Kate McHale Jensen
Kate McHale Jensen had an epiphany about the buttoned-down business of shirts, rolled up her sleeves and created a company to help women repurpose treasured apparel. Credit: Judy Foreman / Noozhawk photo

While there are plenty of reasons to buy new clothes, one of today’s biggest fashion trends is to repurpose your existing wardrobe. It’s a great way to declutter your closet and be more sustainable and prudent.

I recently paid a visit to one of Santa Barbara’s brightest entrepreneurial stars, Kate McHale Jensen of KMJ Designs. Peeking through the racks in her spacious showroom, I had a rush of recognition of things I have in my own closet that need retiring and repurposing.

Located across from Trader Joe’s on Upper De la Vina Street, Jensen’s headquarters is filled with rows of different style shirts that have a past and tell a new story.

Her one-of-a-kind men’s button-down shirts reworked into women’s fashion are just one example.

Jensen told Noozhawk that she is passionate about “creating clothing that will empower women to feel better about themselves while taking part of a movement that the future is female.”

Growing up and attending local schools with my children, Katie, as she was known then, graduated from Santa Barbara High School, where she leaned into design as a student in the Visual Arts & Design Academy (VADA).

She embarked on her fashion career at age 16, working first for Wendy Foster in Montecito before becoming the buyer for its downtown location.

Her first real experience with design came as one the winners of the 1998 Young Designer Competition sponsored by Ashton-Drake Galleries. She created a design for the “Gene” doll, which she produced and presented at Toy Fair New York.

Kate McHale Jensen shirt
Many of Kate McHale Jensen’s repurposed shirts feature her signature ruffles. Credit: KMJ photo

That became her ticket to Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, where she majored in fashion and design and launched her professional career.

Years later, while taking a break to tend to her two young daughters, Jensen decided she wanted to get back into the business. She took one of husband Mark’s shirts, cut it up and reworked it into a shirt she could wear.

As much of a cliché as it sounds, she said people noticed and wanted one, too.

“Everyone has their favorite shirt that was their boyfriend’s, their husband’s, or even their father’s,” she explained.

Kate McHale Jensen
Kate McHale Jensen, in her spacious showroom on Upper De la Vina Street in Santa Barbara, has found her purpose in repurposing. “Women can make a statement all their own, and turn something simple into their own type of style,” she says. (Judy Foreman / Noozhawk photo)

“You can’t deny that bond, that emotional tie that can come from the memory of one shirt.”

At KMJ, she said, she wants to give women a chance to make that memory a current fashion statement.

To this day, Jensen says, she gets the biggest rush from pulling the next batch of vintage shirts to offer them a new life. Digging through and seeing the potential of an otherwise forgotten shirt to repurpose jump-starts her creativity.

“Women can make a statement all their own, and turn something simple into their own type of style,” she said.

Jensen sells online and to boutiques across the country, but she feels lucky to have a local clientele discovering her work. She’s also opened her shop and showroom to nonprofit women’s organizations for social events.

Her inventory of shirts comes from everywhere and anywhere, and clients can even send in shirts of their own to have them reworked. Top-sellers with their signature ruffle include the Quarantina in “boyfriend” fit, Bontina in “femme” fit and Southern Lover in “demi-boyfriend” fit.

Appointments are recommended and can be requested by email at info@shopkmj.com.

Judy Foreman

Judy Foreman, Noozhawk Columnist

Judy Foreman is a Noozhawk columnist and longtime local writer and lifestyles observer. She can be contacted at news@noozhawk.com. The opinions expressed are her own.