Laurence Kennedy was always a little jealous of all the options that women had in clothing.
When he couldn’t find a coat with a little color instead of just blue, black or brown, he created his own, a masculine wool pea coat that comes in a cardinal red with brown leather accents and elbow patches.
“I designed it out of pure frustration,” he said.
Kennedy, a 28-year-old Baton Rouge-based clothing designer, creates the clothes he would like to wear. His line, Tradition by Laurence Kennedy, features his own take on the “preppy” fashions he grew up loving — Tommy Hilfiger, Polo and Lacoste.
On a cold day in January, Kennedy, a solid, athletic-looking man, wore a blue sweater under a letterman jacket, both part of his winter collection, with Nike basketball shoes and studious brown, tortoise shell-framed glasses.
His first collection, which debuted in early 2011, consisted of neck ties and bow ties that borrow traditional patterns such as diagonal stripes or gingham plaids but utilize skinnier widths and brighter hues of purples and green. Made in the United States, they sell for $55 to $85.
“My thing I like to do is take traditional, classic pieces and give them a touch of Kennedy, put my own little twist on it,” Kennedy said. “Take it to that level.”
Last fall he produced the letterman jacket, a gray wool core with one red leather sleeve and one dark blue with colors inspired by the fading paint adorning a trio of abandoned buildings in New Orleans. The red pea coat will come out next fall in his new line along with an emerald green chambray shirt that’s color was inspired by a Disney cartoon Kennedy watched with his nephew.
Experiences push Kennedy’s new designs and color patterns. If he wants to create, he said, he has to do more, see more.
“If you tell me to sit down, let’s design, it’s not going to happen,” he said. “It can happen, but it’s going to be very forced, and I’m going to be frustrated at some point.”
Kennedy’s entrance to the fashion world has been slow and steady. Over three years he has carefully designed and perfected a few products, which he releases slowly and sells online and to a few boutiques. He works full time selling business-related insurance and funds his small label himself.
“He could have gone the easy route and done it fast,” said Leah Gray, the owner of Aristocracy, a men’s clothing store in Baton Rouge that carries Kennedy’s line. “He’s doing it the right way. He has more of a long-term vision.”
Born and raised in Shreveport, Kennedy’s given name is Roddrelle Sykes. While he doesn’t want to hurt his parents’ feelings, he said he uses the pseudonym because he “wanted something that sounded very fashion-forward, something that when you spoke it sounded prestigious and royal.”
His interest in fashion began during childhood treatment for asthma, when his mother would take him every week for allergy shots, and he would miss the end of the school day. After shots in both arms, they would go shopping together.
“My fixation with fashion in general and color and stuff started there,” Kennedy said. “I gravitated to color very early.”
In 2002 Kennedy moved to Baton Rouge to start school at Southern University, where he majored in marketing.
Once he started selling insurance, he dropped out of Southern as a senior.
In 2007, after dropping out, he flew to his first fashion trade show in Las Vegas. He knew little about the industry, but the show would become his school, and he would return year after year to sit in on classes and meet designers and representatives of garment factories who answered his questions about the industry.
“I was just trying to figure it all out,” he said. “I was able to soak in all the knowledge that they were giving me, and it dawned on me — I knew what void I wanted fill. I knew what I wanted to do.”
The men he wanted to sell to dressed like him — preppy, but with an edge.
One piece of advice resonated with Kennedy: Hone your vision. Get into the fashion industry with one product, establish your brand, then grow from there. After a run at making T-shirts, he decided to focus on neckwear, the perfect Southern gentleman’s fashion piece.
“It’s that traditional preppy piece I can do so much with,” he said. “I can do different fabrics, I can do different sizes. I realized, basically, what all I could do with neckwear.”
Not being blessed with drawing skills, Kennedy downloaded templates of ties from the Internet and began sketching ideas with colored pencils. He wanted to further illustrate his ideas, so he bought a package of computer programs and paid a woman in Colorado for online lessons in graphic design.
“I spent a lot of money. You have to,” Kennedy said. “My father always told me and my brother, if you really believe in something, don’t wait for someone to invest in you. You can invest in yourself.”
The years of working to get his ideas out taught some tough lessons.
He learned to order things far in advance. Once, production of his ties got bumped back by a number of weeks when a larger, more well-known label placed a bigger order at the same manufacturer.
The caution with which he places orders has also backfired.
Last year Kennedy created the wool letterman jacket with leather red and black sleeves, then showed them off at the marketplace during NOLA Fashion Week in New Orleans in October, where small boutiques and men’s clothing shops search for new brands. The jackets were expensive to make, so he ordered only 12. They all sold out the first day of the show.
Restocking the jacket took more than two months, and he missed an opportunity to get his work into more shops.
“You have to find a way to keep that hype, people excited about your product,” Kennedy said. “It was very, very encouraging, and I was very, very happy, but at the same time I was like, ‘Oh, what do I do now?’”
Later this spring Kennedy will marry his longtime girlfriend, and they plan to honeymoon in Europe. While excited about his wedding and the trip, the sights of Paris and London also sit on the edge of his mind. If old buildings in New Orleans can inspire him to create a hot-selling jacket, what will Europe do?
For the future, Kennedy wants to expand his brand to encompass a lifestyle. He has created slickly produced videos for advertising on social media. He dreams of maybe designing a boutique hotel one day after establishing his place in the fashion world.
But for now there is the day-to-day work of selling insurance and dreaming big, working into the night on ties and shirts and coats, hoping that he could create something that will be deemed “classic.”
“How many people get the chance to design a classic?” he asked. “Or how many people get a chance to take something and take it to the next level and own it?”
Patiently, Kennedy works toward that goal.