A few weeks ago we got a quick intro to Kelsy Parkhouse - the founder and designer behind Americana-inspired brand, Carleen. Now in the second part of our feature, I sit down with Kelsy to discuss the origins of her company and how moving her production from New York to Los Angeles has impacted her American-made manufacturing.
Kelsy: I started Carleen right out of school which everyone tells you not to do. The reason I did was because my graduating collection was awarded a cash prize. I could’ve done anything with it but the implication was definitely there that what you should do is start a brand. It was 100% no strings attached, but there was still a little bit of a wink, wink behind it. So I talked to my family and asked, “Should I do this?” And they were all really encouraging, so I did. And it’s been really fun. It’s hard to be a small business. I had to intern for a bunch of small businesses while I was in school, so I kind of had an idea and that’s why I probably wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t won a grant, but it’s nice to be in charge of your own vision and be able to execute it. It’s really satisfying.
TC&G: And you started it right out of school? There was no gap at all?
K: My thesis collection was 5 looks, and that was in April or May. And then I spent the summer expanding it and turning it into a collection with line sheets and sold that first collection in September for the spring market.
TC&G: And it just took off from there?
K: Well, I don’t know about took off but we slugged along.
TC&G: There was something really curious that I talked about with [Lauren of W’Menswear] where she spoke about a certain moment when you start a company or brand where it starts to take on a life of its own and you watch it grow apart from you a little. Did you have that experience too?
K: Yes and no. It’s a little different. I think some things happened pretty organically, like denim becoming a bigger and bigger part of the brand and in some ways that’s taking on a life of its own because I didn’t set out to have a brand where denim was the core focus. I just kind of rode that wave instead of controlling it, not that I wanted to. But it’s also not really away from me because I wear jeans everyday. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense.
A: Something I’ve talked about with a few of the women I’ve interviewed is that you feel like you’re always your first tester market. Were you your first tester market?
K: Again, yes and no. I wear a lot of stuff but I’m not my own sample size so I don’t fit into every sample - so I’m not always trying things on from the very beginning. I’ve spoken about this with other designers too and I think I definitely don’t design everything for myself but it’s more like it’s a potential version of myself. And it might not be me now or might not be me in the future or in the past, but it’s an alter ego or something. Some of it is just for me, but not all of it is. And I think I would get bored if I only designed things that I would wear every day.
TC&G: You started designing in New York - is that where you went to school too?
K: Yes! After high school, I went to New York for college and initially studied art history but while I was an art history major, I was doing a handful of internships in the fashion industry. It was something I always knew I liked. I always liked a lot of creative endeavors but I also just really liked school and as an 18 year old high school student who didn’t know what she wanted to do - I didn’t want to go to art school. I wanted a more academic grounding because I was so undefined in what I wanted to do. So I went to college and studied art history and Spanish and then did a bunch of internships in the fashion industry and [figured out] this is what I want to do so then I transferred to Pratt and studied fashion design there. And it was a really good experience so I’m glad I did that. And then I started my company right after that, crazy. But I’ve always had other jobs - I still have another job.
TC&G: And so then [after New York], you moved here?
K: Yes! I was in New York for 13 years and my husband and I were just kind of ready for a change. I grew up in Long Beach and my family is all out here so I came back to be close to them again.
TC&G: Has LA influenced you in any respect to your designing?
K: I don’t feel like it’s been quite long enough to really say. I’m just getting into development for fall and I feel like that’ll be a truer test of how much it’s been an influence. California’s always been an influence, but more from afar. Now I’m just closer to it. So I’m really most curious to see if I’ll be able to hold the same romanticism now that I’m [here].
TC&G: California in general holds a certain romanticism that I've found it to live up to personally, so I hope it stays that way.
K: Yeah, I think when I was younger I had to get some distance to see it as something cool because it was just my normal normal. But now that I’ve got some distance, I like it again.
TC&G: That’s good to hear. Did you feel like New York had any tremendous impact in terms of the way you designed or your mentality around it?
