Growing up, I was very involved in theater. I was also a competitive figure skater, so dressing up and costumes were always a part of my life. I was a performer. My mom and her sisters actually also grew up as dancers. In fact, when they were growing up, my mom and her sisters converted their garage in South Africa to a dance studio and offered lessons.
My family moved over here from South Africa when I was a baby. Shortly after, the majority of my mom’s side followed. My grandmother ended up in Riverdale, so I spent a lot of summers here in New York following my different passions, whether that was dance or theater or eventually fashion. I grew up in D.C. suburbia, but I always felt like New York was home.
I knew very early on that fashion was going to be a big part of my life.
When I was in high school, I auditioned for the Martha Graham Summer Intensive Dance program while in New York with my grandmother. I didn’t tell my mom until I got in. I said, “I’m going to stay with grandma for the summer. I got into this program and I’m going to do this Martha Graham Intensive.” And she told me, “When I was 18, I came to New York, I stayed with my grandmother and I did the Martha Graham Summer Intensive Program.” I had no idea. And so when she came at the end of the program to watch the recital, it just brought her right back.
I knew early on that fashion was going to be a big part of my life. When I was 16, I was staying with my grandmother and a friend of hers took me out shopping and for lunch and other glamorous New York things. We walked into a store called Luca Luca where she had a relationship with the designer, Luca Orlandi, and I had the opportunity to meet him. And as a very arrogant 16-year-old, I handed him my sketchbook and said, “I’d like to work for you.” He said, “We don’t really have interns.” And I said, “Well, then I’ll be your first one.” And I was. I kept a relationship with them for a couple of years. That was my first job, if you will, in the industry.
When I went off to Syracuse a couple of years later to be the guinea pig for their double major in fashion and costume design, it felt very removed from the industry. It’s an incredible program, incredible school. I still have amazing friends from there, but I ended up leaving to go to the London College of Fashion for a much more metropolitan experience. I apprenticed for Alexander McQueen and had the opportunity to join the team for the launch of the MCQ label.
I scrounged up about seven grand for my first collection and had no plans for what was going to happen after that.
Blending archival references with this new brand and trying to create a product that was a wearable wardrobe for the McQueen customer really refined my desire to make wearable clothing. When I moved back, I worked for Proenza Schouler, as well as a couple New York brands, and also helped launch some white label programs. Not long after moving back, I remember having coffee in the Garment District with my mentor from Proenza and telling him, “I want to start my own line. Here are the reasons why I feel like I can’t find what I want to make and why I want to do it.” And he said, “I think you should do it.” I scrounged up about seven grand for my first collection and had no plans for what was going to happen after that.
I will admit that there was not that much foresight as far as the practicalities of paying my own bills and whatnot. There was just never a doubt in my mind that once I started doing it, that was it. That was going to be my life and I was going to make it work.
Actually, one of the “aha!” moments for me came when I was doing some white label design work for a brand and I found a stack of tear-sheet references for the next collection. And in that stack of references was one of my own designs. It was not only an eye-opening moment for me from a design perspective, but also from an industry perspective, in terms of how contemporary and fast fashion l just regurgitates itself. It was one of the reasons sustainability became an early priority for me. If something exists already, why are we making it over and over again just for the sake of capitalism?
Since I was already helping a lot of smaller and white label brands, I just thought, If I’m helping everybody else do this, and I don’t particularly believe in the products that we’re making or the way that we’re going about making it, why not do this for myself? And, in all honesty, I was probably young and cocky and premature.
My brand, Kallmeyer, is a collection of elevated wardrobe staples. We dress women and individuals who want to express themselves through their clothes while also grounding themselves in their own internal identities. We believe in sustainability through quality, longevity, and consideration for materials, construction, and functionality. And we specialize in suiting and elevating your everyday go-to pieces.
My business is a cat with nine lives. There have been so many versions of trying to get to the end goal, like a maze. Ultimately, I have always said, whether it was to my showroom or to a family member or to an advisor, that I don’t want to put things into the universe and our planet unless they have purpose and meaning. If I can’t do it this way, I’d rather not do it at all. There have certainly been times where we’ve been in boutique showrooms and at, say, the height of the fit-and-flare and printed dresses era, where I’ve been told, “If you don’t have this style, nobody will pick you up.” And I’ve had very impressive industry titans tell me my aesthetic and price point don’t go together, that I should raise prices or make my clothes more contemporary.
I remember pitching the idea that you can buy less by buying better and people told me, “Why would that be a good business model?”
In a lot of ways, I’m grateful that the industry has somewhat caught up to what I envisioned 11 years ago for my business. I don’t feel at all resentful. There were three-piece suits in my very first collection. I envisioned women wearing suits, not just to corporate offices. I felt that women could have dresses in their wardrobes that they wore with sneakers and wore to weddings. I remember pitching the idea that you can buy less by buying better and people told me, “Why would that be a good business model?”
Looking back at my experience with Luca, I watched him be a stylist almost more so than a designer. I mean, he was never trying to reinvent fashion, but he was trying to change the way people felt in clothing. He was very much a staple of the city, especially the Upper East Side, and I think I have a really similar relationship to my customers as he did. He was there on-site, and the customers and their lifestyle and their interaction with the clothes very much informed his product.
