I’M SITTING IN THE LOBBY of a bow studio, surrounded by bow loops of various sizes and dispositions. Some are slung casually over upturned cardboard boxes; others spread across the floor. A perky, autumnal-themed bow sits beside a jaunty arrangement that reads “Live, Laugh, Love,” a command I’d normally ignore but which seems more persuasive on a bow fit for a giant.
Like novelty checks or, on the higher end, Christo installations, it’s easy to gawk and then forget the cartoonishly-large bows you often see during the holidays. But for King Size Bows, a Costa Mesa, California-based company that specializes in giant decorative ribbon art, big bows are big business.
Just ask Oprah.
Jan Kingaard, the company’s current CEO, is humble about her mission to “honor, recognize and commemorate” occasions important to her customers. But that humble mission requires ambitious feats, such as wrapping bows around buildings, stringing them along billboards, or eliciting shock and awe by making a party bow the size of a dining room table. (While Jan has offered to fly out and install such bows, her customers tend to bravely do so by themselves.)
It seems paradoxical to want to be surprised in a political era where girding oneself for the worst feels like a form of self-care. But startling folks seems to provide Kingaard with a great thrill. “When people see a big bow it takes them back to the holiday mornings they spent with their families as a kid,” is how she explains it. “Anything becomes a gift when you put a bow on it.”
King Size Bows, first founded by Lynne King in 2000, is not a large operation—the company employs eight full-time staff—but the studio produces an impressive 4,000 bows a year, many of them special orders. The bow-making enterprise benefits greatly from its partnership with the Lexus December to Remember campaign, which has featured the company’s bows in television ads for much of the last 14 years, as well as from the well-to-do parents looking for a “bowdacious” (the company’s words) way to gift their kids with a new car.
Before the Lexus campaign debuted in 2003, it was hard to imagine a big bow that wasn’t floppy, even ungainly. Indeed, many of the bows you see on YouTube and elsewhere are of the slinky fabric variety, lacking a firm spine and—some might say—a bit of gumption. A stately King Size Bow, on the other hand, is the opposite of a frilly accouterment.
Oprah, the queen of over-the-top surprises, flung King Size Bows into the arms of her audience members back in 2004. When she kicked off her 19th season by giving away 276 Pontiacs, every car was adorned with the company’s signature Monarch bow, a glossy red and silver arrangement that can be easily flattened and reused. Popular television shows like Ellen, Modern Family, The Price Is Right (which recycles its stock of King Size bows for different episodes) and America’s Got Talent have all featured variants of the company’s signature design.
Long before it became a Hollywood fixture, the big, ostentatious bow was a fashion accessory. In the 1900s, women’s fashion was replete with ribbon, and bulbous hair bows were considered the height of sophistication. “Spring is pre-eminently the season for ribbons,” declared The American Silk Journal in February 1900. Consumers could choose between glacé, tinsel-edged, ombré and brocade ribbons, among dozens of other varieties. These enormous, floppy loops remained in women’s hair until the 1920s, when the rise of the bob cut and slinkier fashion shrank the market for such frills. Suddenly, fashion had become too sleek to maintain a thriving silk ribbon industry. The companies creating bows either closed down or incorporated cheaper materials like rayon to stay afloat while serving fewer customers.
At King-Size Bows headquarters, located in an anonymous office park off the 405, Kingaard is carrying on this bow lineage. Custom bows are made to order and filled with hundreds of different American-made materials to ensure sturdiness in different weather conditions. The buffet of available sizes and shapes means the average customer has to learn an entirely new “bow language” just to place an order, she says.
“When people call us up, they tend to go, ‘Hi, I want a bigbow.’ And then I ask, ‘How big do you want it?’” Kingaard explains. Customers tend to have a vague sense that they want their bows to impress without thinking through what, exactly, that means. “We ask them a lot of questions like, are you going to use it indoors or outdoors? How long is it going to be up? Is it sitting on top of something or are you hanging it from a building? How many loops do you want? How many tails? Do you want the tails angled or v-cut? That usually throws people off. It’s one of those symbols that everyone is familiar with but few people know the details that go into making them so pleasing.”
