Welcome to our new column, Botanica World, in which we interview our favorite creative women about inspiration, sustainability, business, and social distancing for public health.
The objective of this series is to bring some positive content to the social media space.
Artists and creators have always persevered and thrived even in times of adversity, and we wanted to check in with our community to share experiences- we are all in this together.
Jessica Taft Langdon, Footwear Designer & Consultant
The Company of Strangers, Los Angeles
In this article, Jessica wears Kaja Rib Dress in Petal.
Where have you found inspiration in 2020?
I’m a really social person, by nature, so the process of staying home seemed like it was going to be a huge challenge, and at first, I found it really did disrupt my professional creativity. I had a very hard time letting my mind relax enough to find the playful side of my work, designing shoes.
But personally, I also do find a lot of freedom and creativity/ expression in the way I dress. I found that that side of my creative brain quickly flourished during quarantine, and without the expectations of social engagement or the need for specific practicality, I really started dressing for me, and for fun, and for inspiration!
It didn’t take long for me to channel that fun into the sketching and design work I do, and because there’s no too much else to distract me these days, I’m really enjoying getting back to the fundamentals of my job, and just enjoy the fun of thinking and developing ideas for new styles.
* I’m just realizing that I barely remember what happened in 2020 before this pandemic. I just looked back at my calendar, it’s so strange to see evidence of what “normal” used to look like.
What does sustainability mean to you or your business? What systems have you implemented to prioritize sustainability?
I ran my own footwear brand for about five years, and sustainability played a big part of that work, developing shoes with only bi-product and deadstock leathers, and working with domestic factories for production.
Now that I work as a consultant for other brands, it’s not me who makes the final decision on some of these issues, so that’s been a big shift for me in the past year or so. However, because I built a reputation as someone who wants to create more sustainability practice into the work of developing shoes, most of the clients who are inclined to work with me have an approach that is similar to mine – we make good quality shoes with natural materials, in traditional ways that support the communities where the shoes are made. I feel really lucky that the clients who want to work with me want to work in that way.
Recently, though, I’ve really been thinking a lot about the fact that increased efficiency in the fashion industry in general is something that we need to focus more on, and be ruthless about. There is so much redundancy in our industry, whether we are looking at simply the number of brands out there making similar products, the number of custom materials that are developed by brands each season, or the excess of both material and product beyond the consumer need. While working with clients, I can’t always affect changes in all of these area, but the truth is that making efficient choices is also usually the most financially responsible as well. Most of my clients are small businesses, where the owners are wearing a lot of hats. It’s really nice to play a role where I can take the time to do the research that they can’t, and present them with options that are usually best, both for the health of their businesses, and for the planet.
Who are the women in your community that inspire you? Do you have a mentor?
I have never had a professional mentor – there aren’t a ton of women who have had the type of career that I have. The footwear industry was very male dominated until surprisingly recently.
But there are so many women in my life that inspire me – starting with the first one, my mother, who was extremely career focused, in her job in the healthcare, and who really made her way in an industry did not have leadership roles for women until she (and others) carved them out for herself. Simply growing up watching her navigate that, and also stay true to herself was a tremendous inspiration, truly from day one.
Although there’s a stereotype that belies this, I have also found the women that I’ve worked with in the fashion industry to be hugely inspiring, and I learned from so many senior designers and creative directors in my first jobs, as I was navigating my way as a young designer. I think in other functions in our business, there is more cattiness, competition, etc, but truly, in the design studios that I sat in, there was almost always an amazing sense of comradery and support. Which was really necessary while working long hours for not much money!
I’m super inspired by people like Misa, and my other friends who have small brands and businesses that are growing and thriving, all while keeping their strong commitments to the ideals of sustainability and community support.
