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How Covid-19 helped Karolina Zmarlak reclaim the soul of her fashion company

The Polish designer shares the lessons she learned and offers her best advice to struggling business owners.
Karolina Zmarlak  says her fashion company, KZ_K, weathered the Covid-19 storm not through revenue, but through deep, unique connections with their clientele.
Karolina Zmarlak says her fashion company, KZ_K, weathered the Covid-19 storm not through revenue, but through deep, unique connections with their clientele.Courtesy of KZ_K

Covid-19 has spelled disaster for sales in the fashion industry. Brooks Brothers and Nieman Marcus, for example, filed for bankruptcy. And LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton saw an 84 percent revenue drop during the first half of 2020. Meanwhile, The McKinsey Institute predicted that fashion companies will post a 90 percent decline in profits last year, when they had reported a 4 percent rise in profits the year before.

But for designer Karolina Zmarlak, sales were only one part of the picture. Her fashion company, KZ_K Studio, has weathered the storm not through revenue, but through deep, unique connections with her clientele.

When the pandemic first hit in March, the first thing Zmarlak did had nothing to do with clothes: she and her business partner called and texted their 1,000+ clients to check in on them individually. Her clients include A-listers including Jodi Foster, Cynthia Nixon and Gloria Estefan.

“Our clientele, these women, are the lifeblood of our business. They are an extension of our family,” Zmarlak, 38, told NBC News’ Know Your Value. “We asked them how they were doing, what was their experience? The same questions came back to us. It became these amazing, uplifting conversations. We could process [everything that was going on] together.”

Though she had just released her spring collection, Zmarlak decided to forego any promotional language about the new pieces for months in the beginning of the pandemic. Instead, KZ_K sent out newsletters featuring positive messages and visual imagery meant to make people feel good in dark times. The company also hosted weekly Instagram Live events featuring interviews with some of its clients, including a plastic surgeon in Oklahoma and an interior designer in New York.

Karolina Zmarlak during our one of KZ_K's collection photoshoots.Courtesy of KZ_K

“We connect with a lot of professional and powerful women who are amazing in their fields,” said Zmarlak. “It allowed clients not only to connect with us, but for the community of clients to connect. It was an incredible tool to be productive and encourage each other and be inspired.”

Perhaps the biggest puzzle Zmarlak has faced during Covid-19 is that her business is, at its core, in-person. KZ_K sells modernist, ready-to-wear outfits for professional women, but was never an online retailer. To design the clothes and style her clients, she relied on face-to-face interactions with them, travel, fabric mills, factories in New York’s garment district and all of the employees therein. Not to mention, clients needed a reason to buy high-end fashion when they were largely homebound.

Thankfully her clients are extremely loyal and action-focused. It was their suggestion, in fact, that KZ_K start issuing gift certificates to get some cash flow in lieu of appointments, Zmarlak said. Her customers bought the certificates in droves, with some of the proceeds going to City Harvest.

As the pandemic wore on, it started to feel OK to sell clothes. Though it may have eased the burden, Zmarlak was opposed to going the online retail route.

Designer Karolina Zmarlak.Courtesy of KZ_K

“A big portion of our design and product experience with clients is one-on-one, and personally I prefer to be in person,” said Zmarlak. “I want to have that experience with each and every client. When the world shut down initially, the question was: how do we continue doing this in a connected way?”

KZ_K had to get creative. Zmarlak now confers with clients over video conference, then she sends them customized packages filled with sample clothes, which are available for purchase. Also, an unexpected opportunity arose: clients suddenly needed to be styled for Zoom calls.

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“What was funny was their appearance from the waist up became extremely important,” Zmarlak said. “They were still doing the same amount of meetings, and they had to be viewed professionally.”

Zmarlak said she wasn’t always so adaptive. Born in Poland, her family moved to the suburbs of Chicago at age 10. She attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and has lived in Manhattan ever since.

“I first started in my 20s. When you’re at that age, you have impatience,” she said. “You’re working and saying: why can’t this go faster? Why can’t I be successful?”

She launched an eponymous fashion label in 2009 with her business (and life) partner, a developer named Jesse Keyes. They founded KZ_K in 2016. By then, Zmarlak had learned to slow down and shine the focus on her clients, and on the well-being of the people working under her.

“The success and health of a business is not something that happens overnight,” she said. “Long-term success is going to come when everyone around you—clients, the factories—everyone is committed to the community.”

KZ_K’s sales have not fully recovered, Zmarlak said. However, the pandemic has reminded her what her company is all about. She offered the following advice to struggling business owners.

“Hustle and continue pivoting....Worry less about how quickly success comes, and worry more about the people who are in your business. Worry about the clientele, and building relationships that are lifelong,” Zmarlak said. “We’ve been building that focus for years, but it has definitely been solidified in the pandemic.”