When you walk into your hotel room what’s the first thing you look at? In this industry it just might be the draperies. If you’ve finally gotten to your room after a tiring trip or a long day, it might be the bed. Or, you might take a peek into the bathroom with thoughts of freshening up.
For a host of hotel chains around the world, it wouldn’t matter. Wherever you look you’re likely to lay eyes on soft goods designed and created by KOJO Worldwide, San Diego, CA.
KOJO, the combination of Koni Kim and Joe E. Robertson, creates brand-distinguishing soft goods—bedding, draperies, linens, bath and spa products—for hoteliers worldwide. Its clients include Wyndham, Omni, Marriott, Hilton and many independent hotels and resorts around the world.
KOJO specializes in total solutions: “Anything you see that is made out of fabric, we do it,” says Kim. In addition to draperies, that includes “towels, shower curtains, bath rugs, linens, decorative bed scarves, pillow shams, what we call in bedding ‘the layers of luxury’: anything on top of the bed cover.”
As business partners and as husband and wife, Robertson and Kim have created a completely and vertically integrated company that can offer hotels a specific and unique design that won’t be seen anywhere else. “We design from scratch,” Kim says. “We have a whole art department for designing from the texture and patterns of a fabric to the content. We manufacture in our factories so we can service a [hotel] brand with the same specification, with the same consistent quality, anywhere in the world.”
Hospitality can be a large, lucrative market. Window coverings can run $1,500 per room. (Multiply that by 300 rooms!) Most of KOJO’s work is with an individual hotel property, but “in some cases we put together a program with a management company for an entire chain,” Robertson explains. “We did that with Westins, we’ve done that with Sheratons, we’ve done that with Hilton Garden Inns, we’ve done that with Wyndham hotels. We’ve gone in and created a design of a particular look that they like so much that they want to put that throughout the entire chain.”
Hospitality is also a very particular market. “Even though we do mass production, every job is custom,” Kim says. “Every window in every room is measured—in three places each. Sometimes there is an inch-and-a-half difference in the measurements. So the measure and installation is totally custom. We have to make each drapery for that room. Each room is different.”
Robertson explains that he currently is working on an 1,800-room hotel in the Dominican Republic. The company’s measurement people are on-site, they send the measurements back via e-mail and the draperies are made room by room. “Every room is a different size, potentially, so we make the drapery to fit room number 1755,” he says. “You’re custom-making that drapery to fit that particular window.”
There also is a host of other particulars in hospitality. The draperies have to be functional, must withstand the rigors of use and hotel laundry requirements, must meet NFPA fire codes and be absolutely 100 percent blackout. This requirement often raises installation issues because rooms usually have a blackout lining, a drapery panel and a top treatment on every window. As a solution, Robertson created KOJO’s drapery track, a hardware system that allows for two, three or four window treatments on one track.
“I believed that no matter how I make the draperies, a general contractor would hold our company responsible for anything he couldn’t figure out how to install,” Robertson says. The multiple track system that Robertson created installs much as a single track would, saving on installation labor costs and offering improved aesthetic value.
Robertson also developed the KOJO Light Seal drapery, which eliminates the possibility of sunlight leakage on the drapery panels, and the Stage Coach rollup shade and roller shade, which provides unlimited design options while blocking out light for the comfort of hotel guests. In addition, he created wide quilting machines that maximize fabric usage and eliminate seams for KOJO’s Clean Seam bed coverings.
As president of KOJO, Kim is responsible for sales and marketing and creates products and ensembles for the Designs by Koni brand. She leads the company’s green initiatives, which include the development of products made from biodegradable fibers.
Kim has used her creative talents to design and develop more than 3,000 fabrics and many innovative products for the hospitality industry. She has very strict criteria when it comes to designing products for these clients. Every product she introduces combines four harmonious qualities: aesthetics, function, operation and eco value. “We are developing a lot of products derived from eucalyptus and beech wood pulp so it’s sustainable and biodegradable,” says Kim.
“Nature is a symphony,” she continues. “Perfect design comes from nature. Everywhere, anywhere you look everything is in harmony. If I want to be inspired in design that’s where I go.”
Robertson is responsible for overseeing all the finance, administration, production and all the installation. KOJO Worldwide has factories and sales offices in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Latin America. The company has four factories in Mexico, another in Canada and alliances with manufacturers in China, India, Pakistan and the Middle East.
TWO BECOME ONE
Born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, Koni Kim received a full scholarship to and graduated from the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, then continued her art training at UCLA, earning a master’s in Fine Arts in Interior Design and Applied Art.
She founded Koniart in 1976 in her home’s guesthouse. Kim began working with designers in the residential market, but soon expanded to work with furniture stores, then larger department stores creating visual merchandising designs. She also had a space at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, where she showcased custom textiles and soft sculptures made of fabric.
One day an architect stopped by Kim’s space to ask if she could create a framed soft sculpture to be placed above the beds in a hotel in Minneapolis, MN. “The architect also asked, Why don’t you design the bedspread and draperies?” she says.
That was Kim’s introduction to the hospitality market, and it has continued to grow from there. “When we finished the job, the purchasing director called me and said, Do you want to come to Boston to see whether you can service some of the Sheraton hotels? I said I’d be happy too!” Kim met all the designers working on the Sheraton properties, and one by one she started building the business.
