By James Maher
Names: Kathy Kemp (left) and Kimberle Vogan
Occupations: Clothing designer/owner, employee at Anna
Location: Anna, 11th Street between 1st and 2nd Ave.
Time: Friday, May 2 at 4:30 pm
Kathy: I’m from outside of Reading, Pennsylvania. It was a pretty small town. I usually just tell people I’m from Philadelphia. I was 23 when I moved to Philadelphia. I went to college there and studied cultural anthropology and then I didn’t know what I was doing, so I moved here with a friend.
I never was drawn to New York City or the East Village but I was always interested. Somehow I landed here. I knew I wanted to do something in fashion but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had friends who were stylists and then someone said to me, ‘You should just do something that you love. Think about what you love and what you are good at.’ I thought, ‘Well, I’ve always made clothing and I know how to sew really well. I love shopping. I’ll open a store!’
What a great idea, because I didn’t have any money at all, but I looked around and found a place on East 3rd Street in 1995. Then it was definitely doable; there were people doing it all over. It was stupid and easy if you wanted to take the chance. If you just wanted to, you could blow the $3,000 that you had, go have fun, and meet a lot of new people and connections. Now you can’t even do that. I feel really sorry for people today who want to do this, because it’s almost impossible to do it these days.
I had less than $5,000 dollars and my rent was $600 to start but the catch was that my store used to be a drug-dealing place that sold cocaine and pot. The place had just been busted; it was broken apart. It used to be called Village Bikes — a bike shop that wasn’t really a bike shop. I walked in there and the police must have smashed everything, including the electrical box. We went back to the bathroom area and the toilet was completely smashed down to the sewer line. The only other thing that was in the space, besides smashed-up stuff and graffiti and old, smashed up florescent lights, was this huge mound of bikes in the middle, to make it a convincing bike store to be in. I had to clear those away and underneath all of the bikes was a giant hole in the floor that you could see the basement through. That was why it was $600 a month.
Then after I opened my store, for like 10 years afterwards, people used to come in and ask, ‘Is this the bike shop?’ I’d have to say, ‘No, this is a clothing shop.’ And then they’d ask, ‘Oh, well… do you sell bike parts?’ Ironically enough, the bike people had moved to the tire shop down the street. There was a tire shop where the Snack Dragon is now.
Kimberle: If your friend came into town and they got their car broken into you could just go to the tire shop and be like, ‘Yo, can we at least have the luggage back? Can you just keep what’s in it?’ And they’d be like, ‘Well, if you go down to Avenue D on the corner and look in the garbage can, it might be there.’ So you could go there to pick up your lost stolen belongings.
Kathy: People would get meth around the corner and some people would sell it on 3rd Street right out front. They’d go into the phone booths and leave the drugs in a paper bag. They all knew that nobody normal was going into a phone booth these days. Then the next person would come along and pick up the paper bag.
Kimberle: Every Monday and Friday were Meth Monday and Friday. I would go outside and just start sweeping really big and they’d plead me to stop.
Kathy: When I think about it, I was really stupid when I opened up the store, but I was also very, very lucky. I never would have done it knowing everything that I learned the hard way for 20 years. I was lucky because I landed in this spot. It was the 1990s in the East Village. Everyone was so supportive. It seemed like I landed in freelance central, where I was surrounded by writers, so people wrote about me, and stylists, who were walking home from pulling for their jobs and got stuff from my store. Even makeup and hair people would kidnap me and do makeovers on me. It was like a dream.
The first day that I opened my store so many great and amazing people came in that I left thinking it was too good to be true. I left thinking the store was going to burn down because this couldn’t be happening. It was the opposite vibe of now, where everyone walks around seeing what’s closed. It was, what’s new, what’s going on, what’s that going to be?
I opened up at 12 or 1 at the time. I was a workaholic when I first opened. I love the city so much I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t leave for three years at all until I met my husband. I’d wake up and work, do all my fabric sourcing and stuff and I’d go to work and a lot of people from the neighborhood would roll out of bed right as I was opening my gates. People would come in and have their coffee with me. It was really, really cool. A lot of the same people have shopped here since then.
Kimberle: It was like a therapist’s office. Lots of neighborhood people would come in to talk. I’ve worked with Kathy off and on for 17 years, but I shopped here every day for 3 years before I started working here. I was one of the crazies. Every day I shopped here because she got things in all of the time and for a lot of the pieces there are only one or two or three of them, so you want to know what she’s doing and you want that piece. I would come in everyday after work to look for what to wear to work the next day.
Kathy: I design all the clothes now but when I first opened up I was a vintage shop. I immediately realized that if you have a vintage shop, then everyone wants the same thing, so I just started changing everything to look like that one thing. For instance, one of the items that we did was dyed slips. We started dying slips in crazy colors. We dyed them day-glow colors. People were just crazy then. People would come in and would be going out to clubs at night and would want to wear something that was crazy. When I design something, I usually buy the fabric and make the sample on a mannequin or myself and then I give it to my sample maker who I’ve been working with for 17 years. I design everything except the jewelry.
Kimberle: I remember back in the day, it wasn’t always about going home to get ready to go out and planned out like that. You either worked or you didn’t work in the daytime, and if you did or didn’t, you just went over to a coffee shop like Café Limbo and hung out. Sometimes they’d have a sale, and then you might go down and have some Sushi at Avenue A Sushi. You’d go there and get sushi and then you’d go to Anna and somewhere else and you’d pick your outfit.
Kathy: Everyone was trying to outdo everyone, but not in a competitive way — just because it was fun.
We moved to 11th Street nearly two years ago. I loved 3rd Street and I missed my neighbors. It’s hard for me to change. I’m someone who resists change.
Kimberle: Moving to this street seems like a big upgrade to a lot of people. “Wow, you’re on shopping alley and you have all this space.” On 3rd Street we didn’t have a bathroom or a dressing room but it was home. It was the people who came there that made it home. We used to have people just walk around the store in their bras. There would be like 5 people just in their bras. They were comfortable. Those people come here now and it feels like being in a mansion. They want to take their clothes off in the middle of the store and we’re like, ‘there’s a dressing room now.’
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.