LOS ANGELES — It seemingly takes two things to really make it in this town: a paying A-list celebrity following and a coveted slot at Ron Herman-Fred Segal.
Only a season after first hand-knitting her diagonally striped and fringed ponchos, wrap tops and dresses, Kate O’Connor has scored both.
Holly Hunter walked down the Emmy red carpet last November in her silk thread gown speckled with jet beads. O’Connor has also hooked Alicia Keys, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Love.
“Each piece is essentially one-of-a- kind, which is a great selling point,” observed John Eshaya, vice president and creative director of women’s at Ron Herman.
In the first day of dressing the shop’s prized floor forms in O’Connor’s knits last month, the store sold out of its 20 pieces. With the weekend coming, Eshaya reordered 20 more. By Sunday, they, too, had sold out.
“It’s not hippie chic. It’s hippie cool,” he said, noting his customers are pairing O’Connor’s ponchos with trousers and heels and even swimsuits.
“I think her hats are adorable, the unique yarns, the fun colors,” said Anna Sui, an early supporter who ordered O’Connor’s pointy mohair caps for her stores. “I don’t manufacture accessories, so I like working with different people. My customers really seem to love her hats.”
For the 26-year-old O’Connor, who grew up on a farm in upstate New York, the high-profile attention is as surprising as her newfound career.
As an art major, she first became consumed with thread and its possibilities at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. She used it as a medium, exploring how it’s made, how it looked unraveled and the forms it revealed when she piled yards into thread sculptures.
Yet the artist’s interest eventually shifted from the arduous process of the conceptual installations to a more pedestrian use: crochet.
It started with a bold mohair thread hat she first made. Public reaction prompted her to create a collection of hats, leg warmers and scarves that she sold at trunk shows around Baltimore.
Two years later in 2000, she impulsively left for Los Angeles. But she never lost touch. Once settled, she approached a group of investors there to finance a namesake line. “They had really liked my work over the years,” she said, “and eventually, agreed to back my business.”
In a quaint guesthouse filled with spools of alpaca, mohair, angora, cotton and rayon, O’Connor and an assistant hand-crochet accessories and machine knit apparel for boutiques including Rinaldi and Blanche & Co. here, and Blest in Hollywood.
“She doesn’t have the formal technical training, but however she does it, it works. It gives the pieces a fresh look,” said Blest partner Liz Khader, who allotted a corner of her Cahuenga Boulevard boutique to O’Connor to whip out one of her thread mound installations.
O’Connor’s unconventional method involves wrapping long knitted panels around a body and hand-knitting them together to create a dress. Custom orders are a key part of her business.
Because of her hands-on approach to individual pieces, O’Connor is content to limit growth — for now. Her line wholesales from $85 for a scarf to $3,600 for a gown.
“I think people are drawn to my work because it’s personal and they can see the physicality of the weaving process,” she said.