Episode 20

Jesse Kamm

Episode 20

Why Fashion Designer Jesse Kamm Finds the Phrase “Global Expansion” Nauseating

Interview by Andrew Zuckerman

Jesse Kamm and her beloved waist-hugging, wide-legged “Kamm pants” embody minimalism. A proponent of producing fewer, better things, Kamm has committed to supporting local craftspeople by making all of her garments in Los Angeles and prioritizing the use of environmentally conscientious materials. This all makes sense within the context of Kamm’s upbringing in a farming and manufacturing town in Illinois, where she was raised by her mother and father—both curious and creative hippies—in a passive solar house they built themselves. The former model turned fashion designer, who spends time in both L.A., where she works, and Panama, where she surfs, lives truly luxuriously by being hyper-protective of her schedule. 

Kamm maintains that the currency she trades in is freedom, but her life hasn’t always been so balanced. After arriving in L.A. in her early 20s to pursue a modeling career, she quickly lost control and felt stripped bare by the pressures of the industry (and a consequential eating disorder). Living off of cottage cheese and cigarettes, and unhappy with who she had become, she stepped away from the runway and decided she instead wanted to make something. Kamm signed up for sewing classes, started producing her own clothes, and taught herself the ins and outs of running a business. Soon after, she was selling pants for $500 to women in line at a local coffee shop. Since unveiling her first collection, in 2005, she has created a bubble for herself by abstaining from fashion blogs and fancy industry events. Instead, Kamm focuses on her own projects; she spends time with her husband, Lucas Brower, and their 10-year-old son, Julien; and hangs out for three months a year by the Panama ocean, where she and Luke have built their own home. 

On this week’s episode of Time Sensitive, Kamm talks with Andrew Zuckerman about the essential quality of being a present parent, explains how she has hit upon a sustainable work-life stride, and discusses why she has no intentions of expanding her business beyond its current scale.

CHAPTERS

Kamm, a longtime surfer, decamps to Panama for about four months out of every year to unplug there with her family. Here, she discusses her epic work-life balance—one that most people can only dream of.

Kamm talks about growing up in rural Illinois, the daughter of crafty hippie parents who built her family’s home and instilled humanist, long-view values in her.

Kamm remembers her years as a model in L.A., which were, in retrospect, grueling, exhausting, and decidedly dark, and ultimately led to positively profound life-and-work changes.

Kamm shares her philosophy on growth—in essence, that more, bigger, faster is most definitely not better.

Kamm gets into her personal definitions of luxury and fashion, likening the latter to a “circus” that she seeks to operate outside of, as much as she can, at least.

Kamm surfing in Panama.

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TRANSCRIPT

ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Today in the studio, I’ll be speaking with the fashion designer Jesse Kamm, who’s been running her cult-followed eponymous label out of her studio in Los Angeles since 2005. Welcome, Jesse. Thanks so much for joining us.

JESSE KAMM: Good to be here, man.

AZ: So, you just got back [from Panama]. Well, you’re in New York right now. Why are you in New York?

JK: New York City. The muscle city. I’m here for Fashion Week, buddy. It’s time to sell spring/summer 2020. You know, every six months you gotta do it.

AZ: And you just got back from Panama.

JK: Yep. It was a great summer. No major bodily injury, which is always a—

AZ: Possibility.

JK: Well, it’s always a possibility. It often happens. And if you get through a summer without it, you’re really feeling like you can pump your fist in the air.

AZ: You’re not living on a resort in Panama?

JK: No, we’re living in a little … we call it a treehouse, even though it’s not in a tree. It is stilted. And we’re off the grid completely, collecting rainwater, and solar power, and composting our waste, if you know what I mean.

AZ: You built the house yourself?

JK: Luke, my husband, and I designed and built the house twelve years ago, which was an effort. And if someone asked us if we could do it again, I think the resounding answer would be, “Hell no,” because it was proper pioneering. We had to carry five-hundred-pound posts. It came in a dug-out canoe. You carry it across the island by hand, put it in the ground, lace it up, bolt it down, just one by one.

AZ: And you did it because you wanted to design a kind of way to live that was different than how you—

JK: Yeah. I mean, we were young. And we thought maybe we would just be young Bohemians, surfing and living off the land. And then, somehow, I got pregnant, and the whole idea shifted, because I didn’t think that I could be a young Bohemian with a kid. Somehow, I needed to go back and make a name for myself so that I could support this other human. And it made more sense to do that in the States. But I didn’t want to give up the dream. So, we figured out a way to sort of have both worlds. Now, we spend about three months—four months if we can—a year down there and then the rest of the time making it happen in the studio.

AZ: One of the reasons I wanted to have you on the program is that you have—more than almost anyone else I know—figured out a way to manage your time with total agency. You are in complete control of your schedule, and have a thriving business, and [are] making it work against all of the norms that are happening, especially in your industry.

JK: Right.

AZ: I saw you last night—you were showing me your new catalog. And it opens with this, kind of, manifesto that I think is fantastic, which is where I want to start, which you developed, I guess down in Panama on this last trip.

