Closing The Gap

This 23-year-old ditched her 6-figure job to create power suits for young women — with the help of AI

Kevwe Mowarin, founder of Koviem. 

Today, Kevwe Mowarin, is a fashion entrepreneur, but she didn't start down that path. In fact, when Mowarin first began working in the banking industry, she bought her suits off the rack.

Mowarin, now 23, who got a New York City finance gig right out of college, working 80 to 100 hours a week, remembers often being pre-occupied with the pesky fit of her suits. She even had them minimally tailored but still, they never felt right.

In the tech, media and telecom group where she worked at Credit Suisse, Mowarin says there was only one woman in a senior leadership position. And Mowarin couldn't help but admire the way she carried herself and what she wore.

"She wore her suits and looked fabulous, but she also didn't forsake her femininity," Mowarin recalls to CNBC Make It.

She looked the way Mowarin wanted to feel. So Mowarin used her first bonus to buy a custom-made suit.

"When I wore it to work, it was the first time I wasn't adjusting the sleeves or pulling the pants down to make sure they were long enough," Mowarin says.

"It was one worry out the door, and one thing I didn't have to think about. I could focus on what I was actually there to do. And when you don't have that worry, it's so much easier to just lift your head and be more confident and be able to walk into a room and see what you need to do, and not think about that," she says.

Mowarin wanted other women to have that. So she founded start-up, Koviem, a collection of custom power suits geared towards young women.

Manhattan suit; photo by Daniel Sonnentag

While a powerful pantsuit won't shatter the glass ceiling on Wall Street, abolish sexual harassment or close the pay gap, research does show that more formal attire makes people think differently, and that putting on more formal clothes makes people feel powerful. A 2015 study actually found that wearing formal clothing makes people think more broadly and holistically, as opposed to narrowly, the Atlantic reported.

For women in particular, what to wear in the workplace can not only be polarizing, but a matter of comfort. Offices may be inadvertently or stealthily sexist, blasting icy air conditioning, which is generally more accommodating to men, who are more likely to be in long sleeves (not skirts or dresses) and have faster metabolisms and warmer extremities than women. Constantly shivering can make it hard to focus.

A power suit, Mowarin says, has the potential to put females on a more even playing field.

"Men have not had to worry about this as much since custom suiting options have been readily available," says Mowarin. "[I] wanted women like me, who are going into these male-dominated fields, to feel on the same level as their male counterparts" Mowarin explains.

Indeed, Nordstrom's Trunk Club, for example, offers a custom clothing service option for men, but currently offers no such option for women. Meanwhile, Modern Tailor, an online retailer for customized clothes, offers custom shirts, suits and pants for men, however, its women's selection only features custom business shirts.

"It's already difficult enough going into a field where people don't look like you, but to have your suit be another issue that you have to face is just silly," says Mowarin. "And I think it was time for that to be addressed, and that's what I'm trying to address with Koviem."

While custom suits for women are currently offered by other e-commerce sites (like Sumissura and Tom James) as well as local establishments, overall, women are confronted with limited options. In fact, data from the research firm Euromonitor, as reported by Quartzy, found that the U.S. market for women's suits shrank by around 77 percent between 2007 and 2016, while the market for leggings quadrupled, likely due to the rise in popularity of athleisure and workplaces becoming more lax with dress codes.

And custom suits aren't just for Wall Street.

"I'm taller than the average woman and fluctuate between sizes," Mowarin says. "When I graduated from college, I had a lot of trouble finding jackets with sleeves long enough, trousers that were long enough and jackets wide enough to fit my broad shoulders. It was incredibly frustrating having to settle for a suit that I was forced to constantly adjust throughout the day."

Building the business

In 2017, to get her business off the ground, Mowarin started saving up her bonuses and put herself on a strict budget while she still had her six-figure banking income.

"I wanted to prepare myself for what I knew would be a financial grind as I developed the business," she recalls. "I did things like avoiding taxis and taking the subway instead. I also stopped ordering food from restaurants and started cooking at home."

She also used her co-workers as a focus group. She remembers asking them questions about what they wanted in a suit, but couldn't find.

"A lot of them had the same thing come up every time: 'I want a suit that fits but there's nowhere that will make it for me efficiently,'" Mowarin says. "Because the field I was working in, we were working like 100 hours a week, there's no way that you have the time to go to a tailor for three, four, five sittings to get it perfect."

