“landing on your ass is a good place to start” talking The Palatines hand made shoeswith Jessica Taft Langdon

I’ve known Jessica Taft Langdon since way back when my mom drove a bunch of us to the Nassau Colosseum to Morrissey in 1992. We danced, we swooned, we knew every last word, hung on every last gesture, and when he sang Angel, Angel Down We Go Together we felt with our fullest hearts that we were the angels he was singing to.

Teenagers feel with a fullness that lasts, that breeds lifelong fandom among friends. So when I heard that Jess was making shoes, well, I’m not ashamed to say that it made me giddy with glee. See we used to talk lots about shoes, all us strange alt girls. We wore good shoes, big soled take-no-shit shoes. We shopped for them at Zipperhead and Trash & Vaudeville and Army Navy stores and we put them through their paces, traversing vast numbers of city blocks, banging out the beat at all ages clubs.

Which brings us to The Palatines, by Jessica Taft Langdon. My mom bought me a pair for my recent birthday, and I’ve worn them nearly every day since. I’ve walked miles of New York City blocks in them, worn them for fancy and for work, with jeans and skirts and these weird business casual yoga pants. My Palatines are comfy, beautiful, and they take no shit. And knowing how we do the big full hearts of our shared youth, I wanted to talk to JTL about how it all came to pass.

Why The Palatines? I remember a hill near the Acropolis bearing a plaque referencing, if memory serves, the apostle Paul and the palatines, but looking it up I found a group of German immigrants, face bones, and Roman hills. Where does the name come from?

ha! yeah, i’m good with both (and other) references for the name! it’s funny how many there are….

the way that i came across it was by doing some research into the part of northern england, where one side of my family is from. i found that the county where my ancestors were from had, at one point in british history been a “county palatine”, which meant that it had been ruled autonomously, rather than being ruled by the crown. i’ve seen references to it in german culture (which is nicely symmetrical, since my heritage is half german/half english) as well as in italy, where the government seat is at the top of palatine hill.

in all cases, however, the word describes a small subset on a society, who exist as an exclusive group within, but also set aside from the general population.

i’ll admit that as i was doing this research, i mostly just thought “oh, that’s a cool word”, but when i did do a bit more looking into the term, i thought it was applicable to the way i thought about my own brand. i worked for years for larger luxury and corporate fashion brands, most of which were quite mainstream. i learned a ton from that experience, but also wanted to try to do things a bit differently – focusing more on a quieter, thoughtful approach to the styles, and manufacturing them here in los angeles. so i do like the idea that the palatines shoes sit a little aside from the rest of the crowd!

I like this idea that the brand is intentionally in contrast to the mainstream industry. I think there’s a big push in the creative side of things these days to create for the mainstream as opposed to something for indie. I feel like creative people and artists could take a hint from the food industry– the small batch folks aren’t trying to create their own giant chains, they’re trying to do the thing they love doing and do it well. Can you trace your impulse toward more boutique, indie creation, or do you think it was a reaction to the big companies you were working for?

in developing the palatines, the instinct to be more “indie” really comes from the production itself. i work with a very small family-owned factory, and they make shoes by hand. the shoes have a very particular look because of this – they don’t look like they were made by a factory in china, or even a small factory in europe. the shoe-making and finishing techniques create a finished product that has a different kind of feel. it also makes the shoes somewhat expensive compared to those made overseas in larger quantities, which automatically keeps them from being super commercial.

that said, i would love to be making a lot more shoes! what i’m hoping is that the consumer gets more acquainted with the look and feel of a handmade shoe, and sees it as something different from a mass-produced one. hopefully they see the shoes as a product worth taking care of – waterproofing and conditioning the leather, getting heels & soles replaced when they’re worn, rather than just tossing them and getting a new pair. in the case that my business grows larger, i’m hoping that we can simply scale up a lot of the techniques that the factory currently uses, and/or start to work with a larger number of factories. fingers x-ed on that!

