Susannah Emerson ’12 has taken on the ambitious project of starting her own company. Keep & Co. is, in simple terms, a clothing company. However, Emerson’s vision for the project is much more than just that.
After graduating from the College in 2012, Emerson moved to France and spent some time pursuing her interest in fashion at a fashion school in Paris. After withdrawing partway through and moving back to the states, she first developed the idea for Keep & Co.
“I spent more or less the last three years trying to come up with some way to infuse my interests in fine arts – or visual arts, really – and literature, to put it loosely – written critical thought and creative nonfiction, etc. – because those are the two areas of my life that I’ve been really interested in, drawn to, always,” Emerson said.
She decided that starting a company would be the best way to combine her interests in a meaningful and productive way. Thus, Keep & Co. came about. Emerson used Kickstarter to fund her project. She reached and surpassed her fundraising goal of $17,500, ultimately raising $18,020 by the close of the funding period on Sunday.
In the description of the company on Emerson’s Kickstarter page, Keep & Co. is explained as “a clothing & accessories brand that makes things to keep forever, inspired by things kept close in memory.” Further, it is differentiated from most clothing companies in that it aims to “contextualize each one of [its] products with an edition that replaces the traditional ad campaign, look book or catalogue. Instead, each new item launches with a corresponding edition that explores the item, its origins & reference points, & related themes (including style & identity, materialism, and appropriation) using a variety of media, voices & perspectives.”
Emerson has chosen to start her line with a piece inspired by a shirt that is particularly important to her: a t-shirt that she’s had since high school, when she borrowed it from her dad’s closet and never returned it. She describes this shirt as her favorite article of clothing, saying that it “has meant a lot to me in the ways that clothes do mean a lot to me, at least, in particular, but I think to most people. It’s become the t-shirt that I wear and feel my most authentic self in. If I’m meeting new people and I want to be sure that I’m making the right impression on them – where this [item of clothing] speaks to who I am, and I can stand behind whatever values someone might assume about me based off of what I’m presenting in the first 30 seconds – that’s the shirt I would wear.” Each of the items in the Keep & Co. line will be associated with one particular theme. Fittingly, Emerson plans to use this first t-shirt to talk about identity.
Now that the project is funded and her first piece is designed, she is meeting with manufacturers and hopes to officially release the shirt, and its accompanying materials, by late February or early March.
“I’m making this shirt, and then I’m going to basically put it out. Instead of with a look book or an advertisement campaign or a catalogue or whatever is typically done in the commercial fashion world, I’m going to launch it with articles and art and interviews and potentially video projects and illustrations and snippets that are focused around identity, some of that pretty broadly and then some of that specifically [relating to] how identity ties into this shirt or how it ties into questions of clothing and style,” she said.
Keep & Co. was largely inspired by Emerson’s time at the College. She was an English and art double major, and she had several influential professors whose courses and guidance helped motivate Keep & Co. One particular influence was an assignment in Emerson’s junior seminar with Professor of Art Laylah Ali. Emerson was required to make up an assignment for herself, and she gave herself the task of making 10 pieces of art every day for five days.
“Part of what I did was kind of define what I thought art making was, and I defined it as an exercise in gift-giving and presenting to the world, in the best way that you can, something that you think is really, really important,” she said. “Gradually that idea became a bigger and bigger part of my life, and I spent so much time thinking about how to make that the center point or the focus of whatever it is that I want to do.”
Emerson also points to her time running Log Lunch during her senior year as a key factor in her vision for Keep & Co. “I really, really liked how community-oriented that was. And, just the model, it was really fun for me, you know, I’d work from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Fridays, and had all these people who either started as friends or turned into friends who were also working. And we would make this thing, and there was a speaker series, and I just love that as a model for a way of spending time with other people and kind of enriching your life.”
Though for now Keep & Co. is solely an online company, Emerson has a long-term goal of someday opening a store. She says that, unlike most concept stores where the conceptual aspect is limited to visual merchandising, she would hope to also incorporate a “working-museum type of experience, where there are lots of things to be participating in” in addition to the installations of the garments.
Emerson hopes to include the College’s students in her project as well. “I think I’m a little bit late for this coming Winter Study, but I love the idea of bringing Williams students in as interns for the time being,” she said. “I think that working in any kind of start-up is a pretty cool experience as a college student, since there are so many working parts that I had no way of getting my head around and that are so, so different from what you’re doing in school. And I think that in some ways, this project of this company is very academic or theoretical at its core, and so I think that for me it’s been really interesting and fun to see how operationally you take an idea, and an idea that is so intellectual, and make it work.”
Emerson’s project is ambitious and expansive, and yet, at its core, Keep & Co. connects closely to her Williams roots: “To me, it’s so much a product of really, really wanting to take my coursework and wanting to take the experiences and the things that I was learning in college, which unfortunately in my life have not come up again outside of Williams, and wanting to find a way to put those into both my real world and other people’s lives.”