JK: Yeah, we brought the collection down, which was always very scary to me, because anything you bring down comes back covered in mold and the scent of—I guess it’s musty mildew from the jungle, a little jungle rot. But because the collection was all-cotton, I felt like I could handle the washing of it. If it was fine silks, that would’ve been a little more nerve-wracking. But I was brave. I put it in the bag; we brought it down there. I’m the kind of person who likes to control everything. And I felt like Panama is very… There is a lack of control. It’s very wild. I felt like I was going to have to push myself beyond my normal comfort zone, where I can systematically control every little moment, [every] detail where we’re going to have this shot, that shot.

You’re in the rainforest, so there’s a lot of weather that comes through. And you might schedule people that get on a boat and come over to the island, and then you’ve got a downpour for the next six hours. And how are you going to really get the work done? And everybody lives on these different islands, and i it’s a very sort of mañana culture, as well. So, you could organize the whole thing, and then have everybody say, “No man, sorry, there’s a swell. I’ll be back in two days,” or whatever. Or I might say that. “Sorry, I can’t do it today. It’s eight feet up front.”

AZ: But things have evolved recently in how you’re thinking about your business, and what’s important to you, and how you want to present that. And so, I wanted to kind of start with your most current—

JK: The manifesto.

AZ: The manifesto. The most current thinking for your life and business.

JK: Yeah. Well, in fashion you work a year ahead, right? So, a year ago I was working on putting the ideas forward for this collection, and the [United Nations] climate report came out. And I heard the news breaking about, “It’s nothing new,” but it felt pressing because I was hearing things that were [like], “Okay, in twenty years, this is going to happen.” And it just felt to me like a very loud red horn being blown. And I kept thinking, Why are we all not reacting in this huge way? Why are giant companies not making grand gestures to steer this ship in the other direction? I was almost paralyzed for a couple of days. I just thought, How can I continue making things with this as the future?

How can I live with myself contributing to this? I’m a maker. I ship fabric; it takes fuel. I fly places to do things—I’m part of the problem. And though my business is small, and I do it on a small scale, I still contribute. And so, how do I wrestle that, knowing that I’m contributing? And so the idea was, Well, okay, if I expect a grand gesture out of others, then I better put myself in a position to make a grand gesture. If I’m expecting others to do it, I ought to walk the walk and do it myself. So, what is the gesture? How can I accomplish something and make myself feel like it is okay to produce more in the world, in a world where we are drowning in excess?

There’s too much of everything. If we just stopped making now, there would probably be enough for us all to survive for fifty years just on what’s here. Clothes, cars. Go to the Goodwill and get yourself a blender and a vacuum. Right? So, I just thought, Okay. Well, the materials that we use, that needs to be… We’ve always used a lot of environmentally conscientious materials, but it hasn’t been one hundred percent. And we already produce locally in California, ethically in a socially conscientious way. There are a lot of things that are already in place, but I just needed to say it out loud and put these constraints on myself and on the business where I say, “I will not make something unless all the pieces of the puzzle have the environment in mind. And can I make something good with those constraints?”

And if I can’t, then it’s not worth making. That’s the sort of box I’m going to put around myself and the work that I do moving forward. And if I say it out loud, then I am going to have to be accountable to all the people that have heard me say it. So, coming into 2020, for me, it’s this moment of “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” That’s a Friday Night Lights reference.

AZ: Not sure.

JK: Okay, get in there. It’s good stuff.

AZ: We share Succession, but not Friday Night Lights.

JK: I know. But maybe you should go there next, because—coach Taylor, Tami Taylor, life goals, how to live with your partner. Anyway, so 2020, clear vision, eyes wide open. This thing that we have done by being so selfish, with honor to our resources—we have to stop and really take a look at what we’re consuming, because these resources are finite, and they’re going to be gone. And I can’t live with myself if I’m not being thoughtful. So, that’s the new parameter that I’ve built. Moving forward, I have to be accountable to that. And the goal is [that] perhaps my doing that inspires someone else to do it. And then, by them doing that, it inspires someone else. We just developed this whole organic cotton line for our pants, which is a very specialty fabric. But it wasn’t that expensive to change over to the organic fibers.

I just think, Hey, big corporation—not going to say your name, but you know who you are. Why don’t you just make the same move? It’s not that much more expensive. You’re making so much—make that change. It affects all of us in a positive way. You can build it in your marketing strategy.

AZ: Right.

JK: People are going to love it.

AZ: Which is where most of that—

JK: —comes from.

AZ: —kind of stuff sits.

JK: But I just don’t understand why it’s not coming from a place of our survival. If someone said, “Hey, your house is on fire,” you don’t just sit in it and keep throwing logs on it. That’s not normal. But because we can’t see it every day right in front of us—it’s over there in the corner, with the glaciers dropping into the sea—you can’t see that. So it doesn’t feel imminent. You know?

AZ: Absolutely. And people talk about our relationship to nature and our care for the environment. But so much of your creative work is built out of the time you spent in nature.

JK: I am nothing without my time in nature. And it’s getting to be more and more. I feel like—and I don’t know if it was my upbringing, or just being a surfer and spending time in the sea, that—maybe it’s just like a positive feedback loop, where the more I’m in it, the more I need, or the more I’m in it, the clearer I can see, and I need less of the other stuff. It’s almost as if I come back from a nine-week trip, [and] I feel so high from the, just the energy of the quiet, the high of the surfing, the high of the bonding that happens with my family when we are away, and off the grid, and there’s no media, there’s no movies, there’s no podcasts—sorry. [Laughs]

It’s just quiet. And you come back, and you’re like, “Wow, that’s really all I need. I don’t need that much to exist in this way.” And then I come back to my home in L.A., and I look at the closet, and I say, “Wow, I just don’t need all those shoes.” Or, “I don’t need all those pants.”

