Exclusive: Cara Santana’s New Line With Kohl’s Is The Affordable Collaboration You’ve Been Waiting For
Update: Cara Santana's size-inclusive, under-$100 Apt. 9 line for Kohl's is now available to shop on Kohls.com.
This story was originally published on September 16, 2019.
It's no secret that some retail behemoths love designer and celebrity collaborations. But while those limited edition launches are a success at just about any shopping destination, no brand has the practice down quite like Kohl's.
At the moment, America's largest department store chain has a roster unlike any of its competitors. Lauren Conrad's line, LC Lauren Conrad is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Vera Wang's label, Simply Vera Vera Wang, continues to bring in praise (and cash) after 12 years. And Popsugar's millennial-focused collection for Kohl's has been thriving since it launched in 2018.
Between you and me, though, the brand's latest partnership is shaping up to be their best one yet.
Today, Kohl's announces the first of many collaborations coming out of their design office over the next year: a 37-piece size-inclusive collection designed by Cara Santana. The Santa Clarita Diet actress, fashion influencer, and founder of the beauty app, The Glam App, has been shopping at Kohl's ever since she was a little girl growing up in El Paso, Texas, and that’s precisely why she sought out the All-American brand for her first-ever dip in the design pool.
The limited-edition capsule, which will fall under their Apt. 9 line, incorporates all of today's most popular trends, from oversized plaid suits to neon blazers — all available in sizes 00 to 22 and retailing for under $100. To get the lowdown on all things Cara Santana x Kohl's, we sat down with the designer herself while she put the finishing touches on the collection at the Kohl's Midtown office. Ahead, read all about her quintessential fall look, her affinity for shopping at department stores, and her decision to hand-select every model for the ad campaign.
Refinery29: When you were presented with this opportunity, what was your initial reaction and what were you looking forward to most?
Cara Santana: "So the honest to goodness truth is that I really didn't have any desire to design a clothing line or be a fashion designer. It wasn't on my radar, but I love fashion. I love how transformative it is. I love how you're able to create your essence and your aesthetic and that it can evolve, even day-to-day. And that you can express yourself. "
"When the idea of designing a collection came to mind, to me, the only place I wanted it to be was Kohl's. I fought really, really hard and basically begged Kohl's to let me do it with their amazing team. I thought about me as a little girl, and what self-expression really meant to me, and given that I grew up in, you know, a small, rural town in Texas, we were really limited in what we had access to. I went to a private school and we were relegated to uniforms, so I felt sort of..."
CS: "Stifled. That's a great word. I felt so stifled by it. And my mom, every Sunday, would take me to Kohl's. It was the only outlet I had and we would spend hours there. That's sort of when I first learned about fashion and how to be a smart shopper. If there was something I wanted, my mom would always be like, 'Okay, we'll hold it here. Walk around the store, and if you still can't live without it then we'll get it.'"
That's still a shopping a rule that I still live by.
CS: "Do you?"
If you go home and you're still thinking about it, then you need to go back and get it.
"Exactly. It was a time when I bonded with my mom. And for me, the idea of supporting, empowering, and uplifting women — young women, in particular, but all women — is so much a part of my brand. I think about it when I take projects in entertainment, I think about it when I do endorsements, and so, for me, I'm just like, 'If this is gonna make sense for me to do, it has to be with Kohl's. Like, is that an option?'"
If it's not, make it one.
CS: "Make it one — and I did. It'll be a year when the collection comes out, from when we started, which is crazy."
How many times did you go back and forth on colors, silhouettes, styles, etc. throughout the process?
CS: "When I took my first meeting with the design team, we ended up designing pretty much the entire collection within four hours. I felt so inspired. When I started thinking about women, what women need, what isn't out there and the exclusivity that the fashion industry is often synonymous with, I just got really excited to be able to offer something new for them. So yeah, we did it in one fell swoop. And then I kept coming back to play with colors and fabrics and, to be honest, you know, we had to work really hard to get this done."
"Also, we did it all before Kohl's had agreed to sign on. So to finish in time to show them, I ended up shooting the collection. My team and I, we went out in -20 degree weather, and shot the collection. Thankfully, they liked it."
Besides your personal connection with the brand, are there other reasons why you chose to work with Kohl's?
CS: "They have such a great reach, so this collection that I feel is so inclusive and affordable, yet fashionable and diverse, is gonna reach so many young girls."
Speaking of your own style, how would you describe your own personal style?
