Out Designer Kara Laricks Talks 'Fashion Star,' Love and More: Interview

NBC's new reality series Fashion Star premieres Tuesday, March 13, and it's not to be missed! Besides featuring designers who create clothes for everyone, not just supermodels and Hollywood stars, there's one designer who's got something very different to offer.
By: Boo Jarchow
March 13 2012 5:00 PM

NBC's new reality series Fashion Star premieres Tuesday, March 13, and it's not to be missed! 

Besides featuring designers who create clothes for everyone, not just supermodels and Hollywood stars, there's one designer who's got something very different to offer. Among the line-up of competitors is out designer Kara Laricks, who specializes in androgynous clothing for men and women. 

Kara, a former 4th grade teacher from Kansas, decided to follow her dream and pursue a career in fashion. With support and ecouragement from her girlfriend, and of course a great design talent, Kara landed a spot on Fashion Star, and the rest is history. 

Executive producer and host of the show Elle Macpherson joins celebrity mentors Jessica Simpson, Nicole Richie and John Varvatos for the series that will give 14 unknown designers a chance to win a multi-million dollar prize to launch their collections in three of America’s largest retailers: Macy’s, H&M and Saks Fifth Avenue.

We spoke with Kara about fashion, coming out, being a part of a new kind of fashion competition, looking up to Ellen DeGeneres and so much more. Read the interview below, and be sure to watch Kara on Fashion Star, which premieres March 13 on NBC.

The Fashion Star premiere is quickly approaching! Are you excited? Nervous?

I’m so excited. And, you know, as it gets closer and closer with each day I just still can not believe that I’ve been a part of this and I’m just absolutely thrilled. I cannot wait. I’m a little bit nervous because, of course, I haven’t seen the shows with editing or anything like that, and although I try to stay on the up-and-up, and not add any drama to the show, you just never know. So I’m a little bit nervous.

What went through your head when you discovered what the format of the show would be, the mentors, etc...

Well, I was so thrilled when I heard the format of the show, because, unlike other fashion shows that are out there, Fashion Star allows us as designers to get in front of three buyers, and not just any buyers, but three of the biggest retailers in the United States. So for any designer that is a huge, a huge coup to actually be able to show your pieces to large retailers and have them buy. Not only that, but to have the chance, week after week, to have their attention and to be able to show something over and over and over. That’s unheard of and never been done before. It’s so exciting.

The $6 million deal final prize to get a designer's line started is huge.

I have to admit that going into the show, I really said to myself, “Take it one step at a time. Keep your head down, really focus on what you need to do, focus on your design and building your brand.” I really tried not to think about creating a capsule collection for H&M, Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. I just said to myself, “One step at a time,” because that is beyond a dream come true - to create a capsule collection for all three of those retailers. That’s really an incredible opportunity.

No kidding. Can you tell me about leaving your teaching profession to go into the crazy world of fashion?

I was a fourth grade teacher for 10 years and I loved it. I really did love my profession. The one thing that was kind of holding me back was that I really felt like I couldn’t be exactly who I was. It was difficult to completely be out as a teacher. I loved my job. I didn’t want to lose it. I also always had this passion for design. I grew up in Kansas and my mom always told me “you need to get a nice, safe career,” and teaching was it for me.

But about halfway through my teaching career, I just thought, “You know, I’m not necessarily getting any younger.” So I kind of decided at that 10-year mark that was when I was going to leave the teaching career behind, and I was really going to go for it with fashion design. I went back to school at the Academy of Art and learned how to design and drape and sew. All of that from scratch. To think about the first day entering into design school - and not even knowing how to thread a sewing machine - all the way to this point of being able to talk to you today, it’s a whirlwind and it’s really amazing that it happened.

That’s crazy that you learned when you went to school! The set-up of Fashion Star includes, like you said, having a chance each week to sell to the buyers, adding the business side of the fashion industry. Was that helpful or frightening?

