Earlier this year, Sidney Stokes and I came across the fabulous Laurel & Hector booth at RuPaul’s DragCon LA. After a very fun, recorded interview currently view able on our Youtube with the designer; Kee Kee James, I instantly became a huge fan and wanted to know more! Now at the cusp of an exciting re-brand, I got a chance to catch up with Kee Kee as she transforms her brand. Please follow along as we welcome back to WERRRK.com and into The Haute Seat, Kee Kee James!
Spencer: Ah! Kee Kee I am so excited to finally get the chance to talk with you! How are things going?
Kee Kee: Hey Spencer! I’m doing great, been working hard on the launch of my re-brand.
Spencer: Oh wow, that sounds exhausting! What is the motivation behind this exciting new re-brand?
Kee Kee: I wanted to step my pussy up & see what it would be like to challenge myself. So I backed my talents and ran with it, everything turned out beautifully.
My brand was originally Laurel & Hector, named after my grandparents, so re-branding to Laurel was a heavy decision… but I feel like it matured the brand, and from a marketing aspect, was the right thing to do.
Spencer: I feel like you are coming out on the other side of this re-branding even more creative and driven and I love that. I’m pretty sure the consumers will as well. Honestly, I can’t wait to see and hear more. But before we get into what’s new with “Laurel”, I want to first just get some insight for the audience on your beginnings! I know you are originally from Australia… I am curious to know when you realized you had this incredible talent which eventually brought you to New York City?
Kee Kee: Well, NYC was always on the cards. LA was just a stepping stone, to feel out the waters and if I wanted to stay there. I wasn’t in love with LA, the only thing I loved there was the gay scene. It’s so available, there’s things going on every night. You can even mix up what kind of events that you go to so it’s not the same crowd. It’s the best! Shout-out to Precinct being my favorite club!
Since I’ve been in NY I’ve just been working hard on re-branding and I think only until recently I believed I was talented. I knew I had talent, I just didn’t back myself enough and have faith that I could pull off incredible things.
Spencer: Haha yasssss! Shout out to Precinct in DTLA ! Oh, their food sounds so good right now… Anyways, I totally get it. Los Angeles is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if it is… then there can be a world of opportunity.
One story I find interesting is that you originally started with selling vintage. Then with just one garment, everything changed!
Kee Kee: Yeah, I used to go to Japan every 6 months for about 5 years. I was hooked! It started out with just close friends asking me to buy things for them. Then it kinda branched out from there and I launched Laurel & Hector Vintage.
One of these trips, I was in the fabric district of Osaka and I saw this man screen printing fabric. I bought the same fabric in 3 different colors and made cute 60’s a-line dresses out of them, and that was it, the vintage was over. I couldn’t even give it away. So naturally, I had to drop the “Vintage” and I became Laurel & Hector. I just went on from there and started making made to order pieces which is now what I’m getting back into.
I’ve produced 3 collections in China with an ethical factory, all workers get paid above award wage and the conditions are above standard. They were great to work with and I loved visiting China. But for a gal who loves to travel and move cities every other year, carrying that stock really doesn’t suit my lifestyle anymore.
Spencer: That is an incredible story and I applaud your adamance in using an ethical, above standard factory when producing your lines. This is such an important concept and I certainly hope other designers will follow suit.
You mentioned you frequent trips to Japan and in particular,the man screen-printing fabric in Osaka. I feel like this speaks a lot toward inspiration. What do you feel like are your main inspirations as an artist?
Kee Kee: My last few collections were definitely inspired by The Nanny and Lil’ Kim. I think it has something to do with my parents being strict and banning shows like The Nanny and The Simpsons, and not wanting to hear rap & R’n’B in the house.
Now I feel like my inspirations are of other designers like Vivienne Westwood, Charles Jefferey, CDG, Junya Watanabe, Melitta Baumeister. I also draw from artists, trends, fabrics, furniture, etc etc etc.
Also finding that I’m not the skinny little bitch I was in Sydney, (thank you American food), has definitely shaped the way I design. I feel like my designs have moved more towards people with shape and curves, and now some menswear.
Spencer: I do get a lot of Vivienne Westwood vibes in your work, especially through the fabrics you create with which I LOVE. Also, that is probably the best combination of people I have ever heard. I feel like somewhere, some television producer should consider recreating The Nanny but with Lil’ Kim being the nanny..?
