Overland Park native, fashion designer, writer and motivational speaker Kara Laricks has conquered reality television, the New York fashion world and an elementary school classroom. Laricks won the first season of NBC’s “Fashion Star,” landing design contracts with retailers H&M, Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s, but remains true to her Midwestern roots.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Kansas before venturing to the west coast to be a school teacher in San Francisco, Calif. Now, Laricks works simultaneously as a New York-based fashion designer and a motivational speaker to LGBTQIA youth across the country, after coming out as a lesbian while on “Fashion Star.”
Going from fourth grade teacher to fashion designer is a pretty drastic career jump. What made you want to become an elementary school teacher?
I became a fourth grade teacher for several reasons. First, Oprah calls it the “Ah-ha Moment.” I call it the “Lightbulb Moment.” Nothing compares to that moment when a student’s eyes light up and you hear the words, “Oh, now I get it!” Second, my parents encouraged me to choose a safe and secure career, one with a good salary and benefits. Finally, the designer in me could not resist the chance to create elaborate bulletin boards every week.
School teaching does seem like a much more practical career choice than fashion designing, but the desire to design must’ve always been pretty prevalent. When did you first take an interest in fashion?
Most kids count down the days until Christmas, birthdays, etc . I remember looking forward to the few days before school started each year with as much excitement and anticipation. Why? The start of a new school year meant I was allowed to pick out a head-to-toe new outfit for the first day of school! Although I did not grow up with a passion for drawing or sewing, I loved all things pop culture, style and fashion. In particular, I had a fascination with androgyny. Duran Duran, Annie Lenox and Boy George were all subjects of my affection.
I’m sure plenty of students can relate to that feeling. How then, did you end up on “Fashion Star?”
Literally speaking, I noticed a post on Facebook by the Academy of Art University (where I earned my master’s degree in fashion design) announcing a “new show on a major network casting designers.” Through a series of applications, interviews and trips to LA, I was named one of the 12 designers on “Fashion Star.” Figuratively speaking, I ended up on “Fashion Star” out of sheer determination to make my stamp in the fashion industry and the desire to design without financial burden.
Your ambition is incredibly admirable. On “Fashion Star,” you were known for creating androgynous, unique design choices. Which fashion designers or icons have most influenced your work?
Fashion designers that inspire me include Yohji Yamamoto, Jil Sander and Thom Browne. Yamamoto has been designing since the 1980s in his signature avant-garde aesthetic. I love that his message has not waivered and yet his clothing still stands the test of time and trend. Sander’s style is minimalistic mixed with cerebral cuts and silhouettes. Her brilliant collaboration with Japanese retailer Uniqlo was right up my alley. And Thom Browne. I truly admire his ability to maintain art on the runway as well as run a successful retail business.
On a personal note, strong, intelligent, original and unique individuals inspire me. From Amy Poehler and Carrie Brownstein to Janelle Monae and Gloria Steinem, from Janet Mock and Patti Smith to Kara Walker and Kiki Smith, my role models run the gamut. In terms of a style icon, I often ask “WWTSD?” (What would Tilda Swinton do?)
That seems like a pretty reasonable signature question to stick to in your line of work. What are the biggest challenges or setbacks you’ve faced as a designer?
Fashion is a tough industry. The seasons move very quickly and designers must adhere to the traditional retail schedule. This means designers create a brand new collection every six months while producing orders for the previous collection to be delivered to retailers at the same time. Whew, even that sentence was exhausting! I believe the fashion industry is slowly changing, as the previous model is putting too many emerging designers out of business. My biggest challenge is continuing to do what I love (design,) but at a pace that is comfortable and humane.
I can’t imagine how difficult it is to keep up in the fashion world without getting overwhelmed. Do you have some sort of signature or trademark implemented in all of your designs?
I will always include a mix of masculinity and femininity in my designs. Even when I attempt to create a very feminine dress, some sort of tie detailing, trouser pleating or traditional menswear fabric makes an appearance. I can’t seem to help the masculine details!
How does your perspective on gender and sexuality affect the way you design things?
I believe that there is a little bit of masculinity and a little bit of femininity in each of us. I also believe that we should honor the chance to outwardly express how we are feeling on any given day. Therefore, some of my designs lean toward the feminine, others toward the masculine and some are right down the middle androgynous.
Your designs certainly reflect those ideas. What do you hope to accomplish through your work as a fashion designer?
My goal is to design clothing ethically, with as little waste as possible and in a way that makes the wearer feel confident and unique. I also feel very fortunate that through the platform I gained on “Fashion Star,” I am able to travel and speak to audiences about issues facing the GLBTQ community and the power of following passion.
You certainly know how to keep yourself busy. What would be the greatest thing you could hope to achieve as a fashion designer?
Wow! That’s quite a question. Believe it or not, my goal is to continue to be a kind force in the fashion industry and to advocate for emerging designers. My greatest achievement would be knowing that everyone I have worked with – whether intern or executive producer – has felt supported, inspired or encouraged by me to pursue their own path passionately.
In my own interactions with you, I would guess you won’t have any problem achieving that goal. Are you working on anything (design wise) currently?
I have been so busy traveling and speaking that I have had to put design on hold for a minute. However, I am actually on my way to the garment district following this interview to peruse fabric. So currently, I am figuring out how to balance everything I want to do in a single day.
I’m sure it isn’t easy getting involved in the fashion industry. Any tips for young people who hope to become fashion designers some day?
My advice for young people hoping to become fashion designers is to stay kind, focused and determined. Get some “real world” experience by working for other designers. If you want to start your own line, start small. Excel at one item before launching an entire line. Remember that not only will you need to perfect the design, but you will also need secure production and get a good handle on marketing, advertising, promotion and selling. Your instinct will be to do it all at once, but trust me, slow and steady wins the race and patience and determination in the fashion industry are key.