Before The Palatines, you were doing something else, and made a switch to begin your own shoe company. How did you make the decision to do it? Was it a hard decision? An obvious one?

yeah, as i mentioned, i was designing shoes for other designers and brands for about eight years before i wound up starting my own company. i never really found a job that felt like a really good fit – either i didn’t connect to the product we were making, or the culture of the company just wasn’t good for me. after a number of in-house design jobs, i started freelancing, which at least gave me a little bit of autonomy… but all of that was in new york city.

four years ago, my husband and i had the opportunity to move to los angeles. the idea worked really well for both of our careers, but the deciding factor was actually a full time job for me, working for a company that paid all of our moving expenses. it felt like we’d won the lottery! and then i got fired from the job after six weeks. i found myself in a new town with a very specific skill set that really wasn’t particularly valuable here. but i’d heard rumors of small footwear factories that still existed in the area, and i just got in my car and started meeting the guys (yes, it’s all guys) who run them. it took quite a bit of time for me to convince them to trust that i actually knew the basics of constructing shoes, and that i knew the business.

i started to pitch myself to potential freelance clients as a designer who could help them work with domestic factories – something that was essentially not being done at the time. i took a few projects, and started working on making shoes with the factories – got to know what their strengths and weaknesses were, and how their processes differed from the overseas factories i’d worked with in italy, portugal, brazil and china.
around the same time, a new la friend who owned a small but influential fashion store called weltenbuerger asked me to collaborate on a line of shoes for his shop. i realized that i’d done all of the legwork to start a domestically produced footwear line on behalf of my clients, so i might as well take advantage of it for myself! the collaboration was to be “co-branded” with both the weltenbuerger name and my name on the shoes, but i knew i didn’t want to use my own personal name…… thus, the furious period of research described above was the next step…

realizing that the collaboration had gone well and been well received, i just kept putting small collections together on my own, all while maintaining my freelance business…. at some point, i realized that i wanted to take the palatines more seriously, and i prepared to show the spring 2015 collection to buyers in nyc. starting in on that really upped the ante in terms of legitimacy, and it’s more or less been my main gig ever since.

so, i don’t know….. that’s how i came to be where i am. i’m not exactly sure at what point the “decision” occurred. it sometimes feels like i re-decide everyone morning to have my own company. and it always feels obvious. and hard. really really hard.

Getting fired is so amazing! I got fired from a job I hated in NYC, and the next thing I knew I was traveling to a theatre conference in Argentina, freelancing for small theatre projects, and going to grad school. Now I have normal jobs again, and it’s not better. I really admire your determination. Do you think LA is a better incubator for new designers?

no, i agree. normal jobs are not so much better. although, after doing this on my own for about three years, i will admit that there are things i miss about them! i miss having coworkers, i even miss having work gossip! i do NOT miss having work politics. and yes, getting fired IS amazing. i definitely did NOT think so when i got fired though. landing on your ass is a good place to start from, though. it really makes clear all the things you do NOT want to be doing, and the things you DON’T want your business to be.

and yes, i definitely think that la is a better incubator for new designers, 100%. there’s no way that i could be doing what i’m doing, if i were still living in nyc. for one thing, my income is very drastically reduced. i’ve been super lucky that the palatines has had a good reaction from consumers and store buyers, but it’s still in it’s very early stages. but there’s no way i could pay rent and afford to live in nyc and do this. additionally, new york just doesn’t have the resources and support system for small designers. in la we have a ton of space, and the manufacturing piece still exists here. it’s small, to be sure, but we really do have access to a lot of different options in terms of manufacturing, which is amazing.

the thing that’s great about being a designer in la is that we’re still relatively new as an industry here. it still feels like there’s enough success for everyone. so, all of us designers can really support each other – share resources, and also really collaborate. there’s not much jealousy. it definitely helps that a lot of the global art, fashion & design industries are paying a lot of attention to the city right now. it’s quite “cool” to be a designer here, at the moment. it’ll be interesting to see how things develop, once we’re not such an emerging fashion city, and we don’t hold as much of the focus. i’m really hoping that la can put itself on the map in a meaningful way, so that when the trends turn elsewhere, we still have a solid industry and community here. it would be nice to be working from a place that is really putting out quality stuff, but doesn’t feel like such a novelty.

ps! i’m definitely not complaining about all of the attention that la is getting right now! i love it, and i think it’s really well deserved – la has had a bad reputation for so long (especially among new yorkers) that it’s been really exciting and fun to see it being taken seriously for stuff other than entertainment. and it’s been amazing to be along for the ride!