And lastly, when I’m not working on shoes, the other thing you’re most likely to find me doing is taking dance classes at the Sweat Spot studio, here in LA. The dance world is another one where participants (particularly female ones) often find a very contentious and competitive environment. The Sweat Spot was founded on the idea that anyone can express themselves through movement, regardless of training, strength, body type or age, and the dancers and teachers that I get to dance next to regularly are endlessly inspiring. I am so thankful for my communities here in LA – I’m surrounded mostly by dancers, artists and designers.
What has been your biggest challenge in your career? How did you approach it?
There have been plenty of challenges in my career – from figuring out how a person even goes about learning to design shoes, to wondering now what happens to a category of products that no one really needs, when we’re all staying inside all the time!
But, certainly, the most difficult thing that I’ve had to deal with, to date, was the decision to close my brand, the palatines. The amount of energy, time and investment that goes into getting a small brand to be a viable business is really immense, and I’m really proud of the fact that I did just that. However, it also became clear to me that after five years of giving the business all of my energy and attention, other parts of my life had really been neglected, including my family, my health and my financial security. It was also clear that none of these things were likely to change within the next couple of years.
In order to make the brand more financially viable, I’d started to look into changing some of the core values - in particular, manufacturing the shoes outside of the US. The harder I looked at that idea, the more I realized that I just couldn’t do it. It brought up way too many of the issues that I mention above – the oversaturation of brands, and the inefficiencies of shipping materials from one part of the world to another, and then finally shipping the final product to the US. There are already plenty of brands doing that exact same thing, and although it was hard, I realized that I couldn’t make the argument for why mine should be another. So, I made the really difficult decision to shut down.
For months, I was making arrangements for this, before I made it public, which was really hard, and I was really really concerned about what I might do next. Previous to starting my brand, almost all of the businesses that I worked for didn’t share my core values, and I was really concerned that, for the sake of my financial well-being, I’d have to work for brands like I had in the past. I’d also spent five years in a community of other designers and small brand owners, and I was honestly scared that I’d be giving up both the work that meant so much to me, and also the friendships that I’d built. It really felt like stepping off a cliff.
Of course, now, a year and a half after making the decision to close, none of the above has happened. The relationships I built with friends who really believed in me are intact, and in most cases, are much stronger, since at least one of us isn’t working 60+ hours a week (me!), and as I’ve explained, above, the clients that have found me have found me through the work I’d done on my own. And of course, I learned the lesson that there’s nothing more valuable than making a commitment to what you believe in. It turns out that even if it doesn’t take you where you think you want to go, it takes you where you need to be.
Society is facing an unprecedented situation with the effects of COVID-19. What have you been doing to stay grounded and mindful during these times? Do you maybe have a recipe or favorite pastime to share while we are all at home?
Although I love to eat, and do cook at home… I’ll admit, my skills are pretty basic. I am a big fan of ad-hoc clear-out-fridge pasta dinners, and the like. Really, nothing worth sharing!
A couple of quarantine pastimes, however, might be. Since we can’t go to the Sweat Spot or other dance studios at the moment, many many dance teachers are sharing classes online, mostly for free or an open donation. The owner of the Sweat Spot, Ryan Heffington has begun a dance revolution with his Instagram classes, which are really fun, and easy follow alongs. They are really, truly for everyone, and I highly recommend them to those who think they can’t dance! That has been so nice, and was an absolute lifesaver, in the early weeks. Now that more teachers are joining in, some are teaching more “serious” classes, and teaching choreography to learn in one’s bedroom. It’s actually so much harder to do! But it’s been fun, and great for a small sense of normalcy.
The other thing I’ve spent some time doing, everyday (73 days, as of today, and counting) is learning to play the ukulele, my first instrument. My husband is a talented musician and teacher, so I’ve been learning from the best, and I’m actually about to go join him so that we can record a little video of a silly little song that we wrote together. Undoubtedly, it will be posted on my Instagram, by the time this is.
Thanks to Jessica for contributing to Botanica World!
If you enjoyed this interview, please consider donating to the following charity that she has selected: