Out Of Office: Kansas City with Tara Light

Sometime in April while tossing around the idea of starting this site, I decided on a whim to fly out to Missouri for a last minute trunk show at Tara Light’s beautiful boutique (and consequently to crash at her beautiful home/studio). Fable is located in the heart of Kansas City, and though I have to admit I was expecting endless grassy plains and not much else, what I found was one of the most vibrant, friendly, and quickly developing cities I’ve ever visited in the United States. Between the beautiful design district and endless barbecue…it was as if I’d been transported to midwestern paradise. More coming later on the trip…but for now meet Tara and prepare to be charmed.

Q / Hi Tara! Hope you’re having a good day! How do you usually begin your mornings?
A / I love starting my day with a run, walk, or bike ride to a local coffee shop. Starting my morning doing something active sets the tone for the remainder of the day.

Q / Do you have a daily uniform?
A / In the summer, I wear a lot of easy dresses, particularly the Hollis Dress from my line; just super loose, breathable, and allows me move freely. During the winter, I almost exclusively wear a grey cashmere sweater with a skirt or pants. But really, my grey cashmere sweater…

Q / Is there anything you carry with you every day? If so, why is it important to you?
A / I have three pieces of jewelry that I NEVER take off. My tiny, perfect Catbird engagement ring (worn on my right ring finger), my wedding band (duh!), and the Elsa Peretti necklace my father gave to me literally seconds before we walked down the aisle. They’re constant reminders of these two great men who have supported and loved me unconditionally. These pieces remind me to make them proud.

Q / Do you find lists helpful? How do you keep yourself organized with all the projects you have going on?
A / I am the QUEEN of to-do lists. I usually have three concurrent ones: Fable, House, and Personal. If I don’t have a list with easily accomplishable tasks, I can get overwhelmed pretty quickly. Writing all my tasks down clears my head for creative thinking and problem solving.

Q / What do you like most about owning a store? What is the most challenging thing about it?
A / I love curating a unique space that not only I want to spend an entire day in, but that people look forward to coming into and exploring. The most challenging aspect is definitely navigating all the nitty gritty of owning a growing small business (tax laws changing, insurance, employee guidelines). There’s no clear cut guideline for when you need to file certain claims and pay different taxes, so it can be completely overwhelming trying to stay on top of that.

Q / How would you say your environment affects the quality and kind of pieces you produce? You spend a lot of time in your store but also design your collection in your studio.
A / I feel really lucky in that as soon as I design and produce something, it gets brought to the floor of the shop for immediate feedback. I don’t have to wait months and months to see the response to a certain color or cut. I usually know within a couple of days if a piece is worth continuing to produce. This is such an awesome benefit of working on such a small scale. I have the ability to experiment and test the waters without fear of losing an obscene amount of time or money.

Q / Is there a place or time of day that allows you to feel most productive?
A / I feel most productive early in the morning, for sure. If I can get up, get coffee, and get to the studio or store, the next few hours are almost guaranteed to be fruitful. After lunch, however, I really slow down and want nothing more than a nap. I really struggle to make my time between 1-4pm valuable, so that time is usually set aside for napping/reading (on days I’m not in the shop) or emailing (during downtime at the shop).

Q / Where do you go to be quiet and think?
A / Our bedroom. It’s the most serene place: all white bedding, two heirloom wooden dressers, and a smattering of plants. When I’m stuck creatively, emotionally, whatever…I like to go in there and close my eyes. More often than not, right before I fall asleep I see the solution.

Q / What is your favorite way to disconnect and relax?
A / A night at home with my husband is my choice 9 times out of 10. I’m a complete homebody, so after working at the shop all day and being in the public sphere, it’s heaven to come home, put on an oversized t-shirt, and make the two of us dinner while sharing a craft beer. After dinner, we’ll usually watch a movie together (I’m trying to push myself and watch more Criterion Collection at my husband’s behest) or have a TV show marathon. Even though my choice of career points to otherwise, I’m a total introvert. I need lots of quiet alone time to function properly.

Q / What was the last adventure you went on? Did it inspire your work in any way?
A / In January, my husband and I went on a cross-country trip to Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. We have this big, old van (gifted to us by my in-laws when they upgraded their vehicles) and it’s large enough to fit a full-size mattress in the back. We drove from campsite to campsite just hiking, cooking food over a fire, and sleeping in that van. I love going on trips like that because it’s actually so different from my work. No computer, limited phone use, no sewing machines, no nothing. Just me, my man, and my hiking boots. That’s not to say colors, shapes, etc don’t reveal themselves on these adventures and find their way into the next collection, but I never really see that as the gift of the trip. The gift is returning home ready to get back to work, period.