K: Yeah I just really liked working and creating in New York. I feel like there’s a lot of drive and hustle there and it’s really nice to have that energy of other people who are working hard and trying hard and putting a lot of effort into things. The [NY vs. LA] stereotype of neuroticism versus laidback-ism is very much rooted in reality. But it was an energy that really worked for me and I really thrived in it for a long time.
TC&G: And even with switching over your denim production to LA now [from New York], you still make everything in America?
K: Yes, Carleen has always been committed to domestic manufacturing and that’s not gonna change.
TC&G: Why is that so important to you?
K: It’s important on a couple different levels. I think there are certainly ways to do production overseas responsibly. I have friends who do it. But one of the biggest environmental costs of the fashion industry is shipping and it’s just traveling less distance here. I like to keep my money closer to where I live, I like to know who’s making my clothes and make sure their conditions are better than halfway decent. Fair labor standards and regulations and all that good stuff.
TC&G: Does anything come into play in terms of designing for that aspect - of being inspired by American production?
K: The first thing that comes to mind is a little bit more of a limitation. Any time you see really involved detail work, that’s usually done overseas because either we don’t still have the skillset of laborers here and/or it would just cost too much. Most embroidery [or beading] is usually done by machine or overseas or both because otherwise it just costs too much. So there’s stuff like that that I don’t end up doing in part because of it’s not a resource that I’ve been able to find domestically. But I read a fascinating article that my friend just sent to me about the history of denim and its ties to the civil rights movement. If you think about the history of denim, the first things that come to mind are probably white men, honestly. James Dean, 50s Levis workwear. But there were actually a lot of civil rights protesters wearing denim and that was one of the first times it kind of entered our common vernacular as something you would wear other than to farm in. Some civil rights activists wore denim overalls to dramatize how little had been accomplished since Reconstruction because it was a sharecroppers thing to wear.
TC&G: I always like learning about the history of denim and all of its different roles in history and what it’s been used for and has symbolized even through the different decades. It’s such a versatile textile, so it’s always interesting to see how people are using it and how people have used it in the past.
TC&G: Moving forward, do you have plans for the future of Carleen or do you just go with it?
K: I try to be pretty flexible. The plan is mostly just managed growth. I never want to be making thousands and thousands and thousands of things because I don’t really need to put that much out into the world. There’s lot of clothes already. But I do need to grow and I do want to have more reach because I do believe in my brand and it does need to get at least a little bigger to really be something that is financially sustainable.
TC&G: Where do you pull your inspiration from?
K: I tend to go back to art and artists pretty frequently and that can be a lot of different things. For the Fall 17 collection, I collaborated with a painter. For Spring 18, Georgia O’Keefe was one of my inspirations - drawing from her life and her style. And also craft [and] quilts. There are some contemporary quilters that I keep my eye on too. I like seeing what they’re up to. Antique textiles, mostly quilts but other things too. I’m very interested in art and artists so commonly I’ll have a bee in my bonnet about someone when I’m designing a collection. I also like to have inspirations that are a little bit incongruous - that maybe don’t make sense to other people as things that go together and it doesn’t really matter. I like having a little bit of friction between two different ideas and joining them and trying to make one cohesive collection out of that friction and that intersection.
TC&G: What has been the most curious thing about owning your own business?
K: I really value the times when I get to do any sort of collaboration and it’s something that I wish I did more of. It’s one of the harder parts of being self-employed but I always really like shoot days when I get to collaborate with the photographer and the makeup artist and the model and all that business. I love the times of year when I get to meet with retailers and get their feedback and learn about what their customers are reacting to. I really value any type of collaboration and hopefully one day I can have some employees and we can collaborate on a daily basis.
TC&G: What at its core is Carleen to you?
K: I know your slogan is "Well-Made, Worn Better." And I really try my hardest to design something that you will love for a very long time and that’s part of the reason that I rely heavily on denim and antique textiles because I think those are already withstanding a sense of time, but I have a way to put a fresh spin on them.
Check out Kelsy's latest Spring Collection for Carleen here on the site.