AZ: Not that you even have that much.

JK: I know.

 

AZ: One of the things we’re talking about now—which does relate to your upbringing and childhood roots, which I really want to get to next—is this idea that you have embraced an almost ideological perspective on minimalism. This is not an aesthetic choice…

JK: Right.

AZ: …in your business. This is not an aesthetic choice in the way you live, in the way you communicate. This is a full-on approach that you’re applying. And all of these things in your life, like your home, and your business, and the kind of uniform aesthetic that’s so well-loved by women across the world is an outgrowth of an idea about how we can live in our needs, and what do we really need to feel vital. Happiness is kind of a funny way to put it.

JK: Right.

AZ: But to feel vital.

JK: Right.

AZ: And you find vitality in these experiences in nature. So, I want to talk a bit about your childhood, which I’ve always found incredibly interesting. You grew up in Illinois, [across the Mississippi river from Missouri].

JK: Yep.

AZ: In a house that your parents built.

JK: Yeah.

AZ: Tell me a bit about that.

JK: I was born in the mid-seventies. And it was a time where young hippies were sort of aware of … there were rolling blackouts, and people were conscientious of things like, there was the … what’s that gorgeous black catalog?

AZ: Whole Earth Catalog.

JK: The Whole Earth Catalog. And these things that were very prominent in the hippie movement. It was like, build your own home, and grow your own food, and make your own…

AZ: That’s what the Whole Earth Catalog was. It was a guide to do-it-yourself.

JK: …make your own perfume, and this sort of thing. And my parents didn’t have a lot of money. They both came from the working class. My grandfather had a filling station; my other grandfather was a security guard at the steel mill. My parents were 18 when they met. And they were really into getting away from the way they grew up with strict rules, religion. They just, they sort of went the other way, and they were just really into the idea of living simply. They didn’t have a lot of money. They bought this property of seven acres. And everybody thought they were crazy, because they were just moving to the cornfields.

And my dad just got these library books, and he figured out how to put up the foundation. He just built this house on the weekends. I was three. And we would go to the property, and my mom would be out running a saw, and my dad would be hammering nails—that’s just the way it was. And I had this very lovely, picturesque childhood, and it was because it was a simple… It was an affordable way to do it. They built the house. It was passively solar-powered, which [means] you build all the glass in the front of the house south-facing, so that the house heats up without needing a lot of fossil fuel to warm the home.

It was just thoughtful decisions that were about utility, and conserving your money. It wasn’t because they read it in a Dwell magazine, and it was like the hip thing to do. It was just, it was inexpensive. And it was how to live with your small nest egg, or whatever. And my mom is a potter, and my father is … he was an engineer. But, his trajectory was, he was a musician. And he would go to work nine to five, or eight to five, but he was home every day at 5:15. And every promotion he was ever offered, he turned down because he didn’t want to give up his weekends with his family. So, I learned that, sort of, strict time…

AZ: Protection.

JK: …where you protect your time from them. And my mom went back to get her B.F.A. after I was on my way to college, myself. She just … they kind of gave up a lot just so that we could have time together as a family. And I think that that is so deep in my foundation that, that is where that strict protection of my time came from… One of the places. There are other places, too.

AZ: You’ve been incredibly rigorous with the guardrails you put on your life and in your business. And you kind of don’t waver around that.

JK: Well, there have been a lot of things that contributed to that. One of the interesting things is, when I went to university, I studied recreational therapy, which is this totally obscure degree. But one of the things that we worked on a lot was time management, resource management, and the idea that your recreational time is very, very important to your well-being. So, those roots were built when I was 19 years old. Then, moving to California, I became a model, and I lost all control. I lost all ability to use my time in the way that I wanted to. I was completely at the mercy of the person in charge, which is your agency. You have to weigh this much, you have to wear your hair this way, you can’t get a suntan, you can’t go away this weekend, you can’t… You have to be available, and so, almost five years of having your freedoms and choices stripped away from you.

When I left that I knew that whatever I did moving forward, I was going to be in charge. And I was going to have control over those places and spaces in my life. That, I think, was the greatest… It was like the nail in the coffin. I knew that I was very unhappy during that time, and I was going to move forward and be happy, and that’s what it was going to … I needed my control back.

AZ: What did your hippie parents think of your modeling career?

JK: Oh God, they hated it, Andrew. As a parent, you want to let your kid do the things that they— They have to mess up. They have to do these things and learn, which I did. But I can remember the final moment. Well, there were a couple of things that led to the end. Me getting fired from a giant Gucci job was the big thing.

AZ: What did you do?

JK: I got a really bad sunburn the day before the show

AZ: Jesse…

JK: I know, but it was like—

AZ: You just don’t do that.