So you kind of touched on this with your last point but I’ll just go ahead and ask you anyways because I am excited. Tell me about your brand new AW19 collection?
Kee Kee: I feel like the AW19 collection has been slowly designing itself in the back of my mind from the moment I landed in America, October 2017. I didn’t start getting serious with it until I moved to NY. I started out with sketches which over time I’ve realized it’s really constricting or maybe should be done after finding fabric. It’s a chicken or the egg scenario, does the fabric come first or do you design something and chase down the fabric?
I ended up doing a combo of both and now am into just letting it organically happen. When art directing the AW19 campaign, I kept having a vision of long grass, dirty socks and auburn hair. I let this unusual combo sit with me for a couple of weeks and the rest followed.
I scouted a few locations which were total fails until I came across Highland Park in Brooklyn. It was perfect for the concept that kept coming to me. I then went back with my husband, Tristan, and we matched a look with a location.
I had been talking with my photographer, makeup artist, hair stylist and stylist for months before the shoot. We smashed out 11 looks in less than 6 hours, with two models, hair, location and outfit changes for every look. Everyone brought their a-game and didn’t stop for a minute throughout the whole shoot. The models were so professional having to work in cold conditions and the team made sure everyone was comfortable and looked after.
I couldn’t have pulled off this epic shoot without the incredible team. Can I do a shout out with some IG handles?
Spencer: Of course, I know we would all love to follow your amazing team. Shout away!
Follow the Laurel AW19 Team
Photographer – Jessie English @englishenglish
Digital Tech – Renee Bevan @reneebevan
Makeup Artist – Becca Gilmartin @beccagilmartin
Hair Stylist – Dale Delaporte @daledela
Stylist – Erica Boisaubin @eboisaubin_
Film Photographer – Lucy Dickinson @rat.cherub_
Coordinator – Tristan James @heyitsheavylids
Model – Alain Polanco @alaingrpolanco
Model – Indre Aleksuik @indre.aleksiuk
Spencer: I totally relate. Everytime I design something I find myself sketching first even though I know in the back of my mind I should really be sourcing fabric first. But then it’s like, why do I need to design in ways that other people say is right? It’s my vision, so I can do whatever the hell I want?
But back to your collection, I am obsessed. You use fabric in such a fun, genius way! The purple, velvet leopard is by far my favorite group and I just want to live in one of these suits forever. The collection feels very fresh and unique. Yet at the core, free of the chains of gender. Laurel is for everyone, am I right?
Kee Kee: Absolutely, I’m sick of this gender assigned clothing. I wear literally all my husbands clothes and he wears mine. We have the same shoe size. We don’t give a fuck about what it says on the tag.
So, I wanted that for my clothing. I felt my previous collections didn’t make room for other genders so I just made a larger size range, but that wasn’t the answer either, that’s when I just made everything genderless and made to order.
What’s the point in creating a size run when nobody is a true medium, large, or x-large. If you’re going to get a designer piece, why not have it tailored to your measurements? So I guess that’s where my thinking went… and it was in line with how I dress anyway.
Spencer: If it makes you feel good, then wear the hell out of it! Living by what a tiny label says should really just be a thing of the past. I am quite confident that eventually we will see this idea of gender assigned clothing dissipate with the arrival of young, new designers with thanks to designers like yourself.
So finally, what advice would you give any young designer or artist who is inspired by your story?
Kee Kee: Don’t waste time not backing yourself. No one else is going to do it for you and even if they do, it might only be for a brief period of time. Self doubt slows you down.
Also be nice to everybody, and I mean genuinely nice, not like ladder climbing “nice”. Be a good person, because it’ll come back around and you’ll be remembered for it.
I read an article where Charles Jeffery was asked about his inspirations, and he said to look to the people you admire and what they’re influenced by, research their influences and then apply it in your craft. I found that really motivating and ran with it while designing.
Spencer: Kee Kee, this has been a ton of fun. I can’t wait to watch your brand grow even further and uh… send you my measurements! Thank you so much for talking with me.
Kee Kee: Thanks so much for spending this time with me Spencer! I really enjoyed your questions.
Please check out Laurel, an ethical, genderless fashion label creating one-off pieces, handmade in New York City. Then give some love to the incredible designer; Kee Kee James, across all of their multiple social media platforms.
Kee Kee James