Career Series 2014: Karen Garalde of Kalai Kai

Welcome to Ms. Charm’s Career Series 2014!


Tis’ the season for graduations. It is the time that many young people think about what should I do for the rest of my life and how can I turn my interests into a career. Not too long ago, I was in the same shoes trying to figure out what career I wanted to pursue.

I am happy to bring you inspiring interviews in the month of May  from local fashionistas with boosting careers!

Ever wondered what it takes to be a professional fashion designer? Well, meet Karen Garalde of Kalai Kai. It was in 2010 when Karen Garalde won the Artscape “Being Green Rocks” competition with her upcycled fashions. These days, she is all about custom wedding, evening and event gowns.


Karen Garalde (in black jumpsuit) at Artscape in 2010.
Karen Garalde (in black jumpsuit) at Artscape in 2010.

What inspired you to start your own business?

I was working in the fashion industry but wasn’t doing something I genuinely enjoyed. During my spare time, I made clothing and accessories and wore the pieces when I went out. I got so many compliments from women and men of all ages and that’s when I decided that this is something I could do for a living and be happy and passionate about every day.

What did you do to prep for owning your own business?

I did market research online and talked to other business owners. It’s helpful to hear where other successful entrepreneurs got their inspiration, where they started and learn what pitfalls to avoid. I started small and slow and worked hard to grow. I made sure I had a comfortable work-space and all the tools and supplies required to complete my projects.


Who was your first client? What do you remember about making your first piece for Kalai Kai?

My first custom gown client was a yoga instructor from Washington D.C. She had a destination wedding in Costa Rica. I made her gown using matte jersey fabric. It was my first time working with jersey and it was a little challenging because it stretched more than I wanted it to in certain areas. I learned that I had to stabilize the seams to prevent any stretching.

Describe a typical week or describe the tasks you encounter on a daily basis.

None of my days are typical. Every day is pretty much different except for constantly keeping up communication with clients and suppliers. One week I might focus on pattern making for one client and the next I might be finishing up fittings on another client. It all depends on scheduling and deadlines, and also juggling different projects at different stages of completion.


What has been your best career defining moment? If you have more than one, feel free to share more.

It was winning the Artscape fashion design competition in Baltimore in 2010. I had recently left a corporate fashion job and was still deciding if I should pursue the dream of starting my own business. Winning that competition gave me the confidence to trust my skills in my profession and know that I could be successful on my own.


What are some challenges you have encountered throughout your career?

A major one is not to bite off more than you can chew. Know your capabilities and time constraints. Sometimes you can take on a project you’ve never attempted and learn as you go and the client is very happy, but it can be quite stressful and your time commitment means you really make very little on the project in the end. That can be frustrating, but at least you’ve learned something new. Another one is when you participate in events and photo shoots, or work with suppliers and manufacturers, be careful who you work with and trust your initial instincts if they tell you to run away. Don’t get lured by smooth talking sales pitches and dollar signs. People can be manipulative and many are only looking out for themselves even if they try to say they want to help you.


What are three tips you would give to aspiring fashion designer?

1. Go to school and learn the fundamentals – People will take you more seriously if you have knowledge of basic math and measurement, pattern making, materials, sewing and construction. Even if you don’t actually do all these stages in garment production, you will be better able to communicate with suppliers, contractors and clients. The quality of your work will show because you will be able to come up with better designs and fit. Artistic vision is important, but you have to be able to get that vision across to clients.
2. Patience with the development of your career. Your business won’t bloom immediately. You have to nurture it – build a portfolio, participate in events to self promote and network, be active on social media, and continue to learn.
3. Find your niche and excel in it and be happy with what you accomplish. Very few people get to have the dream come true of being the next Mary Katrantzou or Prabal Gurung, but that’s not the end of the world. There are tens of thousands of important people in the industry filling different roles that you never hear about, but they love what they do. You can still have a very fun and rewarding career without being the next it designer . . . of course, you never stop trying!

Learn more about Kalai Kai and how to intern below: