Today, Portland has a reputation as a thriving center of independent makers, a place where designers of all kinds have a welcome environment to create and make a living from their crafts. But I often wonder if people think about the founding mothers and fathers of our indie scene, and how they helped to cultivate this landscape of creativity.
For me, Kara Lynn Larson, owner of both Tumbleweed and Grasshopper, and who died this week of cancer, was one of those people. How many of us saw her “Wear More Dresses” ads inside bathroom stalls across the city (sometimes while change jingled out of your pants pockets, causing you to nod silently at the prompt)? She churned out her Kara-Line dresses for half of Portland at a time when it didn’t occur to most to meet the person who made your clothes.
Designer Kate Towers, co-founder with Holly Stalder of iconic shop Seaplane, remembers looking up to Larson, “I remember reading about her in Bust or Willamette Week when I first moved to Portland, before we started Seaplane [in 2000]. I thought she was so cool," says Towers. "She came to my yard sale, and I was kind of starstruck. I think she bought my cowboy boots. She was always just normal and nice and supportive, not pretentious. She was here doing this before any of us, sewing her dresses and running her shop. We all looked up to her.”
Larson’s 14-month battle with cancer may be at an end, but her beloved Alberta stores will continue to operate after her death. Tumbleweed’s official announcement from her husband John, son Billy, and dedicated staff say they will soon announce a Celebration for Kara event for all who cared about her. The post quotes Larson's final words, “that she’d be cheering at the ballpark and cheering us all on to follow our dreams.”
Longtime local designer Elizabeth Dye shared a perfect snapshot of Portland's burgeoning fashion scene circa 2004 with (from left to right) Dye, Holly Stalder, Liza Rietz, Adam Arnold, Kate Towers, and Kara Larson. She added these words about her late design colleague:
"Just before this photo was taken, Kara muttered to me that someone must have made a mistake by including her in this lineup of the 'cool kids.' But of course Kara was an original cool kid–Tumbleweed, her boutique on Alberta Street, was well on its way to becoming an institution while the rest of us were still scrambling to put on 'edgy' fashion shows in the gritty Southeast warehouses that have become today’s 'creative office space.' Her effortless frocks and her motto 'Wear more dresses' became a signature that tapped into something honest and playful and quintessentially Portland. As I went on to open my own store and get my sea legs as a designer, she became my favorite person to talk shop with—she was generous with no-nonsense advice and a touchstone for doing things your own way. She was always a few steps ahead—that big sister who had places to be but would let you look through her record collection.
My favorite memory of Kara is the day I bumped into her and her husband stumbling tipsily out of a Pearl District sports bar (!) in the middle of the day. They admitted that they had been enjoying a few nerve-steadying cold ones, since they had just signed the paperwork to buy the building that housed Tumbleweed. A few steps ahead of us, as usual, and celebrating.”
In lieu of flowers, Larson's family asks that donations be made to the Wilshire Riverside Little League in her honor.
Larson's memorial service will be Wednesday, June 15.