How Kaela Kay Went From Side Gig to a Global Brand
Kaela Kay Fashion Boutique & Design Studios has dressed celebs including Ava Duvernay and Janet Mock, but it all started at owner Catherine Addai’s kitchen table
Catherine Addai didn’t set out to create a fashion label. In 2013, she was home with her baby daughter, Mikaela, and wanted to create some modern African-inspired outfits to wear to events. The “self-taught seamstress” and “self-taught designer” had always been interested in fashion. It was a creative outlet—but once she posted photos of her creations on Facebook, it became something more. She started making clothing for herself and her friends, then friends-of-friends and before long, she was putting out her first five-piece Kaela Kay collection, complete with a photoshoot in downtown Toronto.
“It just took off. And I didn’t have a chance to even rein it back in. It just kept going,” she says. Addai’s clothing line—named after a combination of her daughter’s name, Makaela, and Addai’s nickname, Kay—began as a side gig.
“When I first started the line, I used to sew everything myself, believe it or not. Yes. On the machine that my mom bought me, in my kitchen, at my kitchen table,” says Addai. She participated in the Mercedes-Benz Start-Up runway show and the panel of judges loved her work, but asked how she would handle a large order from a store if she was doing it all herself.
“They said we love you, but you’ve got to come back when your business has scaled and you have the ability to take on more business, and you have the ability to really grow,” recalls Addai. “And I walked away from that not defeated, but I walked away from that going, ‘Yes.’”
Inspired, Addai hired seamstresses and began to grow her team, and her business. Kaela Kay Fashion Boutique & Design Studios now offers custom design and sewing services as well as ready-to-wear clothing for women. After quitting her job in 2017 to run the business full-time, Addai increased her sales by 50 per cent, and currently has customers all over Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and parts of Africa. She’s been featured on CNN, FLARE, the Globe and Mail and earned multiple awards for her designs—which have been worn by When They See Us director Ava Duvernay, actor Busy Phillips, Cityline host Tracy Moore and Endeavour’s Bozoma Saint John.
Here’s how she took her business from the kitchen table to Kaela Kay Fashion Boutique & Design Studios:
Based on your experience, what are the key things entrepreneurs need to do in order to grow a business?
So in order for me to scale, for any entrepreneur to scale, I really had to make sure I had a core scalable business that I understand and that I was able to pitch. I had to also be able to delegate and let go of those tasks that I, as a business person and the owner, didn’t necessarily have to be doing. For me, that meant hiring the production staff. Hiring a customer service representative to take care of my emails and my Instagram responses, and hiring a social media expert to come up with a marketing plan and marketing campaign, and executing that so that I could focus on creating ideas, generating buzz, sharing my story, talking to customers, going to runway shows and doing events. And then bringing in more business and bringing in more people and connecting that way, and then bringing it in house for us to execute the bigger plan.
What challenges did you encounter when scaling Kaela Kay?
A lot of the pushback that I got, true story, was “We love you, we love your pieces, we love your energy, but we’re not sure exactly where in mainstream fashion you would fit, and where we’d actually place you.” I just took that as OK, either I need to go off and do my own thing, or you’re just not ready for me right now. So I took that as a positive, and how I can scale my business on my own, to show them that hey, it is a scalable business.
Did you get any help along the way to make this growth possible?
I turned to some fantastic government organizations that offered me mentorship. Futurepreneurs is a great one. When I quit my job in 2017, I enrolled in the program and they gave me a mentor who really helped me figure out the next phase of scaling the business. My mentor is not really in the fashion industry, but he had the expertise that I needed to achieve my bigger goal.
I also went to talks and sessions about business – putting together a business plan, getting my finances together, what applications and programs to use to help me get organized, and taxes, which is whew! So thank God for Futurpreneur. I actually learned a lot just being with the organization in terms of the services and the people they’ve been able to connect me with. If you’re an entrepreneur, find an organization that offers mentorship, from somebody who has a certain level of expertise in what you want to achieve.
What other advice do you have for entrepreneurs looking to scale their business?
Right now the biggest thing is consumers want to identify with you as a person. They don’t want to just buy into clothing, they want to buy into a story. They want to buy into a brand. So have a strong story, put it in writing, find a mentor, network, network, network, network, delegate things that you don’t need to be doing, share your story, and stay focused.
How do you manage a global brand but still stay true to yourself?
To manage the global brand Kaela Kay and being Catherine is nothing short of a miracle every day. It goes back to me having a good understanding of my business, the scaling plan that I’m comfortable with and working towards that and having a strong support team behind me. I always say, as a mom, entrepreneur and as a queen, I wear a crown. My crown may not always be straight every day, because things happen, and I appreciate those people in my life who help me shift it a little bit, so that it can be a little bit straighter, I can stand a bit taller, and I can continue to push forward with my work. So thank you.
To celebrate Small Business Week in October 2019, watch the Startup & Slay digital video series featuring six Canadian companies founded by diverse women entrepreneurs. This special project is produced by How She Hustles, with proud sponsor CIBC in partnership with Futurpreneur Canada and Ryerson University. Help us share these stories online with hashtag #startupandslay and don’t forget to tag @howshehustles. We’d love to hear how you Startup & Slay, too!