Jesse Kamm | Apiece Apart Woman
“To get to where I am, you have to go back to where I came from,” says Jesse Kamm. The LA designer is a seemingly unlimited fountain of inspiration for us, a touchstone for living a full life while at the same time fulfilling your own uncompromised creative pursuits. Raised in rural Illinois, Jesse grew up in a household that valued the weight of balance and self-made sustainable success, her father “building our home with the help of two library books and his two hands,” and her her mother “cooking macrobiotic food and teaching us everything about nature.” Jesse’s interdisciplinary approach to work and value followed suit: after living abroad, working as both a therapist and as a model, and eventually settling in Southern California, she founded her namesake line around a back-to-basics desire to arrange and curate the way people got dressed. Today she designs and runs her company out of her Mount Washington studio. Read on for our conversation with Jesse on self-sufficiency, simple living, and choosing what’s most important.
Jesse wears SALAMINA TIE-FRONT SHIRT and JESSE KAMM SAILOR PANTS
You split your time between LA and Panama. How did this arrangement unfold?
When I realized that making clothing was an actual career opportunity, I took it very seriously. I have held 28 different jobs in my life, and I had my first job at age 12. The Midwestern work ethic is strong, and I had no problem committing 16 hours a day for the first two years. As a model, I had no control over my life. Someone told me how to wear my hair, how to dress, how much to weigh, and where to go. That complete lack of control sent me in the opposite direction when I started this company, and it has ultimately shaped how I run things today.
In the beginning, many coveted press agencies and showrooms reached out to represent me. I declined because I decided that if I was going to do this, I was going to be in charge of all moving parts. I needed to learn firsthand what that job entailed. Ten years later, I still handle all of the press and sales myself. I travel to New York twice a year with a suitcase like a shrewd businessman from 1955. I shake hands with every one of my buyers, we sit and look each other in the eye. I have the great privilege of sharing my collection with the people who will ultimately be responsible for sharing this information with the world. That has become very important for me, and it allows me to build very strong personal relationships with the people who support my brand.
Very early on, I realized that because I was just one moving part, I could decide how my yearly calendar was orchestrated. My husband is an educator, and he has the summers off. I was getting pretty burnt out after the first few years, and one night a dear friend said, “You only deliver two collections a year…just choose when you want to make your deliveries, and that will be that.” So there it was decided. I would spend my summers off-the-grid in Panama. How I do all of that is my little secret, but it involves being incredibly organized and working ahead of schedule at all times.
Do you cut off working while you’re in Panama?
Yes and No. Life continues to change, and my family and I remain flexible. When we were building our house down there seven years ago, a three or four month trip was necessary. We bought the same two books my dad used to build my childhood home. With our four hands, and the help of three men who had only been gardeners in their prior work experience, we built our home. It took a long time. When my son was born, the schedule changed for two years, and we spent far less time in Panama. When Julien turned three, we went back to our long summers. When he started kindergarten this year, it shortened our summers again. Where we used to be able to go for 12 weeks, now we only have nine. However, nine weeks living off-the-grid in the jungle is actually plenty.
One thing I absolutely do each summer is restart. The time down there is for me to empty out my mind, time to stretch a new canvas, and to start to let the ideas for the upcoming year unfold. I always fill up a sketchbook while I am down there. I collect objects of intrigue, and compile lots of lists. I unplug from the phone and the computer. It is an extremely creative time for me, and it is absolutely the thing that has allowed me to be successful in my work for so long. Living in the urban sprawl of Los Angeles takes a toll. I have to check out at a certain point, and this is my way.
You live a self-made life. Can you share more about your perspective on prioritizing the life you want, even if it is outside of what is “typical”?
I think some people believe I have this “luxurious” life, where I design an expensive womenswear line part of the year, and then traipse off to some far away land and drink piña coladas all summer. This is not the case. I am committed to my work, and to my lifestyle. In my work, I am committed to using fine and sturdy fabrics in my collection, because I want the pieces to last a very long time. I am committed to making everything in the USA, because it is important to me to support my community. In my life, I know that I deserve to be a sane person, and I do not want to take anxiety medication to survive my year. I know that I need time away to be sane, so I take it. Not because I am spoiled, but because I value my existence as a happy, balanced person. Everyone deserves this.