Kingaard seems proud of the diversity of bows her shop creates—in addition to the Monarch, she stocks eight other kinds of bows, each with eleven loop arrangements—but when I ask what’s inside of them, she grows cagey. “That’s proprietary,” she says.
She gives me a brisk tour of her bow studio, watching me carefully to ensure I don’t snap any furtive photos of her bows’ innards. There’s a long table in the main studio room with reams of fabric stored underneath. Bud, a former Navy officer, is standing above, getting ready to wrangle a bow together. He gives me a quick nod.
Despite some competition Kingaard’s business is largely in a league of its own. Few companies offer bows that can withstand elements, resist scrunching and remain perky on car lots for month-long sales drives. (Most of Kingaard’s bows can be flattened and animated by their recipients.) A minor threat, it seems, is nitpicky commercial directors: around 2013, Lexus briefly stopped buying King Size bows, instead sketching imaginary ones atop their cars with CGI, though they’ve gone back to the real ones these days.
Kingaard hands me a photo album featuring some of her favorite bows and watches intently as I leaf through the pages. The bows blend together, forming a parade of utilitarian objects and humdrum places transformed into gifts: a barn, a tractor, a Bank of America. Some of her bows are so big that they have to be installed with cranes.
A writer by training, Kingaard is prone to philosophizing about the appeal of bows. “Humans are naturally attracted to their curvature,” she says at one point. She explains the appeal of a formidable bow in terms that wouldn’t seem out-of-place in an ad for Viagra. “There are other bows that are floppy and you know that has a negative connotation, like Jell-O in a cup.”
Becoming attuned to the ripples, curves, sizes, and sheen of bows has made Kingaard an eagle-eyed observer of Christmas displays. When she’s driving around town in December, she says she always notices when the decorations are hung incorrectly. “You can tell if the proportions are off,” she says. “You become very attuned to the design language and the various gestures that succeed or don’t.”
Marrying geometry and artistry was something her family did, too: Her father was employed in the space industry and her mother worked as a professional artist. Kingaard spent her childhood on the charity event circuit and says she enjoyed the pomp and circumstance of fundraising for various causes.
She acquired King Size Bows after a series of family tragedies. When her son was diagnosed with cancer, the experience demonstrated the importance of making the most of every moment. “Having him live for a year despite his prognosis, we really learned how to appreciate on a day-to-day basis," she says. "That really got me entranced by the idea, ‘What can we celebrate today?’”
By the time Kingaard was interested in the company, King Size Bows was already well-established. (She declined to say how much revenue the company was bringing in when she acquired it.) She bought the company jointly with her daughter, who had lost her ability to speak after being involved in a serious car crash. “She’d been a 911 operator but she had to leave that job. I told her, ’I’ll be the voice of the company while you go through your therapy and surgeries.’”
A humanitarian thread runs through her offerings; in addition to big bows, she also sells Autism awareness ribbons, breast cancer loops and “generic cause ribbons” that honor gold star families, among other groups.
It would seem that running a bow-operation at this clip would preclude time for other projects, but Kingaard is currently writing books about psychology and business in her spare time. A regular on the charity event circuit, she recently met astronaut Yvonne Cagle at a fundraising luncheon and was asked to join a consortium studying the long-term effects of space journeys on astronauts’ brains.
“My grandson had a traumatic brain injury which manifests in aggression at times, so I’ve always been interested in the plasticity of the brain,” Kingaard said.
But not even astrophysics can keep her away from the bow business. She’s even been asked by a client, whom she declined to identify, to create a mammoth, semi-permanent bow installation (at an undisclosed location) similar to the metal bow crown that sits atop the Citadel outlet stores in Los Angeles during the holidays—with eight loops that are each 10 to 12 feet tall, and two 75-foot long tails, it is allegedly the biggest bow in the world.
Kingaard prefers the human side of the business more than the Imagineering side. “We’ve had a stripper wear our bow as part of her act,” she says. “We’ve had little girls ask for bows for Halloween costumes. We once sold to a guy who put our bow on the top of a box, popped out and proposed to his fiancée.”
“It just intrigues people because it’s not something a lot of people can do,” she adds. “It’s not like sitting down and tying your shoelaces.”