Laurs Kemp

Maker Spotlight

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Laurs Kemp is one of those special fashion designers we only dream about meeting in person! Hailing from the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, and now designing full time in Portland, Oregon, Laurs blends her love of vintage fashion with her stronger love of film and feminism in a heavenly capsule collection.


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Where did your business name come from? Is there an interesting story behind it?

Originally I wanted to come up with a clever name, but I felt since I could easily grow tired of that, I thought it better to go the classic route like many clothing designers and have an eponymous clothing line. So in the end, my clothing label is simply called Laurs Kemp.

Have you always been passionate about design?

Growing up in rural Arkansas, my Mom taught me about sewing and fashion, and one Christmas fortuitously she gave me a fashion designing kit that I sort of never stopped being obsessed with. I also spent many hours of my childhood watching old movies and sketching gowns, and to this day, movies are one of my biggest sources of inspiration.

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Why did you start working in this particular craft?

I studied fashion merchandising in college, and worked in corporate design for a few years, but I always made clothing on the side for local runway shows and small web shops, using vintage fabrics for special one-off pieces. I moved to Portland in 2012 in the hopes of eventually starting my own clothing line. After a couple of years working retail and continuing to develop my collection on the side, I quit my job and officially launched my line. I’ve always been drawn to fashion because it’s one of the most personal forms of self-expression. I draw a lot of inspiration from films and vintage clothing, so I love that it can be a bit of fun to dress up. But I also love that fashion allows me to visually explore my philosophies, politics, obsessions and fears. It’s a perfect fit!

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What do you think sets your designs apart from others?

I would hope that I’m notable for my love of films, feminism and fun! My designs are inspired by, and often named after, film directors and my [own] female muses, and my screen-printed items (such as the boob tee and bumbum bag) are a cheeky nod to my devotion to feminism and being body-positive.

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Have you had any major failures? If so, what were some important insights gained?

I’m not sure if this counts as a failure, but my process could be considered unusual. Currently, I don’t make a certain number of collections a year. My line is a gradual evolution of silhouettes and details that I rotate in and out every few months. I used to see that as a weakness, but I’ve come to realize it’s a strength. Most of the traditional fashion industry kowtows to an antiquated seasonal calendar that most people don’t respond to. In this regard, I view my line more as an art project than a traditional clothing label, so I can have a bit more fun with it.

Have you sacrificed anything to create your business?

My only regret is that it took me so long to take the plunge and quit my “day job” and devote myself full-time to my line. Even now, I’m trying to be less afraid to ask questions to fellow designers. I tend to overthink things and take ages to attempt baby steps, and I need to take more big plunges. They’ve almost always paid off!

What has been your proudest moment since creating your business?

My proudest moment happened when I did a runway show earlier this year. I collaborated with 11 Dance Co., a local dance troupe, to create a dance to immediately follow the show. I only told them my collection would be black and white, that I wanted it to be fun and energetic, and I wanted to use the song Yama Yama by the Yamasuki Singers (a song which inspired the line, also titled Yama Yama), and they surpassed my wildest dreams. Collaborating with other makers and artists is by far my favorite part of my business.

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How does the city you live in influence your work?

Portland’s fashion scene has such a rare atmosphere of collaboration and encouragement, and there are a number of great shops that champion independent designers. There’s also a celebration of feminism and sustainability, and a blurring of gender lines, which is very inspiring to me. I also love how many amazing movie houses we have, since film is one of my main sources of inspiration.

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What valuable experience/knowledge did you have before starting your business?

My mom instilled a perfectionist mindset  in me when she taught me to sew, and I won’t send a piece out unless it meets my OCD-level standards. My lifelong love of movies and vintage clothing taught me about inspiration-hunting. My post-grad attempts at repurposing vintage and trial-and-error pattern-making has honestly taught me more than my fashion merchandising degree. My year as the designer-in-residence at the Portland-based shop Backtalk helped me build my studio and develop my brand. All of these steps have helped me get to where I am now. I still see myself as “starting out,” but my millions of mistakes have been invaluable tools.

What made you take this leap into being your own boss?

I was working retail in a local shop and I thought that rather than helping to make someone else’s dreams come true, I owed it to myself to take a swing at making my own dreams come true. I also had wonderful support from my partner, my friends, and so many other local makers and collaborators in Portland. My only regret is that I didn’t take the plunge sooner!

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What are some inspirations for your work?

My main inspirations are arthouse films! I subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, Fandor and Mubi, and I try to watch one film per day. I particularly love the French director Eric Rohmer and the 1978 film Girlfriends, and my latest collection Yama Yama was inspired by the 1991 film, A Little Stiff. I am also massively influenced by Feminism, the concept of the Female Gaze, and being body-positive. Many of my designs are easy for people of many shapes, sizes and genders to wear! Lately, I’ve been very inspired by the art and fashion scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York and Paris, and the works of Yohji Yamamoto and Comme de Garcons. I’m also motivated by my collaboration with other makers and artists, whether they’re dancers, video artists, ceramicist or other designers!

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What are some tips or suggestions you’d like to offer to fellow makers?

Make the items that you feel are missing in the world, those crazy ideas that you obsess over but somehow don’t exist… yet! Don’t be afraid to ask a million questions and make a million mistakes! There’s a thing called “Imposter Syndrome” where you feel like everyone else has everything figured out and you’re the only one who doesn’t – well, the thing is that everyone on earth has Imposter Syndrome! You’re not alone!

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