The Tale of Banana Republic's Kim Mitchell - The Grace Tales

The Tale of Banana Republic’s Kim Mitchell



“I never realized I could do what I’m doing as a career because I didn’t see anyone else doing it”, Art Director and blogger Kim Mitchell tells us. She’s been creating content for her blog since 2004 – a decade before the term ‘influencer’ would become ubiquitous...

“The first year I started blogging, I went to Bryant Park for Fashion Week, and you still showed up with a printed invitation and the volunteers checked you in using a clipboard. There was still the suspense of having seen a show live since images weren’t available immediately afterwards. Now a fashion show can be on Instagram Live.”

Her blog j’adore couture evolved from a thesis project in which she designed a fashion magazine for women of colour. As a Black woman working in the notoriously white-washed American fashion industry, it’s something she’s well-versed in. “When you’re the only person of color in the room, it can feel isolating”, she explains. “Black Americans have $1.3 trillion in buying power, and they are underrepresented in areas like fashion and interiors. The population of BIPOC is only increasing yet magazines don’t have Black editors, brands don’t have Black executives. It’s especially problematic as brands have been leveraging Black culture, but not hiring Black talent to execute. Companies need to do a better job of hiring Black employees, and then nurture them when they’re in the room.”

Now behind the art direction wheel at Gap, creating diverse content for Banana Republic as well as her long-running blog, Kim is well and truly in the room. We speak to the creative about how the blogging world has changed, why she’s been unfairly labelled as ‘aggressive’, and how fashion is becoming more democratic. In that case, Kim Mitchell gets our vote.

 

Visit j’adore couture | Follow Kim at @kimair | Go to Kim’s portfolio


Tell us about your childhood. Where did you grow up, and where did your love of fashion come from?

I grew up in Philadelphia, and I love the mix of history and modernity. My maternal grandmother used to make her own clothes, and clothes for me, so she’d have patterns and catalogs around. Philadelphia is very close to New York City, and I have family that lives there who I spent time with. My aunt would take me to her favorite vintage stores and I’d pour through her stacks of magazines and be so inspired.


Was creativity and self-expression something your family actively encouraged, or were you naturally drawn to it?

My family did encourage my artistic side. I took art classes at a local college and played the flute. Once I got to high school however, they were much more practical and wanted me to focus on a major where it would be easier to get a job right away. I also never knew about art direction and design as a career path, but once I discovered it after my sophomore year of college, I never looked back.


You now work as an art director for brands including Banana Republic - what was your career path to get there?

I was working at Grey, a big advertising agency in San Francisco, and after three years, I was feeling I had hit my ceiling there. I was doing some freelance work on the side and decided to leave to do that full-time, while also networking to get a job at a fashion brand. I started doing some contract work for a design studio and one of their clients was Gap. The account manager said they were looking for someone to come on full-time, and the rest is history. Initially I was on a team on the corporate side, but eventually I moved to the Banana Republic creative team.


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You started your blog j'adore couture back in 2004. What inspired you to get started?

I was going to graduate school at Academy of Art University, and my thesis was developing and designing a fashion magazine for women of color. The head of the department suggested I start a blog to work on my writing, and at the time I had no idea what a blog was. I went onto Blogger, picked a username, and started typing. In the beginning, j’adore couture was more fashion news, magazine round-up’s, and fashion show reviews—not at all focused on me. I started adding more personal essays and style posts, which resonated with my readers. At the same time, Twitter and Instagram were around, so I had other channels to promote the blog and I started seeing it grow.


How have the worlds of blogging and fashion changed since you first started?

So much is digital now! The first year I started blogging, I went to Bryant Park for Fashion Week, and you still showed up with a printed invitation and the volunteers checked you in using a clipboard. There was still the suspense of having seen a show live since images weren’t available immediately afterwards. Now a fashion show can be on Instagram Live. Fashion has become more democratic—people wearing brands like Balenciaga and Ganni are also wearing H&M and Gap. And you no longer need a “blog” to be a blogger. You can blog on Tumblr or Instagram.


Have there ever been times where you've lost the motivation or inspiration to keep creating content? What keeps you going?

I believe all content creators go through phases where they struggle with motivation and inspiration. I’ve had periods where work has been especially busy or I’ve had things going on in my personal life where I’ve had to take a step back when it comes to the blog.


What does a typical day look like in your role?

What I love about what I do is that there is no typical day. Some of the things I do every day are check in with my team to see where they are with projects, go onto Pinterest for new inspiration, and catch up on fashion news. Some days I’m in strategy meetings doing pre-season planning or working on a layout for an upcoming website refresh and others I’m shooting social content or giving my team feedback on projects that are in review that week.


