Treading lightly in Los Angeles with Jesse Kamm.
Jesse Kamm has an ease about her that extends to the simple, beautiful studio nestled in the back room of her home in the hills of Northeast Los Angeles. Filled with handmade wooden furniture, a closet full of hand-cut patterns and natural tableaus for inspiration, the serene space represents not only her design ethos, but also a life philosophy that simplicity is best. For Jesse, this unflinching belief comes from the teachings of her parents – a potter and a ragtime guitar player – and also her husband, a surfer with a degree in environmental science and a passion for the earth and sustainability. On a trip through Los Angeles’ fashion district, Jesse shares her unique approach to local production, why she will never grow out of business and the very special connection she shares with her 1985 Mercedes-Benz, aka Big Blue.
The first sewing machine.
How did you get into fashion?
After I moved to Los Angeles, I got into modeling. I did that for four and a half years, and when I came out of that I felt pretty empty and lost, but I knew that I was interested in fashion. So I started working at Resurrection because a friend of mine had told me that working with Mark Haddawy would be the best fashion education I could get. And so for two days a week I would go there and listen to him and be surrounded by Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons, Halston, and Jean Muir – all of these amazing, pristine designs. He taught me the right way to sew a button and how to clean or repair a fabric that had been damaged. Then my friend gave me a sewing machine, and I started making these little cotton jersey tunics. Shortly after I got into screen-printing because I had been experimenting with illustrations on garments.
Some time later a girl at Ron Herman complimented my dress, I told her I made it and she asked how much. I told her $500. And she said great. I’ll take 10. She owns a store called Colette in Paris. It was the first store to carry Jesse Kamm.
A suitcase full of merchandise and a story to share.
You’ve been designing for eight years. Can you describe your approach to the business of Jesse Kamm? How has it evolved? How has it stayed the same?
My business approach has really remained quite consistent through the years. Very early on, my friend and mentor, Mark Haddawy gave me the best advise I could have received: “Grow slow, grow organically, and don’t take any investment, you don’t need it.” I get into relationships with stores whose approach I believe in, stores that really understand the brand and can share the story with the customer. I do all of my sales myself. I go to New York two times a year for market. I like to think of myself as an old-time salesman from the 1950s with my suitcase full of merchandise and a story to share.
What is a typical workday like for you? Can you share your routine?
I feel like my workdays really vary, because I am a one-man show. I’m really multi-tasking at all times, so for example, this morning I got up, had breakfast with my family, got my son off to school, and then I came back here to the studio and I made some calls to check on production for Spring. Checking to make sure the fabric is coming in, the dye houses have everything they need, the buttons are coming in in the appropriate increments, and so on. After that I continued work on the Fall/Winter 2014 collection, so I got all these colour cards laid out. Additionally, I’m working on pricing a bunch of pieces that are going to go to the trunk show at Mohawk General that I’m doing with Apiece Apart. So there’s always lots of multi-tasking happening, and every day is different.
Do you have a favourite shop/restaurant/café in your neighbourhood?
What is your most beloved possession?
I don’t know that I can say just one. There aren’t many things I couldn’t live without. My boys, they are the most important. But actually, you know, my car is pretty special to me.
Tell us about the car.
When I started my company I was working part-time. That first season when I made some money, I paid off my student loans, sent my parents on a trip to Hawaii, and I bought Big Blue. We went on a trip to Austin to visit a friend, and her parents had this amazing Mercedes-Benz. I mentioned to her dad one day that if ever he wanted to sell it he should let me know because I really had my heart set on buying a Mercedes-Benz and converting it to run on vegetable oil. Two days later I got an email from him saying he’d sell it to me. So Lucas and I booked a flight out there, bought the car, and took a road trip across the west. We had just gotten engaged a few days before. We went through Marfa, Texas and Palm Desert, and it was just this really lovely, cathartic road trip.
It was the first thing I ever bought myself that was a big-ticket item. A rural farm girl driving a Mercedes-Benz, even though it’s from 1985 – it’s so very fine. I’ve had the car for seven years now.
Awareness and attentiveness.
You and your family do tread lightly in the world. How can we all simplify a bit?
If I can make decisions that are positive, and people who buy clothing buy from me, then hopefully their impact is lighter than if they were buying things from big throwaway fashion retailers. I only wear the clothing I make, pretty much, and the clothing I made eight years ago. Also the way I think of clothing…. If something has a hole, you patch it, if a shoe wears through on the bottom, you get it re-soled. I’m not into buying and getting rid of it. The most important thing is to think about where everything is coming from, and what it took. Being mindful.
Jesse, thank you so much for sharing your day with us and giving us a glimpse into your design process.