Interview with Sarah Law, New York-based accessories designer of Kara

Interview with Sarah Law, New York-based accessories designer of Kara

Bags for the independent woman

Text: Stacey Chia

The designer behind Kara takes us to the heart of her minimalist label

Can the fashion world get enough of minimalist bag labels? It seems not. With  clean, fuss-free designs that radiate a whole lot of cool, Kara, by former Gap accessories designer Sarah Law, is set to be the next big thing in the world of arm candies.

Kara — short for Karaoke — is a NYC bag label designed for people looking to let loose and treat the brand as an open space for freedom of expression without breaking the bank. Kara bags range from US$350 (S$476) for a mini leather crossbody bag to US$475 (S$647) for a leather tote bag.

Since its launch in 2013, the understated bags have made their way onto the shelves of some of the hottest retailers, such as Opening Ceremony, Barneys New York, and Net-A-Porter. In Asia, the brand is available at Lane Crawford in Hong Kong.

In an interview with Buro 24/7 from her Lower Manhattan studio, the Hong Kong-born, California-raised designer shares how she fell into fashion, her design philosophy, and inspiration. 

How did you get interested in fashion?
Growing up, I always liked making things and always wanted my own business — those were probably two of the biggest driving forces. I didn't necessarily love fashion, but I always liked making things.

When I was in middle school, I went to one of Vivienne Tam's stores in Hong Kong — I know the brand doesn't have much relevance now, but 20 years ago it was a very exciting and innovative company. I remember all the garments were made out of paper fabric and had calligraphy on it. They just blew my mind because I never saw anything like that. I remember thinking to myself, "Wow these are real garments that people sell and someone makes a living out of this". That was when I realised that fashion was something that I wanted to get into. 

Of all the things you could design, why accessories?
When I went for an interview at The Gap, I was asked what I liked, and I said, "I love print, pattern and accessories". It just so happened that the biggest department where they were looking to hire was in accessories, so I guess it was more or less a whim that I got into accessories, but as soon as I started working there I realised how much I love it. What I love about accessories is that it's part fashion design and product design. So much of clothing has to do with its relationship to your body, but with accessories. it doesn't matter what kind of body you have — it's a lot more interesting. Bags can be part of a fashion conversation, but they can also be part of a product conversation. I have this one big canvas bag that I throw all my magazines into and it stays by my couch. I never wear it. It's part of my furniture.

With so many minimalist bag labels out there, why should someone buy Kara? 
We've been tagged as a minimalist bag label, but I don't actually think that's the story behind the brand. I always like to say that I design handbags for girls who don't want handbags. To me, it's not really about minimalism — it's about an independent streak and irreverent quality. It does look minimal, but a big part about why it looks minimal is that I don't like bags with tons of hardware and logos. I like the idea of people putting themselves together; that they have their own style and it's not a brand that's wearing them.

In Hong Kong where I grew up, there was always an IT bag that people spent thousands of dollars on. You could walk into a room where people remember the bag that you were carrying, but maybe not you. That's what I'm trying to address: That it's not the things that you buy that makes you who you are. Maybe because of this thought process, many of the bags have a minimal skew to them, but the company is not about minimalism. It's more about modernity and being progressive.
What are some of the key styles that everyone should know about?
The backpack is probably what we're known for. It comes very much from this place that a backpack is very sporty and utilitarian, but the fact that our backpacks are made out of leather with this very simple zipper and handle, it speaks to a level of design as well.

Counterfeiting is so pervasive in the industry. How do you cope with that?
At this point, we've had Forever 21, Asos and Topshop copy a couple of our bags. It's really part of the territory, realistically. I just don't think fashion comes without it. People who buy counterfeit Kara bags are just never going to be Kara customers.

The style that has been most egregiously copied is the Double Date bag that has a zipper wrapped around the centre. This detail makes up the design of the bag, but it is also a functional detail. You can't sue somebody over functionality. At the same time, our brand is all about form and function, so most details on our bags are functional. At the end of the day, I don't think it's worth our time suing people. I'd rather spend the money building the business.
What inspires you as a designer?
A few years ago, I really got into astrology; so last year we did a whole collection that was based on the horoscope.

Before we had care instructions that were fabric labels sewn inside the bag, we had a Tyvek (a water resistant material) paper care instruction sheet that was designed by a friend of mine in London. They were based of Carl Sagans' Pioneer 10 plaque — a map commissioned by NASA containing instructions on how to get back to earth that was placed in Apollo 10 when it was launched into space. The care instructions played on this idea and provided information on the origins of a Kara bag.

I have a lot of interests outside this bag line that eventually inspires my designs and I find ways to incorporate them.

What is your design philosophy? 
I look at design from two different perspectives — one is practical, and the other is more whimsical. In our bags, you are always going to find something that either has a very practical side to it, or a real novelty.

I like things that make your life better. I like being able to get dressed really quickly in the morning and get to work, or going to dinner with my friends while feeling really comfortable in a way that I don't even think about my clothes. I like to look good without being the loudest person in the room and really focus on being myself. In terms of design, that's what I'm all about.

It's not about where something is made, but who is making it.

How does one tell a bag is well made? 
A big part of it is looking at construction and materials. Our bags are made in China with materials that come from places such as Italy, Spain and America.

It's not about where something is made, but who is making it. As somebody who is responsible for putting things out into the world, I go to the factories in Hong Kong and China at least four or five times a year. I know all the people I work with. I know their families and what they like to do in their free time. It's such a close relationship that they even send me photos of what they do on their vacations.

What are some of your upcoming plans? 
A big percentage of our customers are Asian, so building our business in Asia over the next two years is going to be a big part of it.

Related story: Five minimalistic bag labels we can't get enough of

Shop and find out more about Kara.