Laine Sou Weinberg has quite a story, with all the makings of a classic film or novel. Big dreams, hard work, setbacks, success—and great clothes. As the Edina fashion designer and founder of online boutique Kokoon prepares to launch her spring collection, Edina Magazine talked with her about her journey, her business and her inspiration.
The Early Years
Even as a little girl, Weinberg had a keen interest in fashion. Her parents adopted her from Korea when she was 4 years old, and she grew up in the Twin Cities, watching her mother sew. “My adopted mother is actually an amazing quilter,” she says. “I had a large interest in [her] sewing room, making clothes for my Barbies and that kind of thing.”
As a teenager, Weinberg started designing and experimenting with pattern-making. “It was always an interest of mine,” she remembers. But designing and sewing remained hobbies—for a while.
“I kind of floundered a bit after high school,” Weinberg remembers. She ended up at the University of Minnesota, working three waitressing jobs to pay for school, and trying to figure out where she was headed.
“After a couple of years, I realized [fashion] is the thing that I want to do. Nothing else is going to make me happy.” So at the young age of 21, while she was still a busy student, Weinberg started her own business, designing and selling her pieces on consignment to local stores. Little did she know it was the beginning of a successful pursuit.
Kokoon is Born
When it became apparent that Weinberg’s fashion business was taking off, she decided to leave college and commit to being a designer full time. Her boyfriend Richard—now her husband—was completely supportive, and they founded Kokoon together. “For our first anniversary of dating, he bought me my first industrial sewing machine,” Weinberg says with a smile. “That’s when I thought, ‘This man really understands me and loves me!’ ”
Richard took samples on the road, organized Kokoon’s first wholesale orders and helped manage the day-to-day operations of the business. “He’s the most humble, behind-the-scenes guy,” says Weinberg. “He’ll never take credit for anything, but he’s the one that makes everything work.”
Putting Down Roots
The Weinbergs have lived in Edina for 18 years, and raised their kids Sam and Tess here. What brought them out of the city and into the ’burbs? “Highland Elementary School!” Weinberg says with a laugh.
Even if school was a big factor behind the Weinbergs’ move, there were plenty of other things to love about their new home. “It’s convenient and close to everything,” says Weinberg. “It’s safe and clean … I think it’s an ideal place, and I love it. It’s a charming community, with restaurants popping up, more to do, and more reasons to stay in Edina.”
Trouble and Tragedy
Around the time of her family’s move, Weinberg started to see flux in the fashion industry. “Our business model changed,” she remembers.
After a big wave of retail consolidation in the mid-1990s, Kokoon found itself in a much more volatile business environment. “We were trying to raise our young kids, and we were putting our house on the line every time we took an order,” Weinberg says. “It just became too risky. We needed to shift. So we decided to concentrate on building a boutique business.”
Kokoon started doing business with small boutiques, and in a short time had arrangements with more than 1,400 stores. But then, 9/11 rocked the country, and along with it, the fashion industry.
“For three days [after the attacks], our fax machine rang off the hook,” says Weinberg, “and every single order was canceled. It was just devastating. Of course, that time was hugely devastating for everyone.”
A New Approach
In the weeks after the attacks, Weinberg was left with a huge warehouse full of clothes, and nowhere to sell them. “I had a couple of girlfriends come down and they took the clothes and sold them to their friends,” she says. “Then they started getting organized, having coffee get-togethers and cocktail parties.”
Those fashion-focused cocktail parties would turn out to be the key to Kokoon’s next chapter. “We were just grateful that [our friends] were doing it,” says Weinberg. We were trying to get our business back on track.” After about nine months, Weinberg’s friends had sold almost everything in the warehouse—and their buyers were begging for more.
These pop-up boutiques—a modern take on traditional home-shopping parties—started to shine a bright light on Kokoon’s future. There was just one problem, says Weinberg. “[At the time] it was a very funky, multimedia line. In wholesale, you have a narrower collection of goods [with a higher volume]. A lot of our sales were taking place in a suburban environment, and we’d have four women show up to a PTA meeting in the same item. They wouldn’t be very happy about it.”