Mowarin, who holds a degree in finance from the University of Texas but studied fashion in Milan for seven months, started working on designs and brought on a tailor that March.

In September, with $10,000 saved, she quit her job at Credit Suisse and took a job at a tech start-up so she could still make some money but also devote more time to her own budding company while learning more about the luxury space.

Mowarin officially launched Koviem out of her New York City apartment in January 2018.

Koviem's custom sizing is accomplished by simply entering your height and gender and uploading just two photos of yourself (front and profile) wearing form-fitting clothes (to enhance accuracy). Then Koviem deploys AI technology that uses spatial referencing to determine your measurements "with high precision," according to Koviem's website. For the technology, Koviem is in a collaborative contract with 3-D body scanning company 3DLOOK (which recently raised a $1 million seed round); it, in turn, is using Koviem's feedback from data aggregation to perfect its technology, says Mowarin.

The collection includes a slew of suits in varying styles and colors, and Koviem also offers a bespoke offering, starting at $650, which follows a more traditional method that includes a consultation and in-person fitting.

For the Milano Suit — a $550 suit featuring high-waisted, modern slim fit pants and a strong-shoulder jacket — Mowarin drew inspiration from the silhouettes she saw Italian women wearing in Milan. Meanwhile, the Millennial Suit — also $550 and defined by its shawl lapel, structured shoulders and classic cigarette pant — is the most popular option, she says, with 58.4 percent of consumer interest centering around that product.

"The Millennial Suit, that one really is an ode to our generation and how we're breaking boundaries," she says.

The suits are made by a tailor with whom Mowarin partners and his apprentices. Since every suit is uniquely made, she explains, all patterns are cut by hand and the suits are assembled using a combination of a sewing machine and hand-sewing. Typically, it takes three to four weeks from order confirmation to shipment.

Millennial suit; photo by Daniel Sonnentag

Right now, Koviem consists of only Mowarin and her tailor, thought she enlists the help of freelancers for the tech responsibilities. Mowarin designs all of the suits herself, working closely with the tailor. It was important to her to use a tailor who was trained in designing and sewing for the female silhouette.

"One thing I found very prevalent in the suiting industry is you have these companies that make suits for men, and they branch out a little bit and start making suits for women, without actually developing an entire brand around it," Mowarin says. "So it's actually as if the women suiting is an afterthought, and that's definitely not what I wanted."

Mowarin declines to disclose sales, revenue or other financials. Since its launch in January, Koviem has grown its mailing list 200 percent month over month, according to Mowarin, it has a newly launched book club and the website draws 8,000 monthly unique visitors.

"With regards to Koviem, I definitely feel like I identify with the Millennial series. I'm always have this urge to be on top of the latest things, be at all the new places, see progression and have a voice as a young female professional," Cynthia Nguyen, influencer behind Pinch of Chic, wrote on Koviem's blog.

Mowarin's suits were covered by Teen Vogue — a pinnacle publication for young fashion enthusiasts — and her brand has garnered global attention; Mowarin says that 14 percent of those interested in Koviem are international.

Her plans for this year include opening up a showroom studio in New York City (Mowarin declines to elaborate on how it's being funded) and expanding the brand to include more lines.

Proving the critics wrong

Launching a company hasn't been easy; Mowarin admits she's faced her fair share of criticism, and says that the hardest challenge she's faced so far is getting respect from people because of her young age.

"Generally, it's from people who claim that I am an 'entitled millennial' or that I am unprepared to run a business like this," Mowarin says. "Although it can be discouraging at times, I try to channel it positively. The negative comments help me uncover blind spots and also indirectly motivate me to continue improving the business."

The women she's surrounded herself with, she explains, have inspired her to push forward, one power suit at a time.

"One person that I always look to is the female MD [managing director] that I had at Credit Suisse," Mowarin says. "I thought about all the obstacles that she faced to get to where she was, and kind of use that as a driving force for me to keep pushing past any type of criticism or any type of obstacles that I have to really reach my goals and accomplish what I've come here to do.

"There are other millennials that are doing other things and changing the world," she adds. "So I think as time goes on, people are going to stop with the whole discrediting millennials narrative, and start seeing the true value that we hold."

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