It was under the pastel sun of Los Angeles that Jessica Taft Langdon had decided to launch and produce her shoe brand, The Palatines, four years ago. With quality design at the forefront, she instinctively incorporated a sustainable and local approach to her business; a kind of engagement she hopes won’t be considered as uncommon in fashion anymore. We met her to talk about design, collaboration and her creative rituals.
Can you tell a bit about where you grew up?
As a kid I grew up in the Philadelphia area and I come from a pretty artistic family, which definitely had some influence on my ability to think about having a creative career. My parents where sort of hippies so for most of my life the idea of fashion in the way that we think about it with a capital F was not really something that my family was super interested in or supportive of. So that was a kind of shift when I started thinking about it as a career – but they’ve been incredibly supportive and helpful since I’ve been working.
What do you think influenced you the most in the way you grew up, to launch a fashion brand?
I didn’t know this or think about it when I did the The Palatines but one of my biggest influences in my childhood was ballet. I studied ballet really seriously as a child from the age of 5 to 16 or 17. I learned so much in terms of discipline and hard work and getting feedback and having a little bit of a tough skin in terms of critique. But I also learn to work hard and be expressive at the same time – to be technical and very focused but also very creative and expressive at the same time. I also thought a lot as a ballet dancer about what the foot looks like and the line of the foot, consequently that sort of classical aesthetic of the foot is really what drives my shoe design.
Was sustainability a big part of your early life?
It wasn’t a huge thing but it came pretty naturally. I was something that my dad was particularly focused on, neither of my parents are big consumers and we definitely grew up thinking about conserving resources. There was a bit of attention to recycling and I think that when I was a kid there was fewer resources for working parents it was a little harder to make that a thing of focus. Whereas there’s more possibility to do so now which is a positive change.
You’ve worked for big fashion names, such as Alexander Wang, Coach and Proenza Schouler. What are the most important things you’ve learned from your experience with those brands?
Coach was my very first job working on products and I was really lucky because Coach works with amazing factories around the world and they have amazing relationships with them. I learned to think of factories as partners as opposed to somebody who is working at the service of product designers and developers. Coach really expected all of those communications and relationships to be really equal and respectful and honoured that technical side and the production side of things. When I talk about sustainability and the focus of the Palatines it’s very much about the human relationships and making sure that what we are doing is a real collaboration and that everybody who is involved both feels and sees that their contribution is valuable. Kind of similarly when I was working for Proenza Schouler, I was so impressed with their ability to know what their skills and their expertise were and to really trust the people who were working for them to support them with their own expertise. When they asked for something that couldn’t be done they were quite respectful of the craft of shoe making and they were also just so creative that anything that was prohibitive or difficult to do they were able to come up with, suggest or agree to new ideas to get what we were trying to achieve.
Proximity seems to be a key engagement for you, also in the way you have your products made…
There’s many reasons why I decided to produce in the US. I think particularly the brands that you mention all work in overseas factories and all of those factories are impeccable and filled with talented people and are very technically savvy and terrific factories. So at that level I don’t have a problem with producing shoes in China or anywhere else, but I did start to wonder particularly with some of my last jobs where I was working a lot for a more commercial brands, at lower price plants in China, and I just realised how much control those factories and factory owners have about what is available on the market here in the US. I remember having to fight to have some of my designs done. So that was the original inspiration: a shorter product lifecycle. Something that was more immediate and used fewer hands and, on the decision-making, fewer cooks in the kitchen. And anything that is a more efficient process is a more sustainable process. Everything is closer – we are using much fewer resources. Going out and meeting the factories that were still here in the United States was actually really inspiring towards that relationship.
So it’s more about collaborating than delegating…
Absolutely, delegating and also being delegated to! There’s a sample maker that I am working with closely now who has real opinions, thoughts and feelings on what the shoes should look like and we have a very comfortable relationship. The people I work with are really invested in my business – they are always on the lookout for ways to make the shoes more efficiently or are a little bit more conscious of the price – so they really play a really big role.
There’s something very pure about your designs – do you think this simplicity can also be a factor for long lasting design and change our relations to temporality?
I think it can. I’m a Gemini so I’m a little wit on two sides of things. I’m a designer so I’m always excited about new ideas, what new technique we can try and innovation. At the same time, I am really interested in creating shoes that are of our time. I don’t want them to feel so classic that they are timeless. I definitely want the shoes to feel modern and not too much of a vintage reference. But I don’t want them to be so tied to a particular trend that you wouldn’t want to put them in the back of your closet for a couple of years and pull them out again. So all of the shoes I design have to fall well within the range of what we would call pretty classic styles.
Can you sense a growth in the demand for sustainable fashion?
When I first started my business it’s always been important for me that people understand the sustainability and the manufacturing practices that I believe in. At the same time, it has always been really important that the shoes stand up. I’ve always kept the ideals of the brand as the second thing I like to talk about and I think yet, when I was new it was what people were most interested in. ‘Oh that’s so cool, or that’s so unusual that they are made here and that there’s small production runs and all those sorts of things.’ Where as now, I think it has really become the second priority – it certainly has been something quite meaningful for them and that’s definitely true of my direct customers. For almost everybody that is wearing Palatine shoes, it’s definitely a big factor, but I think over the few years that I’ve been in business, they are now buying more for the aesthetic and less for the mission side of things. Which I think is a really strong vote toward sustainability as it means that sustainable brands are not being thought of as separate from fashion in general. A lot of brands that we originally thought of as ‘sustainable’ or ‘mission driven’ brands are really just brands now with a different story.
LA seems to be a leading city in terms of Eco thinking and local production – and I wanted to know how you perceive this emulation?
I’m not originally from here and it’s been so overwhelmingly positive to live in this state that really makes a commitment to sustainability and resource management. But living here and being an entrepreneur here, the fact that the state has done so much to that end makes my life so much easier to be able to manage my own resources in a safe and reasonable way. So regardless of what industry you are in California, we get a lot of support and really helpful guidelines and resources, which is great. Local production is really growing here. When I got here and was told that there had been some footwear factories in the area, I went around and I introduced myself to most of the smaller ones and was really surprised to find that they were definitely in a very contracting philosophy about their businesses. When I approached factories about the kind of shoes I wanted to do, some of them were not so sure that it made sense to invest in the extra resources they would need to make them. The first factory that I worked with was very small and together we built the core of the Palatines aesthetic based on what they could do. It’s been so gratifying to start with them and then be able to branch out into a couple of other factories and show them what we were doing and that it could work. The factory that I work with predominantly right now is more of a medium sized factory and it’s been really great to see them investing in machinery and infrastructure.
What are your rituals when you create?
I need music and a scented candle in the studio. I can’t sketch without those two things.