"I know that I need time away to be sane, so I take it. Not because I am spoiled, but because I value my existence as a happy, balanced person. Everyone deserves this."
I choose to live simply so that I can afford to travel, and to spend as much time in the sea as possible. These are a few things I do during the year, so that I can afford to spend it elsewhere: I buy fine pieces that cost more, but which are well built, because I know that the price-per-wear will end up in my favor, and I do not shop frivolously. I don’t go out to lots of fancy dinners. I don’t get manicures and pedicures. We all choose how to allocate our earnings, and I choose to save mine for leisure, because that is what makes me happy. My life is luxurious, but not in the way most people see luxury. It is luxurious because I have freedom, and for me, freedom is wealth.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to similarly break the standard rules and start their own project?
I really think that working hard and believing in your product is the key. If you do not believe in who you are, and what you are creating, why would anyone else believe in you? I think that one of my greatest gifts has been my ability to trust my instincts. I always listen to my gut. I never take on more than I believe I can handle. This does not mean I am weak or lazy. Rather, it means that I honor my limits. If you take on things that you cannot make good on, it waters down your reputation and your product. I am never late on a delivery, because I set realistic deadlines for myself. I say no a great deal. I am offered “collaborations” with big fast-fashion outfitters all of the time, and I decline because I believe it will water down the brand. I am constantly trimming the fat. If something is not essential, it goes. As makers, we do not have to say yes to every request. More is not better, more is just more.
"I am constantly trimming the fat. If something is not essential, it goes. As makers, we do not have to say yes to every request. More is not better, more is just more."
Can you share the schedule of a typical day in the life? If there is no “typical” day for you, what constants remain?
Everyday is a little different. Generally it is something like this:
Wake up at 7 and have coffee with the boys.
7:30 am: go into the office and start emails, answer interview questions, communicate with customers, buyers, press inquiries.
9:30 am: get ready to go out into the world.
Check in at workshop downtown.
I wrap up my running around by 3pm, and I put on the mom hat. Jules and I will eat, talk, play, go to karate, do homework.
Usually around 4:30 pm he will watch a cartoon and I will do more emails for 45 minutes. Next we make dinner, do bath, bed for him by 7:30pm.
Then I go back to the office and finish up the day, and organize for the next day until 9pm.
At 9 pm, Luke gets home from work, and we have a glass of wine and watch a show, or I read the New Yorker while he reads The Surfer’s Journal.
I call the day at 10:30 pm.
One morning a week (sometimes two) Luke and I will go for a surf. I am committed to surfing at least one time per week, and I treat it like other people treat church. I go out there to meditate, and get my head straight. Luke drives and I do emails in the passenger seat all the way there and home. We listen to podcasts so that we can try to get smarter. I do not see my friends enough, and I do not socialize enough. I am working on this, but damn, there is only so much energy in this vessel of mine!
What objects have been most significant to you lately?
Our new Arthur Umanoff bar stools. I got them for Luke for our 8th wedding anniversary last month, and I am sitting in one of them now. It has taken hanging in the kitchen with the family to a whole new level, in comfort and in vibe!
What do you make for dinner alone?
The JK Power smoothie: Kale, yogurt, frozen fruit, banana, protein powder, any juice, and ice. Boom! Dinner is served.
Do you have a mentor?
My parents. They have been married for 43 years, and are still best friends and are totally in love with each other.
On Raising Kids in LA:
My friend, Liza Chasin. She is one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, and she has two teenage daughters who are cool and well adjusted young women, and the three of them all get along like best friends. I have a lot to learn from her.
Luke Brower. My best friend, and my coach. He is a beautiful surfer, and an all around amazing athlete. He has been the most patient and supportive man in the water. I have been in some pretty hairy situations, and he has always taught me to be calm and to relax.
Can you share an as-of-yet unrealized project with us?
I have always wanted to make hats. I wear a hat nearly every day, and I just made my first hat a few weeks ago with the help of a friend. It seems like a natural step, but I don’t believe there are any milliners left in LA.
What are you serious about?
Avoiding traffic at all costs.
What things will you never take seriously?
Aging, fashion, and stand-up paddle boarders
Photography by YE RIN MOK | Interview by LEIGH PATTERSON