"I would say that I'm classic, but with a modern twist. I tend to be a little bit edgier. Very eclectic. So some days, I'm like, 'I wanna wear an oversized men's suit with tennis shoes and walk through New York City and feel powerful.' And then, you know, tonight, I'll be like, 'I wanna wear a sequin outfit with heels and be super glam.' I define my style based on how I'm feeling every day, which I feel is true for most women."
If we looked at ads and saw a genuine reflection of what women look like, then we wouldn't be comparing ourselves, we'd be identifying. That's what I wanted this collection to do."
- Cara Santana
Can you describe your quintessential fall fashion look?
CS: "Well I would probably start with a good pant, a.k.a. the leather pants from Apt. 9 that I feel any woman can wear. Then I'd add a nice knit sweater, so probably my white sweater with the cool detailing up the sleeve. And then I would throw on a great piece of outerwear: my neon coat."
What about shoes?
CS: "That depends on where I am and where I'm going. But I would either wear a good sneaker or a nice pump."
Do you have a favorite piece from the collection?
"I mean, I really do love the entire collection. I think the pieces that I was like, 'I can't live without' are the sequin set, the navy pajama set, the trench, and the plaid suit. That's like asking me to pick between my favorite dogs though. I love them all."
When you spend nine months with something, you're likely to get attached.
CS: "It's like having a baby, yes. I birthed a collection for Kohl's."
What about the collection really makes it special?
"The thing that makes this collection the most special is the campaign. I really wanted to create, again, a feeling of inclusivity and diversity. The campaign is so special to me because that's when I first saw the collection come to life — I saw my vision realized. We created a campaign that is age-inclusive. The oldest model is my mom, and she's, well, let's just say she's over 60. We also have a gender non-binary model, a Muslim woman who, up until a year ago, was fully covered, making this her first opportunity to be in a campaign where she was showing herself in clothing, a feat that was very emotional for her and for all of us. We have women of color. We have size inclusivity, with models going up to size 22."
"I wanted to show this collection on every shape, every size, every height — every woman. For me, that's what this collection is all about. Society, in general, is shifting. We're coming out of that mindset of style over substance. We are yearning for substance with style and I feel like this collection and this campaign really showcases that."
"This was not about doing a fashion line because I wanted to design clothes. This was about creating wearable, functional and fashionable options for young women all over the country so that they could look and feel their best."
A handful of brands are making these changes, but in the grand scheme of things, the fashion industry still isn't very inclusive.
CS: "It's not. Or a brand has its token something. Which, I mean, I guess any step in that direction is a positive step, but it's just not enough. Female shoppers need to see themselves. One of the most important topics that I discussed with Kohl's for the collection was shattering the comparison culture. The reason that we have a culture of comparison is that we can't identify with what we see, so we look at what we do see and reflect back to ourselves. If we looked at ads in magazines and saw a genuine reflection of what women look like then we wouldn't be comparing ourselves, we'd be identifying. That's what I wanted this collection to do."
How did you go about casting models?
"All of the women in my campaign are either women that I am close to or women that I admire. So, Najwa is a poet and author. She grew up in Lebanon. She has an incredible story. She talks a lot about overcoming obstacles. She is Muslim and was covered until a year ago, so she felt a lot of backlash when she started taking off her clothing and dressing for herself. I was so inspired by her and what she's done and the positivity that she really emanates.
"And then Stephanie Shepherd is one of my closest friends. She's curvy, she's mixed race, she's Japanese and Caucasian, and she's had such an incredible trajectory from being, you know, a dancer for the Cavaliers to the CEO of all Kardashian-West brands. She's since left and is now doing her own thing and I was like, 'That is empowerment.' You know? So I knew that I wanted to have her in the campaign."
"My mother was always there at the dinner table and stayed up all night with us to do our homework, but still got up and went to the office to be a powerhouse attorney. On top of that, she's feminine, kind, loving, strong and powerful. So I was like, 'I have to have my mom in the campaign.' Every woman spoke to me in a different way, but what they all share in common is that they're women of empowerment."
Moms, they're the best. So before we sign off, is there anything else that you want our readers to know about the collection?
CS: "Well, I think it's important for customers to know that the collection is all under $100, it's affordable. We as women shouldn't have to give up looking good to save money. That's not fun. Why can't I have clothing that looks and feels good that also won't hinder me from being able to pay my rent or my mortgage or care for my children? That, and the fact that the collection will be available both online and in (most) stores, so if you go to your local store and something's sold out, fingers crossed, you can buy it online."