Oh boy, hold onto your hats! Today I’m talking to Kat of the very popular shop, Katwise on Etsy. She creates (and continuously sells out of) upcycled sweater coats and various other recycled treasures. Kat’s creative lifestyle is absolutely inspirational. So much so, my words couldn’t do her introduction justice. She is:
“Kat O’Sullivan, a free-spirited hitchhiking girl who has spent most of her life bumbling about the planet in search of senseless adventure and community.” Let’s dive right into her magical world. Enjoy the interview!
While looking for a job once, I realized how much of my strange life I try to hide so that I seem more “normal”. And then I decided, to hell with that!
You’ve been in business for six years now! I looked back on your first sales, which were a collection of arm warmers and sweaters. What inspired your unique designs?
When I was 15 I hurried up to finish high school early so I could follow the Grateful Dead. I had no idea how to support myself, but I loved all the crazy clothes on tour. Since I was so much taller and bigger than most of the girls, none of their cute patchwork dresses fit me, so I had to learn to sew my own. Then I realized that I could sell them to get enough money for gas to the next show. So, basically I have been making upcycled, rainbow patchwork clothing my entire adult life. It is funny, because I feel like my life has been so *CrAzY* and such a steep learning curve, but then I realize I am still just a gypsy making silly patchwork clothes, same as I ever was. I traveled pretty much nonstop for 15 years all over the planet, and along the way I picked up lots of little influences from other countries and subcultures…but it is all still recognizably me.
You were selling on Etsy just over a year after it launched. How did you find your way there?
After years of working the festival circuit, I had a great run as a street vendor in New York City. I absolutely LOVED being a street vendor – it was so hardcore and cold and full of sketchy weirdos. Every day was like a travel adventure, even though I was just standing on the same corner in the East VIllage. I had my little painted schoolbus that I was living in, and I really got to feel like part of the neighborhood. I learned so much from my customers in those years. It really helped shape the look and direction of my business to interact with so many different people every day and get so much feedback. I kept getting in trouble with the police for illegal vending though, and I had so many appearances before the Judge that the charm was sort of wearing off. I realized that my street vending days were over, so I made the reluctant transition to Etsy. It was more out of desperation than design. If I could still be a street vendor, I would be. I miss the sense of being a renegade crafter, braving the cold and the crazies.
How has your creative business evolved over the years?
I would say the biggest difference is that I am just more efficient and focused. For years I would bounce around between making dresses and pants and murals and jewelry and costumes….just chasing whatever creative butterflies captured my attention. As I grew up a little I realized the value in not pursuing every single whim in any direction. It is very interesting to explore your creativity when you put some constraints on it (in my case, working just with upcycled sweaters, for example).
I also discovered, quite to my delight, that the act of running a business has quite a lot in common with creating art. I would not have guessed how much style and whimsy you can spin on your business. It took me a couple of years to fully embrace the notion that I could run my business completely on my own terms, and not have to follow anyone else’s blueprints. (Well, of course I have to obey the IRS, but besides that…) I would not have guessed how much I am fascinated by economics and marketing, and how much room for authenticity and creativity there is within growing a business. With the advent of the internet, we are still collectively figuring out the rules and the boundaries, so there is no reason I can’t be a trailblazer, if only for myself.
To date, you’ve made more than 11,700 sales. That’s quite a success! Is Katwise a full-time job for you?
Yes! I am proud to say that I am myself for a living. I am such a feral creature that I realized I could never live a happy life if I had to work for another person. I would rather be destitute than have a 9-5 job. Thankfully, my inability to conform has led me on a rewarding path.
Your website, katwise.com, is a wonderful adventure for any reader! I love Calico, The House That Sweaters Built. It looks private, is it? What’s the atmosphere like in that wonderful home?
Thank you! My boyfriend and I bought this house a couple of years ago. It is an 1840s farm near Woodstock, New York. We were so naive! We had no idea what an abyss of repairs we were about to tumble into. Calico has been a constant project. It is private in the sense that it is just our house, but we sort of have an open door policy. There is almost always guests there, and random strangers popping by out of curiosity. I have an open invitation for the world to come over and join me for tea.
That sounds irresistible. I’m on my way! 🙂 I’ve noticed some new product categories at Katwise. When did you start selling tutorials and patterns for your designs?
When I think about the early days of etsy – it was such a tiny and friendly community. There were so few sellers that it was very easy to keep track of who was selling what, and there was a bit more respect for one another’s territory.
For the first couple of years I had the luxury of being the only shop that sold upcycled sweaters. As my shop (and etsy) grew, a bunch of other shops popped up selling my exact designs, and often lifting entire paragraphs from my text.
At first I was so astonished at how people had so little integrity, and I struggled a lot trying to outrun the copycats. At some point I realized that I could waste a ton of energy caring about these people, or I could embrace the situation and shift “copying” into “sharing”.
I wrote a tutorial and spilled lots of my hard-won secrets about sweater making. I started a forum on my Facebook page where sweater makers could share their skills. Right away, this great community of crafty ladies sprang up, and became very supportive of one another. I can’t describe what a relief it is for me to be able to feel like a proud mama hen instead of a disgruntled victim. Now, when I see someone pop up with a new sweater coat, I want to clap and cheer them on. It was absolutely the right choice. In this day and age of ideas spreading like wildfire on the internet, sharing is absolutely the way to go. It is a rather unenlightened waste of energy to invest in stopping copycats. Much better to prance circles around them and invite them to dance.
Well said, Kat. You’re clearly having a lot of fun and allowing creativity to blossom in every area of your life. Do you have a business plan, or do you just let it all unfold?
I am not a plan person. I guard my ability to be spontaneous more than anything. That is part of the reason I have resisted the urge to grow my business, even though I can’t keep up with demand. I do not want employees and obligations. I do not want my business to be an entity that exists outside of myself. I want to be lean and spry, able to change directions in mid-air. My plan, if there is one, is to make sure that no matter what I can always sleep late, always dress funny, and always say, “Screw this. I’m going to Africa tomorrow!“
What has been your biggest waste of time or money for Katwise?
By far the hugest investment of energy goes into answering emails. I deeply value the personal connections I feel with my community, but it can absorb entire days just trying to keep up with answering everyone. People think I sew for a living, when in truth, I answer emails for a living and sew in my stolen moments of spare time. It is something I struggle with, because I do not wish to lose this sense of connection with these lovely people, but once in a while I wish there was an off switch to the emails. It would be nice if I could take a few days off and not have to panic about the mountain of friendly messages that accumulates. I just heard a great commencement address given by the author Neil Gaiman where he described the same issue, and how he just decided to stop answering all the emails and liberate himself. I couldn’t imagine that!
I know that speech! All your bottles are coming back 😉 What has been your best marketing strategy?
I think the best move I made was to not just sell a product, but to invite people to get to know me as whole person. I think that sharing my home and my travels and costumes and friends online helps my work resonate on a deeper level than clothing alone could muster. I sometimes think that what I am selling is not just sweaters, but souvenirs of this whole crazy life I have been gifted with. The choice to be so personal and available has done wonders to help build a community online, and insulate me from the impact of having so many new shops selling replicas of my designs.
Please finish this sentence. When I was 18, I thought …
When I was 18 I thought that all I wanted to do was wander around the planet learning new languages, painting murals, dancing at festivals, sharing kindness and defining life on my own terms. It’s almost embarrassing how little I have changed. 🙂