Interview: Jasmin Shokrian
Photos: Todd Weaver
I will let Jasmin herself set the scene for the interview. “We are sitting in her beautiful studio space in Chinatown. I’m looking at so many wonderful things around me in addition to her gorgeous self. There are beautiful pieces of fabric strewn upon pieces of furniture, pillowcases made out of what seems to be a gauzy beautiful fabric, and it all feels new.” Ensconced within this magical realm that Kristin has created for her Rowena Sartin studio, the two designers embark on a discussion that covered everything from their processes as designers, their frustrations, the challenges and rewards of working in Los Angeles. They also touched on family and how it relates to their work, the relationship between art and design, and the way their paths as designers often run parallel.
Jasmin Shokrian: Kristen, I’m trying to think about where I originally met you. I would have to say it was Iko Iko, in Echo Park. I think I just happened to walk into your store one day and fell madly in love with everything that was in there. At your space in Echo Park you had utilitarian things you found on your travels from Japan, alongside pieces that you were making and other really interesting objects and textiles, which now seems to be the norm. How do you feel about that ? haha.
Kristin Dickson: I feel like my timing is not right. I think I do. Mostly I did just try to do things that feel really honest and interesting for me at the moment. We have access to information and such a quick way now that I kind of feel like everyone just is more knowledgeable about what is happening. It’s a little bit more difficult to create something that feels like it’s offering a sense of discovery when everything feels discoverable already. So I think that’s what I keep trying to do, but I feel like it’s becoming a little harder because we all also have this really shared collective creativity or influences.
Jasmin Shokrian: Do you get the feeling that people are taking your ideas verbatim and reappropriating them?
Kristin Dickson: I think it’s just a very open playing field.
Jasmin Shokrian: Yes I agree with you, I think it’s become a very saturated landscape in the sense that when you are a designer who’s actually striving to create something that’s new and innovative, it becomes really complicated when you’re seeing so much of what you thought was innovative and special. It’s very interesting that you’re capable of pushing yourself forward that way. I know for me that when I see something that someone’s made that is similar, I just don’t want to make it any more. And I find that it can push me. But often it feels that now we are a point where it becomes a little bit more challenging to navigate.
Kristin Dickson: Yeah. Because you think: was it is actually an original idea or is everything pastiche? Maybe I’ve seen that, but I’m not recognizing where I saw it. Or am I not interpreting it fully. Do people interpret things? Or do they just take the idea and put a new coat of paint and call it a different idea? I feel like my job when I make something is to try to push it, to really think about all elements of it, and is my idea going to be fully made, or is it something that I have to keep going back to because it is something that already looks like something we’ve seen or have used?
Jasmin Shokrian: Would you say that you identify more as an artist in that way or as a designer? … or do those terms not even really apply in your way of thinking?
Kristin Dickson: I don’t claim either. Maybe that’s reflective of not having everything be really robust and being in 100 stores or having lines out the door. I like that there can be ambiguity about are we commercial designers or are we artists. Today artists are making things that are wearable that people can buy. It’s harder for a painter to sell a painting, but it could be interesting to offer a version of a garment where it’s accessible. But being an artist gives you luxury or privilege and of being esoteric where your language can still be personal to you and everyone may not understand it.
Kristin Dickson: Your messaging is really smart. It gets to so many different kinds of people. How do you do it?
Jasmin Shokrian: The graphic stuff is actually my bread and butter. It’s really become the aspect of my business that has allowed me to sustain the making of a “collection’. I’m an artist who has a lot to say…Sometimes ideas don’t come across clearly in the medium of clothing. Perhaps sometimes it literally needs to be spelled out for them. And that literally is what I did. The irony is that when I decided to make a t-shirt with words on it, I was making a commentary on how people have viewed LA irrelevant in the fashion sense the Art world etc… The JE PARS HABITER A LOS ANGELES t-shirt was actually as an ironic statement about LA and the Utopian fantasy. How a city I grew up in that was once not so cool has become a popular destination (even with the French) and even the idea that we have always been seen as more of a casual t-shirt and jeans town in the fashion realm…. I always joke that the LA people got it because we were always here.., The French understood it because they wanted to live here, and everyone else just likes French on a t-shirt.
Kristin Dickson: You’ve made the t-shirt have your language.
Jasmin Shokrian: It’s definitely become more of a formulaic response. Kind of like how you said as you get older and you want to wear a uniform. I had an interesting reaction when you said “I make things that are an outfit.” Uniforms are the best…I just want to put something on, walk out the door, and not fuss over myself because there is just perceivably not enough time to fuss. And I think maybe this is why the t-shirt became the thing. Everyone understands a t-shirt. Even if you’re not someone who will wear graphics on your body, you like the idea of wearing a t-shirt. Whether or not it looks good on you. It’s a layering piece it’s something that you know you can put on, relate to. It’s like this basic idea that just you are part of something bigger.