Adding the business side to fashion is something that as an independent designer I’ve had to do from the get-go. You know, living in the Lower East Side of New York, it is tough to afford being able to live, never mind run your business as well. And so I’ve been kind of a one-woman show for a while. Making sure that I’ve done my business cards and designed my website and even produced my own accessories and sell in a little market in SoHo. So I know how important the business side is. When I heard that that was a big component in Fashion Star, I was like, “Yes. This is amazing.” You have to admit no matter how much of an artist you may be, you have to have the business side as a fashion designer in order to support your art as a fashion designer. So when I heard that this show really combined both of those elements, I just thought, “If ever there’s a chance to take on reality TV show, it’s now.” It’s now for this one because it’s real life. It’s really what you have to consider if you’re going to make it in this industry.

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I think reality TV gets a bad rep for being just drama, but Fashion Star’s set up is really beneficial for all the contestants. I was really glad to see that.

I think so too. I had to think long and hard about the reality show aspect of it but when I learned what powerhouse retailers were involved, this is the dream I’ve always had - to be able to create a women’s wear collection that has a masculine twist on it and try to get it in front of buyers and see if they’re interested, to see if my point of view is widely accepted. This has just been a personal dream of mine for a long time. You asked if it is a challenge to have to try to design for the three different types of retailers: absolutely. And then it was a double challenge for me to think, “OK, I know that the things that I design are kind of androgynous. They’re a little bit more avant-garde. They’re not necessarily what I would consider mass market.” It was really interesting to try to think a little bit more mass market and try to really think and consider the customers for each one of those retailers to try to ensure my success on the show. So I really did stretch as a designer to try and meet those demands.

You have Nicole Richie, Jessica Simpson and John Varvatos as mentors throughout the show. What’s it like having those three huge names there to guide you?

It’s so interesting because John Varvatos, Jessica Simpson, and Nicole Richie all have three very different points of view. That was another thing to try to balance on the show – we would meet with each one of them individually and sometimes the advice was very different from each of the three mentors. Again, it was really a balancing act of trying to take in everybody’s advice and everybody’s wants and everybody’s needs and then really stay true to my own aesthetic, but also try to respect that invaluable knowledge they have having been in the business for so long.

And then there are all the other designers – your competition – working around you, doing their own thing too. Was there anybody on the show that pleasantly surprised you?

Oh wow. No one’s asked me that before. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised that when I showed up on the very first day of Fashion Star, one of my former classmates from the Academy of Art was also there, Ronnie. He’s such a dolly. It was so exciting and comforting to know I had a friend there, instantly. So that was a pleasant surprise. I knew his design aesthetic, which is almost completely opposite of mine. He’s so funny. Everything is sexy. Very sexy. So sexy. [Laughs]. I’m always kind of the opposite of that – although, I think my things are sexy in a different way. I was so grateful that he was there. Beyond that, I was really fortunate to meet a group of people who had the exact same goal in mind as I did, which was to show my designs to three major retailers, work with some of the best names in the business, and just really make our design dreams come true. It was incredible. Each person that I met stylistically may have been very different, personality may have been very different, but it was just cool to all have the exact same goal.

I know that a bunch of my co-workers and I are all excited to go buy the stuff after it airs.

Awww. That’s so great! I love it!

What is the biggest thing that you learned on the show, or even saw somebody else go through, that you’ll use post competition?

By far, no matter what is going on around you, regardless of mentor advice, buyer advice, I think probably the very most important thing to do as a brand is to really stay true to myself and stay true to my own aesthetic; at the end of the day, make sure that something I’m sending down the runway in front of buyers or sending into an office in front of buyers in the future is something I’m really proud of – something that really reflects who I am as a person and who I am as a designer. When you put your heart and soul into it and you’re very proud of it, it almost always does well.

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You've mentioned that your design idol is Yohji Yamamoto. You posted on Facebook that you’re excited that he might get to see the show. If you got a chance to work with him…

Oh my god!

