There is always one person who strays from the norm and while it took us almost all year to find them, here we are. While so many of our creatives have left their day job to go full throttle into fashion, photography, or art – Katy Maher still heads into work every day because she loves what she does managing finance, but after she clocks out she heads home and manages her apparel and stationery line, Strange Kind of Grown Up. That may be a lot for most of us to handle, but Katy seems to be handling it with ease. Perhaps it’s because of her assistant Maggie – or not. Find out why Maggie’s not much help around the office, how Strange Kind of Grown Up went from snarky stickers to political fashion, and more in this wonderful exchange.
Kendra: You’ve said you’ve been a creative person since you were little, but did that always translate into what you were doing for a living as an adult or did starting Strange Kind of Grown Up, in turn, allow you to live more like a well, strange kind of grown up with more creative freedom?
Katy Maher: My day job is working in higher education administration, which I’ve been doing for about eight years, and I originally picked that path because of the creative opportunities I saw with it. I started out working in the residence halls as my first job where I got to do a lot of event planning, designing educational materials, creating resources for students, etc. While it was fun at first, over time I realized that being creative wasn’t celebrated at all – if I spent a lot of time making handouts look clean, they probably still had over a 50% chance of ending up in the trash. And, to be frank, it wasn’t an important enough part of my job to result in any kind of benefit to me (as in, I could have made terrible flyers and been paid the same amount of money at the end of the day).
There were a lot of things that stifled creativity too – strict rules and protocols, long hours especially being on call for emergencies, and it just became something that burned me out rather than lit me up. Now I work for an academic department managing finance and HR, which I like a lot despite not being much of a creative outlet (except sometimes I’m allowed to design business cards and once I got to make programs for a graduation event). But, I can still use my design eye and problem-solving skills to be good at my job, while also reserving more of my creative energy to do my own thing after 5:00 pm.
I started a shop on Etsy (which has now become Strange Kind of Grown Up) around the time when I started my first job – partially to have an opportunity to create things, and also partially to have an outlet that was uniquely mine to create and experiment with, rather than playing by someone else’s rules all the time. It has been nice to have a space where I can make the decisions and try something new since universities aren’t exactly known for being highly flexible and creative environments.
Kendra: When one is coming up with what their brand is going to be about, they can go in so many different directions. How did you land on feminism and equality as being the basis for your overall aesthetic?
Katy Maher: Honestly, it has been a journey coming up with what I wanted my business to be about – though it has always been the same general style of drawing. I started just drawing random things that I thought were cute or funny or relevant, and I did that for years before I started incorporating any kind of equality-related message.
It wasn’t until Trump was running for president that it clicked for me that I could use drawing both as a personal outlet and a way to connect with people. My first “political” design was a simple floral that said, “resist.” I doodled around a bit but kept coming back to that design as something that represented what I wanted to do with a business – be both a little playful and a little political.
Over time my shop kind of evolved into something political because that’s what was resonating with me, and it also was attracting people to my business who I identified with, so I have been going in that direction ever since. I have the nicest and coolest people stop by my shop and send me kind messages. I’ve interacted with people who work on political campaigns, or are studying different areas of policy or law, or are buying a shirt to meet a particular political candidate, and I’m very lucky that people share their stories with me on social media and through Etsy.
Kendra: While you cater to grown ups, you also have so much apparel for kids and let’s be honest, your designs are a long way away from those “Ladies Man” tees we often see on little boys and whatever crazy ones they aim at girls. How important do you feel it is to teach kids about feminism, human rights, and so forth and so on? Because if I’m being honest I don’t think I heard the word feminist until either high school or…maybe even college.
Katy Maher: Actually, I became “Strange Kind of Grown Up” with the idea that my focus would be creating cute stationery that was also a little sarcastic or mean, and I didn’t intend to be political at first.
The name is a very obscure Friends reference – it’s from an episode where Joey can’t figure out where Monica and Chandler are moving to because they tell him the house is in escrow, so he’s looking for Escrow on a map. Mike then tells him that he’s a strange kind of grown up, which resonated with me in that you don’t have to have all of your shit together in the traditional sense to be thriving and happy.
As I became more engaged politically and actively seeking out ways to do good with my business, it naturally came out more in the drawings that I wanted to do for my shop, more so than the snarky humor (or perhaps in tandem with snarky humor) – so while I didn’t intend for my shop to be equality-focused, it’s something I care about and have become really excited about creating, so I just sort of ran with it.
I didn’t add apparel to my collection until about a year ago. A previous customer sent me a message on Facebook asking about my t-shirts and the sizing – and I said “what t-shirts?” because at the time I only did stickers and cards. She sent me a link and to my surprise, a company had photoshopped some of my sticker faces onto a t-shirt that said something about little girls with dreams becoming women with visions (I remember it distinctly because it sounded like they were saying that the girls were having hallucinations, and not like a vision for the world, which is what they meant). When I told her that it was a rip off she said, “Well I’m definitely not buying it then, and let me know when you start carrying t-shirts.”
