One too many lost mittens was the “aha” moment for Kari and her husband to start their own clothing line, Liam & Isla, featuring kids’ mittens that snap-onto jackets—no more searching for lost mittens!
Tell us a little about your background…
I was born and raised in the south suburbs of Chicago with my parents Jim and Patti Blackmore, my sister Sarah, and my younger brother Jimmy.
Today I still live in the Chicago area with my husband and co-partner Rand, my amazing wonder-kids Liam (age 7) and Isla Mari (age 5), as well as our sweet-as-can-be rescue pup, Ruby (age 2). Just this November we received a surprise blessing in the form of a little girl, due this July.
I am a Catholic School girl through and through: St. Damian for elementary school; Mount Assisi Academy for high school; and DePaul University for both undergrad (B.A. in Sociology / Anthropology) and grad (M.Ed. in Elementary Education and Reading / Learning Disabilities).
I was offered my first teaching position in December 1998 at a south side Chicago Public School, and I have been teaching ever since (minus two maternity leaves). Today I am a Special Education teacher, still working for the Chicago Public School system under the guidance of the world’s most supportive female principal ever!
When did you start thinking about making a change?
With everything going on with the educational system here in Illinois, I knew I had to find a next act. Unfortunately, teaching is fast becoming an unreliable career; moreover, it is disheartening to work in an industry where you feel undervalued day in and day out by your government leaders. I think I always thought I would end up tutoring struggling readers at a learning facility or after-school program, which would be great as I love teaching (I just hate the politics that go along with said career). However, these ideas for the future didn’t excite me. I’ve been teaching for 17 years now, and I am ready for a change.
I have always wanted to work in fashion and I think I always knew that someday I would. I just never dreamed it would be for a company I co-founded. How did this happen? Well, one winter day, I came home from school to find my husband, Rand, sewing snaps onto our children’s mittens and fleece jackets. This was not a typical scene in our home, so I was curious to find out what he was doing.
Rand said that he was “sick and tired” of the kids pulling their mittens off and with the mittens falling off while the kids were playing outside in the cold and snow. He felt he was spending more time getting the children dressed for the outdoors—he loves playing outside with them—than they were actually spending outside because of those darn mittens. He figured he could snap the mittens to their fleece jackets, thus ensuring lots of hours outside with warm, cozy hands because those mittens could not come off anymore.
Right then and there I knew he was onto something and I told him so. My husband’s brilliant snap-on mitten idea has paved the way for my midlife career reinvention. It took a bit of convincing, but Rand finally relented and agreed to look into starting up a children’s clothing line with me.What is your next act?
I am co-founder of the Liam & Isla clothing line, which we launched last August when I was 41. The Liam & Isla clothing line is designed for children ages 2T-5T; however, next season we are expanding our sizes up to 12 years of age. The line was designed for moms who are into fashion and want to see cooler lines on their little ones. There are no princess or baseball images; in fact, I would wear each piece myself! The inspiration for most of our pieces literally came from our own closets, as well as simple people watching. I knew I wanted to create a line that didn’t look like children’s clothes, but merely smaller sizing.
The line consists of three different jacket designs for the girls as well as the boys; each unique design comes in two different colors. Our line is different from other children’s clothing lines as I’ve purposely stayed away from prints while focusing closely on creating jackets made of a beautiful fabric with simple, clean, fashionable lines—a look that will eventually become synonymous with Liam & Isla.
Our snap-on collection differs from any children’s clothing line I have seen in that the mittens snap directly onto the fleece sleeve, thus ensuring that the mittens do not come off those little hands—simple in design yet incredibly functional. An added bonus of the snap-on collection is that they keep the snow out so your child stays warm through and through.
I think about expanding all the time. First, I would love to create a cold weather accessories line of hats and scarves. Further, by upgrading our sizing to older children we will be able to create cold weather accessories for that age band. I would love to create faux fur mufflers and hats for the S-XL upcoming girls’ line, as well as stylish, wearable ear muffs. In time, hopefully we will be able to further expand and create an entire line to be worn year round, not just in the cooler months.
We sell online, but have also been going to bazaars and markets, which we have been well received at. In January, Rand showed our line at KidzMax here in Chicago, and in March, he was at the ENK International Children’s Club, where buyers came to look at and purchase the product. As a result of these trade shows, we will be seen in various boutiques here in Chicago as well as in New York.