Kristin Dickson: It’s an iconic clothing concept.
Jasmin Shokrian: Yes! An easy solution… we could say a modern way of dressing and you’re right like not everything needs to be head-to-toe dressing but it needs to be easy. More and more of what you see and maybe not necessarily on the runway, but in day-to-day life: people just want easy clothes. There is a fraction of the population that wants to put on towering heels every day and very body conscious clothes. They want to be able to go out to the world and look like that. And that’s great, more power to them.They’re working on their bodies everyday and they want to be able to show their figures and show how hard they’re working, and that’s that’s fine and wonderful. And also there are people that don’t necessarily have the luxury or the time to do that, but still want to look great. Maybe it’s a working mom who needs to get up in the morning and look great from the minute she walks out the door knowing full well that she’s not going to be able to change or have the luxury of coming back to put on another outfit. And I think in that wheelhouse. I want to put on a dress in the morning maybe change my shoes, and if I can go out that evening and feel good…I just gave meaning to something that was already there.
Kristin Dickson: It’s a great entrance point to your perspective.
Jasmin Shokrian: It’s hard, though. By the way, I’m sort of leaning towards getting off of the collection cycle. As an experimental anecdote to the times, I’ve been making the same collection for the last two years in different fabrics, and it’s been wonderful. It’s helped me sort of really build on my own ideas, and it’s helped me grow. For 15 years I wanted to reinvent the wheel every time I made a collection, so the idea has new pattern, a new fabric, a factory not knowing how to make something, new costs that you cannot possibly understand until you sell it…There are so many variables and it’s complicated to to run a business like that. It is complicated. And I honestly it’s the sun, the moon and the stars aligning to make it financially viable. Yes, you can introduce new things once in awhile, but you do not need to make a new style five seasons a year. As business owners who are also creatives, we have to ask ourselves why do people come to you ? They come to you because you have this thing that is your fit, your fabric choice, your thing, and that’s enough. Often I think there’s too much in the world. What do you think ?
Kristin Dickson: It’s too saturated. It’s so saturated that I don’t think people even make adventurous decisions. You do what seems easy and comfortable. What you see over and over again. It’s hypnotic in some way. It’s not possible for me make so much stuff over and over again and have them all be good ideas.
Jasmin Shokrian: Like what what you said, everything’s starting to look the same to me. There are gigantic companies that have basically adopted my entire aesthetic and now I will wear something and people will ask me if it’s mine or if it’s that company, and I’ll be like, “Whoa, that’s something I made.” …because the mass corporation can take the ideas of small innovative thinkers who don’t have much public and just take one concept and build a brand identity on it. I remember very early on a very important fashion Industry person came to my studio, somebody from France I know, invited him to my studio and it was a really big deal. There was a very big chance that that person could have invested in my company and turned me into this huge brand. And I remember I was so nervous; I pulled 6 pieces on a rack, and tried to edit it down. It was very hard for me to do that because my collections are a very story driven.. And he picked up this jacket and he goes, “Wow. There is so much going on here. You could take so many of the ideas that are just in this jacket and make an entire collection out of that.” And I remember thinking, “Shit, I over design sometimes or I’m overthinking things.” That visit changed the way I thought because I started to realize that I didn’t need to hit people over the head with five different innovative things in one garment. People don’t understand that you’re communicating through clothing of all things. It can be so frustrating as the maker or as the designer that like people don’t buy it or they don’t get it,
Kristin Dickson: I feel like people often don’t want complicated things.
Jasmin Shokrian: They don’t. They don’t sell.
Being an artist gives you luxury or privilege and of being esoteric where your language can still be personal to you and everyone may not understand it.
Kristin Dickson: There’s space in the world for lots of different ideas. But in the cycle of frustration — how much effort you’re putting into what you do every day — I think you have to have moments when someone else can come in and dissect things a little bit.
Jasmin Shokrian: In my business I have never had a partner. I’ve often fantasized about having a partner, and luckily I have in my in my personal life had partners or people that I love who I have shared a like minded way of thinking and been able to collaborate with. It always allowed us to become closer in really beautiful ways. And this brings me to the pairing of you and your husband Shin Okuda, he is obviously somebody who is really pushing ideas in and woodworking and furniture making. I’ve seen beautiful spaces that he’s made pieces for, and what a good man! I am sure you have a lot of really important conversations about design and about what he’s making and about what you’re making. Tell me a little bit about about that. I’d love to hear a little bit about your relationship to one another’s work.