I immediately started doing research about how to get t-shirts printed and getting samples of the different printing styles and weights – and about two weeks later I launched a t-shirt line for both adults and kids. That said, I think I’ve made “Strange kind of Grown Up” sort of a misnomer for myself – since I don’t cater to only grown ups, and I don’t think being a feminist is particularly strange. I have been thinking about a name change a lot recently but I haven’t committed yet.
I’m ultimately super happy that I got ripped off because it gave me the opportunity to sell t-shirts and they did my market research for me (there were thousands of likes on the Facebook post of their crappy photoshop job). Being able to offer my artwork on something specifically meant for kids means so much to me and has really shaped my brand even further into being equality and education focused, because I now know that I’m reaching a lot of kids and families and have the opportunity to spread a message in an approachable and cute way, and create meaningful alternatives to those “Ladies Man” and other weirdly gender-stereotyped shirts you mentioned.
Not to mention, kids are way more aware of the world than I was at that age (and like you said, probably even more than college-aged me). One mom sent me a message saying that her son is the self-proclaimed President of the Elizabeth Warren fan club at his elementary school, so she was buying him my Plans t-shirt, and another bought matching Supremes shirts for her four kids for their holiday card. In some ways, I think it is less about educating as I had originally thought, and more about providing opportunities to celebrate and affirm things that kids and adults are already.
Kendra: With us being in the midst of an election year, do you feel increased pressure to come up with designs?
Katy Maher: I do feel some pressure to come up with more and more designs as the election approaches but fortunately I also feel very inspired by the amount of political activism and the platforms of the Democratic candidates who are running. It’s kind of equal parts obligation of making election-themed things because of the basis of my shop, and excitement about the opportunity to create more things that resonate with people because there’s a lot to talk about right now.
Kendra: What people may not know right away is that Strange Kind of Grown Up is very charitable. You donate to various causes but have been donating part of your proceeds to ACLU since the start. Is that something that you wanted to do even before you began this venture? Give back, especially to ACLU?
Katy Maher: Even before my focus was on drawing feminist and equality-related designs, I was donating a portion of proceeds to the ACLU. I didn’t advertise this at first, but especially now that the designs that I make are equality-focused I think it’s important that I also make a monetary contribution on top of raising awareness. I think it is something that customers appreciate too, knowing that they are not only supporting social change internally but also tangibly at the same time.
I send everyone a message following their purchase to let them know about the financial support they are providing and get lots of appreciative responses. One of my favorites ever reviews said something like, “I’m glad that a portion is going to the ACLU because otherwise, I would just be contributing meaninglessly to capitalism.” I also donate to a variety of other organizations and try to cycle through depending on time of year as well as what is most pressing in the world at the time, and eventually I’d like to create a rotating monthly or bi-monthly schedule of organizations that we are supporting so that I can also take the time to highlight the good that those organizations are doing and create some awareness in my audience, since I also see it as an opportunity to introduce people who have purchased from me to other groups that do good in the world.
Kendra: Stepping away from the business for a second (kind of), let’s talk about Maggie your feline assistant. If she were to design your next product, what do you think she’d come up with?
Katy Maher: First of all please always ask me about my cat, forever. And actually, she doesn’t know this yet but she’s about to be the recipient of my first sample of a pet t-shirt with one of my holiday designs on it – and if I like it hopefully I’ll be able to offer pet shirts in the coming weeks.
But she definitely wouldn’t be designing any pet apparel since she, like most cats, hates to be dressed – she does it to appease me on special occasions because she is very generous. She’ll always pose for a holiday photo, and she was just Bob Ross for Halloween. She didn’t mind the button down but she really didn’t like the beard.
She does like to do exactly what I’m doing, so perhaps she would introduce a pet bowl that matches whatever mug I’m using so that we could enjoy a beverage together. I think she’s definitely an Elizabeth Warren supporter (a democrat, even) so she’d come up with something in that realm as well. She’s a little mean too so I think her aesthetic would be a little less playful and a little more punchy.
Kendra: As the year goes on and we head into 2020, what can we expect from Strange Kind of Grown Up?
Katy Maher: Honestly it’s tough to tell – I never expected to be in the apparel business in 2019, so I’m excited to see what possibilities arise in 2020. And as the election season evolves, that will have a big impact on my focus. One idea I’ve been working on is creating a line of fabrics with political figures as well as other diverse characters (sort of like my diverse mermaids design) to support other makers who create clothing, bows, and other items, especially for kids, and may have a hard time finding cute patterns that are also representative. So that’s something I’m looking forward to in 2020, as well as seeing what other ideas come across my plate.