Laurs Kemp Cuts Her Own Path

We discovered Laurs on Instagram and immediately fell in love with her body-positive wearables. When we found ourselves in Portland recently, we spent a day chatting with Laurs at her studio space.

You grew up in Arkansas with your mother who sewed regularly - how did your path unfold from there and lead you to Portland?

My mom was a Home Economics teacher, so she taught me to sew. Around the age of 10, I starting designing pieces and she graciously created patterns and sewed them for me. She had a trunk of old sketches and pieces she had sewn as a teenager that also helped encourage me to see fashion as a mix of fantasy and nostalgia. I attended her alma mater, the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and I received a Bachelor's Degree in fashion merchandising, because at that time I wasn't sure if I wanted to pursue design, visual merchandising, or if I wanted to open a shop. After college, I worked in corporate design in Little Rock and found that it was definitely not a good fit for me. I worked at a few random jobs while I created one-off pieces from vintage fabric and sold them online. I realized that my options were limited in Arkansas, so I took a chance and moved to Portland. It has been an amazing four years and counting!

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Have you collaborated with other designers? Do you have plans to in the future? If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be?

Sometimes I feel like my creative endeavors are just excuses to collaborate with brilliant people. Instagram has been an invaluable tool to meeting photographers, models, stylists, shop owners, and other makers. Almost every opportunity that's come my way or that I've pursued has come about because of Instagram. I've found that collaborations are one of my favorite parts of what I do. I consider every photoshoot, video or runway show to be a collaboration. Once I have an upcoming project, I try to include as many makers and creatives as possible in it. For example, with a runway show I just did in Portland, I asked a local dance troupe, 11 Dance Co., to create a dance to immediately follow my show. I merely gave them the song I wanted to use and they performed a dance that I'm still amazed by. And in the ensuing photoshoot for that collection, I included jewelry and wire sculptures from two of my favorite local makers. I'm addicted to collaborations!

If I could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, I would be greedy and try to include as many components as I could: sculptures by Louise Nevelson, music by Arthur Russell, dancing by Pina Bausch, modeling by Jerry Hall and Grace Jones, video by Charles Burnett, and William Eggleston would be taking the photos. If I could collaborate with someone in reality, I would love to have a photoshoot with Ashley Sophia Clark and learn how to do knitwear from Piper Dalton.

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We’re curious about your residency at Backtalk - can you tell us about how that came together and what the experience has been like for you?

When Backtalk first started, on NE Alberta Street, the owner Katie Freedle reached out to me about selling a few pieces in the shop. I had just moved to Portland and was posting my first collection online - no Instagram or official website - so I'm pretty lucky that she even found me! That was one of the first times I sold in any store, so it encouraged me to take my line more seriously and get an Instagram and a Big Cartel site! Fast forward to a couple years later, I had finally quit the retail scene and decided to pursue design full-time. After about 6 months of sewing out of my apartment, she reached out again about being the designer-in-residence at her new West End location. I've had my studio in the back of her new shop since it opened last summer. It was cool that Katie was there at the very beginning of my pursuits in Portland and then it came full circle and we partnered up again. Having a studio in Backtalk was one of the best decisions I've ever made! The exposure has obviously been so much better than either continuing with a home studio or finding another random workspace somewhere. It's so nice that people know where they can find me if they want to meet up or see what I'm working on!

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Let’s talk about inspiration - you mention movies, music, and other designers on your website. Can you talk about these more specifically?

My mom introduced me to classic Hollywood films from a young age. I would devour Turner Classic Movies and sketch outfits I thought would fit right into the film. That sparked my love of films and the indelible connection between fashion and films in my mind. During college, I discovered The Criterion Collection and that sealed the deal! I have been addicted to foreign, silent, and "arthouse" films ever since. I still watch about a film a day - sometimes more! A guilty pleasure of mine is watching films as I sew. The 1978 film Girlfriends inspired my first collection at Backtalk, and my most recent collection was inspired by the 1991 film A Little Stiff. I don't know if I can quantify how they inspire me, but I basically either imagine how I would have styled the film or I imagine creating clothes for these characters in a modern context.