What would your dream project be?

AHHHH. I’m sweating right now thinking about it. [Laughs] My face is red and I’m sweating just thinking of that prospect. I can’t even, oh god, to be honest with you, even before doing a project I would give anything just to be able to sit down with him and have a cup of coffee or tea and just listen to his sage advice. More than anything, I would love to hear how he balances design and a personal life and his collaboration with Adidas. He creates so much season after season after season and I would just love to sit and hear how he maintains that inspired spirit and how he gets through seasons where maybe the buyers don’t buy what it is he’s offering. How he maintains his very unique point of view, regardless of all outside influences. I feel like that might be a great challenge moving forward, and I feel like he is a man who has done that since the early 80s. It’s something I admire so much in what he does.

Where does your personal style come from?

Gosh. My personal style comes from a combination of many things. I’m influenced by anything that combines the feminine and the masculine because I feel like I have those two different sides to myself. There are times where I feel like putting on a girly dress, but then there are other times where I love a power suit or something that is very masculine inspired. I feel like that just naturally comes through in my design. I don’t think there’s any way to stop it. Its just kind of who I am as a person and it comes through in my style.

You have sold your Collar, Stand + Tie collar-ties and your hoodie-scarves down at the market on Saturdays. Was there something specific that gave you the ideas for your collars and tie products?

I guess what it is… I love a man’s white shirt. I love it on a man, like a dress shirt. I love it on a woman. In order to create my little collars and ties I took apart just a regular, men’s white dress shirt, unpicked it, unstitched it, and I laid all of the different pattern pieces out on the floor. I just thought, “OK. I want to make sure that this is always the basis of anything that I create. This kind of collared shirt feel.” I chose the two pattern pieces that I loved the most, the collar and the stand, which is the part that attaches the collar to the actual shirt. Then I thought, I’ve always loved ties as well and I love when women wear ties. I wanted to make sure it buttoned around the neck like a traditional collar so it wasn’t too far off for anybody to grasp. It could feel like a necklace for the girl who wants to wear it with a strapless dress or feel like a tie for the girl who likes to wear it unbuttoned with a t-shirt, jeans and converse.

So, I developed the ties that would fit with the collar and the stand and thought, “Gosh, guys would look great in this as well. Yes. It’s definitely a go. It fits all of my criteria.” I have my sweet boyfriends who come over and try things on for me and they liked it as well. That’s kind of my witness test, if a girly-girl can throw it on and then a more butch girl can throw it on and then boys can throw it on. If it passes, then it’s like, “Yes. I’ve got a really, really great signature piece.”

Since we aren’t in NY, where can we buy them?

Fortunately one of those sweet boyfriends of mine is a photographer. He was able to take a bunch of great product shots of them. So they are for sale online. (From the Collar, Stand + Tie shop)

Aside from all the design stuff, it’s really exciting that we have a team member, so-to-speak, on the show.

Yay!

Can you tell us a bit about meeting your girlfriend?

Well, my sweet Melissa. We have been together for six years and we met back in San Francisco when we were both living there and I was going to school. We were both in relationships the first time that we met and then when those relationships ended, which just kind of ended at the same time, by coincidence, a mutual friend of ours said, “You know, you guys should really hang out. You guys would be great single lesbian friends. You could go out together and all of that.” So we planned to go out together as lesbian friends and we remained friends for all of three hours. And then the rest is kind of history.

That’s exciting – definitely classic.

She’s been my ultimate number one fan, my ultimate supporter. She’s lugged a suitcase full of my ties and scarves up and down three flights of stairs and back and forth to a market for all the time I’ve been doing it. She stands there patiently while I try things on her and I measure lengths and I pin her. I owe so much of this whole experience to her. She’s incredible. She’s very quiet and kind of behind-the-scenes type and all of that. I don’t know. Have you seen those sweet videos on Ellen, the Sophia Grace and Rosie, those two little girls?

