Lessons Learned from LA Clothing Maker & Style Icon: Jesse Kamm
You’ve probably seen Jesse Kamm pants around the internet – those perfectly tailored, 1970s-inspired, high-waisted sailor pants that come in a multitude of earthy, one-of-a-kind colors. Ring a bell? I’ve been following Jesse Kamm for some time on social media and lusting after those pants! That color palette she is working from I honestly just want to swim in. So much so, that I had to reach out to see if she’d be interested in chatting with us about the interworkings of her daily life, brand, style, and beautiful business. She was gracious enough to answer all my questions, whereupon afterward, I only fell deeper in love with the #kammpants world. Catch our interview with the LA clothing maker and style icon below, and let us know what you think about these highly coveted Kamm pants!
Tell us about how Jesse Kamm came about?
Jesse Kamm (the brand) came about in 2005. (The human came about when 2 young hippies got together and made a baby, back in the mid-seventies, in rural Illinois.) Cut to 2004, I was taking a sewing class at LACC, and making pieces for myself. Stylists wanted to borrow pieces, and people on the street stopped to ask where I bought my clothes, so I offered to make them pieces of their own. It happened very organically. I saw an opportunity, and I took it. I made five pieces, and shot a lookbook in a median in Beverly Hills at 6 am one morning. My friend Patrick brought the tiny book to Paris and gave it to his friend Sarah. She liked the pieces, and that is how Colette became the first store to carry the Jesse Kamm Collection.
We absolutely love your sailor pants, what is the inspiration behind this design and your overall aesthetic?
I have been making very high-waisted pants since I started my collection… it is about the only shape I have worn in the past 20 years. It makes me feel held, kind of like the box Temple Grandin designed for herself when she went to college. I have always felt weird when my pants waistband sits any lower than the bottom of my ribs. I had a pair of vintage men’s sailor pants I found at a garage sale in the Valley that I wore for nearly 10 years. Over the course of 3 of those years, my seamstress and I kept tailoring them to try and get the fit right for my body (the body of a woman, not a man). One day it happened… they fit like a glove. They looked good with everything. My friend Bo saw me out one day and said – Kamm, you have to put a version of those into production. Four years ago I introduced the Sailor Pant into the collection. It took about 3 seasons of running the style before I found the most magical canvas, which is the fabric we still use today. It holds you in like a hug, like a corset. It feels amazing. I think that is the thing that made it a cult classic.
How do you describe your personal style?
Inside of me lives two different characters. One is a 1970s Stacey Parelta-esque iteration. Laid back, skatey, surfey, dirty hair, overalls, vans, etc. The other is sort of a Lauren Hutton/Carly Simon/Charlotte Rampling vibration from the same late 70s era. This look is more put together, high waist pants with a simple shirt… I trade out my vans for a calfskin heel.
“The everyman is the inspiration for all of my favorite pieces. A painter, a longshoreman, a fisherman, a farmer, a sailor, a rancher.”
What is a typical workday like for you?
I wake up at 7 and help get my kid off to school. I get to the studio at 8:30 am and work until 3:30 pm. I wear many hats during the day, so I bounce around from being downtown dealing with production, answering inquiries from press and retailers, designing, trimming and watering the plants, and flipping through many pages of old books. At 3:30 pm I am back in mom mode until that small dude goes to bed at 8 pm. Then I have an hour and a half for me.
What differentiates your brand from other clothing companies?
I really do not know too much about any other brands. Here is what I know about my brand that other people seem to find interesting: I have handled all of my own sales and press for the last 12 years. I keep my business small as a means of being sustainable, and having free-time to surf and have a life that does not involve working. I value all of the parts of my team. I produce all of my pieces in downtown LA. I always have, and always will. For me freedom is wealth. Having flexibility, and not growing too large allows me to have control and freedom… which I feel is the key to me having a happy balanced life.
Do you have a brick & mortar store or do you mostly do wholesale and online? Can you tell us a little bit about your process?
I sell to 25 high-end boutiques around the globe and run www.jessekamm.world as our personal shop. I don’t have any interest in having a brick and mortar. If someone really wants to find some JK, they have plenty of outlets to do so. I think it is nice to not oversaturate the market, as I am of the opinion that this has allowed me the longevity that I have thus far enjoyed.
