their feedback. There are a few basic rules that I stick to. First is comfort. Regardless of how chic a style may look, if she’s uncomfortable wearing it, she will not reach for it in her closet again. To me comfort is confidence, and confidence is fashion! Second, a style must have a polished, sophisticated element. Whether its shine, illusion, or a sexy neckline, there has to be something about the garment that would allow her to wear it day into night, or cubicle to cocktails, as we like to say. From there, it’s just mixing colors, fabrics, and silhouettes to suit a woman’s own personal style.
LOLA & SOPHIE is about mixing luxury with comfort. How does this manifest in your designs? Can you give us specific examples?
Finding the most luxurious fabric I can afford is the key to my design process. Then I build in comfort elements. For instance, with a beautiful structured fabric, I might add knit rib side inserts, or back, and make the sleeves out of the same. She feels like she’s wearing the most comfortable T-shirt, but she looks like a million dollars! To me, it’s all about effortless elegance.
Tell us about the inspiration for your Spring 2016 collection. How does it play with LOLA & SOPHIE’s signature aesthetic?
My inspiration always starts with today’s busy, modern woman and what she needs to look and feel great. For spring I am continuing my “comfort chic” agenda with figure-flattering silhouettes for the new season. This means coordinated pieces that work together and apart, allowing women to use their own fashion imagination to create wardrobes that can be worn in a variety of ways. There is an emphasis on easy-to-wear A-line tops, tanks, tunics, and dresses designed to skim the body and camouflage figure flaws. Color-wise, in addition to my essential neutrals such as black, white, ivory, gunmetal, wheat, and navy, I have added splashes of lavender, mist, pink, cerise, cobalt, hibiscus, and gold. My spring prints include painterly brushstrokes, polka dots, Baroque paisleys, geometrics, and abstract art inspirations. The Spring 2016 collection features a range of luxurious fabrications that take you from the chilly days of early spring right up to the cusp of summer. These include rayon jersey, baby twill, cotton/poly tweeds, silk chiffon, double georgette, piped denim, vintage dobby, linen-slub knits, and cotton/silk voile, which I source all over the world! This season I have done a lot of mixed media fabric combinations, such as tweed with distressed satin or denim with jersey, but always with comfort elements built in.
If a BELLA reader could only buy one piece from the Spring 2016 collection, what should it be? Why?
A double-layer henley! I think this style epitomizes for what LOLA & SOPHIE is truly known. It is a long-sleeve top with beautiful satin front and back panels and an under layer of comfy jersey. It’s dressy, it’s casual, it’s comfortable, it’s easy to wear and easy to care!
LOLA & SOPHIE is available in more than 300 boutiques and specialty stores nationwide as well as online. After much success, what do you look forward to next with your label?
A key goal would be to cultivate new customers for LOLA & SOPHIE without alienating my loyal customer base. I will continue to experiment with innovative fabrics to revitalize the entire casual category and to develop a wider assortment of casual lifestyle clothes. My company has just moved to a new larger New York City design space in the heart of the Garment Center, and I recently launched a separate plus-size division called Gender Bias because of customer demand. I will continue to do trunk shows all across the country because I enjoy meeting my customers face to face; I learn so much from them. And, down the road, I envision a LOLA & SOPHIE free-standing boutique.