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What are some films that have inspired you and fueled your interest in clothing and fashion?

The 1970s German New Wave films of R. W. Fassbinder are filled with complex female characters wearing gorgeous outfits; a good gateway movie into Fassbinder is The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. An early influence on me was Kenneth Anger's Puce Moment, a short film about a fabulous woman deciding what to wear. Some movies may not have obviously amazing clothing, but the overall atmosphere stirs something in me that is unshakeable - this is what the 1986 southern documentary Sherman's March does for me. Over the last year or so, I've been quite taken with feminist films such as Rivette's Gang of Four which features all the late 1980s French girl fashion that you didn't even know you wanted! And if you're into more recent or accessible films, a new one I've been obsessed with is The Duke of Burgundy.

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Regarding your process, once you’re inspired, how does that translate to a final piece? Do you go through a lot of versions before you land on a finished product?

I wish I had more of a concrete process to speak of. I don't usually make Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter collections. I like to make capsule collections. Since everything I make at this point is sewn in my studio, I'm able to post them on my website right away for direct sale. I'm working on streamlining my production process so I can do wholesale orders, but I know that will take a lot of trial and error. For now, I usually design a small collection for a specific upcoming project, like a fashion show. I just think about what I've been obsessed with lately, make a Pinterest moodboard, a few rudimentary sketches, and then start making the patterns. I usually make about 3 samples before I get the fit just right. Once the pattern is perfected, I sew the true sample. Then that sample is featured in the photoshoot or runway show that it was intended for, and then I make more for sale!

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What was your inspiration behind your more well-known pieces, like your boob top and bumbum bag?

The boob top and bumbum bag were created out of a combination of things I was feeling at the time. I try to create body-positive wearables that explore the Female Gaze and so I chose two body parts that are more commonly thought of as lustful objects intended for the Male Gaze. I wanted to strip them of their negative connotations and reappropriate and empower them. These are areas that all/most humans have and they're beautiful in every shape, size and color. I thought it would be interesting to break these images down into their very lines, and thus both images are simple line drawings. I also love that a lot of men get the intention behind these pieces and have shown interest in buying them as well!

When did you decide to start doing your own thing and selling online? Has your Big Cartel shop been helpful for you?

It's been a long time coming. It's funny when you feel like you're on chapter 20 but as far as the world is concerned they're catching you at chapter 1. I've been selling vintage and repurposed clothing online for about 8 years, but it was always a part-time hobby. The three crucial milestones for my business have definitely been 1) moving to Portland 2) quitting my day job to design full-time and 3) renting the studio at Backtalk. But most of the other steps have honestly been baby steps. I didn't even have business cards until about 5 months ago! I was really surprised how easy it was to start a website through Big Cartel. That definitely helped legitimize my business. I'm still working on making it better and better, but I'm so pleased with how easy it is to update. I've had my Big Cartel site since my first collection in Portland, so I feel like it's been my constant throughout the entire growth of my business.

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What are your plans for the future?

I wish I was privy to that information. It's hard to have a plan, when you don't even know what the possibilities are! If you had asked me a year ago, I wouldn't have dreamed I would have a studio at Backtalk. If you had asked me 5 years ago, I wouldn't have dreamed I would even be living in Portland. I can only assume at this point that I'll be making and collaborating. I've just hired an intern, so that has already helped me tremendously. With her assistance, I hope to be in a position to start a few more wholesale accounts. I'm shooting a short film this spring, which I co-wrote, so that may open up some possibilities as well. I'm excited to see!

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned along your path to becoming an independent designer? Is this your sole job or do you spend time working elsewhere?

One of my proudest accomplishments is getting to say that "Yes, design is my full-time job." I don't know if I could reduce everything I've learned to one single tip. But I encourage you, if you have a curiosity inside you, to just get to work. Don't be afraid to ask a million questions and make a million mistakes. Think about what's "missing" in the world, what you wished existed, and make that! Make boundaries between work and personal time, and make time to treat yourself. Collaborate when you can, and seek out inspiration constantly!

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Thanks to Backtalk for allowing us to shoot in their beautiful store and Lillian Hardy for modeling Laurs' pieces.