When NBC debuts its new reality competition Fashion Star on March 13, out lesbian designer Kara Laricks will be bringing her A-game. Kara went from being a fourth grade school teacher to following her dream to work in fashion, creating a line of unisex accessories called Collar, Stand + Tie. But now she’ll be competing against her peers to have her designs sold in Macy’s, H&M and Saks Fifth Avenue, and if she does hook a buyer, you’ll be able to buy her stuff in one of those stores the very next day.
We talked with Kara about her experience on the show, what celebrities she’d love to dress and how she creates looks for people of all gender expressions.
AfterEllen.com: I’m interested in your background, and journey, and what brought you to the show.
Kara Laricks: I was a fourth grade teacher for 10 years before I decided to pursue this design dream that I’ve always had. After 10 years of teaching, I eased my way out of that profession, and went back to school at the Academy of Art in San Francisco and got a masters degree in fashion design. I thought, “If I’m going to be in the fashion world, the best thing to do is to move to New York.” So, I packed up my car with my girlfriend and my dog, and we drove across the country to New York. I’ve been working my way along ever since.
When the opportunity for the show came up – I had been doing my own little accessory line for about a year – I could not pass it up. I mean, the opportunity to design without worrying about cost and production and all of that? It was a complete dream come true.
AE: It seems like people are going to compare Fashion Star with other shows like Project Runway. I just wonder what you think is aesthetically different? What drew you to this, as opposed to one of the other shows?
KL: The show is different. For Fashion Star, the main difference is that there are three retailers, Macy’s, H&M and Saks Fifth Avenue that are involved. Not only are we able to create and design each week and send our designs down the runway, we also have the rare opportunity to stand in front of these three huge retailers, [who] can bid on the designs we just sent down the runway. As an emerging designer, it’s next to impossible to get the attention of buyers this incredible, this well known. Again, I know I keep saying it, but it’s the opportunity of the lifetime. The chance of a lifetime.
AE: I was looking at your stuff. I love the unisex, the androgynous. I think that so many women, especially the readers on AfterEllen.com, they’re always looking for stuff like that. I feel like that’s going to set you apart on the show and in the fashion world. What has been the response so far, on the show and off the show from buyers? Do they think that it’s sellable stuff? What’s the impression you get?
KL: I’ve been really lucky because since starting my little line a year and a half ago, I have had the chance to sell at several local markets in New York. I’m fortunate because I’ve got an incredible audience already because so many tours come through markets, you know, buyers, other designers, tourists. I can’t tell you the incredible feeling that I have when a couple – most often a man and a woman – that come up to my table, both of them try on either a tie or a hoodie scarf and they look at each other and they’re like, “Ooh, you look foxy!” “No, you look foxy!” Yeah! That’s the goal: It can be for a man, a woman, whomever, however you identify. I love that. I’ve gotten such a great response from editors, photographers who want to photograph my ties, my scarves, etc.
My only drawback? I just haven’t been able to reach that kind of national level, or meet that buyer that sells on a national, or even worldwide, level. It’s so funny; most of my customers are European tourists or people that are kind of are in a fashion-y world, stylists or whatever. And I just want to bring what I do to the masses. So, Fashion Star was that outlet for me and that chance for me to show a wider audience what I feel the smaller audience is already loving. So, I love it.
AE: Definitely. I watched some clips of the show. Did you have a chance to work with every single one of the designers, [such as] Nicole Richie, Jessica Simpson. Or, do you only work with one of them?
KL: No, it was spectacular. I got to work with John Varvatos, Jessica Simpson, and Nicole Richie, probably in an equal amount of time. And the best thing about that was getting an incredibly different perspective from each one of the mentors. They are three very different people with three very different points of view. But they represent three huge markets of customers, so it’s really important to — even if I didn’t agree with it — really listen to their experience and what they’ve seen over the years being in the business. So, again, dream come true. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. And I did my very best to soak in whatever the three of them said.
AE: How would you describe your personal style and how it transfers into what you create for other people?
KL: My style is a kind of a modern-day Annie Hall meets Japanese street style aesthetic. I love an avant-garde look. But at the same time, I know that not all of the masses are interested in something on the edge or avant-garde, so I guess that kind of pushes me, too. So I try to think about how my designs can be very recognizable to people but [have] that little extra edge that feels special and different and unique and a little bit risky. I love that. I hope that people, from seeing what I create on the show, will take a little chance. Every day is a chance to get up, get dressed and express ourselves. Why waste one? Ya know?
AE: One thing I’ve noticed when we write about fashion stuff on AfterEllen.com is that some women who consider themselves more butch have trouble finding stuff because if they go to menswear, it doesn’t fit them right, and the women’s stuff doesn’t fit them how they want either. Do you ever create with those types of women in mind?
KL: I was hoping you would ask that question. My girlfriend is one of those people. She loves that menswear style, but men’s clothing doesn’t fit her right. She has a woman’s body. Someone asked me if I design androgynous styles. And yes, I do. But I also have to be very cognizant of the fact that a woman has a very different body then a man. So, what I really design is menswear-inspired clothing for women. So I will never put a woman in a man’s suit. But I will put a woman in a suit that is inspired by a man’s suit. I love that look.