So Weinberg decided to focus on a true boutique business model: a steady stream of new items, in smaller quantities. “Our tagline is ‘Boutique without borders’ ” she says. “We do two major lines, spring and fall, and we design multiple limited editions, so we add new pieces all season long.”
Kokoon now has sales representatives all over the country who host hundreds of pop-up boutique shows—either at parties or one-on-one with clients—every year. “It’s very much like visiting your favorite neighborhood boutique,” says Weinberg. “There’s an ever-changing selection of styles. It keeps it fresh and interesting, and women really like knowing that they’re getting something that’s not mass-produced.”
The boutique model has also allowed Weinberg to delve deeper into design, her original love. “Seeing my clothes in Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue might have been thrilling, but it was disheartening to have months of my work whittled down to just a few styles. We [now] release about 500 designs each year … and I’m actually able to design what I want!”
Blast from the Past
Last September, Kokoon celebrated its 25th anniversary with a retrospective fashion show at Aria in downtown Minneapolis. And, says Weinberg with a smile, the more things change, they more they stay the same. “When I first started out, I was 21. It was the dawn of Lycra! I was a huge Whitney Houston fan, and that was the whole look at the time. Super body-conscious, tight, sexy going-out clothes … we started going through our archives [for the retrospective], and a lot of what we found was really current. I can still feel these fashions. This is still meaningful to me.”
Indeed, Weinberg has looked to her roots for inspiration this spring. “A lot of our spring collection is influenced by the things I did in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” she says. “It looks completely new and fresh. It is so fun.”
By way of example, Weinberg mentions a memorable pair of pants. “In our archives, I found this pair of lace pants that was fuchsia, black and stretchy. They were really fantastic. I can’t do a fuchsia-and-black one for this spring, but I’m all about lace pants.” Sure enough, Kokoon’s spring 2014 line will include plenty of lace.
“I’m mixing laces with patterns … and stripes of every size are huge this spring. We’re taking some lace and color-blocking it, so it becomes lace stripes.”
Other trends Weinberg is seeing this season? “A lot of waistbands and seam details. Cutouts are a big trend, and have been now for a couple of seasons. We’re doing them in a way that’s completely wearable and sexy.”
How does a veteran designer stay inspired? Just by looking around, says Weinberg. “Inspiration is everywhere. It can come through very common things, even ugly things—details that strike you a certain way, or a memory you file away in your head.”
Weinberg has embraced recent tech trends and social media, in addition to browsing more traditional sources for new ideas. “I love media, so I’m always surrounded by magazines or online looking at things.” She visits museums and fashion blogs, photography books and Pinterest.
And, Weinberg says, her customers keep her grounded. “I feel like I have a very clear grasp on who I’m designing for, what their needs are in their day-to-day lives, when I’m in my environment … I feel very connected to my client base when I’m in Minnesota … because I’m around women who are living that kind of not-quite-urban lifestyle.”
Over the years, Weinberg has stayed true to her mission. “I think part of my job is to interpret trends from everything I take in, and make pieces that work for real women’s wardrobes.”
All Dressed Up
Want to explore Kokoon yourself? The studio’s online shop is open 24/7, and you can follow the latest updates on social media sites like Facebook and Pinterest.
To shop for Kokoon pieces in a local brick-and-mortar shop, stop by Local Motion in Uptown. The store has carried Weinberg’s fashions for more than 26 years, since her early days as a college-student designer.
And to get an exclusive first glimpse at this season’s collection, check out Kokoon’s spring 2014 launch event from 2 to 4 p.m. February 9, at Mozza Mia (3910 W. 50th St.), featuring informal modeling and refreshments. The event is free to the public; rsvp at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What’s in a Name?
So what’s the story behind the name Kokoon?
“I found the word in a Finnish dictionary,” says Weinberg, “and I was immediately struck by the visual beauty of the word. The Ks are strong, and the Os are soft and feminine.
“And I loved that, phonetically, in English it can mean to cozy up … or the beginning of a beautiful metamorphosis. But the best part is that it means ‘together’ in Finnish. I feel like it’s the perfect name for our brand.”