Amid the baroque kitsch that passes for sophistication in the shopping district of Northwest 23rd Avenue, Seaplane stands out like a sore thumb. A beautiful, well-designed and intelligent sore thumb. From the Malia Jensen-designed tree that dominates the front window to the flowing, organically refined designs that accompany it, to the subdued color of the store’s interior, Seaplane brings a level of urbane awareness to the gaudiness surrounding it.
For more than five years Kathryn Towers and Holly Stadler, the women who are Seaplane, have been alternately creating and facilitating great design in Portland. With their own label as well as a team of designers, the boutique became a destination in its original location on Seaplane Belmont, and since their move to Northwest 23rd the influence of Seaplane has become even more apparent.
The annual Seaplane fashion event has grown to audiences of over 1,000, and the store and its designers have been featured in magazines ranging from W magazine, Elle and Lucky, to Bust, Venus and ReadyMade. Stadler, with some detail clarification from Towers, talked recently about the history of Seaplane, the difficult nature of glamour, and what it’s like being at the forefront of the Portland independent design revolution.
Tell me a little about the history of Seaplane, your original location and how the move to Northwest has affected the store.
We have been in business since October 1999. Both Kate and I were working together at the vintage store Kitty Princess when it went out of business and the owner vacated the space and left it to us.
We changed the name to Seaplane and continued to sell vintage pieces but slowly changed the store over to handmade and locally designed items. As time went on our designers grew and the quality of the designs got better.
Our decision to move was twofold: first our space on Belmont Street was in a depressing state of disrepair and also we felt as more of our designers were making a living sewing full time it was time to move Seaplane into a shopping district. The move has been great for the business of the store and also the designers who sell here. We also get all kinds of customers here and are happy to introduce people to the concept of buying locally and supporting local designers. There are also many other small, locally owned businesses on the street and everyone has been very supportive and welcoming to us. The highlight of the move so far is being in a beautiful space that doesn’t have a leaky roof!
As designers what are your inspirations?
Our inspiration comes from so many places. I think we are influenced by high fashion, the fantasy of completely extravagant non-practical pieces of clothing. On a good day when everything is going well in my sewing studio I consider my job to be like a constant game of dress-up. I think Kate and I are both inspired by the fabrics that we choose. Seeking out luxurious fabrics or antique fabrics and then making a one-of-a-kind dress especially for that fabric.
As one of the first successful independent boutiques in Portland how do you feel about the explosion of local stores and designers of late?
It is great. I think we were in the right place at the right time. Neither of us planned on having the store. If we were the forerunners of explosion, I am glad if we could have helped others by example. We try to keep our store unique by having our own set of designers and that is harder the more boutiques that open, but more importantly it is great to see the locally owned places able to make a living.
A big part of the success of our store is the friendship that we have.
We have a lot of fun doing what we do. We never set out to make any money by opening a store and if it was motivated by money we would have quit a long time ago. Success isn’t always measured in dollars, that’s for sure!
Do you feel like all the new boutiques have lent themselves to a feeling of cohesion among designers in Portland?
Portland doesn’t really have a cohesive fashion scene, not like the nationally recognized fashion weeks that larger cities like New York or Paris have. However there are brilliant designers here who have their own shows and are truly independent. It is great to be recognized on a national level, one step closer to putting Portland on the map for fashion.
I know you both have spent time doing illustration and art outside of the fashion realm. Is there a crossover or do you see clear lines between disciplines?
We both went to school for art. There is a crossover in all design. Some people are artists and others aren’t. I am good with color, painting, composition and photography. Kate is an amazing illustrator, graphic designer, painter and interior decorator. I think clothing design is equal parts technical skills and style/imagination. Technical skills can be learned, but the style part you need to find for yourself. I think we both pull from our other artistic talents and have a true sense of our individual styles.
How do you select designers for the store? Is there a Seaplane aesthetic?
Running the store is rewarding. Having a business is a very organic thing, it grows and shrinks and you don’t have a whole lot of control over it. We like to think of the overall health and happiness of our business, set personal goals for ourselves and for the store to grow in the right direction.
We are very picky about what goes into the store. We want to support people’s creative endeavors, but if we don’t love it we won’t sell it. There is a Seaplane look. It is delicate, often with soft muted colors - a contrast of modern and antique.