If you weren't working in fashion, what would you be doing?

I would probably be an architect or an urban planner; my initial major in college was civil engineering. I’ve always been obsessed with cities.


How has your personal style changed over time?

My personal style has always been grounded in an East Coast prep vibe. When I was younger, I loved wearing vintage blazers, Levi’s, graphic tees, and loafers. As I’ve gotten older, those things are still a constant in my style, but I’ve added more feminine pieces like a full midi skirt and heels. Recently I’ve leaned in more to streetwear, something I’ve always loved in my “off-duty” looks but it’s now working its way into my daily outfits.


What are some of the roadblocks you've come across in your career?

Starting out, it was always my dream to combine my love of design with my love of fashion. In the beginning working at advertising agencies, it was challenging to get a job in-house with a brand because I didn’t have in-house experience. It was frustrating because design is design; it shouldn’t necessarily matter as long as you understand the fundamentals of design.  


You've spoken about being a minority and not seeing yourself represented in fashion and magazines when you were younger. Why do you think representation is so important?

Representation is important because the world we’re living in is diverse. Black Americans have $1.3 trillion in buying power, and they are underrepresented in areas like fashion and interiors. The population of BIPOC is only increasing yet magazines don’t have Black editors, brands don’t have Black executives. It’s especially problematic as brands have been leveraging Black culture, but not hiring Black talent to execute. Companies need to do a better job of hiring Black employees, and then nurture them when they’re in the room. I never realized I could do what I’m doing as a career because I didn’t see anyone else doing it.


Kim’s work for Banana Republic’s Spring campaign


Do you still find there are stereotypes and assumptions around race and gender in the fashion world - and how do you deal with them if so?

Yes for both race and gender. Fashion historically is something that was for the elite and in many ways, it’s still seen in that way. I have been told that I am “aggressive” or “defensive” or had people questioning my education. I’ve been in situations where my opinion was the same as a male colleague, but he was valued more. And when you’re the only person of color in the room, it can feel isolating. I find asking questions back like “why do you think I’m being aggressive?” can help diffuse the situation. But honestly, some biases can’t be changed.


Can you tell us about a career highlight?

Art directing my first photoshoot was definitely a highlight. I had been working collaboratively with my mentor for a while; he said “you’ve got this” and let me run a shoot on my own. Recently I worked on the marketing for a product line we launched called True Hues, pieces in a range of skintones. I came up with the concept, helped cast a group of talented women from across the company, art directed the shoot, and designed the digital assets.


And what about a lowlight? Have you made any mistakes you wish you could take back?

I probably could have been a bigger advocate for myself earlier in my career. People pushed back when I had an idea or told me I wasn’t ready for certain responsibilities and projects, and I let it go. Sometimes I can be hard to fight for yourself and know your own worth. I could have done those projects on the side and presented it, or come up with a compromise on an idea.


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With the rise of social media, there are more bloggers and influencers now than ever. What do you think it takes to stand out?

It’s all about honing in on what makes you unique and not copying what you see other influencers doing. Also it’s a marathon, not a sprint…success doesn’t come overnight and you really have to love what you’re doing and sharing. If you’re getting into it to make money, you won’t be successful.


Have you ever experienced burnout?

Working in retail can feel a lot like the movie Groundhog Day. Each year you’re working on the same seasons over and over, and it can be challenging to think of something new for things like holiday or summer. It’s so important to step away from work and recharge…whatever that means for you. Since I spend so much time on a computer or a phone, for me it’s unplugging. My favorite thing to do is go to a museum or for a walk around the city. I’ll take pictures and save them to an inspiration folder.


What's next for you?

Good question! No matter what, I want to keep listening, learning, and growing. With fashion, there’s always something new coming around the corner and you have to be willing to adapt.


What's on your current list of loves?

  • 1619 – This podcast from the New York Times examines the history of slavery. It’s eye-opening and heartbreaking all at once.
  • Cacio e Pepe – my favorite comfort meal
  • Pilates – I’m a runner at heart, but pilates helps me feel stronger and more connected to my body.
  • Earl Grey tea – I’ve never had coffee in my life. I’m a big tea drinker and it’s usually Earl Grey or a green tea.
  • Proenza Schouler tees and sweatshirts – working from home means I want to wear something soft and cozy, but also pulled together. They always have the best prints.
  • Journaling – I started keeping a daily journal at the beginning of the year, and it’s become a morning practice to write what I’m grateful for.
  • Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story on USA Network – I didn’t really remember the story from when I was a kid, but the acting in this adaptation is really good.
  • Tove Studio – I recently discovered this brand via Net-a-Porter, and I’m in love with their dresses.

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