Yes. [Laughs]

She is my Rosie. She’s my side girl. [Laughs] She’s always there, you know, just ready to step up, just whatever I need. She’s my sweet Rosie.

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That’s so cute.  You guys have been together for six years, but you were out before that. Can you talk about your coming out experience?

Of course. I came out while I was still in college and I was working at a restaurant. The manager of the restaurant where I worked was a lesbian, is a lesbian. She was the very first lesbian that I had ever met, believe it or not. I grew up in kind of a sheltered suburb of Kansas City and I always wondered why I didn’t feel about my boyfriends how my girls in high school felt about their boyfriends. I was like, “Yeah. Maybe I just didn’t find the right one.” Well then I met my boss when I was working at this restaurant and I was like “[singing ahhhh] That’s how it’s supposed to feel! Oh my god!” I was leaving the restaurant to start teaching in Kansas City, just a city over from Lawrence, which is where I went to college. It was the last night that I was waiting tables, and I just realized “I just can’t leave her without saying something.” So, I sat down and had a glass of wine with my boss after work and was like, “Would you like to go out?” She was like, “What? Straight girl, what?”

[Laughs]

She goes, “Yeah. Sure.” I’m like “OK. Great.” So, anyway, I was so very excited about it because I had worked with her for a couple years and it had taken me that long to realize or work it up, I don’t know, that when I got home to my mom’s house, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my mom and I was like, “Mom, I have an exciting date on Friday.” She had met her before, so she was like, “Oh. OK.” I said, “Mom, I really like her.” My mom was like, “You mean, you admire her. She is a nice girl.” I’m like, “No mom. I really like her.” My mom was like, “Ohhh. OK.” I was really fortunate because my mom didn’t really skip a beat. My sister didn’t really skip a beat. Family-wise, I’ve been so very lucky. They’ve been nothing but accepting since day one and I think it’s probably because they could see just how excited I was about it. So yeah, that was my very fortunate coming out story.

It’s always nice to hear happy stories like that.

Really, I’ve been so lucky. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t appreciate my mom or sister for being, I was going to say my number one fan, but I guess that would be Melissa. I don’t know. They’re all my number one fans.

They can all share the title.

OK. All right. Very good.

I just have one last question.

Sure.

Other than design influences, who is your outside-the-fashion-world idol?

Absolutely no question, Ellen is. I know it’s cliché, I know it’s trite, especially given my audience that I’m talking to, but I really love the way that Ellen lives her life. I love how generous she is. I love how she appeals to so many people because she just is genuine and she is who she is. There’s no hiding about it. It’s been so fortunate for me to watch her entire coming out process because she was coming out on her sitcom as I was in real life. It was the same timing. Although I was nowhere near as confident and ready as she was at that time, it gave me an incredible role model. I was fortunate to watch everything – the ups and downs of her career – and now to see her being so authentic, so real, so genuine and so well accepted. I don’t know how anyone couldn’t see her as an idol.

Recently she’s had the JCPenney spokeswoman thing. I don’t know how much you’ve heard about all the drama with One Million Moms and everything. I think she came through that with flying colors.

She handled it so beautifully and with her authentic self, with humor and with grace, and in a way that when she finally made her statement about it on the show, who could argue with that? You know? Those One Million Moms can go do whatever it is they want to do, but it’s not going to stop all of us who adore her, both gay, straight, whatever. There’s just no question. It was wonderful.

Do you have any other stuff coming up that you can talk about? I mean, obviously Fashion Star...

For right now, definitely the show. I’ve been waiting for seven months now for this to get started. And my plan is to absolutely enjoy and soak in every moment and everything that comes from the show. I know there’s never going to be another time like this in my life. I’m just really looking forward to enjoying it.

Good. Well congratulations on the show and we’re all definitely looking forward to your success!

Yay! Thank you so very much and thanks for taking all this time to get with me. I really appreciate it. 

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