Kim’s designs became very popular and the company quickly grew, making it necessary to move out of the home and into a 30,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Alhambra, CA.
In 1989, Koniart merged with Southwest Quilted Products, Inc., a technologically advanced soft goods manufacturer owned by Joe E. Robertson. Kim and Robertson soon recognized that their respective companies could better serve the hospitality industry by offering design and manufacture under one roof.
The new company was named KOJO, and they soon began to concentrate on the hospitality market. “We decided we should be an expert in one area, rather than try to cover all markets,” Kim says.
Robertson has been in the textiles industry all his working life beginning in the mid-1960s. His experience runs from raw fibers to converting it to yarns and taking the yarns and converting it to cloth. He started in the spinning and weaving side of the business with Glen Raven in North Carolina. He then moved to the garment industry for a few years, which taught him how fabric is converted into a finished product. He worked on tropical combat shirts during the Viet Nam war as well as Navy wet-weather coveralls and the army’s M1 field coat.
Robertson then worked for two of the largest home furnishing manufacturers, which led him to working with bedspreads. All along his interest was in buying equipment to manufacture his own product and to develop his own business doing custom work for Southern California decorators working on high-end homes. At about this point he landed a contract with JC Penney. “I was doing all their products for their shop-at-home division for 12 states for the bed, not draperies at that point,” Robertson says.
In 1981, following the devastating fire at the Las Vegas Hilton hotel, Robertson won the contract for replacing all the bed coverings—a 3,000 unit order. This was his motivation for working full-time in hospitality. He added window coverings a few years later.
Robertson met Koni Kim in 1985. “What attracted me to her company at that time was she had the unique ability to design the fabric and the patterns and the colors. I had the ability to produce the product. I saw where we could create our own product, our own identity, that ultimately would create a value for our company,” says Robertson.
It meant that rather than selling labor, Robertson and Kim together could sell total solutions for clients. “We don’t produce new patterns and designs for the marketplace. I don’t sell my fabric to other people. I create my fabric just for my own use so I can control where it goes. We’re probably the only company that’s ever done that. There are other converters out there, but they sell fabric to anybody that wants to but it. They don’t control where it’s going. We produce a fabric and cut and sew it into a finished product.”
The hospitality market has been hit economically as so many other business sectors have been, but looking ahead KOJO Worldwide plans to become a stronger company. “We have to look at the business a little differently then what we used to. We cannot take anything for granted,” Kim says. Robertson and Kim plan to remain ahead of the industry and to adapt to changes—to learn what needs to be changed and what can be changed and then make the changes.
Kim looks to forging partnerships with fiber manufacturers to create environmentally friendly fabrics stronger than cotton, yet soft and breathable and biodegradable. “Let’s not just talk about green or the eco movement; let’s do,” Kim says. “That is what makes this job and this business so very interesting. I thrive on that, going out there and making a difference and being the first one to be touch this issue.”
In whatever field we choose to work, Kim adds, “we need to realize our purpose is harmonious with what we do. The passion and the love that we have for this industry, for the products that we produce, Joe and I have been doing this for over 30 years. I still wake up in the morning as excited as when I first started.”
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Westin’s Heavenly Bed, a response to the hospitality industry’s trend at the time of using busy bed coverings. “The busier the pattern the better,” Koni Kim explains, “because they didn’t want to show dirt.” The result was complicated design with little background showing on a spread that covered the complete bed including the pillows.
Kim collaborated with former Starwood Hotels and Resorts CEO Barry Sternlicht to create a white bed using a duvet cover—duvets being a trend popular in Europe, but uncommon in the United States. Through KOJO’s research and development effort, it came up with an engineered fabric that looks and feels like silk or cotton but is a very fine, micro-fiber polyester that resists soil and oils.
At first, this idea was resisted by hotels. But KOJO set up a telephone hotline to answer questions from housekeepers and created a video campaign to educate clients on how easy the duvet covers would be to maintain.
The Heavenly Bed became a huge success. “It totally revolutionized the concept of bedding in the hotel industry,” Kim says. Today, because of this design, the pillows on a hotel room bed and its beautiful linens are exposed as if the bed has been turned down already. “Very inviting,” Kim adds.
SERVING COMMUNITIES, TOO
In 1997, KOJO Worldwide broke ground on the company’s 300,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Rosarito, Mexico. It was to be built on a mesa where few people lived, yet it was clear that the town would soon grow to surround the property. While the facility was being constructed, Joe E. Robertson and Koni Kim made sure the new water and electrical systems would help the surrounding community. In addition to bringing in water and electricity, roads were paved and schools were built. The company’s good will went a long way, and many of KOJO’s neighbors became its employees.
There is a true feeling of community and camaraderie at the plant, where multi-generational families work side-by-side. In addition to hiring families, KOJO also hires mature adults who, due to their age, are often overlooked by potential employers. The company’s hiring and training approach instills much loyalty in its workers who are, in turn, more productive and have pride in the work they do. This pride is reflected in KOJO’s products, among the highest quality available in the hospitality industry.