Kristin Dickson: When I first met Shin he was working for a sculptor, but hadn’t really made furniture. When I meet someone, I’m always wondering like what do you want to do? You know what is your expression? And then I was like, “We have this space; why don’t you try to do something, and then it was like getting to see someone unfold and get to exercise this muscle that he’s had, but didn’t ever really put to work. And now it’s more unconscious. Like when you know someone and they’re your friend and you’re absorbing different things from each other, and if you’re making something together, they just come out in different ways. I don’t think I would maybe make some of the same furniture that he would, but I don’t think if he were to make clothes that his would be same as what I make. But there’s some sort of harmony in how we engage with each other. But it’s not like a family business. It’s like a call and response in some way because I think we both have fairly strong language.
Jasmin Shokrian: I have always found it so interesting to talk to you about your process. I really understand and relate so much to way that you work, the things that you think about and your inspiration. I think it’s it’s genuinely wonderful to be able to meet and discuss all of this with you, it’s so rare these days, no? This sort of brings me to talk a little bit about Los Angeles. It never really has been a city where people have thought of in the area of fashion as innovative. In music and art it definitely has been a place where people have come to really be experimental without the pressures of a big city mentality. I’m curious to know, are you from L.A. originally?
Kristin Dickson: From Austin, Texas.
Jasmin Shokrian: What brought you to Los Angeles?
Kristin Dickson: There’s something about L.A., a component, like how people you use space. Maybe it’s weather related. I feel like the light and the heat, the really simple physical experiences make you feel right. And I think that L.A. is very diverse, but also there’s a lot of friction here. So it’s like not easy to be here all the time. There’s a lot of different things happening. It’s not suburban, and it’s like not a small town; it’s very large with like a lot of moving parts. And I think that that makes you have to keep adapting and thinking of new ways of survival, but not in a dramatic way. People make a choice to come to one of these larger cities in America because it’s also like the idea pool is open.
Jasmin Shokrian: Would you say that L.A. as a city influences what you do, or do you would you say that you tend to work against it?
Kristin Dickson: I think against it in some way. And I like that it gives you this alternative of when you see something that’s been done that’s mimics what you’re doing, I have no desire to do that. I have no desire to make something that already exists. I like to do something that gives a different talking point. And I think L.A. is like full of opposites, and maybe opposites make us have to think of how to offer something more niche versus very consumable ideas.
Jasmin Shokrian: And so to go back to talking a little bit about your space: recently you you made a decision to create a workspace for yourself that was less public and more private so that you could focus on your work in a different way for a little while.. You’re in Chinatown, which is an area that you’re quite familiar with because you’ve had spaces in Chinatown. But you’re in this really interesting courtyard building in Chinatown. I hear the ding of the elevator and people outside sound like they’re speaking Chinese and I’m curious to know, does that feel like you’re in another in another place?
Kristin Dickson: I enjoy like the exoticism of like not being in a totally familiar place but having like a different community around you. Yeah it’s a little bit more. It’s like a very multigenerational community right here. I like seeing older people taking care of their grandchildren mixed with really old family businesses. I just like being in a little bit more of a hidden zone, and I don’t want to have the larger sort of public presence.
Jasmin Shokrian: So I wanted to bring up the of the level of exposure that you have because I’ve noticed that throughout your career throughout the time that I’ve known you, you’ve sort of had this desire to be visible, but not visible in a very big way. I’m curious to hear from you how you feel that’s been for you as an artist or as a designer. And now that you’ve sort of retreated even a little bit more into your own space, do you feel better?
Kristin Dickson: I think it’s maybe just an idea of discomfort. I don’t want to be so publicly engaging. But I like it to feel more of a one-on-one. If someone comes in, I’d like to get to know you. Quality versus quantity is my approach. I think we all have different levels of private and public and maybe because this feels really personal, it feels more comfortable to me. I’m not good about making efforts towards more press or publicizing things, but I think that if people come and have a good experience, they’ll tell someone that they enjoyed that experience and that in effect is like more powerful for me and for this. It feels more appropriate to the audience.
Jasmin Shokrian: Right. But what about like the idea of exposing it to people we wouldn’t necessarily think of exposing it to. I know for myself like this space of fashion is a very specific space. And you’ve already done the art space, which is also wonderful, but very specific and in a lot of ways it can be really uncomfortable to try to maintain whatever ideals exist.
Kristin Dickson: And expectations, too. We’re talking about ambiguity and I think that that just feels the most comfortable is to be slightly ambiguous about what this is, why I’m doing it, and when it’s available. For better or worse. And then I think it allows people to interpret it in the way that they want to.
