“I just threw my whole spring line in a bag, and I can mix anything with whatever—it’s all cotton, it doesn’t matter if it’s a little crinkled. It’s kind of thoughtless,” said Nicholas K designer Nicole Kunz. She’d recently gone on a 10-day textile hunt in India. “You know—we’re busy.”
It’s as if Ms. Kunz, 31, whose exotic features closely resemble those of her brother and business partner, Christopher Kunz, 32, parachuted into their garment-district headquarters from another time. Transplants from Arizona, the brother/sister duo—she’s a former tennis competitor on the national circuit, he’s a scientist and a model—came to New York to stake out their family-owned business, founded in 2003. (Another brother, Alex, 34, helps out too.) They work diligently day and night in preparation for each season in their studio, which doubles as their two-bedroom apartment, shared with an enthusiastic brown boxer named Jake. White walls stretch high, and steel industrial shelves climb to the tin ceiling; cardboard boxes overflow with fabric, while racks and racks of clothes obscure the true size of the loft.
While New York’s edgy independent fashion is typically associated with Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, the Kunz duo set up shop in Manhattan’s formerly bustling fashion sanctuary both because it was more affordable, and because the blocks bounded by Fifth and Sixth avenues and 26th and 30th streets provide a rare multicultural and economically diverse setting for a designer’s inspiration. For now, at least.
“I feel like this area is going to become gentrified; there’s all these high rises going up over there,” Ms. Kunz said as she pointed west toward Chelsea, lamenting the disappearance of the district’s unique flea markets. “All these businesses are getting condemned; there’s always the F.B.I. downstairs because of illegal counterfeit handbags.”
The company—which offers clothes for men and for women—is appropriately named for Ms. Kunz’s tomboy moniker, Nicholas. Perfect for travel, her styles are appealingly rumpled and somewhat androgynous—lots of loose pants and tops that, when paired, pull off a look of unstudied, casual elegance. Ms. Kunz is comfortable designing for both sexes, and credits her brothers for a greater understanding of the details required for men’s wear. She sees herself as bridging the gender gap, with individual pieces existing on a spectrum, perhaps, rather than divided by masculine and feminine. She noted, however, that the men’s line is less colorful than the women’s.
In Nicholas K clothes, giving, breathable fabrics come in wasabi green and natural, earthy hues of orange and brown. The pieces are adaptable and interchangeable. A green sweatshirt loses its sleeves and hood to become a lightweight pullover; a beige cotton shirt unbuttons to change into a cardigan; a deep brown spring jacket sheds its inner layers to be even cooler. Nicholas K’s clientele, Ms. Kunz said, is looking for something that seems “timeless, looks chic, and is effortless.”
The easy pieces are nicely paired with Nicholas K travel bags—perfect for negotiating airport security, something brother and sister must do often. “It just slides in there,” Mr. Kunz said as he demonstrated how a laptop snuggly fits into a heavily pocketed leather shoulder bag. “There’s nothing more annoying than having to pile your stuff out of your bag.” Indeed!
The Kunz kids were raised in Tucson, Ariz., at the foot of a mountain they often explored and which they credit as having inspired their avid and adventurous travels. Since the beginning of the year, Ms. Kunz has been to Switzerland twice (her boyfriend is currently there, working for his father’s food-and-wine distribution company) and flew into the remote Canadian mountains by water plane, and she is currently planning a fishing trip in Wyoming and, later, surfing somewhere in South America. Mr. Kunz spends four months out of the year traveling, too.
Before starting her own line, Ms. Kunz was classically trained at the corporate houses of DKNY, Coach, Nautica and Calvin Klein after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology. “For me, it was so important, because I wanted to know more about the construction and the technical details,” she remarked concerning her 10 years in the corporate world. “I think that’s one of the biggest problems with designers that don’t have that training: They don’t know the workflow process, the scheduling …. ”
“It’s efficiency; it’s cost,” chimed in her brother, who at times serves as her fit model. (A visit to the Nicholas K Web site reveals the strong-jawed Christopher sporting their men’s wear.) “If you don’t have a background in it, you can make a lot of mistakes …. ”
“You have to learn through all of your mistakes, and financially, that could be huge—that could cost you your company,” said Ms. Kunz, perfectly completing Mr. Kunz’s thought.
While Ms. Kunz was earning her fashion chops, Mr. Kunz was busy studying—and not design. He graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and began a master’s in the same field. Yet, put off by the research aspect of the work, he decided not to finish. He modeled in New York for a year before heading back to Arizona to complete an M.B.A. in preparation to launch the company. At his graduation, his sister wasn’t quite ready to set up a shop of their own, so the striking Mr. Kunz did a two-year stint in New Mexico as a technology commercialization officer at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Waiting for the right time was worth it. “As long as we’re growing and maintaining our loyal customers, we’re happy,” Ms. Kunz said. And they are delighted, actually: Business has doubled every year since they started, with this past year showing a sales increase of 30 percent with the recently added men’s line. The women’s collection can be found at Saks Fifth Avenue, Atrium and the Jumelle boutique in Williamsburg, while the men’s line holds court at Bloomingdale’s.
Yet even as the company grows and their personal travels get more exotic, the Kunz siblings have managed to stay grounded. “You get in your own little bubble, you know, in the design world, and [working for the big houses,] I didn’t feel like my life was really balanced—I was too absorbed into the whole fashion thing,” Ms. Kunz told The Observer. “As much as I love fashion, I don’t think it should be your entire life.”