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DESIGNER SPOTLIGHT

Getting Family Support : Her Own Kids' Needs Help Karen Munroe of N. Tustin Know What Works for Softhead

November 17, 1994|ROSE APODACA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A cork bulletin board in Karen Munroe's work studio in her North Tustin home is plastered with sketches of dresses and colorful swatches. Equally colorful alongside them are crayon drawings by two of her four daughters, whose smiling photographs are tacked up there with everything else.

Across from the computer, next to a large cutting table that dominates the room, stands a miniature dress form. It's not unlike the kind you see in display windows covered with jewelry.

Except on this form, Munroe experiments with patterns and fabrics that will eventually turn up in her children's wear collection,Softhead.

Characterized by classic silhouettes and fun novelty prints, Softhead apparel fits boys and girls from 6 months old to size 6.

"I don't design anything very froufrou," says Munroe, who founded the company when her first daughter, Lauren, was born in 1989. "I just know what my children's needs and wants are."

Back then, Munroe was a new mom fretting over the harmful effects of a thinning ozone layer on her newborn. In search of proper protection, Munroe was inspired to stitch up a soft baseball cap with an extended bill. Friends and strangers began asking about the reversible hats.

Pregnant with her second daughter and not wanting to return to a demanding career as a traveling manufacturer systems consultant, Munroe was encouraged by her husband to begin Softhead hats.

Plans for this enterprise were reinforced when a family member who represented a children's wear line asked to take the hats around on her circuit. The feedback, recalls Munroe, was thrilling.

"I have an MBA from UCI, not a fashion degree. I learned how to sew from my grandmother and until then just did it on the side," she says.

A year later she added matching shorts and floppy hats, and the collection has continued expanding.

Silhouettes are kept timeless and basic. "I think because I'm not a designer I look for simple patterns and fabrics that other mothers might like. There are a lot of designers who love to design beautiful things, but they don't consider the practical side of manufacturing," she says.

With four girls under age 5, Munroe knows the reality of value. She considers affordable prices paramount, keeping sets under $50. A reversible pant set with suspenders and a matching sweat shirt runs about $46 to $50; the ballet-length prairie dress is $42 to $46. Softhead's signature hats are $18 to $20.

Dresses usually fall into two categories: the two-tiered empire waist dress and the single-tiered empire waist. Both use a generous amount of yardage to allow for twirling.

For big boys, there are corduroy pants with a novelty print cuff that matches a panel of the same novelty fabric sewn on a colored sweat shirt.

It's Softhead's novelty prints that have attracted parents and kids most, says Munroe. Anything goes: cowboy hats, vegetables, cookies, the alphabet and animals. "I look for impact, color, nothing too cutesy. My kids, of course, tell me what they like," she says.

Four-year-old Mallory agrees quickly, pausing only briefly from wiggling and giggling continuously in her patient mother's arms.

"The girls are very helpful," adds Mom. The four, including twins Kelsie and Jaime, ages 3, serve as models in catalogue brochures.

Working from home allows Munroe to spend maximum time with her family. Of course, a sitter comes three times a week to watch the girls so she can catch a few quiet hours in her workroom or run to the contractors.

Six sales representatives show Softhead nationwide, presenting the biannual collection to about 250 active accounts. Locally, it's available at the Miss Muffett Shoppe, Mission Viejo; Oogly Boogly, Laguna Beach; Nickle Arcade, Westminster; Petit Bonhomme, San Clemente, and Muffins, Seal Beach.

Although Munroe has her sights set on plaids and garden flowers for '95, she cautions that this is not an operation that will grow faster than her girls.

"My first job is as a mom. I'll keep doing this on the side--like a hobby--as long as I don't lose money."

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