Photo: Jennilee Marigomen
Stand Up Comedy is the anti-fashion boutique. The Portland, Oregon retailerʼs elliptical and expressive approach to products, style and space is more conceptual art than conventional merchandising. Displaying a total indifference to market trends, Stand Up Comedyʼs thoughtful mix of products includes pieces from forward-looking collections like Cosmic Wonder Light Source, Henrik Vibskov and Creatures of the Wind. We talked to founders Diana Kim and Rachel Silberstein about comedy, collaboration and working in the fashion backwaters of the northwest.
Interview by Nathalee Paolinelli
Photos by Jennilee Marigomen
Was there a turning point in your lives that helped you decide to get involved in fashion?
There was no one moment, no one conscious career decision to become involved with fashion. It was a natural progression of our many interests coming together. Fashion is of course an important part, but there are more vital elements and considerations involved in making the shop as well. We’re more interested in telling that story through the lens of other practices – sculpture, design, typography. It’s the interpretation of those languages that inform the fashion side.
How did you meet?
We were working at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, but at the time, our paths rarely crossed. Then we happened to take a tap dancing class together and ﬁgured someone was trying to tell us something.
In what way do your backgrounds inﬂuence the store?
It plays a huge part in shaping the store, our way of working, our interests, our life outside the shop… basically everything we do, which in turn all leads back to the shop because it is a pretty personal endeavor. For example I think it has shaped the way we consider our buying. While we always have a story in mind, each piece is intimately considered and asked if it can stand up (comedy) by itself, which leads to our tendency towards un-styling.
How did you happen upon the name “Stand Up Comedy”?
We’re big fans of the genre because it can be sometimes messy, unsophisticated and requires a certain amount of self-awareness, much like the way we work. There is also a sense of freedom and wish fulﬁllment in comedy that we hope to invoke in the shop and also our own personal lives. Getting a laugh can be the most difﬁcult thing, hopefully we get a few now and then. Successful comedy is a combination of tension, failure, and instinct. Those elements often play a big part in our selections because controlling those factors can be seen as a strategy for getting through everyday life.
When did the store open? When did the online portion begin?
We opened up June 1, 2007. We went online in August with just a URL. The site as it exists now is a way to have a conversation with someone. Clearly it wasn’t formulated as a practical means of commerce. Can you recall when you decided to take the leap? It was a slow revelation that came about in conversations that took place over several years. We had done a lot at that point to help facilitate other people’s work. It was time to take a big risk and to deﬁne our own desires. There is a freedom that comes with consciously stepping outside the market and its expectations of relevancy and deﬁnitions of success.
How do you decide which artists and designers you collaborate with?
If we enjoy their work, whether it’s on an aesthetic level or because there’s something that we don’t understand about it. It’s a process of weeding out trend from personal and honest vision. We’re trying to make the way we work with apparel and print parallel each other in the sense that it’s a small group overall, but showing a breadth of their respective catalog. It’s also important that what’s in the shop is presented in a non-hierarchical way.
How did the collaboration with Slow and Steady Wins the Race come about?
We had the idea of doing a rainwear collaboration for a bit, it’s a big need here in the northwest and it’s surprisingly difﬁcult to ﬁnd pieces that are protective and well designed without being too sporty. Slow and Steady Wins the Race was of obvious interest not only because of our personal relationship with them (we love working with friends), but the line is very idealistic. Even though they follow the obligatory fashion calendar, the line also follows its own rhythm, which we connected with. It was incredibly fun having the launch of the collaboration here in Portland in May. Working with SSWTR also allowed the collaboration to enter a living archive. The line is set up with bi-annually installments that never go out of season and are always in production. It felt very different than most collaborations we see in fashion today.
Are there any future collaborations you’d like to mention?
We are planning a shop swap with an amazing store in New York set for fall… details coming soon. We’ll also be part of a group show at Howard House Gallery (Seattle, WA) that opens July 2.
Which designers are you interested in at the moment? Why?
Daphne and Vera Correll because they work at a very personal pace and have an amazing warmth to their work that is rare. Isaac Reina because he makes a bag look like it was meant to and believes in “no innovation any any price.” Creatures of the Wind because we admire not only their sometimes difﬁcult sensibility but also because they have chosen to work in fashion outside of the major hubs and use that as a limitation to their advantage. Something we can empathize with.
What was the last thing you saw or read that inspired you?
While watching HBO’s True Blood the other night (season 1 spoiler alert) I was in complete disbelief when Sam revealed himself as a shape shifter. Why would the existence of a shape shifter in a world where vampires live in partial unison with humans surprise me so much? If vampires exist, who knows what else can, very important reminder. Other inspirations: The class and dignity of Conan O’Brien during his transition to the Tonight Show in the face of slimy moves by Jay Leno; Arthur Russell; George Tiller and his family; the recent interview with Rei Kawakubo in the NY Times because even your heroes aren’t infallible (there’s something appallingly oblivious about the whole thing that I can’t quite place), the Indigo Girls; Lauren Ray, a librarian at the University of Washington who is extremely talented with research.
We came across this pseudo mission statement for your store: “Stay within XXX budget. Have a memorable inventory. Don’t add anything ﬁxed to the space that doesn’t already exist in some form, only take away. Do not stock anything that can already be found locally. Make a website using a free program. Make it a living archive. Do not deviate from the standard template. Do not style products in the shop. Do not style products on the website. Do not attempt to cultivate an experience, only hope for the best. When a project is done in the shop, it becomes a shop project. Nothing should happen behind closed doors, no matter how messy or odd it may seem to a visitor. It’s a small ways of acknowledging that art becomes life becomes work becomes art. And on a more brutal note, that retail environments don’t have to be precious; neither does inventive, really special work of all kinds have to be.” What made you write it? How true to this statement do you remain?
It came from a press need but it’s also important to re-evaluate what the heck we are doing because it’s always changing. So…this is what we follow now but that could easily change in the future.
Do you ﬁnd your community to be supportive of what youʼre doing? Your business is unique to Portland but it seems a lot more adventurous and ambitious than many of the things happening.
Our community support is smaller than it would be in other cities, but what we do have here is strong and intimate. It’s difﬁcult at times because there isn’t a long tradition here of arts patronage, or community- based support of arts institutions which is often the jumping off point for ensuring the health of like-minded small business. At the same time, you have the ability to create your own imprimatur without the burden of what’s come before. We also have wonderful support from elsewhere which means a great to deal to us and reminds us that we’re not working in a vacuum. Portland is, in a way, anti-fashion. It makes our job harder, but reinforces that this is the right place for us to be.
Can you provide any insight into the process of opening a business like yours? Any advice for someone with similar ambitions?
Don’t lower your expectations, keep compromises to a minimum, and get a water cooler.
Stand Up Comedy Website