Poppin’ that pup collar
Amy McMullan: Karma Collars
After losing her job during the 2008 financial crisis, Amy McMullan had to figure out something new. And fast. Well, she loved dogs. Pitbulls, specifically. She even founded a pitbull rescue nonprofit, assuming that’d be her full-time gig. But one day, the former graphic designer found herself in her garage, crafting leather dog collars that would soon earn her an international following. McMullan started off selling her bejeweled, artisan dog collars to friends, then at festivals, then on Etsy, then on her own Karma Collars website. In June, she opened her first brick-and-mortar shop, which doubles as a gallery and work space, at 3409 Third Avenue in Oak Park. McMullan takes pride in her craft, and individual collars go for $30 to $140. Apparently high-end dog collars are something of a cultural phenomenon.
Walk me through the collar-making process.
I actually tried to count all the steps one day, and after I got to 100, I decided that was enough. It takes more than 100 steps to make one collar—that should be impactful enough for anyone who questions our pricing. I personally drive to Napa every two weeks and pick hides. We buy half of a cow, basically. … Weekly we go through the orders—we work three weeks out—and my prep guy makes all these different lengths based on neck sizes. He bevels them, dyes them and skives them, which is this thing with this razor blade that basically takes depth out of it. Otherwise it’s thick and chunky and might crack. It’s also just so thick—it's like a neck-brace on dogs.
Then they’re decorated?
Right, they’re buckled and decorated. Decorating is the most tedious aspect, but I’m really a freakazoid about the prep. I’m probably freakier than most other companies. If there’s a waver in a bevel, I’m out. I’m done. I pull collars all the time and reject them and they go into a donation pile. We probably donate two a week. If I see a cut, a scratch or some funky end, it goes into the pile.
Some of that decorating looks intense.
We get a lot of custom orders. People want crazy complicated collars. They don’t look that crazy, but they’re really crazy to do. I just sent out this collar with a shooting star pattern, but it was all upgraded with Swarovski crystals, with this really crazy name plate. It's nerve-racking. If you make one wrong cut, the whole thing is over.
What’s the Karma Collars style?
Like refined, over-the-top. [Laughs] I want our stuff to have a refined elegance, but the customer for this type of product is really blingful—I know that’s not a word—the demand is really for the bling. I’m not a bling person; I like classic and understated. I don’t like any color. So I try to balance the elegance of my personal taste with giving people what they want, which is just crazy with lots of bling. Refined, over-the-top. And I want it to look custom, handmade, but not handmade in a messy, junky way. But like a, “Where would you even get something like this? It must be some crazy boutique weirdo making this.”
I assume you have dogs.
I have a pitbull and a pit-hound mix. I was doing pitbull rescue for years, but this place has been so busy. I can’t even foster right now—it’s like raising little fur-babies, you can’t let them out of your sight. This really is a passion of mine. I had a guy come in the other day, like, “Would you be interested in getting into vintage watches?” He had these vintage watches with leather bands. They were gorgeous, really cool and the style was great, but my thing is dogs. I want to make dog collars forever.
No cat collars in the future, huh?
Nope. We’ve tried it, but our leather is so thick that the breakaways don’t work right. They’re such flimsy, teeny, tiny plastic—we can’t even get the leather around it. Then we tried sewing the plastic in there and it just looks like a hot mess, like a really bad craft project. I’m not gonna subject kitties to that.
In this artisan collar world, is there competition to get your collars onto celebrity dogs?
I haven’t done it yet. I’ve wondered if other companies do the celebrity dog marketing things. But I’m just astonished whenever I see pictures of these celebrity dogs, and they’re wearing these garbage, $3 collars from PetSmart. Like, what the heck? It’s been on my to-do list forever because come on, you're high-profile, put something decent on your dog.
Yeah, Sutter Brown wears a pretty lame collar.
Oh. Who’s that?
Jerry Brown’s corgi.
Oh! We collar a ton of corgis. [Laughs] I don't know what constitutes a celebrity in Sacramento. … Really, I think this just isn't on people's radars. That's why I never get competitive with other collar makers. I'm in the dog community constantly and I never run into dogs wearing nice collars—like never, ever, ever, ever, ever … I feel like there are so many dogs to collar here and I can't wait.