How I'm Making It: The Sister Design Duo Behind LA-Based Label Elkin

The sister duo behind LA-based label Elkin are the type of in-the-know girls you want have a beer with. Kara and Brit Smith listen to everything from
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The sister duo behind LA-based label Elkin are the type of in-the-know girls you want have a beer with. Kara and Brit Smith listen to everything from
Photo: Elkincollection.com

Photo: Elkincollection.com

The sister duo behind LA-based label Elkin are the type of in-the-know girls you want have a beer with. Kara and Brit Smith listen to everything from Dolly Parton to Iron Maiden, reference cyberpunk novels and consider Lolita an ultimate inspiration. It’s no wonder that they’ve been dressing Hollywood’s cool kids, including the cast of Girls, who recently wore their designs for their NY Mag cover story. Their collections mirror their contrasting passions-- a sense of nostalgia and literature combined with their modern, LA lifestyle. The resulting pretty-meets-punk aesthetic appeals to both naughty and nice sensibilities. The good girl/bad girl dynamic has roots in their teenage years where Kara spent many an afternoon in detention while Brit studied in the library. So just how did these sisters come together to create Elkin? We caught up with the girls to find out.

Tell us about starting the label. What were you doing before? Kara Smith: I was designing for different labels and working with mean spirited people, who I won't name. I learned so much though, especially how to treat people in a stressful industry and how to balance owning a company with my home life. Finding that separation and balance is a huge challenge.

Brit Smith: I worked for jewelry designer Jennifer Meyer for several years before starting Elkin and loved it. It was such a mellow and fun experience – the opposite of Kara's experience! Ultimately, Kara and I just knew we had too much creative synergy not start our own label and make our life into this fanciful weird world that stems from our imaginations.

What have been your biggest challenges with the business? K: Remembering to stay true to who we are and not become what other people want us to be. Instant gratification is a killer.

B: Learning how to balance the creative side with the business side. The creative side is way more fun.

What’s it like to work together as sisters? K: Half ‘Ughh” and half magic!

B: It's really, really fun and really, really hard. We laugh a ton and we fight a ton. But at the end of the day, we love what we create together.

How are you two similar and different? K: We really do share a scary, twinsy mind, and ultimately we are more similar than not. We have shown up to meetings in the exact same dress or shoes numerous times. But we do have differences. Brit likes being in the ocean, I don't. I like black; Brit likes white.

What have been your proudest moments as designers? K: Girls wearing our clothes and telling us how much they love them and how good the pieces make them feel. Knowing that someone feels confident and beautiful because of something you created feels awesome.

A look from Elkin's Fall 2012 collection

A look from Elkin's Fall 2012 collection

Literature is a huge influence, how does it play into your collections? B: It plays heavily into our collections. We base each collection off out interpretation of a literary genre. We launched with Gothic Romance, our second collection was inspired by The Great American Frontier--specifically the brothels of the Old West--and our third collection was inspired by sci-fi. Our upcoming Spring/Summer ‘13 collection is inspired by maritime, sea fantasy. You can get so much inspiration from literature; it's incredible. Our Fall ‘12 collection hits stores this week. We referenced sci-fi and cyberpunk novels like Dune, Ubik, The Diamond Age, Neuromancer and listened to music like Air, Fever Ray, Iron Maiden, M83 and The Knife while creating. You'll see that this collection has a lot of leather, metallic, galactic brocades, a tough yet feminine look and a minimalistic backdrop. For our lookbook it was dewy face, bold lip and alien ballerina hair.

What would be on your current mood board? K: Currently on our mood board are photos of mermaids, John Fante, a coral Cadillac, and the Beverly Hills Hotel.

B: Along with pages from Taschen's Los Angeles: A Portrait of a City, a lot of cool obscure looking barnacles, starfish, sea anemones, coral and moss colored fabric swatches. Also black net that looks like bondage fabric yet still evokes a nautical, fishing feel and Polaroids of our girlfriends wearing our clothes.

K: We also have one mood board that is constant and never changes. It's a compilation of all of our favorite things and people that act as style icons for us. Maya Deren, Miss Hannigan from Annie, Blousey and Tallulah from Bugsy Malone, dreamy photos from Robert Altman's film Three Women, our grandfather's painting. A lot of cinematic characters fill that board.

What’s on your current playlist? B: Our current Elkin playlist is specific to our Spring/Summer collection, which is inspired by Los Angeles retro beach bondage of the 1930s-1950s, so it's: The Beach Boys, Bessie Banks, The Shirelles, Maxine Brown, The Ronettes and Best Coast. That playlist helps gets us in the mood and inspires us as we create. We set a specific playlist for each collection. Music plays such a big role in the creation of our collections.

K: On our everyday playlists, it's more of an eclectic mix: Rilo Kiley, The Elected, Tom Waits, Dolly Parton, Hanni El Khatib, France Gall, Ratatat, Murder City Devils, JJAMZ, Nightmare and the Cat. A lot of old music mixed with music by our friend’s bands.

Who is the Elkin girl? K: Our girlfriends, who all happen to be beautiful artists! They are classy with a sprinkle of crude. They are youthful, rebellious, daring both in their personal style and the way they live their lives, intelligent, artistic, sophisticated, style chameleons, honest, bold, confident and of course fun.

B: You will still see our ever-present Lolita style dresses and our sophisticated Lolita girl, and of course the Elkin paradox of dainty with dark, pretty with punk, which is indicative of the bad girl, good girl dynamic of our brand.

Do you follow current fashion trends and designers? B: I guess you could say we follow what's going on in fashion, but we don't follow trends or get too involved in what's “in” right now, because it ends up being a mind-fuck when designing. We are more inspired by literature, music, cinema, travel, vintage treasures and our LA lifestyle than by current trends or existing designers.

Do you travel a lot? What are your favorite places? B: When we're not working, we love traveling. I love Paris. I love Mexico. And I love camping. I love any travel adventure really.

K: Yes. I love Mexico, I love Portugal, and I love our family ranch in Santa Ynez. But I always ache to be back in LA.

Any exciting plans on the horizon that you can share? K: We're working on a secret collab with an amazing girl friend of ours.

B: We're working on making each collection better and better and more interesting. And we're working on Elkin Vintage Home Decor.