Sofia Karvela prefers intensity. In a behind-the-scenes series by Shopify Plus, the Wknd Nation co-founder says of start-up life, “It goes under your skin, in your veins, and eats you alive. And I'm in heaven because that's what I wanted.”
Fashion has never been known for being an easy career path. The now creative director and co-founder of the loungewear brand began her journey in the industry as a stylist. She moved to the city at 16 to pursue acting but instead found a home in styling, soon working on sets such as Sex and the City and, more recently, Younger. Karvela watched the legendary styling genius Patricia Field do what she does best with clothes. And while Karvela is used to—and delights in—the sometimes discomforts fashion work can be, she does not want to sacrifice her own physical comfort in her clothes, an ethos that has translated into this new company.
Wknd Nation launched this spring but it began, as Karvela would say in the series, as the world began to shut down. Starting a brand during a global pandemic is a feat: Karvela and her co-founder Phuong Ireland hadn’t even secured funding before the pandemic was well underway.
Staying home for nearly a year may have made it popular to toss out tighter, sleeker clothes for looser, cozy selections but Karvela sees this period as more of a trend. What endures instead is comfort before and after the pandemic and how Wknd Nation fits into that. Comfort is not just sweatpants while binge-watching yet another show on Netflix; it’s incorporating a soft tee or an exquisite hoodie into your fashion repertoire to be dressed up. Or not. It’s your choice: comfort is a lifestyle.
What Karvela and Ireland have landed on is the timeless notion that comfort is an extension of the self; that what buyers want, perhaps more than anything, is to feel good in their own bodies and these essential, classic pieces are foundational for that. Here, Karvela talks about her initial love for fashion, why couture was not really her scene and how a long-sleeved tee can captivate her more than anything, and how Wknd Nation’s future will not be tied to trends.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What is your first fashion memory?
Sofia Karvela: I remember myself as a child loving fashion because I thought it was a way for me to be able to express myself in a creative way. I come from very creative parents but, unfortunately, I considered myself not on their level of talent in that sense. My mom was a singer, my dad was a composer. When I found a way to see patterns and find joy in colors and textures as a very young girl, there was a part of me that just finally realized that I exist. I deserve to be here. I have a point of view. And that was a very young age, I was a really weird kid. My hair was too frizzy and I was very chubby and hairy in weird places that I felt very uncomfortable in my skin. Getting dressed was a really freaking big challenge. There was a lot of insecurity because I had a gorgeous mom and I was in an awkward phase. I remember myself making it a life mission to figure out a way to feel more comfortable, more beautiful.
Fast-forward to your move to New York at 16: What are some of the most important moments in your styling career that have informed your work then and now?
Karvela: I think failing made a difference. It wasn't a moment of “oh my God, [look at] this gorgeous thing I put together.” For me, the things that stood out... I think there's a lot of beauty out there and a lot of ugliness. I found a way to be happier in this industry and in myself to see the things that didn't work. For example, I remember putting a corset on a model and she was so uncomfortable. Just shooting stuff because that’s the trend in the moment. The person that's wearing it, almost like behind the scenes, is just tortured. But they've got to sell that garment because that's part of the business. I realized very soon that I can't be part of that crew. I don't think I'm even that good at it because my mind goes directly to a long sleeve t-shirt. It’s way more fascinating than a couture gown. I find a lot of beauty in simplicity—I learned that early on.
I have to find a way to create my own thing because doing what other people are doing seems to not be aligned with my beliefs and my needs as a human being in order to be happy.
There’s some advice you gave in an interview recently that I keep revisiting: “To like yourself …a lot. To not give up comfort for any trends that don’t speak to you.” I’ve heard versions of this for decades but never articulated this way. When it comes to fashion, can the right brand help close that gap for someone?
Karvela: Sometimes some people say first you have to love yourself and then somebody else. And other people are like, “oh, he loved me first, and then I loved myself.” So it's almost like, oh, no, I go in and out of self-hatred today, yesterday, probably tomorrow. I learned, and I prefer, a state of mind where I accept myself and if I don't love myself. It's almost like in terms of the brand message. I think that what brands can do is probably not just promote that message, whatever they believe, but more so show it. I think a visual speaks for itself.
That's why we're very interested in using different body shapes. The idea is there's no restriction of how you get to accept yourself. We are very conscious of making people feel good and comfortable and included in our brand. We absolutely promote all humans. It's not about self-love or not self-love, because some people may be like, "you know what, I'm going through a really tough time." Well, you know what? Join us. We feel you. It’s a struggle. There is no “oh, I'm so full of life. I love myself.” It's a bit of a mess.
What were your reference points for the initial Wknd Nation collection?
Karvela: I'm not a designer, right? But I always knew in my mind what shapes I felt looked good on people. I was born in the 80s but I always reference the 60s and the 70s. Funny enough, even though that's not really reflected, so to speak, but there are certain things, like our stitching. We use them with a bit of a vintage vibe, even though the colors and the brightness and boldness are very much a modern take.
I wonder if it's specific to this time that it's easy to be that creative and detailed as a small brand, that you can experiment.
Karvela: I have no interest in creating complicated designs. I want to really create simplicity with a bit of an edge, with a bit of a twist in the details. It’s the baseline of what we do. Because we're not just making loungewear pieces, which we launched with because we felt like we wanted to enter the market with core basics. We are developing and getting to other things. You know, we have jumpsuits, we have skirts, shorts. What is consistent is the fabric and the way that we are using those very comfortable fabrics to still make something that's fashionable and cool that you can wear to work or wear out and feel really good about it.
I’m struck by the fact that you were working on a loungewear fashion line before the pandemic and then this category would come to define pandemic wear. How do you avoid becoming tied to one event and grow as a brand?
Karvela: It's almost like that's another trend. We don't do trends, so comfort will live forever. I take the train every day. I'm a train junkie. My kids love it too. It's my way to really connect with the world. I swear to God because I don't really travel, I don't do much or go out, my way to connect is watching people on the train. And 99.9% of people are just comfortable.
I would love to talk about the Wknd Nation stylist hotline. How did that concept come to be?
Karvela: We find that the way that you wear something is what makes or breaks it. I've seen people take a t-shirt and f--k it up. I don't know how! Come on, keep it simple. I just felt like we could have a conversation with our customer and ping pong with ideas because it's not so much just about the hotline itself. It's based on a conversation. Things happen when there's a conversation. You know, it's not like this is how we solved it. It's almost how we thought it would look, but what do you think?
How are your customers responding to it?
Karvela: It's really nice. People just want to chit-chat. You have an extra little like “you got my support there,” you know. You just want somebody to tell you this looks good. We like that connection.
Perhaps I am asking you to be a bit prophetic but as a longtime fashion industry worker, what do you see or think might be in store for fashion in the coming years?
Karvela: I don't know about trends. I don't know what genius is going to wake up and give us something that will shake the world again. As far as Wknd Nation, we will continue to do what we want, which is more people, a crew of believers, who don't sacrifice comfort for nothing or no one. If we can inspire girls to love themselves, accept themselves, whether they love themselves or not, and feel really cool in our outfits and really dare to do it their way. That's what I see.
And I believe very much in physical stores. I think that people believe digital is forever going to grow, but there is a big thing in the intimacy you get from in-store experiences. We want to create pop-ups for people to really start connecting again.
The pandemic really interrupted our lives in such a tangible way. I wonder, as an owner and founder, how you are thinking of the future? How has this year shifted your thinking?
Karvela: That's why we're a DTC brand, right? We're building our own brand and we're growing it intentionally, mindfully.