JK: [Laughs] Everything that happened to me, it was always like that. My first job, I fell trying to pick up this little cute wiener dog. And I got this rose thorn in my lip, and busted my lip open, hours before my first job. And my last job, I got fired from Gucci for having a terrible sunburn on my back. It was just very classic. It was like, all signs point to: This is not right for you. And finally, I read the signs, right? And when I left my last job, I sort of said, “I gotta do something else.” And my mom said, “Jess, you know, you’re such a bright girl—you’re so creative. It’s really hard for me to watch you doing this thing where none of that is coming into play.” And it hit. I recognized it at that moment. “Yes, and it’s just tearing me up. It’s ruining me. I’ve got this fucked-up eating disorder. I’ve got no control over my life. I’ve just—I’m stripped bare.”

AZ: Who are you spending time with at the time?

JK: Well, that’s the thing, because when I look back, it was this super-fun moment in my life book—in the story. We were in our early twenties, and we were living in Los Angeles. I’d moved—I literally left the cornfields and moved to California. And I fell into this group, and it was so fun. There was this family of artists, and musicians, and young creatives. I was just— I was modeling at the time. And I remember so clearly thinking, looking at all of this talent, and thinking, I want to be that. I remember being in town for fashion week. It was the early 2000s.

I was walking down the street with Alex Greenwald from Phantom Planet, Mickey Madden from Maroon 5, and Jenny Lewis. And we were walking and talking, and they were talking about these things that they were working on. And I remember thinking, What’s my thing? What am I going to make? I want to make something. What is my contribution? When I closed the door on that chapter, I went all in. And I remember having to really shift away from that life of party.

When I started my collection—which happened very organically—I wanted to learn how to sew. I took classes. I started making clothes for myself. Women in line at the coffee shop would say, “Hey, where’d you get that?” And I [would say], “Oh, I made it.” “Can you make me one?” “Yeah, I can. Five-hundred bucks.” They’re like, “Okay, can I have it Saturday?” “Sure.” And I just saw an opportunity. And I just… It was a ballsy move. But I learned from working in restaurants, you can either have a low-price item and you have to sell tons of it, or you can have fine item, made out of fine ingredients, and set in a beautiful space, and you serve it, and you can charge a high price, and you have to sell less of it.

That was the formula. Came from [my] waitressing days. I just saw the opportunity, and I knew that because I didn’t have any fashion design, or business experience, I was going to have to learn all parts of this. So, the kids would be like, “Oh, we’re going to this place tonight.” And I’d say, “Sorry, I got to work.”

AZ: But what was amazing about that time… I met you during that time.

JK: Right, you did.

AZ: It was twenty years ago.

JK: Unreal.

AZ: Unreal. I was still living in New York, but visiting all the time. And I couldn’t figure out what anyone did.

JK: Yeah, because there was a lot of Scrabble-playing and lounging by the pool.

AZ: And partying all night.

JK: Partying all night.

AZ: And there was just a scene of incredibly creative people who were actually all becoming quite successful in their fields—but not working very hard.

JK: Yeah. Well, that was the genius of those… That was good—it was good luck for them. But not everybody gets to have that creative magic without sitting down at the drawing table, and really hammering it out.

AZ: Oh, they were working hard, you just didn’t see it.

JK: Right.

AZ: And so, you made a decision: “I’m going to be a fashion designer. I’m going to start a label. I’m not going to be a model anymore.” Now, just to back up a little bit, you were struggling with a lot of different issues at the time. And there was one moment I remember when you went into your agency, and, what happened?

JK: Oh I just, that was, kind of, this very defining moment. I was deathly ill. I had this terrible flu. I hadn’t eaten in days. I just, I felt like I was going to— I was really sick. Head cold, body aches. I’d been in bed for days. I had to go into the agency to pick up a check. I walked through the door, feeling just so lousy. And everybody was like, “Oh, my God, Jesse, you look incredible.” Because I’d probably lost five pounds. And I just thought, What the fuck? This is so wrong. I was being praised for looking like I was dying. The whole weight-loss and expectation of looking a certain way—it was different twenty years ago than it is today.

I feel like that’s a really wonderful evolution. For me, it kind of stripped me down. I thought going into it—because I was already 20-something years old when I started that chapter—I thought I was strong enough, like, “This won’t hurt me, this won’t affect me.” But then, you get through your day and you’re [like], “Okay, what I’ve had today were six cups of coffee, eight cigarettes, and a power bar, and a cottage cheese.” And I feel like I was mentally and physically unwell. [So]I set about repairing myself from the inside out.

And I turned it around. I had the help of this woman who I met with once a week. She was an eating-disorder counselor. And I just had such a messed up self-view and all that stuff. But in doing the work, I came out on the other side. Everybody still looks in the mirror and says, “Oh, I wish I could…” but I don’t dwell. And I also feel like that, sort of, additionally solidified who I am and what I’m willing to take on and what I’m not. I’m not going to do things that make me feel bad anymore, whether that’s spending time with somebody who makes me feel shitty, or going places and to events that make me feel a certain way.

I just do not participate. I very much live in this little bubble. I don’t read fashion blogs. I don’t read fashion magazines. I don’t know who any other designers are. I really keep my head down. I feel that it distracts the work and it takes me off my path when I spend time doing those things. I don’t go to fashion events. I don’t go to dinners. I’m just doing me, you know? And I don’t do well with all the distraction. I do best when it’s just me in my space doing the work: go to the ocean, do that thing, come back, spend time with my family. That’s how I’m able to make something of value. That doesn’t work for everybody. But that’s just what I figured out through all this passing time, that that’s what I needed.

