In Conversation With Emma Kempton
What made you decide to start a brand?
I have always worked in the arts, both in fashion as well as in theatre as a costume designer, costumier and performance artist. When I was living in Italy it was a natural process, after some time out having children. I just started designing and met a maker who could work with me, found a beautiful fabric shop and one thing led to another. It all had to fit in around my children, so I decided to start a slow fashion label so I could retain control over it and have time to enjoy the design process in my studio.
Does your brand have a message?
Yes it’s about natural beauty and style - how true radiance comes from within. It’s about breathing out and being you, rather than breathing in and trying to be something. So it’s classical style in luxurious fabrics such as silk velvet & cashmere, that is easy to wear for all lifestyles - for the independent woman who may flit between country and city. Having said that, it also is very individual, it blends classic with contemporary and has a bit of subtle ‘bling’ woven into the classicism - for example a soft chocolate cashmere may have gold panelled shoulders. The colours tend to be chocolates, leopards, camels and gold.
What or who are your influences?
Contemporary art (my husband is a conceptual artist) as well as renaissance art. Having lived in Italy, it’s hard not to be influenced by the surrounding art & architecture. I collect postcards of the Madonna - irrespective of any religion, for me she represents the essence of woman and in the annunciation I see a metaphor for all women who live their destiny by being their true self. The colour palettes of these paintings influence my design, as well as the smells, and light in Tuscan hills.
Literature influences me (my degree in the early nineties was in European Studies - Literature & Philosophy) - I just finished reading a biography about Frida Khalo, & over the past year I read numerous works of fiction including Flaubert, Tolstoy, Ferrante, Daudet’s Artists Wives, and some Scott Fitzgerald short stories.
In the fashion world I love labels such as Hillier Bartley, Celine, Mother of Pearl; as well as stores like Bimba & Lola, and lesser known designers such as Ganni and Magda Butrym.
What is the biggest lesson that you have learned since you started your brand?
Go slow, keep it simple, only go to the best even if they are more expensive.
What advice/warnings would you give someone looking to start their own brand?
Visit manufacturers, go with professionals, put time into finding the right ones. Always meet people before working with them. Grow slow so you can grow with the brand, there is no rush. Keep collections small initially - it’s so easy to get carried away with more & more ideas. Be careful with money - for example, sideline fashion shows & shops that contact you to show you but want lots of money in return.
How would you say the fashion/retail climate has changed since you started your brand? Is the change for the better or worse?
The brand only launched in Feb 2016. But when I was working in fashion in the nineties it was very different as it was pre digital age. We now have instant fashion. Interactive magazines and the way of buying is changing all the time. Anything you want, you can have at the push of a button. That didn’t exist - I was reliant on shops stocking my items in physical stores and buying was different. You don’t need to ever leave your home to design, make & sell and buy. For me this is dangerous as I live in Devon - before the digital age that would have been impossible.
...So much has happened with the digital age that this is really an essay question. Overall, it’s great that there are more opportunities and that anyone can now invent themselves as a fashionista - bloggers are a new thing for me still. It means that people have the chance to express and experiment with their creativity and flare in ways that were not accessible to the average youth which is a great thing and enable one to grow and know oneself. It also means there is more support for emerging designers like me, and for people to buy off emerging designers online - which is the best way to buy as you support new designers and get something unique.
However it also means there is a lot of dross - sorry but it has to be said. There are hundreds and hundreds of wannabe kids starstruck by each other dressed in crazy gear, paying out to lead pretend lives. I want to tell them that beauty comes from inner confidence and inner security, you will never find it without. The industry feeds this narcissistic insecure desperation to be something hidden behind a facade - thin, sexy, funky, cool, the best. There are wonderful creative beautiful people but the industry also sad, nasty and I pity many people in it. I am always pleased to run for the hills of Tuscany or Devon after a fashion event. This has always been the case with fashion but even more so now it is so accessible to young people who may not have influences and guidance they need in an often soul-less throw away hungry culture that is, let’s face it, based on workers often living terrible lives in poorer countries. No one wants to face that, but we have to, every time we buy from a shop that uses mass sweatshop manufacturing this is the reality.
When I was first working in fashion the in early nineties, organic fashion meant hippy hemp. There was no ethical fashion area at fashion week, nor at the fabric show premier vision and when I enquired about the possibility of this, explaining my company was an ethical one, they responded to me as if I was really strange. I think my label was one of the very first sustainable ethical ones (I ran it for 2 years then moved into costume design). It has come a long way since then and today that many are making a huge difference - it is becoming normal to be ethical - designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney, Edun have lead the way, as well as pioneers like Livia Firth, organisations such as Fashion Revolution; leading to stores from Selfridges to Asos & Fatface catching on.
It is important though that we think about what ethical fashion means - rather than it becoming a catch all term used for commercial & publicity reasons. Just because someone says it is ‘ethical’ or green doesn’t necessarily mean it is and we must ask how and why. We may buy something because it says ‘fair trade’ or add fair trade onto our clothing label - but the fair trade standards involved may not really mean fair trade in a complex world. Likewise just because something isn’t labelled far trade doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t. It is important people ‘read the ingredients' and in this way we take power into our own hands, really thinking deeper and “being the change you wish to see in the world”... if you’re reading this, google ‘ethical fashion designers’ and ‘emerging fashion designers’ and start buying from them!
What is your life motto?
Life is a spiritual journey and not a commercial one, so live it with truth.