Q / You grew up in Missouri about three hours from your current home in Kansas City. What led you to move and how is it different working here than where you grew up?
A / I came to Kansas City because I received a full scholarship to the University of Missouri – Kansas City. Growing up, I was always desperate to leave my hometown and move to a “big city.” I never really felt like I completely fit in where I was raised, so moving here ten years ago was a non-question. Designing and making garments would simply not be a viable career option where I grew up.

Q / What would be your ideal work day?
A / I’m insanely lucky that every day is pretty much my ideal work day in that I’m in charge of my time and how I spend it. Unless I’m up against a client deadline, I get to decide if I’m in the mood to work in my studio cutting patterns, finishing garments or if the day feels more like a day for sifting through e-mails and general housekeeping. All that said, the ideal work day would consist of me working in my home studio. It’s really freeing to be able to look like hell, not wear any pants, and snack on a burrito all while draping fabric and sketching new ideas. My husband also works from home, and it’s pretty sweet when both of us are in our offices chugging away, but can pop in to problem solve or distract when needed.

Q / How did your parents feel about your career path? Does anyone in your family work in the same industry?
A / No one in my family has ever worked in fashion, design, or beauty; it was never really discussed as an option growing up. I would beg my dad to buy me Teen Vogue, Seventeen, etc., and he would oblige, but even I thought that working in the fashion industry was something that didn’t happen for people like me. It was just total escapism. It wasn’t until I worked a handful of retail jobs during college that I began to see how I could spin my love of clothes into an actual full-fledged career. Of course my dad was nervous about it, but he had always encouraged me to be my own boss, and we both saw this as my opportunity to do just that. Now his Facebook page is loaded with regrams of photos from my shows and events. It’s pretty cute.

Q / Did you ever work as an assistant or apprentice?
A / Not really. I worked at Standard Style for a few years and while there learned so, so much about running a shop and fashion line, in general. But in terms of having a mentor or being someone’s apprentice, no, that never happened. Part of that being that no one in Kansas City was doing what I wanted to do in fashion.

Q / What’s the worst job you’ve ever had? The funniest?
A / Right out of college, I was getting a lot of pressure to “get a real job” and of course, this being the middle of the economic crash around 2010, there was more or less nothing to be found in that department. Luckily, I had an acquaintance who loved her job at a propane supplier (I know, right?) and said she could get me in at the company. I’m still not even sure what my job accomplished, but me and three others would take these big stacks of paper that detailed the where/when/how of propane deliveries and find that report in our in-house database and confirm all the details were accurate. Then I would put a red checkmark on the piece of paper and file it away. It was the most tedious, mind-numbing job of my entire life. I spent the majority of my time chatting online with my boyfriend. When I was brought in after two weeks to discuss my poor job performance (and superb boyfriend chatting performance), I quit. As I was packing up my desk, one of the other girls told me they were going to fire me anyway. Ha!

Q / Do you have anyone who works with you now? In what capacity?
A / Yes! My righthand woman is Jessica. I brought her on in April as a production assistant, meaning she’s learning how to do everything on the manufacturing side of Fable. She cuts patterns, serges, and stitches. It’s been such a learning experience teaching someone else your skill. It really forces your to evaluate why you do things a certain way as well as nail down specifics.

Q / Are there any specific references that inspire you?
A / Right now I’m finding myself in this very Little House on the Prairie mode in terms of silhouettes, colors, and mood.

Q / Do you keep any collections?
A / I’m not one for trinkets or miscellaneous items so much; they take up too much physical and emotional real estate.

Q / How would you define your work?
A / I run a studio and shop that culminates in an elegant synthesis of form and function. The shop’s inception arose from a desire to create an environment where fashion-forward meets timelessness, nostalgia meets modernity, and sentimentality and practicality exist simultaneously.

Q / Do you have a system for creating?
A / It’s a fairly organic process. After I ruminate on something for awhile, I just kind of go for it in terms of drafting a pattern and sewing it together. Often, I don’t even do a muslin first because I’m too excited to get to the real thing.