What inspires you in life and work?
I am inspired by nature first and foremost. I am inspired by skaters, surfers, and workers. The everyman is the inspiration for all of my favorite pieces. A painter, a longshoreman, a fisherman, a farmer, a sailor, a rancher. I find something that enchants me nearly every time I walk out the door. We live in a pretty amazing world where there is so much beauty. It always surprises me how most humans take it for granted.
What do you enjoy most and least about running your own business?
I love my job. I love not having to answer to anyone but myself. I like making my own schedule, and working with my partner who happens to also be the man I married. I love owning a small business and supporting small businesses. I have very little interest in supporting corporations, and I avoid it whenever I can.
Tell us a little bit about how you source the fabric you work with?
I have a few vendors that I have worked with for many years. Here in the U.S. and in Japan, mostly. I love finding deadstock bolts of fabric here and there, and I have some dealers here in LA who are always on the lookout for fabrics that are very “JK.” I look for strong sturdy fabrics, that can hang in closets for many many years to come.
Where do you foresee the Jesse Kamm brand heading in the future?
I plan on doing the exact same thing I have done for the past decade. I don’t fix things that are not broken, as a general rule. As long as I am having fun, and women want to wear what I am making, I reckon I shall carry on.
What are the most important takeaways you’ve learned since starting a business?
The best advise I ever received was the simple words: Grow organically. Don’t take money from investors. Trust your gut, it always speaks the truth. Work smarter not harder. There will always be more good ideas. Stay true to your vision, and never get caught up in what the Jones’ are doing.
Who are your favorite style icons to follow on IG?
I do not use Instagram in that way. My style icons are all from decades past, and I find them in books, films, on the backs of records, and in old magazines. I think the modern manner of social sharing clouds my ability to know what is mine, and I think it confuses many others as well.
What is your favorite quote, or life mantra to live by?
It is a surfing quote, that I believe came from Herbie Fletcher. It goes, “There are a lot of people in the water, but not a lot of people in the game.” I keep it in mind always, because I think it applies to surfing and life, alike.
Favorite place you’ve ever traveled to?
I suppose I would have to say Panama. I keep going back for months every year and have done so for over a decade. I built a house there, I got married there, I got pregnant in the jungle there… so I guess it has cast some sort of spell on me. Being in the third world makes you feel alive, and I think that makes life worth living.
What is your favorite book as of late or go-to TV show?
I read an amazing book by Barbara Kingsolver this summer, The Lacuna. It is wonderful. It follows a man through his life, which weaves in and out of the life of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera… super enchanting.
I am binging on Insecure on HBO right now. It is some of the best television I have seen in a long time. Watching how the modern world of dating works I find truly terrifying and hilarious, and watching something through the perspective of a young middle-class African American woman, is just something we have not nearly enough access to. I think Issa Rae is an incredible talent, and I am slightly obsessed right now. Not to mention – HER STYLE is amazing.
Where are your favorite places to shop in LA?
How do you like to relax or unwind?
I love being in the sea. It is my most happy place. After that I enjoy the following: Playing Scrabble, watching my child draw, building furniture, eating doughnuts, and drinking 3 fingers of dark well-crafted tequila. (Doughnuts and tequila not at the same time.)
What are you working on at the moment?
The JK studio has recently moved out of our home, where we have worked in for the past 12 years, and into a space of its very own. Luke, my husband and I are building all of the furniture for the new space. Tables, desks, couches, benches, and more. It has been very fulfilling to be working with my hands in this way. I love designing spaces, and placing the work of my amazingly talented friends upon the walls and on the table tops… to keep me company. Andrew Zuckerman, Annie Costello Brown, Claire Oswalt, Lauren Spencer King, Katrina Dickson, Todd Cole, Victoria Morris, Barri Zipperstein, and my momma, Kathy Kamm, surround me. In addition, I am designing FW18, which is also very exciting.
Images via Jesse Kamm
Stefani Ellenbecker is the Editorial Director at Wit & Delight. When she’s not feverishly editing or writing about style and interiors, she runs her bohemian shop Arden Trading Co. where she sells artisan-made home goods. She lives in Minneapolis with her fiancé Muhamed.