With a storied career in fashion at companies such as St. Johns Knits and Vince, Jin Kim certainly knows a thing or two about the fashion industry. And after over a decade in the field, Jin put into practice an idea that she had since the early days of her career. Fresh out of college, Jin wanted to make clothing samples but with no space in her tiny apartment for the necessary machines, she wondered why there wasn’t a place for the sewing community to join and create together. In 2009, Jin’s idea finally came to fruition when she opened Common Thread Studio in Pasadena.
After more than five years in business, Common Thread Studio has grown tremendously: hiring staff, holding once a month social nights with wine and crafts, and bringing the community together for sold-out sewing classes. Jin’s career proves that when the timing is right and hard work has been put in, a spark of an idea can come to life.
Read on for the lessons Jin has learned throughout her career, advice she has for others in the fashion industry, and her insights into building a business from the ground up.
Full name: Jin Kim
Age: 30 something
Current title/company: Founder/Owner of Common Thread Studio
Education: LA Trade Tech
What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?
I started working while in school and my first full time job was with St. John Knits. My getting this job was part referral and part saying a daily mantra. After college I moved to Orange County without any direction as to where I wanted to work; I just knew I wanted to be close to the beach. Once I found out the St. John Knits base was in Irvine I would drive by regularly and say to myself and to others in the car, “I will work there!” A little crazy, I know.
A few months later I was connected with an executive recruiter who only worked with clients with earning potential of 100K. It proved to be a good interview as she referred me to St John Knits, and without commission. She noted I was a Christmas gift to them; she believed in me and noticed my eagerness to work hard and learn. It was a great experience working with them to build my foundation for becoming a sweater designer.
After four years you left St. John’s Knits and moved to Los Angeles to work in the contemporary market. From associate designer to senior designer to design director, you rose through the ranks at multiple companies. Can you give us a synopsis of your career path?
Working at St. John Knits was a completely different experience from the LA contemporary companies. My experience at St. John Knits was based on a corporate structure where my position was very specific. Working for a smaller contemporary company I had to be much more self-reliant and gage my own timeline. There were less people and less help, and I quickly learned how to push my agenda to get the results I wanted. During this period I honed in on my critical thinking skills, because people aren’t willing to show you every step of the way. The most common phrase I heard was “sink or swim.”
However, it wasn’t all hard work and no play. There were some great times and I was getting paid very well to make cute clothing—living out my fantasy. I worked with some amazing talents and mentors who shaped my career and also made lifelong friends. I was able to travel internationally looking for inspiration, sourcing materials, and working with multimillion dollar companies to affect a small drop in to this massive fashion industry.
Every company I worked for I gained knowledge from every aspect and process whether it was production, merchandising, or working with the sewers in the factory. This gave me motivation to grow in the industry and ultimately to open my own business. During this period I never thought that the experience I was gaining would help me in my future business, but in hindsight the skills I learned gave me the foundation I needed to open Common Thread Studio.
After more than a decade working in the contemporary market, you decided to take time off. Tell us about this decision and what you did during your break.
The last company I worked with pushed me to rethink my lifestyle. I had reached the “top,” or so I thought. I had the title and salary I wanted but no time to enjoy life. Traveling every other month with long hours during the week took its toll on me. As I looked at my life five years down the line I couldn’t foresee change. The industry will always be on the fast track. During my twenties I was so driven for that next job and more money, and was hungry to see where the path would lead. Once I recognized that it was MY decision to find my happiness and define success it was easy to leave. It was a great time off and I highly recommend it for anyone who’s been in the same industry for more than 10 years. In that year I had time to decompress, enjoy my dog, volunteer, travel, spend time with friends, and watch matinee movies. At first it was weird when meeting new people and answering the standard question, “So what do you do?” Straight faced I’d answer with, “Ummmm nothing” just to hear their awkward responses.
Towards the end of your time off you started work on Common Thread Studio, a sewing studio where people can rent out space and machines by the hour. Tell us how you came up with the idea for the business!
The seed was planted during my early days at St. John Knits. Fresh out of school I still had a burning desire to make stuff at home and realized I had no access to some of the necessary machines. Without purchasing more machines to take up space in my tiny apartment it was difficult to create these samples. I thought to myself, “Why isn’t there a Kinko’s for sewing machines?” It seemed logical to have a place for the sewing community to join, share, and enjoy their craft. Of course this was more than a decade ago and no such place excited. Though I did some research on how to start this business the career driven side of me took over and I put a pause until 2009. Luckily by then the DIY community was thriving and my good friend reminded me of my sewing studio idea. She’s also the friend I worked with at St. John Knits who helped me brainstorm during the initial thought process many years ago.
Be ready to put in some late hours and learn from every menial task, even if you think you’re better than that. People will respect hard work and your effort to take a task to the next level.