Q / How do you find that living in Kansas City affects the way you show your work?
A / I’ve never shown my work outside of Kansas City, but I would assume that showing in NY or LA would require more pomp and circumstance on my part. I’ve done a few presentations and shows here, but in general, presenting in that way doesn’t really excite me. Of course it’s going to look and feel beautiful in this fabricated setting! I’m more curious and excited about releasing it in the shop with drinks and music and having real women come in and try it on and tell me how it really is. Plus, I always feel so deflated after a presentation. You do months and months of work, and then this show is over after a handful of minutes. I always just feel empty and disappointed…

Q / Social media plays such a huge part in the fashion world. Does it play a big part in your business?
A / Definitely. Much of our interaction with the public outside of the physical shop is through social media. Obviously, it’s the fastest and easiest way to share what you’ve been working on and what’s next. It’s also a fantastic way to gauge interest in a particular product or project. Plus, you’re often able to create a mood and identity through photos on Facebook or Instagram in a way that your website isn’t able to.

Q / Is there anything you find problematic about it?
A / It can be tricky to be genuine on social media. You always want to put your best face forward, but I think we’ve reached this moment where we’re all trying so hard to orchestrate this perfect moment for the primary purpose of photographing it. I guess in that way, it’s problematic that people can get a false sense of your life or business. That said, am I about to start posting pictures of myself crying over tax forms because I can’t figure out tax liabilities? No, no one wants to see that…

Q / Has the internet changed the way you work?
A / Of course! Although I never really had to work without the internet, I can say that my work has been made so much easier through its existence. Even apart from the inspiration gleaned from fashion sites and Pinterest, it’s a fabulous tool when you spur-of-the-moment decide you want to make a welt pocket or execute flawless shirring.

Q / Do you use the internet on vacation or do you prefer to completely disconnect?
A / I prefer to completely disconnect, but I’ll definitely bring out my phone to find the best restaurants, coffee, and shops in an unknown city.

Q / Is there anything in particular that you do to take care of yourself and relax?
A / In the last year or so, I’ve been getting more and more into a beauty/skincare routine. Ending the day with a salt soak in the tub or a long hot shower with a salt scrub is pretty intoxicating. Then slathering beautiful oils and salves on my legs, bust, face, etc. makes me feel like I’m rewarding this awesome body that carried me through the day.

Q / How does designing and running the shop affect the rest of your life?
A / It’s really just one big work/life blend. Designing and manufacturing our in-house line in addition to running the shop means there’s no real separation between a personal life and work life, and I’m completely fine with that. I didn’t sign up for a job where when I close the shop at the end of the day, I get to check out. More than anything, my career being so wrapped up in my personal life pushes me to make the studio and shop that much more beautiful, relaxing, and inspiring.

Q / What is your first memory of work? Of success? Of failure?
A / The first time I really ever made anything and saw it to fruition was my senior year of university. I studied English, but one of my professors gave us the option to do an alternate final. I chose to make these pieces inspired by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They were these really awful, heavy black and grey pieces that transformed from “good” to “evil.” Even at the time, I knew they were pretty terrible, but I was so proud that I had actually made something! I still look fondly back at the handful of nights I stayed up to the wee hours of the morning during finals week trying to teach myself how to sew. All that said, I think as soon as my class presentation was over, I dumped them in the trash can. Whoops.

Q / Do you ever collaborate with other artists or brands?
A / I haven’t quite gotten to that point yet; I have enough on my plate keeping up with the Fable line, but it is definitely on the longterm goal list. When the right collaboration opportunity arises, I’ll know it.

Q / What makes you most excited about your work? What gives you the most anxiety?
A / The simple fact that I get to work with my hands is the best to me. I’m definitely a tactile person and feel most accomplished when I can hold a tangible item at the end of a work day. I think most of my work-related anxiety stems from the simple fact that this is more-or-less a one woman show. If I don’t get something marked off the ever-growing to-do list, no one else is there to accomplish it or even tell me that it needs to get done. Sometimes that’s a lot of weight to carry on your shoulders. For better or for worse, the state of your company is entirely up to you.

Q / What has been your proudest career moment thus far?
A / Making garments that people truly bring into the fold of their lives never ceases to make my heart flutter. When I see someone out and about to dinner or at a party wearing something I made with my own two hands, that’s pretty special. Recently, someone tagged me in a photo of her friend’s where said friend was wearing one of my dresses in some far off European castle! I’m insanely proud that my garments get to go off and live adventure filled lives.

Q / Are there any particular projects or adventures you’re looking forward to this year?
A / Making my production assistant an even bigger part of my company is a huge goal for this year. Teaching her the ins and outs of each pattern, the tricks that go along with manipulating certain fabrics, and the nitty gritty of running a studio and shop is far more time and labor intensive than I thought. But as soon as we’re in a more productive flow, we’re going to start pursuing wholesale accounts…

Fable is open every Tuesday-Saturday from 12-7pm at 1515 Walnut Street in Kansas City, Missouri.

Interview & Photography
Catherine Litke

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