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Inside the cult of Kitri

haeni kim kitri by sophia spring

Kitri is at tipping point, says founder Haeni Kim, as she outlines her plans for the cult womenswear brand to become a full-on international lifestyle proposition.

“We are still a fashion insiders’ favourite. We want to break out of that. We don’t want to be a fashion girl’s fashion brand. We want to be for every customer who wants something unique and good quality at an affordable price point. There is a lot of opportunity to reach more audiences out there and this is the year we get to do that.”

So says Haeni Kim, founder of Kitri, of her vision for the next stage of the cult womenswear brand she launched less than three years ago.

Kim is the epitome of the brand: bright and bubbly, sporting Kitri’s navy Molly dress and blazer, and surrounded by colourful mood boards and samples of upcoming collections in its modern head office in east London’s trendy Dalston.

I didn’t know where to go to shopping any more. I’d grown out of the high street and I didn’t feel comfortable paying luxury prices

Adored by the fashion press and social media influencers alike, Kitri burst on to the fashion scene in March 2017 with aplomb. Its green Gabriella shirt dress (£145) went viral and had a waiting list of 800 people. It sold out three times during the spring 18 season, solidifying its status as a cult brand within fashion circles.

Kitri February 2020 Molly pink ditsy print dress

Kitri February 2020 Molly pink ditsy print dress

As a predominantly direct-to-consumer online brand (70% of sales come from its own website), Kitri operates a “see now, wear now” model with monthly product drops and limited stock. Since launch it has added Selfridges and Brown Thomas as wholesale stockists, and operated two central London pop-up shops to test the water for its own bricks-and-mortar offer.

Price points sit between contemporary brands such as Ganni and the high street: dresses typically retail for £145. The brand has carved a niche in the market for desk-to-dusk style, specialising in flattering midi-dresses in bright colours and pretty prints.

Growing up

Drapers meets Kim at a significant time for the business. It was launched with the backing of private investors, has doubled turnover every year and expects to do the same in 2020, although it refuses to give sales, or profit or loss figures.

This year the company is moving into its next stage of growth by expanding its customer base in the UK and Ireland through marketing and partnerships; launching its first international wholesale accounts; and continuing its search for a permanent London store. All the while a business-savvy Kim is keeping a keen eye on costs, maintaining control of the business and keeping its start-up culture.

We’re giving them the best experience we can so they keep shopping with us

Following a degree in French literature and business management at King’s College London, Kim worked at luxury label Julien MacDonald in various finance, sales and marketing roles before joining a large high street value fashion supplier in Hong Kong as a merchandiser between 2012 and 2017. During this time Kim “caught the ecommerce bug” after launching a passion project with friends – a now-defunct online antiques website called Fox & Flight – and decided she wanted to start her own online consumer-facing fashion label.

Kitri February 2020 Sylvie floral polka dot shirt dress

Kitri February 2020 Sylvie floral polka dot shirt dress

“Having worked in luxury and value, I wanted to work for a brand I really believed in on products I really wanted to wear,” she says. “I didn’t know where to go shopping any more. I’d grown out of the high street and I didn’t feel comfortable paying luxury prices. I thought about what brand could fill that market. The idea of Kitri came out of that frustration.” The name came from a lead character in the ballet Don Quixote, Kim’s first ever solo role when she was an aspiring ballet dancer.

Customer built

Kim spent six months working out what she would want from a brand from a customer perspective rather than a business point of view, and that customer focus remains integral to the success of Kitri: “For direct to consumer to really work, you have to have return customers, and we’re giving them the best experience we can so they keep shopping with us.

haeni kim 01

We’re a small privately invested company – we don’t have millions of pounds to spend on marketing

“You’re not going to stumble upon us as you might with a huge company-backed brand. We don’t have a history. You have to make sure the quality is tip top and the customer service is amazing. [Having a close relationship with our customers] is instrumental in understanding where our core market is and how we can grow the business.”

However, the 33-year-old admits going direct is not without its challenges and is cautious in her approach.

“It is an inventory game, as we are not producing to demand. We don’t have that insight [that you get with wholesale] into what our customers want. We are super-careful to test. We have shallow buys. I make sure I’m leveraging all my relationships that I’ve made in the past to deliver a successful business.”

Growth story

Kitri launched with three employees and has since grown to 14. Three further hires are expected this year. It operates its own warehouse in east London to keep costs down and ensure full visibility of stock. The South Korean-born entrepreneur sees the company’s small size, and ability to be nimble and reactive as a core strength.

Kitri February 20 Johanna black utility jumpsuit

Kitri February 20 Johanna black utility jumpsuit

Kitri February 20 Johanna black utility jumpsuit

“To make the business profitable, and make sure we give the best quality and price to our customers, we have to keep our operations small. In true start-up fashion, everyone has to roll up their sleeves and help.”

This attention to costs and entrepreneurial mindset played a part in Kitri venturing into the wholesale market with Selfridges in April 2018, Kim explains: “We’re a small privately invested company – we don’t have millions of pounds to spend on marketing.