I love a gender play; I love not being sure. I love walking down the streets of New York and when people pass me by dressed in an androgynous style, I’m not really sure what I’m looking at. Those are the kinds of things that attract my eye. That’s what I’m aiming to do. Bring a style that does look androgynous but really does fit a woman’s body.
AE: I was wondering where you shop. Obviously, because you’re more in tune with fashion, maybe you have more access to designers that the everyday person would have access to, so I was wondering where you find stuff that you like that maybe would be more accessible.
KL: Gosh. You know, it’s a mix. I shop at H&M when I need basics. I shop anywhere from H&M to Banana Republic to J. Crew, to Barney’s for that one special piece, or Saks Fifth Avenue for that one very special piece. I save my pennies in order to get that one incredibly cool, one piece that I can’t normally afford. But I love to mix that up with anything. I shop at St. Mark’s, local markets, local designers. I am always looking for that one interesting thing that I can pair with basics that people can buy anywhere.
AE: Being an out lesbian on the show — I’m assuming you’re the only one on the show. Project Runway has had a ton of gay guys but they’ve only had one out lesbian [Zulema Griffin, who has said that though she was openly gay while taping the show, producers edited out her queerness]. NBC seems to be a very forward-thinking network when it comes to these shows. The Voice always has out contestants, as opposed to something like American Idol on Fox. How was your sexuality on the show? Was it always embraced? Did you ever feel like you had to hide anything?
KL: Not for a single second. And I say that without reservation. I feel like I’m going to get teary about this. [Laughs] NBC, I felt was so respectful and honored my life, honored my story. And a big part of my story is the fact that I was relatively closeted for the 10 years that I taught fourth grade. And this is a part of my coming out to my former students, as well. I always told them that you can do whatever you want to do; you can be whoever you want to be. I always felt like I was a little bit hypocritical in holding back a portion of who I was. And it was only because I loved my job and I didn’t want to lose my job.
This is an opportunity to put my money where my mouth is and really show all of those former students that you can do it, regardless of sexual orientation. That’s just a small portion of my life. I’m a former teacher, I’m a daughter, I’m a sister, all of those other great things, in addition to being a designer and a lesbian. I really hope that my face will make it into living rooms across America as just another person who is really following her passion.
AE: Do designers get voted off? How does that work?
KL: All of the buyers have an opportunity to bid on the designs that go down the runway. So, each week, however many designers are left, that many designs go down the runway. Any designers that are not bid on have a chance to be in the bottom three. The bottom three come out, the mentors have an opportunity to save one of the bottom three; somebody they’d like to see again. And then it’s ultimately the buyers who make the decision between the last two standing, which one stays and which one goes. So, each week, a designer does go home.
AE: Is it safe to say we will see some of your designs in one of those stores? Or can’t you say?
KL: You’ll have to watch.
AE: [Laughs] OK. Got it. Is there anything you want people to know about you as they watch the show? Something you hope they will understand about you?
KL: Gosh. You know, I’m a pretty open book on the show. I think they’ll probably learn it all through watching. If I can leave just one thing: I am a person who is really following my passion. And I’ve been offered the opportunity of a lifetime, so I’m just trying to take advantage of every single minute.
AE: What does your partner do?
KL: She works at NYU in finance. Complete opposite of what I do. Thank God. I can’t imagine being with somebody like me.
AE: Exactly. That’s how I am, too. My partner is a scientist and we know nothing about the other’s work at all. It’s crazy.
KL: Yeah. It’s an interesting, different conversation when you get home at night. I don’t know about you, what you do, you’re probably exhausted from writing and writing and talking, and just want to hear about something different. That’s how I feel at the end of the day.
AE: What do you do in your free time, when you’re not doing fashion stuff?
KL: I feel so fortunate that we’ve been able to live in New York. All I really have to do is walk out my front door and there’s something going on. Whether it’s taking a Bikram yoga class or trying one of the new restaurants up and down our street, there’s always something going on here. My free time seems to be filled with design right now, but I love it. I love going to shows, I love listening to music.
AE: Is there a celebrity that you would just love to see in one of your designs?
KL: A long time ago, I sent one of my ties to Ellen. And, of course, I didn’t have any kind of contact or anything like that, so I just sent it to the “Fan P.O. Box.” I have no idea if it ever made it to her, or who opened that envelope, or if it’s still sitting in an office somewhere, or if it’s in a trash can somewhere. So, I would love to see one of my ties on Ellen.
And beyond that, I would love to dress Tilda Swinton. I love how that woman stands apart in every single crowd, and without reservation. [She has] a quiet confidence that I absolutely love. It’s a full style. It’s not just about a garment, it’s a full style. And that would be another dream come true.
AE: Tilda is amazing. I think your work together with her would be just perfect. I could just see that.
KL: I can’t even imagine. I can’t even imagine.
Fashion Star premieres Tuesday, March 13 on NBC. Follow Kara on Twitter or like her on Facebook.