We sort of fell into opening the store. It was meant to be a three-month popup, but it just completely regenerated my love for this business. About eight years ago, I realized I was tired and I decided I needed to rethink my business model. If the product stays the same, maybe my approach needs to change. I had gone through a particularly difficult time in my personal life and all roads just led to taking a breath. I had seen the storefront because I live in the neighborhood. I don’t know what it was about this space. I would sit on the stoop in moments and I could see it, I could visualize it. I didn’t really have a desire to look at other storefronts.
I kept calling the landlords and they kept rejecting me saying, “We’re holding out for a bigger, longer term lease.” On the day that I packed up my studio and decided, I’m going to take a break from this. I’m going to sublet my studio, I’m going to go make furniture upstate or something, I got a call from the broker. I was literally carrying an IKEA bag of all my personal belongings and sat down to rest and my phone rings and it’s the broker saying, “Do you remember that space on Orchard Street?”
I was like, “I remember it.” And he said, “We just had a deal fall through. They remembered that you had called. Are you still interested in doing a popup?” I said, “This is weird and crazy timing, but yeah, I’ll do it.”
I spent four days hammering, drilling, and cutting some scrap plywood that I found in the basement.
It was May 26th and he said, “Okay, it would be yours starting June 1st.” He told me they needed all the months rent upfront plus a security deposit. I said, “Can you hold on a second?” I opened my banking app, I looked at my personal account, my business account, my savings account, and it added up almost to the dollar of what I needed to write that check. So I wrote a check, and I got the keys on June 1st.
I spent four days hammering, drilling, and cutting some scrap plywood that I found in the basement, and on June 4th, I opened the store with handmade fixtures. In about two weeks, I had made back everything I wrote in that check. I called the landlords and I said, “I want to sit down and have a meeting. What do I have to do to sign a lease?” And they were like, “Well, how much does your business make?” And I said, “Don’t worry about that.” And they said, “Well, who is your business partner, your investors?” And I said, “I don’t have one.” And they said, “Who is your husband?” I said, “I definitely don’t have one.” And they were like, “Well, how can we guarantee this? I mean, you seem like a nice girl and I’d want to do this if it was for my daughter, but this is a business.” And I said, “Just trust me. This is what I’m supposed to do.”
It’s been a steady incline since then. Despite the pandemic, it’s been nothing but progress. For a really long time, it felt like I was not only swimming upstream, but being hit by the waves and swallowing water and I just could not catch my breath. And even though everything is harder now and I have so much more work and so many more responsibilities, all of it seems to be coming with a certain flow. I’m still paddling my ass off, but I’m with the current, I’ve caught my own vibration now. It’s an amazing feeling because not only is it how my business has been affected, but on a personal level, I feel a certain sense of ease and certainty in my life.
When we signed our lease, I had no other choice but to create my own persona in the store. It was product education through being here myself. Eventually we found great people, which is always a challenge. But in the last three years, the product has changed, the collection has changed. It’s become more itself. We’ve become closer to the customer. I will run over here from the office if I know that we have a client who’s made an appointment saying, “I have my son’s wedding and I need something to wear.” Or “I’m appearing on a morning interview show and I need to look a certain way,” or “I just got a great new job and I need to rebuild my wardrobe.” That’s what I’m doing this for.
I am gaining as much from our customers as they’re gaining from me personally being there because it’s really what’s driving the musings from one collection to another. It’s how I am able to decipher what’s missing from our customer’s wardrobe rather than sitting in isolation and designing a collection that I think people want.
It’s been a slow and steady process of understanding how and when and in what formats to use cannabis in my life.
I didn’t really grow up using any kind of substances. I’m not even a very big drinker.I’ll often go home and want to take the edge off and forget that that’s even an option. But one of my best friends is Julia Jacobson. We were recently away with Lindsay MaHarry, an incredible plant and cannabis educator and writer. It’s people like that who have taught me about cannabis in a different way.
I try to live my life with a moderate amount of health and wellness in mind, and it’s been a really cool way to understand cannabis. When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a couple years ago and was really suffering from the chemotherapy, it was Julia and her partner Sam who said, “Try these gummies, try these oils.” And that really put me onto different usages of cannabis. My sister is a smoker—but I can’t roll a joint. I don’t really enjoy smoking very much. I’m the person who will cough immediately and I just don’t ever like being physically uncomfortable.
I’m sort of always in work mode and I wish that I understood my tolerance enough to get into it while I’m working. I’m not someone who wants to be out of control. So it’s been a slow and steady process of understanding how and when and in what formats to use cannabis in my life, whether it’s for anxiety or to take the edge off or, in my mom’s case, attempting to lower her nausea levels. When I went through a really bad breakup a couple of years ago, weed helped a lot with my anxiety and with work. I think it’s such a useful tool for that. Also just understanding what can help slow me down or what will get me focused. But in general, I have a low tolerance and so I tiptoe into any substance department.
I like Aster Farms' edibles. They’re so gentle. You don’t get that sudden hit. It’s just a slow, calm, gradual high. I normally don’t take more than half a gummy at a time. I’m not really someone who’s looking to feel high. It’s really something that mostly I’ll take on the weekend to ease into relaxation or take for anxiety, which as a gay Jewish business owner, I have plenty of.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Daniella Kallmeyer photographed by Meredith Jenks at her store in New York. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies. Subscribe to our newsletter here.