The dream would be to have a store one day in the very near future

“We know there is huge opportunity in this sector, so we were thinking, ‘How can we get there quicker, and earn customers’ trust and build the path to discovery to the brand?’ It made sense to partner up with trusted department stores to do that.”

Selfridges contacted Kim to do a pop-up shop in its London flagship in April 2018, and it is now stocked in all of its branches, as well as all four Brown Thomas stores in Ireland. It opened a pop-up concession in Harvey Nichols’ Edinburgh store in November.

Kitri February 20

Kitri February 20

Charlotte Andreas, contemporary studio buyer at Selfridges, says the brand has become a “fast favourite” among its shoppers: “With regular, limited drops of new pieces, as well a variety of silhouettes that are flattering for all, Kitri knows exactly what women want.

“It has mastered how to work playful prints and colours into our wardrobes in a seasonless way and design its collections with real women in mind.”

Wholesale strategy

Kim views wholesale – which comprises 30% of total sales – as a strategic marketing and customer acquisition tactic and plans to keep the mix between wholesale and direct to consumer the same as the business grows, although international expansion is on the horizon.

“In the UK we are well distributed but overseas, without a lot of manpower and budget behind us to hire a PR firm and open a store, the best option for us is to hold hands with the department stores and to learn what works out there.”

Kitri February 20 Christina ditsy print dress

Kitri February 20 Christina ditsy print dress

Kitri February 20 Christina ditsy print dress

The business is speaking to department stores in the US, Australia and mainland Europe about opening wholesale accounts this year following strong online sales in those markets. International sales make up between 20% and 30% of total sales.

Store search

Back in the UK, Kim is on the lookout for a permanent store following two successful pop-up shops in west London’s Marylebone in 2017 and central London’s Carnaby Street in 2018.

“The dream would be to have a store one day in the very near future. We had a taste of it [with the pop-up shops] and have been looking for a while to find our home. We’re going to continue to experiment with pop-ups and different locations to see what works best in the meantime.”

I always try to remember that everybody can have the same ingredients, but the cake won’t taste the same

The business is also expanding its product offer in 2020. Its first bridal collection dropped in January featuring nine pieces that can be worn to events surrounding a wedding, including rehearsal dinners and engagement parties, while the first outerwear collection launched for autumn 19.

Kim and her team will continue to develop these ranges as well as testing a new “core” category for the business, but keeps her cards close to her chest.

Kitri February 20 Natalia pink animal print maxi-dress

Kitri February 20 Natalia pink animal print maxi-dress

“We do lovely dresses – and that’s the bread and butter of the brand – but I’d also really love to start to build a capsule collection of ‘forever’ pieces that we can match with our styles.”

Kitri has three in-house designers and manufactures most of its products near Shanghai in China. Tailoring comes from Europe, and jerseys and cottons are made in Portugal.

High street rivals

The popularity of Kitri’s designs has not gone unnoticed by high street players, who are snapping at the brand’s heels with cheaper versions of its bestselling styles, says Emily Gordon-Smith, director of consumer product at trend intelligence business Stylus: “I think that Kitri can continue to play to its strengths of delivering affordable quality, particularly in the dress category.

“However, the high street is chasing its tail. Mid-market labels like Kitri and Rixo are a go-to for high street brands who want to emulate that success, as many of their styles are sell-out and Instagram hits.”

Ultimately, I want Kitri to be a lifestyle brand so we’ll continue to fill those gaps to make sure that shoppers can come to Kitri for anything

Kim is well aware of potential high street competitors but believes the business’s sustainable credentials and ability to move quickly set it apart from the crowd: “I always try to remember that everybody can have the same ingredients, but the cake won’t taste the same.

“Customers understand where product at a cheaper price has come from. Our customers appreciate that we are providing quality pieces that are not throw away at an affordable price point. We have limited quantities, so it means we are not over stocked.

“We have the agility and vertical integration of being a small company that no big company can emulate. That start-up flexibility helps us stand out.”

Company culture

Maintaining that start-up culture as it grows will be another challenge for the business, Kim admits. “For any fast-growing company it is so difficult to keep the culture and that’s something we really want to keep alive. There is a huge amount of risk [for new employees] involved in joining a start-up business. They have to really believe in the vision and enjoy the environment they work in. We want to make it as creative and fun as we can. We have a flat structure and it is very collaborative.”

Kitri February 2020 Stephanie daisy print wrap dress front

Kitri February 2020 Stephanie daisy print wrap dress front

In the medium term Kim wants to develop Kitri from a dress-based label into a full lifestyle brand, but she is characteristically level-headed about expanding too quickly.

“Ultimately, I want Kitri to be a lifestyle brand so we’ll continue to fill those gaps to make sure that shoppers can come to Kitri for anything. That’s the ultimate goal, but we want to make sure our brand identity is really solidified before we [do it].

“We need to make sure we have a good scalable business. We want to be a big, profitable company and trying to get there with integrity will be challenging. We’ve had a great few years but it’s important to look at the bigger picture and see where we want to be,” she says.

“We’re at a tipping point – we can feel it. We just need to get there.”

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