From securing funding, writing a business plan, managing employees, and operating the day-to-day aspects of the studio, running a business takes a great deal of time and commitment. What went into launching Common Thread?
Yes it is challenging! If I had the full scope of what it would take I may have been paralyzed with fear. In this case ignorance was bliss. Once I had the map of my business structure I worked with a friend to write a business plan. However, this was 2009 and the banks were in no condition to hand out loads for a new small business. After doing some calculations with my savings and a business credit card, I took the plunge on my own. I tried to get as much free information as possible and came across The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), which shared some helpful guidelines. However, due to my unique business it was hard to find a successful model to follow.
Once I signed the lease for my space it look less than two months to open Common Thread Studio. Those two months were filled with sleepless nights, and I couldn’t have done it without the help of my amazing friends. Though I don’t have an official business partner I consider them my partners.
How did you initially market Common Thread to draw people to the studio? How have you spread the word since you first opened?
Since my business is in a small community word of mouth was critical. I joined local events and networked as much as possible. Local publications were very helpful in doing write-ups and through a local connection I was invited for an interview on KPCC with Alex Cohen. Every little bit of media and good referrals help small businesses. Of course these days social media plays a huge part in marketing, but I’m still a big believer in building relationships in person. Customers really appreciate when I remember their last story told over a purchase or even just remembering them at all. I love what I do because of the community and building the business together. I’ve heard this rumor that President Obama has a home nearby, and I’m waiting for Malia and Sasha to drop in for a lesson. I’m sure that would gain some attention.
Since opening more than five years ago, your business has grown a great deal. Tell us how the studio has expanded. What do you see in the future for Common Thread Studio?
The first two years I was at the store six days a week and using one day off to do errands. I wanted to grow and couldn’t keep up with the day-to-day operation, teaching and designing classes and trying to keep a smile on my face. Then a girl who saw my site came in to chat about my business and after a great conversation I hired her as my first employee. Since then the Common Thread Studio staff has grown and I am grateful to every person who’s been a part of this team for sharing their talents.
One of the best ways to grow business is cross-promotion. This year we’ve been working with local artists to hold once a month social nights with wine and crafts. In the beginning I couldn’t sell out one class—it was heartbreaking. Now our basic sewing classes are sold out most weekends.
I don’t have an end goal for Common Thread Studio, but I believe in its ethos, learning and sharing. If I can continue to spread this idea through multiple avenues, I feel the possibilities are endless. In the near future I’m going to India to help in creating a sustainable business with marketable goods for a group of women at Himalayan Tapestry who have endured an incredibly challenging past. Anna Ebenezer started Himalayan Tapestry, a nonprofit for-profit business, about 15 years ago with the vision of helping these women. As an American woman I feel so fortunate to have the opportunities to pursue my dreams, but for most women in the world it’s a daily challenge to just make a living to survive. I’m humbled and excited about this opportunity—it’s a tangible component of my vision to build community around the world through applied arts.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
When I see people using the skills I taught them to start their own business or just continuing to use those skills for personal enjoyment.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career and how were you able to overcome them?
I’m naturally an introvert so it’s really hard for me to put myself out there for promotions. Marketing has been the hardest challenge. My natural inclination is to just sit in a corner and make cute things just for myself—then the reality of running a business hits me. Knowing is half the battle (as said by G.I. Joe) and this year I acknowledged my weakness and hired help in marketing and social media.
What advice can you give women seeking careers in the fashion industry?
Be ready to put in some late hours and learn from every menial task, even if you think you’re better than that. People will respect hard work and your effort to take a task to the next level. I attribute my success in the industry to always going one step beyond what is asked of me and caring about the details. It’s an industry full of creative people doing mostly uncreative tasks for 10+ hours a day—don’t underestimate peoples desire to climb up the ladder at any cost. You won’t last if you only want to design or draw; the people who succeed are in it for the long hall and pay attention to every aspect of the business.
What is a typical workday like for you?
I wake up reluctantly, do my T25 workout at home, get ready, and walk my dog Luca on the way to work. That is the only routine I have in a day. Every day is a new day. On any given day I might be teaching a class, designing, making new creations, researching new ideas, meeting new artists for collaborations, or my most dreaded task—paperwork. Routine bores me; I try to keep organized in a random way.
Best moment of your career so far?
Going against all odds and making it to five years with Common Thread Studio.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
No one has it all figured out so don’t worry about keeping up with a plan. Pace yourself because there’s no parade at the end.
Jin Kim is The Everygirl…
Morning or night?
Definitely night…my brain wakes up at 1pm.
Best advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t burn bridges and always leave jobs in good standing; you never know who’s going to be your next boss.
Favorite part about living in Pasadena?
All the trees and easy access to great Asian foods.
I wish I knew how to ______.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Martha Stewart. She’s unapologetic, has a keen sense for finding talent, and an enviable sense of aesthetics. I’d order fried chicken, just to see how she eats it.