AZ: And in many ways, I think, your work is providing a kind of garment for that lifestyle.

JK: Yeah. Well, Julien’s birth—

AZ: Julien, being your—

JK: My son.

AZ: Your 10-year-old.

JK: Who came into the world in 2009. Before he came, the work was very different. It was painstakingly laborious. I did all these hand drawings, and then we turned them into screen prints. We hand-printed all the fabric in the collection, which was bananas. But it’s what we did. And when I say “we,” I mean Luke Brower was also on his hands and knees with me, pulling screens on our studio floor. That was an awesome time. But when you become a parent, you have far less time. You’ve got to start stripping things down. And I just didn’t know how to shift, but I remember I had lunch with Maryam Nassir Zadeh. She was saying, “You know, Kamm, you don’t necessarily have to do the prints. You’ve got a really good understanding of color. What if you just let that go?” And I was [like], “I can’t let it go. That’s my thing. My whole thing is these prints.” But I left that lunch, and it just kind of rang around in my brain for a minute. And then I thought, You know what, fuck it, I’m just going to try it.

And that is when everything changed. I felt so free. It was like this thing that was holding me back. I couldn’t… It just freed up everything. Because of my time constraint due to parenting, I was able to strip everything down, and the way that I dressed changed, as well. Because before I had a kid, there was almost this fairy-princess, thrift-store wonderland…

AZ: Fashion.

JK:fashion. I would go to the store, I would get some new things. I would … you’d play dress-up. And then, [in] this new life, there was no time for dress-up. I just needed something that was useful, handsome, and that I could put on every day, and feel good about myself, and do my work—do my chores, do my running around with the kid, go to the grocery store. I needed something that fit that lifestyle. And that is where the uniform dressing sprang from.

AZ: But there’s also a psychological aspect of the clothing you have. I’ve spoken to a lot of women, and we’re talking specifically about the pants you make.

JK: Sure.

AZ: You’re sort of very well-known—

JK: The Kamm pants.

AZ: The slacks business.

JK: The slacks.

AZ: This is quite possibly the most beloved pant in fashion for the last several years. It’s people’s staple. It’s become like the new jeans.

JK: Right.

AZ: And it’s not necessarily because of just the fabric or how they look. They do something.

JK: They hold you. They hold you. And that was… I think that there is something very supportive about them.

AZ: Like Temple Grandin.

JK: Yes. Like getting in the little cage and kind of closing yourself down at the end of the day, when things feel too busy. You put them on and you feel held. That’s the description that women talk about. And that is the shape of the—

AZ: The high-waisted sailor pant.

JK: The high-waisted thing. But it’s also the fabric. It’s very thick and sturdy, and it gives you a hug around the waist, just where you need it. Sometimes… It’s a rough world out there. Sometimes you just need a hug to roll with you throughout your day.

AZ: And it’s this thing you trust. I mean, this comes out of, kind of, “uniform culture.”

JK: Right.

AZ: And also, your respect for the everyman worker. I mean, the people you look to are not—

JK: Well, that’s my people.

AZ: Yeah. You don’t look to fashion icons.

JK: No. I mean, I just… Okay. So, there are a couple of staples in the collection, right? The sailor pant came out of this beloved pair of pants that I wore all the time. I had a friend who is a buyer, and she said, “You’ve got to make those pants. They’re just so amazing.” And so, the original piece came from this giant pair of pants that my seamstress and I tailored, and tailored, and tailored over the course of, like, eighteen months. Just my personal pair, trying to get them right, trying to get them right for my body. And finally one day I was [like], “Oh, Rosie, you got it.” And I started wearing them. They’d been altered from this big men’s pant I found at the Rose Bowl into this lovely woman’s pant.

And then, it became clear that I would make that. That started the whole next phase of pant world. But, when I started getting into the canvas collection, I just… So, Randy Jelly was the farmer who would plow my parents’ fields. You get a tax break if you keep it farmland and don’t have it become, like, a park. So, Randy Jelly would be in the field all the time. Hiskids lived down the street from me, and he always had overalls on. And if you’d go into town to the Rural King to get some supplies, and all the fellas had their overalls on. You’d go to the feed store to pick up a check after the fields had been plowed. It was just your community. There’s a lot overalls. You go to the store, and there’s just racks of ’em.

And so, that is a very classic piece from my childhood. There’ve been jumpsuits that I remember… My grandfather Andy, who owned the filling station in this little town fifteen minutes away called Aviston, home of 240 people, where my mother grew up, he had the filling station. He was a real dapper dude, but he would always wear these dress jumpsuits in the evening. They were … I don’t know what they were made of, but they had like a waist. And it was a one-piece—it was a onesie, man. It was a onesie. That was a big place of inspiration. My other grandfather was always down in the basement, tinkering, doing rascally stuff, like letting me try his chewing tobacco when I was five.

He had this cool, awesome system where, in his workshop, he took all these baby food jars, and he screwed the lids of them up into his cabinetry and then all the jars would screw on. And he’d have all his different little bolts, and screws, and wing nuts. It was just super-organized and groovy. His thing was, on the weekends, he always wore this short-sleeved fleece sweatshirt. So, a couple of seasons ago there was the Grandpa sweater. And it’s all, for me, just an ode to this place where people were good, and they were kind, they weren’t… There was no excess. It was all very… It was a good life. It’s this idealistic time in my history where people… There was a middle class. And people were happy, people had homes, and they counted on the fact that they were going to pay off their home within twenty-five years.

