At Home With: Kate McMahon
Kate McMahon makes timeless hand-knit sweaters, but her real art might be reinventing herself—and her brand—again and again. What began as an earnest love of sewing and knitting in adolescence has turned into a series of successful businesses for Kate over the years, and she just keeps finding new ways to revitalize not only her brand, but her genuine embrace of life.
A nearly lifelong Santa Barbara resident (in-between stints living in Taos, New York, and Paris), Kate now lives in a sunny mountainside studio overlooking foothills and ocean that suits her beautifully routine, creative life just perfectly. Kate has wended her way through all seasons of life with grace, ease, and a refreshing sense of candor that keeps her both positively buoyant and down-to-earth in every way.
How and when did you find your way to fashion?
I found my way to fashion early on when I was 12 years old. It was in junior high home economics and we had a sewing class. I just wanted to sew, and from then on, I would spend all my time sewing and making stuff. Through my whole junior high, high school, I would just be in my room, creating stuff. Making dresses, pants, jackets. And then when I was 16, my mom taught me how to knit and I started loving that and I never stopped knitting and doing all of it, really.
So how did that love of making and creating develop into your eventual knitwear business?
I started my business, which was a cottage industry hand-knit sweater business, in 1987 when I was 27. So I had that from 1987 until I opened my store, Kate, in 2001. And that store was actually a way for me to showcase my hand-knit sweaters, because I was already selling them to stores in town. And I thought, “Well, they can sell them. I can sell them.” Then it just turned into more of a lifestyle brand. I still made my sweaters, but it was easier to buy other things than it was to just make everything. So then I just started stocking everything that I loved.
When I opened up there was a whole group of women that were in-between the young and the old—they were just bee-lining into my store. So it was great. We rode that out until the crash in 2008. And then we eked along until 2011 when we closed it.
When did you pick up with the current chapter of your knitwear line, COVET by Kate?
After I closed my shop, Kate, then I went back to doing my knits again. And that’s when I moved to this little cottage and I called that next iteration of my business, Kakoon, because I was in a little cocoon during that time. My business shut down; I got divorced. It was just all this turmoil in my life. Then I had this little cottage and I thought, “This is like my little cocoon where I am going to metamorphosize into a different thing.”
At that point, a friend told me, “Just get back to what you love and it’s your knitting.” So I focused on getting back to what I loved and finding a new way to live my life as a single person. Then I moved up here into the studio in 2018 and I think it just popped into my consciousness. I thought, I want to add clothing to the sweaters. And then the name came, just randomly: COVET, and I thought, “That’s it, that’s the name.”
How have you managed to persevere as a business owner and designer over the last year-plus? What’s kept you mentally focused on your work and motivated to keep creating?
This past year has given me clarity on what I want and need in all aspects of my life. There is so much outside pressure to strive and expand. To not be satisfied with what “is.” I’ve always believed that less is more, that value is in quality not quantity. I try and design with this in mind. It keeps me grounded and focused. I am only expressing my unique point of view. The motivation to create comes from knowing that my unique point of view is a gift. It’s innate. It is not something I need to force or manipulate. The magic is in that awareness. So I take space to listen and pay attention to mental images, flashes of inspiration, attraction to themes, and then I let my imagination fill in the details.
How would you describe your personal sense of style?
Relaxed, classic, elegant, wearable. Authentic. Just no fuss—chic and easy.
How does that translate to the jewelry you wear? What kind of pieces do you gravitate towards for everyday wear?
I like jewelry that has an earthy element to it. I tend to wear more gold than silver. I like pearls. I like Tahitian pearls. And I like leather. I like high carat gold. I like simplicity. I like pared-down, I like layered. I say pared-down—by that I mean a statement piece; maybe one statement piece or just a couple of layered items.
How would you say living in Santa Barbara for most of your life has affected both your style and your general outlook on life?
Well, in every way possible. Style, obviously—it has to be functional, easy-going, comfortable, because I’m at the beach all the time. I’m in the mountains, I’m running errands, I’m socializing with friends; I’m not in complicated environments. And so my style is all about ease and grace.
What are some rhythms and rituals that are part of your everyday routine?
I like to make coffee. I have my little ritual with coffee, with all my elixirs and mushroom powders. And I like to journal every morning. I like to sit and knit either in silence or I like to listen to podcasts or books on Audiobooks. And then I usually do some sort of yoga every day, stretching. My days are pretty routine. I do my work, I take care of business, I exercise. I meet friends every day. I try and have some daily interaction, whether it’s with my kids, my family, or with a friend. I walk my dog every morning. I like to take a nap. I like to read in the evenings and I like to watch a show before I go to bed.
You’ve made your home such a warm, welcoming place to be. What are some of the non-negotiables for you in styling your personal space?
No clutter, not a lot of stuff. I don’t like to be disorganized. I have drawers that are disorganized, but visually, I like things to be put just so. And that’s everything about my life. I like to be aesthetically, visually pleasing so that when I walk in the door, I just feel, “Oh, it’s so nice to be home.” It feels beautiful. If anybody stops by, it’s beautiful. I like order in my house and I like it to be pretty.
You have a trip coming up to Mallorca and San Sebastian. What are you most looking forward to doing with this time away in the summer?
Getting out of my routine and just being with friends and family and being open to experience how the day will unfold. I have no idea what we’ll be doing. It will just be this, “Okay, what are we going to do? Is there something we want to see? Is there a place we want to go? Is there a beach where we would want to go swimming? Is there a meal that we want, is there an interesting bar or restaurant we want to go to?” I’m looking forward to being on an airplane, being on the train, just being in a country I’ve never been to. Hearing the different language and seeing different people. Being somewhere different.
Do you have any wise piece of advice—perhaps of your own discovery or something someone else has shared with you—that has stuck with you over the years?
As far as wise advice, I’d say, “SLOW DOWN.” Enjoy the process—it is ever unfolding, expanding, and contracting. Cultivate faith and trust that you are being guided, and create from this place.