Interview: Kate Towers and Nahanni Arntzen

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Kate Towers

Earlier this year I got to meet with Portland designers, and studio mates, Nahanni Arntzen and Kate Towers when we shot our Green Mountain editorial at Mount Hood.

We sat down with them to learn a little more about living and working in Portland and what conscious living means to them.

How did you get started?

Kate: I had a clothing store here in Portland for about 7 years. It wasn’t something I had planned on doing, it just kind of happened. We carried local and independent designers who were just getting started.

Nahanni: I have been sewing since I was a kid. I grew up in the middle of nowhere and my depression era grandmother taught me everything DIY, including cooking, weaving, knitting, crochet, and sewing my own clothes. I come from a line of makers, my grandfather built a sailboat in the backyard when my mom was growing up, it’s still floating around somewhere and is still building furniture at 89. When I was in my late teens I apprenticed with my uncle as a furniture maker/ designer, working primarily with wood and metal. I had a design studio through my twenties making and building furniture and doing custom metal work. When I met my husband and moved to the states I sold all of my equipment and after my younger babies were born and I ran out of projects to build in our house, I started making clothes. I really wanted a jumpsuit and at the time could not find any that were not vintage, and too short in the torso.  So I decided to make one, and then a few more and then some other things that I felt like would give me some variety to jeans and coffee stained t-shirts.

Nahanni Arntzen
Nahanni Arntzen

Portland is such a creative city, does it inspire you to push creative boundaries or can it be overwhelming?

Kate: A little of both. I love that there are so many artists here and people who care about art. There are definitely moments when it feels like everyone is making or selling the same thing. There’s always a way to make something new or different and it’s important that people can recognize your work, your signature.

Nahanni: In my experience, it is a creative city and also a welcoming and supportive city. I have not found that artist are in competition with each other as much as interested and supportive of one another. Maybe I am bias and in a bubble because Kate and I have shared a studio and have a really wonderfully relationship. We do our own thing but are always supportive of each others ideas and struggles and successes. Other then being at home or in the studio, I am not out that much, but everyone I know here is quite creative and finding ways to collaborate and build each other up.

What motivates you to manufacture domestically?

Kate: My operation is so small that it wouldn’t make any sense to manufacture overseas. When I say “team” it’s pretty much me and my guy who helps sew!

Nahanni: Because I wanted to do it as close to home as possible, which after 2 years of looking and trying different domestic options, ended up being right in my studio.

You share a studio and manufacture your lines in house. What motivated that decision?

Kate: Studio space in Portland is becoming scarce and very expensive.  Nahanni and I have shared a space for the past few years and we work well together. We bounce ideas off of each other and goof around. It’s good to have a comrade around on those off days when you start to question what you’re doing.  Moving manufacturing on site has been very practical for both of us. TIME is a huge challenge. My husband has a very demanding job and schedule so I generally run the mothership of household and kid duties.  I am only at my studio for a few hours a day so having a team right within reach is important and just makes sense.

Nahanni: It took a long time to figure out how to fit this into an already busy life. My husband and I have a much larger company that involves him being gone a lot and communicating with a lot of people on a daily basis. I wanted to set up my own line so it would be manageable and not sink the ship so to speak and allow me to have flexibily so that I can still take care and enjoy time with my three kids. When I met Kate we were kind of in the same boat and having a partner to share creatively and personally and have a laugh with daily is amazing.

What are the pros and cons of taking manufacturing in house?

Kate: I love having everything under one roof. This allows me to be hands on and a part of the whole process.   I don’t really see many cons… we’re a bit tight on space but we’ve made it work. We recently rearranged everything to create more of a showroom when you enter to encourage people to come in and shop/buy direct when possible.

Nahanni: So far I see few cons. Being able to design an idea, make a sample and rework it util the fit is perfect and it’s ready for production within a few of days, is highly satisfying. Also being able to take advantage of limited yardage fabrics we come across without having to worry about minimums takes the pressure off having to commit to large fabric orders way ahead of time. Overall it gives a major flexibilty to two busy moms.

Nahanni Arntzen and Kate Towers
Nahanni Arntzen and Kate Towers

What do you struggle with the most being independent designers?

Kate: Promoting ourselves and getting our work into the public eye, pushing sales. I’m speaking for both of us now because we talk about this all of the time. It feels personal.

Nahanni: Tagging all the bases on your own.

How do you define conscious living, and what is conscious about your collections?

Kate: I feel like conscious living is doing the small everyday things without too much thought and effort, recycling and composting, re purposing materials, eating locally grown food, using natural products. My designs are an extension of myself and I do think about how they’ve been made, how they feel to wear and fit into people’s lifestyles.

Nahanni: Conscious living is kind of a given here. I think Portland in general attracts people that are all thinking about global impact even if they don’t talk about it and it’s really normal for our kids to have a garden at their public school for example, or city wide composting, or bikes everywhere.  We might be an anomaly somewhere else with our ‘environmental friendly in-house, local made’ clothes, but here, it feels pretty normal or almost clique. Which is a good thing.

What sustainable practices are you currently implementing and what would you love to explore?

Kate: Domestic and in-house production, the use of mostly naturally derived materials, hand dying from home without harsh chemicals, sourcing local fabrics as much as possible or repurposing  existing materials. I’d love to explore making my own textiles more.

Nahanni: I make a size run of any given piece and then refill the size when it sells, minimizing fabric waste. All the things Kate mentioned. I would also like to get a fabric recycling bin on the premises.

If you could have any other job, what would it be?

Kate: I secretly want to run a small hotel, like a converted boarding house with a general store.

Nahanni: I enjoy filmmaking a lot. Both sides of the camera.

What’s next for you both?

Kate: Really just to keep it going at a steady pace. We’ve been talking about a kids line for a while now. Or a t shirt line. Or inventing a new canned beverage. Or a boozy popsicle stand. Or some baby product that everyone needs so we can retire and move to the country.

Nahanni: Enjoying where things are at, taking each day at a time. Kate said the rest.

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