Jasmin Shokrian: We are kind of circling back to the question, “Do you identify more as an artist or a designer?” But it’s really more a question of the construct and whether you feel comfortable within these constructs. Now, in a way, it is becoming more “acceptable” to be experimental and to have a model where you work on your own schedule. But then you know those buyers don’t necessarily have the dollars or the ability to buy things whenever the things you make are ready, which becomes a challenge when you have that stress of having to make things within the construct of time. I can imagine for you especially that can be daunting because it’s not how you think and it’s not necessarily how you want to work. It seems like you are specifically trying to be experimental and those constructs are not. Tell me a little bit how you deal with that?
Kristin Dickson: I feel like right now, especially, I think you just keep doing this and doing it and doing it, but then you need to make a financial decision of how much longer you can sustain doing it this way. Everyone has to sacrifice something. If you want to capitalize on both the financial and the creative freedom, you might have to give some of the creative freedom away to have more financial success and vice versa. But I think maybe that’s why I am maybe more interested in experimenting with more engagement with the furniture. What can go on the furniture and around the furniture versus clothing that has a top, that has a bottom, that has a skirt, that has an accessory. They all work together and then they can be bought together. This package idea. And now I’m more thinking maybe I can make things that just go over what you have. And I like that when people get older, they kind of create this uniform for themselves where they know what they’re comfortable wearing, and they like that constant routine. Maybe it’s like creating something that can pair with that sort of consistent aesthetic, make it feel like it is still personal to someone. But it’s it’s not going to make them have to have the whole outfit. Having an outfit seems more and more outdated. I think you can make items or you can make ideas that can be integrated a little easier now. But I think at this point I always start my year like, “This year I am going to have a more concerted effort of being on time and trying to have a more organized wholesale effort. But I think deep down I like the friction.”
Jasmin Shokrian: Well do you think that has to do with the fact that you do so many parts of the process yourself ?
Kristin Dickson: I think for control it is a really hard thing.
Jasmin Shokrian: We need to talk about that because that’s really important. For everyone who does not know this, Kristin makes all her own patterns and the clothes really reflect the shapes that she likes. And it’s really important, I think. You know a lot of designers don’t necessarily do that. They have other people making them. And I’d see you creating your own shapes and it’s wonderfully inspiring. And you do everything from making your pattern to…do you make your own samples?
Kristin Dickson: Yes.
Jasmin Shokrian: Thankfully, you don’t do your own production. A factory that does that for you when you’re making multiples of something. You can’t do it all… you don’t have that much time a day, plus you have a child. Another beautiful thing you and your husband have collaborated on… HE IS SO CUTE. Can you imagine doing it differently?
Kristin Dickson: When I see Shin making his work there’s like a sense that can have control over everything. Most of the time if there’s like any error, it’s because he’s made it. The thing that’s so frustrating about clothing is that there’s many different hands on the process. If you’re doing it with a factory or with a sewer, they interpret your vision in a way that is not always how you want it, and there are so many levels of mistakes that can happen, and then the thing you get in the end feels so far from my starting point that when I get things back, I get this really sad moment of “this is not what I wanted.”
Jasmin Shokrian: I mirror so much of what you’re saying and your process. This has a lot to do with perfectionism in the sense that we have this ideal of how things should look and how we want them to be put out into the world. But when you are producing something and it doesn’t come out exactly that way, is it really that important? I mean, it’s important to you; it’s important to me; but is it important to the person that you are making it for? Do they know?
Kristin Dickson: No no, they don’t know. But you know. It’s more just like this wanting to have a relationship with like the person that’s making these multiples and have them feel the same way that you do. It’s impossible. They’re never going to feel the same way that you feel about this. But maybe they would care a little more when they’re turning the hem on this, or not make it crooked when they’re sewing this backwards? Wouldn’t they want to care more maybe?
Jasmin Shokrian: Maybe it’s time to find a different factory…?
Kristin Dickson: I have tried so many. It’s more that I really want to have like a really good close relationship with the person that’s making it so that there’s not this gap in understanding, or maybe I’m just like putting too much value like that feeling.
Jasmin Shokrian: I know exactly what you’re saying. There’s a certain romantic idea of the emotional experience that you have when you’re making something that needs to be echoed. The way it looks when it’s finished needs to look like somebody cared about it as much as you did. Otherwise it’s not reflective of your integrity or how much you care. And it’s almost impossible to find somebody who can do that. But I do think it’s possible to sit here with somebody and oversee them and work with them and teach them the way you want things to be done, and that is enough. That is potentially something that you could do that maybe have a closer relationship to whoever you’re working with.
Kristin Dickson: That’s another part of this. You do get to meet so many different makers and different teams that make so many different parts of what you do interesting.
Jasmin Shokrian: Agreed! OK well you know I really feel like this is a wonderful experience. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me and for the privilege to be the person that got to ask you these questions.
Kristin Dickson: Really wonderful. Thank you.