It was just a time of abundance in happiness, in self-worth. The middle-class now—they’re It’s a sad time. A lot of my family have lost their jobs to automation and things like that. Cousins, and aunts, and uncles. When I go home I feel the weight of the change, the great change. And I really, sort of, pay homage to my birthplace, and to my home, and to those good, hardworking people.

AZ: Yeah. It’s a way of expressing the values of that system…

JK: Exactly.

AZ: …that you were brought up in, which is so important to you.

JK: Yeah.

AZ: I mean, you talk about your dad building your house from a couple of library books. You and Luke did the exact same thing.

JK: Well, we got the same books. He made us a list. And my dad, he’s so awesome. He’ll come to town, and he and Luke will build a door. Then they’ll spend a day installing it. Dad is very different than Luke and I. We’re kind of like, eyeball it, throw it up. It’s good. My dad is super-precise—precise, calculated. He writes everything out in this gorgeous architect’s script. And everything’s just so. And my mother is just as talented. She’s got an incredible sense of space, and she knows so much about what… She can look at a piece of wood and tell you what it is. And she talks about lumber in a way that I’m like… It’s impressive. They come from a time where you created your whole world. You don’t just hire a contractor and hand over a check. You were involved in every single step.

AZ: It’s interesting just to bring it back to what you present to the world. And what I think our listeners know you from is this world-making and this idea of inspiration but not nostalgia. I mean, nothing about your brand is nostalgic. It sits on its own, in its own language. It just comes from a kind of inspiration of values rather than aesthetics.

JK: Okay.

AZ: That’s how I’ve always felt.

JK: Okay. I like that.

AZ: Everything in your life is built by you, touched by you, is unique to you, and…

JK: Right.

AZ: …is an extension of this kind of value system. I mean, you once said, “More is just more.”

JK: Right.

AZ: And I think we’re in a really interesting time with your business, because you’ve really now articulated that in this new manifesto, and you’re really being very clear about the fact that we are making less but better.

JK: Right.

AZ: And everything is a complete goal of honoring the environment and not adding to the system.

JK: Right. I think that my customer is a woman, and a few men, who understand that. And they value those same principles—they feel really proud to be a part of it, to support it. There aren’t many brands who are building their products here in the USA anymore; the industry is crumbling. Just to be able to support these workshops in Los Angeles, where these artisans and craftsmen have been working for thirty years… And I’ve watched them, Andrew—they’re closing their doors; they’re out of work. These craftspeople who have so much skill that are right down the road from designers who send all their drawings overseas to get built elsewhere. And you can say it’s for whatever reason you want, but the reason you do it is for cheap labor. These folks are sitting in these workshops with nothing to do, and soon they won’t have jobs.

I believe very strongly that my customer is proud to contribute and proud to wear these things because it means something. We are unwavering on our commitment. If the shops in the U.S. all close, and I will have to be forced to make my things in Mexico, then it’s not going to happen. I’m not going to do it. So, for me, it’s really urgent that we support the community and that we bring some of the work back. And I want to inspire my friends who have brands that build all their stuff in India: Bring half of it home! Yes, it’s more expensive, but there’s value built there. You’re supporting your people.

AZ: Yeah, well, cash has become the most valuable thing in our society in the last several years. And I think that’s—

JK: Not for me.

AZ: Not for everyone. And I think that’s where we’ve gone wrong, obviously. So—

JK: Right.

AZ: You have a different value system, and you assign value to very different things.

JK: Freedom, baby.

AZ: Tell me a little bit about that.

JK: For me, the currency that I trade is freedom. All I want is to have my freedom. So, I work. And I do enjoy my job. But it is a small thing in my life, in my day-to-day life. It’s a small portion. For me, picking my kid up at 3:30 and hanging out, cutting up some apples, and trying to hear a little bit about his day, which is a challenge—to get your kids to talk to you. But, building a spaceship out of Legos, and then having some food, going for a hike, talking about where we’re going to surf on the weekend, going to do those things on the weekend. I believe that freedom is wealth. I don’t need that much to survive or to feel comfortable. If I can pay my bills and eat clean, healthy food, and fly once in a while to a place where I can check out and not have the phone dinging and the emails pouring in, that’s my … for lack of better word, babe, it’s my bliss. [Laughs]

Kamm and her son, Julien, playing in the ocean in Panama.

AZ: Yeah. And how is it related to creativity? Because one of the things that I think we talk about a lot is this idea of fear is this creativity-killer.

JK: Right.

AZ: And stress, certainly.

JK: Sure.

AZ: And I’ve watched you in your business over many years now, where, extraordinary opportunities come your way, that anyone would jump at.

JK: Right.

AZ: And your response is like, “No, I don’t really need it.”

JK: “No, thanks.”

