Kate McFadden of Custom in Charlotte, N.C., Explains Her Intentional Irreverence



Custom’s saucy promotional style belies its serious focus on the craft of jewelry-making

“We are jewelry badasses.” This cheeky proclamation, part of a longer and no-less-irreverent manifesto, is spelled out on Custom’s website. It’s an apt description of the “bitchin’ little family jewelry lab” (also from the manifesto) in ­Charlotte, N.C., and its owners, Lee Lally and Kate McFadden. The ­husband-and-wife team opened the retail store/design atelier, which specializes in custom-made jewelry and reworked vintage and antique pieces, in 2010 to meld their affections for Old World craftsmanship and modern, offbeat aesthetics. The shop’s designs are as sharply rendered as the in-your-face promotional verbiage. The irreverence is intentional. “We get a lot of people who have had intimidating experiences in other places and aren’t looking for a glass of Champagne and ­mahogany cases,” says McFadden. “We just wanted to be authentic and hoped our clients would naturally be attracted by who we are, as people and as a business.”

What led you to use such a fun, casual tone for your company’s branding?
We didn’t want to scare off people who were looking for a refined experience. But it became apparent that we had to pick an audience if we wanted to brand ourselves. We thought about our customer and decided: The people who might be scared off by that kind of language? We’re probably not the best jeweler for them.

How does your messaging jibe with your work as designers and retailers?
Part of our language is, “We preserve the dwindling art of heirloom creation.” So, while we may make a good deal of nontraditional jewelry, it is always with the intent of creating an heirloom, one-of-a-kind piece. Heirloom re-creation is a big part of what we do—basically we remake a client’s old jewelry into a new, wearable piece. This started as a way to help our clients offset expenses but has become a cornerstone of our business. We can even re-create an old piece of jewelry from a photograph, if someone wants a ring just like her grandmother wore. When we’re doing custom, some people give us complete free rein and some people give us references. A woman once sent us a picture of a cathedral, knit wool socks, and a henna tattoo. Lee actually made something really cool.

Your physical store is also nontraditional—how would you describe it?
We just renovated the space and it looks lovely. That was important [because] we don’t do appointments. We’re trying to do approachable fine jewelry where you can just walk in. Our showroom now has a jewelry case full of our own designs. So much of our work is made-to-order, but we’re slowly adding more to the case for retail only. We have a consultation area and a bar. There’s an area for the 3-D printer, which we make molds with; we ship 3-D models to clients if they’re interested. We design primarily in Gemvision’s Matrix.

You also host gallery openings, right?
Yes, we host gallery openings for local artists. We live in NoDa, which is the North Davidson area, known as the arts district in Charlotte. It was a thriving arts district for a lot of years, but when the economy took a hit, the galleries weren’t really self-sustaining. But everyone in the neighborhood still tries to display and sell local art. We love to support other artists.

How did you and Lee get started in the industry?
I have always been a maker of all kinds of things and had a passion for fashion. Lee has been a jeweler for over 20 years. He was in college, and a buddy put him in a jewelry store doing repairs. It totally spoke to him and he pursued it as a career. He had been working as a contractor for another jeweler and we decided to take the leap together. I wanted Lee to have a voice and a place of our own. He’s a ­jeweler and I’m a designer. We both grew up in Southern Pines, N.C., and we met on Facebook! We also have two daughters, Eve and Jasper. We make a great team, in every way.

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