Designing this clothing line has been a dream come true, and I love every second of it. By nature, I am not a “take-charge” type of person in the workplace, but when I was first in that room working with the pattern-makers and seamstresses, examining the sketches and samples, I knew exactly what I wanted, what looked good, what didn’t and, amazingly, I became that “take-charge” leader. I didn’t even know I had this strength and know-how inside of me.
How did you get started?
Naming our company was easy since we used the names of our first two kids, Liam and Isla. Rand and I divided the workload in a way that made sense to us. He would handle all of the business aspects—as an accountant that was right up his alley—while I would take care of creating the line.
Taking the plunge was not hard at all for me. I was 100% committed, and the initial start-up process was very long (well over a year) so I had a lot of time before the line launched and the company became “real.” Also, Rand is our accountant so he was the one handling all of the money, invoices, and transactions. I never knew how much we were spending on fabric, patterns, consulting services, training programs, etc. (and I liked it that way, or else I might have called it quits). I was living in this beautiful, organic creative bubble while Rand was the one having sleepless nights and days filled with headaches worrying about money.
We saved up for a while before we launched the line; however, it has taken a toll on our bank account. We haven’t needed an investor as of yet, but it is always a possibility should we need assistance. I am currently still teaching. I will be going on a maternity leave next year, but fully plan on returning to the classroom when my leave ends. While Rand spends the majority of his time working on Liam & Isla, he does accounting consultant work on the side. The plan is for Rand and I to eventually work full time for Liam & Isla, but we’re not there just yet.How supportive have your family and friends been?
When I first began telling friends and family about the clothing line, I feel like I was initially met with a lot of fake smiles and half-hearted comments, such as, “that’s cool” or “well, good luck with that.”
I remember when the first sketches were e-mailed over and I asked my dad if he would like to see them, and he responded, “I’m not really interested in clothing.” Ouch. That was like taking a bullet, but I tried not to let it get me down and I’m so glad because later that day I showed my mom, my sister Sarah, and my sister-in-law Gina, and their reactions were positively priceless. I’m happy to say that my dad is now one of Liam & Isla’s biggest supporters. In retrospect, I appreciate how candid he was with me, regardless of how it felt at the time. I have learned over the course of this adventure that when everyone is telling you exactly what you want to hear, someone is lying. Your “true” loved ones are always honest, for better or worse.
A few weeks later, Rand and I went out to dinner with his sister Michelle and her husband Bob. At the beginning of the meal, Bob made a toast to Liam & Isla’s success. I remember being surprised that Bob even thought to mention the company, much less toast it, because we were just launching Liam & Isla. It was the first time I realized that people were rooting for Liam & Isla’s success.
Months later, the first samples arrived and I showed my 99-year-old grandma, as she is an amazing seamstress and recognizes quality craftsmanship. Her opinion was one I truly valued. When she gave her positive endorsement, I knew Liam & Isla was on its way towards something great because Grandma always knows best!
These moments from our loved ones, their recognition, honesty, and support fueled my determination to ensure Liam & Isla would successfully launch the next year.
What challenges have you faced?
The biggest challenge I have faced throughout this entire journey is that I have no idea what I am doing! I am a Special Education teacher. What do I know about sourcing, selling, and launching a children’s clothing line? Nothing! But I have learned, and I’ve learned quickly, mostly hands on. Truthfully everyone in this industry has been so helpful. I’ve found that if you just ask a question most people are more than happy to offer guidance. I have a lot more to learn, but I’m working on it every single day.
Another challenge I face is the constant worrying. I have two young children, Liam and Isla Mari, who are my first priority; this company was created for them, for their future. I constantly worry that the product won’t sell, buyers won’t be interested, and my basement will remain filled with fleece jackets and snap-on mittens. Rand packs and ships all the items that we sell, in order to keep costs down.
It is hard sometimes being in business with your husband, and I’m sure he would say the exact same thing. I found that early on when we disagreed with each other we would use our “married” voices, as opposed to our “work” voices. Now when there is a difference of opinion we have agreed to treat one another like a co-worker, and that has made things run much smoother. We do talk about the business a lot, but we still have two children to raise as well as a new little one on the way, so we both seem to know when it’s “work” time vs. “family” time.Have you ever thought of giving up?