AZ: “No, thanks. I’m just going to stick with my couple stores. And people know how to find me. And I don’t need a physical brick and mortar location.” The idea of scale is what drives American businesses. And you’re just—

JK: Yeah, it drives everybody. The question everybody asks me when they see me is, “What’s next? What’s on the drawing board? Are you guys going to open a brick-and-mortar? Are you guys going to start a showroom in Europe, so that you can sell there?” And it’s just like, “Eh, no, I got enough work on my plate, and I don’t want to grow.” We can’t all grow. It’s just not sustainable. There isn’t enough resource on this planet for us all to keep growing. When I hear global expansion, I want to puke, because to me, it just means destruction. But I think by saying no, I keep my sanity. And in addition, it makes it a little more special. Like when you finally get in and you’re [like], “Whoa, I’ve got Jesse Kamm to say yes.”

AZ: Well, also, you’re interested in scaling freedom.

JK: Yeah. The more of it, the happier I am. And, you guys should try it. It’s really excellent. [Laughs] So, a couple things I do that add to my freedom program, Luke and I call it the “free state.” And I got to shout-out Simon Demeuse in Switzerland, because when we lived in Texas for that short little moment, he came up on this hill where we were living at the time. He’s like, “This is the free state.” And I just loved those three words. To me, they represent the place where I exist. It’s the free state. It involves putting my phone in airplane mode at 7 p.m. I can still take a cute picture of a sunset, but you can’t text me about today, today’s meeting, until tomorrow morning at 8:30. I won’t get it, because I’m in airplane. I’m in the free state.

I mean, boy, there’s a lot of distraction right now, just with the social media and the… I don’t know, it’s a lot. It’s a lot to take in. And your brain… I feel we need space. We need more space. And if you want it, you’re gonna have to fight for it. You’re going to have to put up some boundary lines, and you’re going to have to work really hard, because it doesn’t come easily. It doesn’t come naturally. And to say, “Hey, I’m leaving June 5th and I’ll be back on August 10th. You guys good before I leave? You need anything else before I leave? Because I’m really not able to help you once I’m gone.”

I mean, we still have a skeleton staff working and doing the things to move the ball down the court. But we work very hard, and we organize ourselves way in advance to get everything ready so that we can go enjoy our freedom. You really just have to decide what’s important to you. How much do I really need to feel comfortable? And, maybe I would just enjoy doing something other than working my ass off. And then, that could be okay, too.

AZ: Well, it’s incredibly radical right now. As pathetic as it sounds, it’s incredibly radical. It’d be challenging [to] this widely held assumption that working harder and faster is the path to success.

JK: I just call bullshit on all of it. I don’t need a bigger car. I don’t need a bigger house. I drive a car that’s thirty years old. She’s called Big Blue. I bought her from my friend’s parents. And we had her adjusted so that she can run on veggie oil. She’s got a torn headliner, the door rattles, but I feel like I’m driving a farm truck, and I don’t care. I don’t need a Tesla to feel good about myself. I feel good about myself inside of my brain, so I don’t need a car to make me feel good about myself.

AZ: And you look back in that rear-view mirror, and you can imagine your best friends at five years old, sitting in the backseat.

JK: Oh, it’s so great. Emma’s parents owned this car, Margo Thomas in Austin, Texas, this gorgeous little 1985 Mercedes 300D. Two of my very closest girlfriends rode carpool in that backseat their whole childhood. And now, my kid and his buddies ride in the backseat, and there’s something beautiful in the history there. And this brings me to this funny thing about technology,  all these advances in technology. I had this hilarious moment with a cousin recently, who got his Tesla. He was complaining about the fact that he has to take his key fob out of his pocket to get the Tesla door to open. And I pulled out my keychain. It’s like a fucking jailer’s key chain.

My car requires three keys, and they’re giant. There’s one for the ignition, one for the door, and one for the trunk. Then our other Mercedes requires two keys. It’s just, a lot of keys. But there is something really gratifying about doing things that are a little harder. I don’t need a light switch that turns itself on. It’s really not that hard for me to just put my finger there and lift. That’s okay for me. I recently got dimmers put on a couple light switches in the house, and [the guy is] like, “Do you want to do the smart system?” I’m like, “Hell no. I don’t want anything else on this phone device thing. I don’t want to have to drive my life from this.” I like having to do things. I would be a fat slob if I didn’t have to do anything. Just give me a little task, make things—maybe not so easy. What’s this obsession with ease? I don’t think it’s more comfortable.

AZ: Well, we’re living in the time of supply chain and convenience. That’s what we’re in right now. We want to order it from a screen, so we don’t have to go to a store, so we don’t have to see people.

JK: Right?

AZ: So, we’re becoming completely alienated from life. Now, the Valley sold it to us as: You’re gonna get to have stronger human connections in your real life, and you’re gonna be able to live life more because all of these mundane tasks are getting out of the way.

JK: Except for, I’m constantly updating the app, and I forgot my password.

AZ: Well, of course, we all know that it’s an absolute disaster…

JK: It’s a farce.

AZ: …what’s occurred in the last ten years. But outside of social media and the big companies in the Valley, what we’re realizing is that that is life. The mundane tasks are what makes up life.

JK: Well, and it’s what gives us comfort at the end of the day. Like, “Oh, I solved these five problems. I ticked these tasks off my list.” And, I don’t know about you, but seems like there are a lot of depressed people out there. I’ve never seen more billboards talking about suicide in my life. My goodness. Are we really happier? Are we?

AZ: No.

JK: Because I think not. Because when I go to a place where things haven’t advanced quite so rapidly, people still have happiness in a real basic way. And it’s—

AZ: Well, its slow.

