Jessica Taft Langdon, founder of shoe line the Palatines, is not only a designer, but an expert in her field. Armed with years of experience designing shoes for everyone from Proenza Schouler to Vera Wang – she moved to LA a few years ago with the phone number of a bespoke shoemaker and dreams to manufacture only in LA – this came true. Langdon is now in her fourth season and her shoes keep getting better. Truly a unique design she has created for the Palatines for its signature look.
You have extensive footwear experience – how did the culmination of the years working with other brands developing their footwear inform the direction of The Palatines?
It’s funny – I’ve literally worked on every kind of product that could possibly be called fashion footwear – from Simply Vera Vera Wang for Kohls to runway shoes for Proenza Schouler. When I was working in NYC, I was lucky enough not to get pigeon-holed into being a “luxury” designer or one that specialized in making something as cheaply as possible. So, I had the opportunity to do everything! That diversity was really important to learning what makes a quality product, and what drives up price, when you’re designing the shoes. My experience designing for other brands gave me a great understanding of different ways to design and manufacture footwear, which I draw from daily.
However, when I started actually working on the first collection for the Palatines, I really had to take off my designer-for-hire hat. When you’re designing for someone else’s vision, it’s very different from trying to define what your own aesthetic is. I had gotten quite good at listening and understanding what a creative director or brand manager was looking for. When I first started sketching for myself, it was a little bit intimidating – I didn’t have anyone to answer to. But, ultimately, it did come back to that foundation of creating a high quality product without completely breaking the bank.
When did you launch the brand?
The first two seasons that I was designing under the Palatines name, it was as an exclusive collaboration with the terrific & influential LA retailer, Weltenbuerger, for Spring & Fall ’13. For Spring ’14, I found a material that I was just dying to use, and it wasn’t quite right for the collaboration. So, I just decided to do a small collection on my own, so that I could use it.
How’s it going?
It’s a dream! But it’s the hardest damned dream I’ve ever had come true. Because I had worked in the industry for a long time, I might have had a little bit of hubris about being able to handle all of the different roles that an entrepreneur has to step into. I’d worked with some of the best people in the industry who had sales, marketing, production management, logistics and accounting as their responsibilities. I always tried to understand their roles, in order to be a good partner in a work environment, and when I started my own business, I was really pleased to find that I had learned a bit about what they were doing, so that I could implement it on my own. Very quickly, though, I realized that I hadn’t learned nearly enough from them, and that I am not an expert in all of those areas. Fortunately, many former co-workers are still friends, and have been generous with help and advice.
I’ve also been really lucky to fall into a great group of like-minded folks, now that I live in LA. From Bryan Sanderson, the owner of Weltenbeurger to fantastic photographers and stylists who make my shoes look so great in editorial pieces and lookbooks, and fellow designers to swap advice with, I feel very fortunate to have a lot of great support.
You made the move out West due to lack of footwear craftspeople and factories in NYC – can you tell us about this process?
I wish that I could say it was well-thought out. It’s true – while I was working with factories in both Europe and Asia for other designers in NYC, I started to really think about the idea that shoes could be made in the States. It was right around the beginning of the recession, and President Obama was talking a lot about bringing manufacturing back here. I started to look around the east coast for a factory that might still exist, from a previous era where leather goods were manufactured in & around NYC, but even more in New England. There weren’t any. Around the same time, my husband and I were spending more & more time in LA, because of his job, and were really kind of falling in love with it. During one trip, I decided to really do as much research as possible into what it might be like to live here. I spent a lot of time in neighborhoods like Silver Lake, Echo Park & Angeleno Heights. One afternoon, I happened to be in a great store called Iko Iko. When I entered, the owner, Kristin was just starting up a conversation with designer Jasmin Shokrian, who had moved back to LA from Chicago. Somehow, I mentioned to them that I was considering moving, and asked if they had any idea about what kind of manufacturing was available for shoes. Kristin gave me the phone number of a guy who makes beautiful bespoke shoes, and Jasmin was really encouraging about starting one’s own business here. Serendipitously, we were able to make the move out here soon after. I started by calling that one bespoke shoemaker, who gave me a list of other people to talk to, and I just started introducing myself to the owners of the few small factories that are in the Southern California area. Once they realized that I really did understand the complexity and technicality of making shoes, I was able to form trusting relationships with many of them. I have been so surprised and impressed with what they can do. There are fewer resources for footwear makers here in the US, compared to Europe and China, specifically. That part can be really challenging. But the artisans I work with are pros. They know their craft.
Is this one of the many reasons the design culture in LA has gotten so robust?
Yes, manufacturing is a big part. I think the three main factors are – manufacturing, available space & weather, three things that are cheap and reliable, when compared to a place like NYC!
What is the LA fashion scene doing right that New York could learn from?
Oh man, after three years here, this is something that I am still discovering. I think the main thing is the idea of collaboration, and the idea that there’s enough success for everyone…and maybe the idea that if one idea doesn’t work out, you can always start with another one. LA is the city of self-reinvention. But again, we are so lucky here that affordable space is available, and we don’t get rained or snowed on every time we go out to do an errand for half the year. Another thing that I’ve been really influenced by, here in LA, is the idea that people are working in fashion, but don’t really think of themselves as designers. There are quite a lot of people that are artists first, and think of their product as a development of their artistic work. They don’t get too concerned about seasonality, or the idea that every idea has to be commercially viable. That was mind-blowing for me. I am still getting used to the idea that I can do some things with the brand, simply because of their emotional, creative or experiential value, without having to justify it as being brand-building or contributing to my bottom line.
Do you still consult for other brands?
I do! And I really enjoy it. I specialize in helping brands make shoes domestically. It’s quite a different process than working with overseas factories, so it’s really gratifying to help brands make that transition, and it’s a great feeling to bring more business to the factories that I’m not currently working with for the Palatines.
Is it tough to give a good idea to another brand?
So far, I haven’t really been approached by any brands whose aesthetic is close enough to mine for that to be a problem. Brand building is such a specific art – for the Palatines, it’s very personal. No one will approach designing product and building a collection quite like I do, so I don’t worry too much about which ideas come to me for which project. Even when consulting, the ideas come from the direction of conversations with the brand, or from the product that they’re already creating. So, I can just stay focused on being true to that brand and then wiping all of that aside, when I am working on the Palatines.
What’s your design/life balance?
Because I am designing for both my own brand, and sometimes for others, my design brain gets tired. I need to give it a rest. The bad news is that I’ve found that doing all of the administrative work behind running a brand is actually the opposite of designing, and sometimes I allow that part of my life to be the “rest”. So, you won’t find me running into the studio to sketch an idea when I’m making dinner, but you might find me shooting off an email that I probably should have sent a few hours before. I’ve been designing for so much longer than I’ve been running my own company – the design process is really well integrated into my life. I’m focusing more on how to quiet my business-brain and actually just relax and not be productive at all for some amount of time, each day. (I have a long way to go.)
How do you re-charge?
One of the most surprising discoveries upon moving to LA is that I’ve re-found my love of dance! I grew up studying ballet very seriously, and when I quit, as an adolescent, I gave it up, full stop. It hadn’t occurred to me to step into a studio in years. But multiple people recommended taking classes at the Sweat Spot, and I finally decided to check it out. It’s become a refuge for me – it’s a great way to turn off all the parts of my brain, and just focus on my body and emotions. I absolutely couldn’t be doing what I’m doing professionally, without going to at least 2-3 classes a week. I don’t take very many ballet classes – mostly jazz and contemporary, but occasionally I do a pirouette or two. It’s a pretty good way to remain humble – to try and do something at which you excelled, when you were 13!