You’ve done some collaborations with different shops and designers. What do you like best about that?

collaborating is the part of the design process that i miss the most from having in-house design jobs, where you’re collaborating with an apparel design team, sometimes a bag team, and you’re getting input from the creative director, the merchandising and sales departments, and everyone has their own take on the direction the collection should go! since i design the palatines collection alone, i am always really excited about collaborating with someone who brings another perspective to the product. the stores usually have a really specific idea of what their customer will respond to, so if i make suggestions, they’re really good at just saying “no”, if they know their customer won’t like it. which is great for me – “no” is one of my favorite words when i’m collaborating on a design project. it makes it so easy to re-start in another direction…

it’s been a little while since i’ve gotten to really collaborate with another designer, mostly because we’ve all got our heads down trying to bang out our own collections on time. but i’ve had some fun conversations about the idea of working with designers whose expertise is in another medium. i’m obsessed wit the combination of socks worn with my shoes, so a good friend who is a knit designer and i are hoping to do a sock or two for fall 2016. i really hope that happens. there are actually another couple of possible collabs that could happen around the same time, that i’m really excited about. but if they don’t happen, i’ll be so disappointed that i think i’d better not jinx them by mentioning them here!

Collaboration in theatre is not like that at all, I think I would love to hear no, instead I hear alot of “well how do you feel about that?” before someone will give their, now tempered by my thoughts, opinion. I hope you do a handbags project. I have a handbag in my mind that never appears in stores, that I haven’t been able to sit down and bang out.

aaah! if i ever do handbags, THAT will definitely have to be collaborative! i am not a huge lover of bags, so i don’t feel terribly inspired to make them….. and i know quite a few really great bag designers, whose product i’m quite happy to be carrying around with me. so, if the palatines bags ever happens, it’ll definitely be because i meet someone who has a similar aesthetic and wants to do it together. which i would be totally up for. maybe it’s just one great bag? i could get down with that. if it were just one really solid style that felt like a good compliment to the shoes, that sounds pretty fun.

i’m really curious though, now, to hear about what your handbag idea is! maybe it’s the one??

that’s interesting that collaborating in theatre isn’t as critical…. i wonder if it has to do with scheduling? i really know nothing about the way a theatre project develops, but as an outsider, i like to imagine that you have maybe a little more time on the concept and development side of things? we get trained to work really fast in fashion – the palatines only does two seasons per year at this point, but lots of brands do 4-6, some even do small collections every month! so, there’s literally always something new that needs to be worked on. and i do believe that in the beginning stages of building a brand, it’s really important that there being a strong voice. i mean, that’s important for a not-so-new brand as well….. but once you’ve established the voice of the brand over time, it that voice can be interpreted by other people, because the aesthetic is strong. at the moment, i think the palatines voice is just really starting to emerge, so i want it to be clear. i want it to be identifiable, even if it’s singing in harmony with other voices. it’s still there, and can be heard, hopefully. when we collaborate in fashion, we don’t have anyone in the role of director – calling the shots, and ultimately deciding whose voice is heard more strongly and when. so maybe it’s not about the scheduling at all? maybe it’s just about the fact that if you want your aesthetic to be clear, you have to make sure it’s there, being represented as you want it to be. because you’re sharing the bill, so to speak. everyone should be equally represented.

or maybe i just betrayed how little i know about working in theatre? any kind of production (theatre, film, tv, etc) just seems kind of insane to manage, from my perspective. there are so many moving parts! so many things created by people with different realms of expertise that don’t necessarily understand the goals of the folks they’re working with! it sounds like madness to a slightly type-a person such as myself. magical, too….. it’s a different kind of alchemy, what you guys do.

for me, there is a magic to fashion, but it happens nowhere near me – it’s something that happens with the consumer once they take my product out into the world. for you guys, the magic happens while you’re all in one room with your audience….. it may (hopefully does!) carry out into the world, but there’s this really specific point in time where it either lights up, or it doesn’t. in fashion, it seems more mundane, more practical…. we build something, and put as much of ourselves into it as possible. it’s very individual. then we pass it onto consumers who take what we’ve done, and put themselves into it too. so, even the commercial part of it is collaborative, which is great…. but there’s never a moment where all the people involved are in one room, and it just happens, like ka-pow! that’s so exciting, but also crazy risky. it sounds terrifying!

Check out:

@thepalatines on Instagram
The Palatines

my palatines at The Poetry Project


2 thoughts on ““landing on your ass is a good place to start” talking The Palatines hand made shoeswith Jessica Taft Langdon

  1. This was so much fun to read that I headed over to instagram and followed The Palatines. And I now covet a pair. For a gal who spends the bulk of her time in old LLBean scuffs, that is really saying something.

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