JK: It’s funny, because luxury is becoming what was just life thirty years ago. Luxury is, “Oh man, I’m going to go to the desert, and check out for five days, and just live quietly.” That was just life before all of this asinine advance, right? And it’s like the story of the fisherman. He’s there, he’s on the island, he works four hours a day. He catches the fish for his family. And this American comes… I don’t know, this is just my version of the story. This American comes, and is like, “Oh man, you, you know what you should do? You should get four boats and hire some guys. And then they could all go fish. And think of how much fish you would have.” And he’s like, “Yeah, but then I’d have to work all the time.” It’s just so backwards, the way that we are all like a rat on a wheel. I just can’t buy it. I see it—

AZ: And you haven’t bought it. And what’s been amazing to watch is that the sort of driver of your success and vitality has everything to do with you working against that system.

JK: I believe one hundred percent that my business is where it is because of these choices and restrictions I’ve put on myself. Because people are paying attention to it. They think it’s… They’re like, “Wait, what? You do what?” And they get…

AZ: Somehow aspirational.

JK: …excited about it. It’s inspirational, and it’s aspirational, and it’s sensational. And more people should do it. I mean, just like, what if we all worked fifty percent less? We’d use fifty percent less resources. We’d have fifty percent more time on our hands. Maybe we’d be fifty percent happier. I mean, it’s just… I don’t know. You asked me when my friends are doing, I don’t know. I don’t know what anybody’s doing. Nobody has a conversation anymore. Everybody’s too busy. Busy doing what? I don’t know. Just dealing, coping with the rapid pace of our lives, at this point. It’s too much. Everything is too excessive. The consumption is out of control. I don’t need to constantly be pumping out ads so you can buy my stuff. I don’t pump out any ads. If you want something, you’ll come get it. I know you will. I don’t have to badger you. And if you don’t buy it today, I’ll be okay. It’s just, I don’t know. We’ve got to pump the brakes here.

AZ: Well, luxury is this word that’s in this state of change.

JK: Well, it’s changed a lot.

AZ: Yeah. How do you really think of luxury right now, for yourself?

JK: Well, for me…

AZ: I mean, when you really want to treat yourself—when you get out of the kind of restrictive—

JK: When I really want to treat myself, I buy myself something that was made in a really conscientious way, or I buy myself a bit of food that was really carefully prepared in a slow manner from really good ingredients. And again, that’s just how things were done forty years ago: slowly, thoughtfully, carefully. That’s luxury. Luxury is what we gave up to have what we have now, which is the … what’s the word? It’s like the pedestrian things that we have every day—we thought that the iPhone was luxury, but actually [it’s] just taken everything beautiful away from us. You read these stories about how the people in the Valley don’t let their kids have the iPhone or the iPad. It’s true, man. And it’s like the people I really think are baller are the guy who just has the flip phone.

And again, that’s who we were twenty years ago. We all were that. We all were that person. I think you’ve got to really ask yourself if all this is making you happy. And if it’s not, then you can do something about that, too. 

AZ: Now that we’re on the topic of defining things, how do you define fashion?

JK: Fashion? I don’t know. I find the word fashion to really, sort of, hit a little gag reflex on me. I’ve never really been comfortable being put in this box with that word. I feel like when I think of the word fashion, I think of a circus… At the beginning of the week I always pop on Vogue.com. And I’ll just peek at a couple of things. And I’m like, “Wow, that is just ridiculous. What is that? Who wears that?” It’s like a circus.

I don’t really feel like what I do has anything to do with that. What I do is make a couple of useful items that people put on their bodies and wear throughout the day. And that’s what I do. I don’t feel that the word fashion applies to me, even though I, personally, love to dress in a way that makes me look and feel a certain way. I love putting together the aesthetics of an outfit. I love that. Or I love the moments where, because I don’t have a brick-and-mortar and I don’t have a place for people to come try things on where I get to … but if, for some reason, somebody is in town and they’re like, “Hey, can I come to the studio?” and I actually get to help them, it is just such a joy for me, to get the button just right, and straighten it, and tuck it, and… “Oh, you know what you need, you need a tie.”

And just to put that all together, it’s really satisfying. I imagine it’s like a baker who’s putting the hash marks in the bread or whatever— getting it just so. That’s really satisfying for me. But that’s not really what I get to do, right? Because I make this thing, and I send it in the world, and then people do with it whatever they want. And that’s not necessarily always my way.

AZ: But you imagine, you have this sort of programmatic imagination of what people are going to do with your clothing. You have a sense of how people are going to use it, and it’s almost like you’re building their baseline.

JK: Yeah.

AZ: It starts here, and this is how it functions.

JK: Right. And these are the basic building blocks, and then you take it and do whatever you want with it from there. I would feel more comfortable if you got your button-down at the vintage shop than at the fast-fashion store. But that’s fine. You can tag me in there with your—

AZ: Yeah, but the idea is that you are … On the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog, which we mentioned before, is “tools for living.” You’re kind of making garments for living.

JK: Yeah. Hopefully, you can live in them for a really long time. That’s the goal, you know?

AZ: I think people will. Thank you for coming on.

JK: Thank you for having me on, Andrew.

AZ: This was a great conversation.

This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Sept. 12, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.