Karina Cousineau wanted a comfortable dress she could wear to work and then out on the town, without going home to change. Unable find such a dress in the stores, she started designing and making some for herself. When friends asked her for dresses and someone else offered to put them on the rack in their store, Karina Dresses was born.
She built her business slowly, making five dresses at a time at her Greenpoint, Brooklyn apartment, later moving to the Catskills. Karina now sells her creations to boutiques across the country, as well as through her own website. In April, she’ll be opening her first store, Karina & Company, on Wall Street in Kingston.
Her success grew out of a lifetime of experience. “My mom taught me how to sew,” related Karina, sitting in the spare but tastefully appointed kitchen of the home she recently bought in Kingston. “I grew up wearing homemade clothes but didn’t particularly like to sew when I was younger. As a teenager I became interested in fashion, and then I appreciated having the skill.”
Jobs over the years included running production for a clothing company on Bali and then working in home furnishing designs for Ralph Lauren in Manhattan. In 1994, she escaped the fashion world and moved upstate, sewing for herself and waiting tables in Woodstock. In winter, when the restaurant business was slow, she’d spend time in India, volunteering for organizations such as the Little Stars School in Varanasi, where street children are brought in and educated. Karina Dresses now donates funds to the school to purchase sewing machines, and girls are taught to sew so they’ll have a trade that gives them independence.
In 2008, as her dress designs were catching on, she moved to Phoenicia, and soon thereafter received an order of 300 dresses from the Sundance catalog. “That’s when I knew I was onto something,” she recalled. Just as she needed to up her production, someone recommended a tailor in Brooklyn. “I went to meet him,” said Karina, “and he was running a great shop. He knew all the ladies working there, and they were being paid a fair wage. This gave me a wonderful feeling.” She took on a partner to run the business end so she could focus on design, then hired a few people to maintain an office located across the hall from her tailor. The business flourished.
After working for larger fashion houses and being unhappy, she said, “I was excited to know it was possible to build a company based on love. I picked a business partner who shares my vision of having joyful days every day. Quality of life, workplace, and ethics are paramount to me.”
Karina considers herself more in the lifestyle industry than the fashion industry. She noted, “We promote positive body image, loving yourself exactly as you are. We make a dress for everybody. Our customers range from 18 to 80 years of age and sizes 0 to 24. I believe you should feel good in what you wear.” Designed to be figure-flattering, her dresses are also easy to care for. A Travel and Leisure blog called them “the perfect travel dress.”
Karina Dresses offers over a dozen styles with a vintage flair and variations in sleeve and hem lengths. Customers can shop by body shape, using the website to find styles flattering to a figure shaped like an hourglass, a triangle, an oval, or a rectangle. The women shown are not lean and hungry models but real people of various ages and sizes.
An essential goal of the business is to promote happiness. “Our customers are allowing us to have a joyful life,” she said. “It’s a circle that goes around and around. Many designers don’t know who their customers are. We listen to what our fans want. Our customers love us, and we are here making dresses, loving them back!”
Her rescue dog, Bodhi, whom she calls a “manager of joy,” has become certified as a therapy dog. Karina recently went through a program in Kingston to become certified as therapeutic foster parent. “I found a community of people helping children in all the counties around us, and they’re amazing people,” she reported. “Children are in such great need. And everyone needs a place to put their love.”
Karina Dresses can be purchased through https://www.karinadresses.com or at local boutiques such as Dig in Saugerties, Rambling Rose, and Woodstock Design. See the website for a complete list of stores. In April 2016, the shop Karina & Company will be opening at 329 Wall Street in Kingston.