For some clothing company executives, it might seem strange to know your corporate office used to be your nursery.
Or that some of your older colleagues remember you and your younger brother, who also works in the same building, riding tricycles down the hallway or hopping onto the conveyer belt.
But such are the memories for Michael Kane, copresident of Karen Kane, a 43-year-old women’s apparel brand in Los Angeles, and his younger brother, Robert Kane, who is a designer with his own label, which is part of Karen Kane Inc.
The company, whose Karen Kane clothing is sold at Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Dillard’s and some 400 specialty stores around the country, was founded in 1979 by husband-and-wife team Karen and Lonnie Kane in their garage. They had been married for a few months and Karen had graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles.
Over the decades the company mushroomed to become a multimillion-dollar enterprise that occupies a 135,000-square-foot structure in the L.A.-adjacent industrial area of Vernon, home to many other L.A. clothing concerns, including Paige, Monique Lhuillier and Tadashi Shoji. In 2009, Karen Kane launched a second label called Fifteen Twenty, a collection of upscale items designed to strike a balance between classic and cool.
Over the years the Kanes have been approached to sell their company but that didn’t interest them. Their first thoughts were to pass on their carefully crafted creation onto Michael, 36, and Robert, 31. However, they weren’t sure how their sons felt about that.
“When they went to college, we didn’t feel there was any likelihood they would take over,” Lonnie said. “But they knew it was always there for them.”
When Michael graduated from Northwestern University in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in communications, he went into the entertainment industry, working as an assistant at Creative Arts Agency, an entertainment and sports talent company, and later with a Los Angeles public relations firm specializing in entertainment.
“Michael found that after a few years, that wasn’t for him,” Lonnie recalled. “One night he came over for dinner and said, ‘I’m leaving my job.’ I asked, ‘So what are you going to do?’
“He said, ‘I am going to work for you.’ And I said, ‘What are you going to do for me?’ He said, ‘You need someone in marketing.’ And that is how he came to work for the company.”
In 2011, Michael began at the company as the director of marketing and eventually helped expand the e-commerce side of the business as well as other areas. Last year he was named copresident, sharing that title with Lonnie.
Robert also went his separate way for a while. After finishing his studies in 2016 in fashion and apparel design at Parsons School of Design The New School, he returned to Los Angeles to work as a design assistant with Raquel Allegra.
He was there for two years before joining Karen Kane in 2018. But instead of joining his mother in designing the Karen Kane brand, he launched his own independent, high-end contemporary label called R.G. Kane, which is run with his own team but is a part of Karen Kane Inc. Its luxe fabrics and sophisticated looks range in price from $125 for a T-shirt to $415 for a jacket. The boho chic Karen Kane label, which takes its cues from a California lifestyle, has a broad demographic and sells for $90 to $350.
Turning over a family-owned business is never easy, no matter what industry you are in. According to several surveys, about one-third of family businesses are passed on to the next generation, and the apparel industry is probably harder than most.
“It can be a very emotional decision,” said Liz Kislik, a management consultant and executive coach whose Liz Kislik Associates is located on Long Island, New York. “It is very hard to stop being a parent just because you happen to be a business owner. And it is hard to stop being a business owner just because you happen to be a parent.”
To make a successful transition, she suggested business owners start with a plan. That was exactly what Lonnie did. “You have to make sure the family members who are going to continue on afterward are well rounded in what the business is and are experienced in a number of areas of the company,” he explained. “They also need to develop relationships in the industry that are separate from the ones their parents have.”
He advises that family members are integrated early on to avoid shocking the employees. In addition, a company should be financially healthy when the next generation comes on board, otherwise it’s a burden.
Karen Kane Inc. has always been a family affair. When Lonnie and Karen started their company they employed Karen’s mother, Olga Markovich, who came out of retirement to work as the company bookkeeper. Karen’s father, Frank, a retired homebuilder, fixed anything and everything that fell apart. “He was generally my facilities guy when we didn’t have any facilities,” Lonnie said with a laugh.
Lonnie’s mother, Cecelia Jenkins, later worked in the front office answering phones and dealing with customers. She eventually handled employee benefits. Karen’s sister, Lorraine Levine, is still at the company working as a graphic designer.
So it was a natural progression that Michael and Robert would come on board. “Lonnie and Karen never pressured us to get involved, but I think they always had hoped that one day we would be involved,” said Michael, who refers to his parents by their first names when discussing business.
“I think they like that we are here,” Robert noted.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the family worked as a team when some tens of thousands of orders were canceled overnight. Before the pandemic, Karen Kane had 175 employees. That dropped to 105 and is now up to 150.
During the pandemic the company ramped up its e-commerce site, which used to handle 20 to 30 percent of the business. It is now responsible for about 50 percent of revenues. For buyers who like to touch and feel the product, they sent out fabric swatches from the collection.
The company still produces 80 percent of its apparel domestically, with more intricate styles and details sewn within the Karen Kane facilities, which has a small sewing department.
Robert’s line of high-end contemporary clothing with more delicate fabrics including cupro, recycled cotton denim, organic cotton, and repurposed deadstock is all sewn in house. Since launching his brand Robert has seen his creations get better every year. They are now carried by 100 specialty stores.
“The label has been an evolution,” Robert said. “Today I would say we are really into joyful, more colorful clothing. I think that resonates with us coming out of a strange period of time.”
Even with Michael and Robert on board, Karen and Lonnie have no immediate plans to retire. They enjoy what they do and Michael and Robert enjoy having them around for their guidance and help.
“There is no timeframe for our sons to take over,” said Lonnie, who envisions Michael in charge of the business side and Robert taking over as creative director. “When it happens, it will happen.”
Then there is the third generation waiting in the wings. Every day Michael brings his two-year-old daughter, Birdie, to work. She too has her own nursery, which one day might be her office.