What’s kept you going?
In July of this year, 600 fleece jackets, wraps, and pullovers, along with 3,000 mittens, were delivered and stored in my basement. This was my “buyer’s remorse” moment. As I took inventory of all the fleeces, I remember thinking, “What have we done?”; “What were we thinking?”; “What have we gotten ourselves into?”
I remember talking to my mom about my fears later that day, and she reassured me that my dad, also an entrepreneur—he left a great job as a Field Supervisor at a successful construction company back in 1980 to open his own high-end residential construction company—had had the same doubts and concerns. She went on to tell me that my dad used to pace our house all night long in the beginning years, worried and stressed about making each month’s mortgage payment. Thirty-five years later, Blackmore Construction is synonymous with quality construction craftsmanship. I strive to repeat my dad’s example; 35 years from now, in 2050, I expect Liam & Isla to be synonymous with quality children’s clothing.
What have you learned about yourself through this new adventure?
This process has really made me focus on my future and what I want for myself, for my husband, for our marriage, and for our children. My family and I are the “core four” and everything I do is for us, for our future as a family as well as individuals. I’ve learned that I am the architect of my family’s future.
I’ve also learned that the world does not revolve around me and my clothing line. Some of the folks who would take a bullet for me couldn’t honestly care less about my business. They love me to death, but have no interest in talking about ¾ length zippers, peplums, margins, and sales. Life is moving on for everyone, not just for me. I remind myself all the time that just because this is at the top of my mind, it is not at the top of anyone else’s (other than Rand’s). In order to have a friend you have to be a friend, and that means listening as well as sharing.
What advice do you have for women seeking a fresh start in midlife?
I truly do not have any advice for anyone at this point, but I love reading advice from other women who have walked in similar shoes. I have only been at this a little over a year; this journey is so new and exciting and I’m figuring it out as I go, but I am very green.
I would feel comfortable telling another woman to give their dream a try; give it a shot. If I didn’t take this chance, I wouldn’t stand a chance. Period. Right now I stand a great chance!
What resources do you recommend?
VMora – They are fashion consultants who help new designers create and launch their clothing line. Their tagline is “We Bring Your Fashion Dreams to Life” and that is exactly what they did. They created our patterns for us based off our mood boards and sketches, while introducing us to a number of fabric specialists and locally based manufacturers. The women there were able to listen to my vision and create the clothing samples as if they could see inside my mind. Besides being immensely talented, these women are all kind, warm souls.
Our fleece manufacturer is H&H Manufacturing, based here in Chicago, while our mittens were manufactured by Miamio Fashions out of China. We sourced our fleece material through Assaltex, based in Los Angeles, while the contrast material was sourced through KenDor Textiles out of Canada. All of our buttons, zippers, and interfacing are from The Leonard Adler Company in Chicago.
Jane Hamill Fashion Brain Academy – I have learned so much from Jane Hamil’s videos and sourcing guides. Even her Facebook posts are informative.
Other women business owners have been so informative and helpful, but none more so than Helen and Karen from the Pocket Poppet. Both of these women have offered advice and resources to help get Liam & Isla off the ground and running.
Rand created our website and does our accounting. We use Jenny Grod Photography for all our photos.
For PR, Helen Tyler from The Pocket Poppet introduced us to Orca Communications who are based out of Arizona and have been amazing. They have featured us in quite a few magazines as well as Mommy Blogs. Casual Claire is a big fan of Liam & Isla. She is slated to do two blogs and included us in her Valentine’s giveaway.
For design inspiration, I love Shopbop’s Lookbooks and Barneys’s Women’s Trends. After all these years, I still adore Project Runway. I also love to look at photos of celebrities, my favorites being Gwyneth Paltrow, Amal Clooney, and most recently Alicia Vikander (her dress at the Critic’s Choice Awards – where can I get that???).
What’s next for you and your business?
Liam & Isla will continue selling online as well as showing at trade shows in order to branch out, selling to wholesale buyers and children’s boutiques. Super exciting!
Liam & Isla is also grading down our patterns to include sizes 18 to 24 months so next year at this time we will be able to dress your toddlers and infants.
Eventually, I would love to design a line for women as well, but that is a few years down the road. Can’t wait!
Contact Kari Blackmore-Bruce at email@example.com