An Interview with Kathleen Murphy of Kámen Road

Kámen Road offers limited edition travel and work bags made on the West Coast of the United States. The company, founded by Kathleen Murphy believes in ethical and sustainable design and business practices. Read more about her and journey into sustainable fashion.

Tell us about yourself – familial/personal story, education, and prior work.

First, I want to thank you for this opportunity. I was born and raised in San Jose, California – the Santa Clara Valley – now Silicon Valley. My family traveled the United Sates in a van all Summer long. My dad was a teacher, bird watcher, absolute nature lover, and conservationist in his own way. My mom is the most life loving person known to me. She is a map lover and was our navigator. We stopped at every historic landmark on every back road. We explored the most beautiful landscapes. I will never forget the desert sunrises and the weeping willows of the Bayou.

Travel became what I needed to do to think and to understand my place in the world. I was a creative kid – inward. I loved the game of soccer and loved simple, open, and quiet spaces. I saw shapes. I wrote poetry. I ended up writing proposals for non-profits for more than 15 years, but I hit a wall. I had no creative outlet. I did not have experience sewing or making. So, I thought that I could never do it.

I stopped writing proposals and started to focus on what I wanted most of all, which was a travel bag that could hold everything that I truly loved. My favorite sweater, shoes, socks, books, etc., in one bag for one month. I feel strongly that when we only possess what we love, and know who and how they made it, then we are most fulfilled and connected to our life. We can ‘live free and content on the open road’ like Walt Whitman said.

Kathleen Murphy of Kámen Roadkathk

How did you get interested in ethical and sustainable fashion?

I had to pay for my school clothes. I had an aunt and grandmother who were amazing shoppers in terms of quality. I learned to spot the highest quality clothing on the clearance racks in the outlet stores. I also could see the mounds of cheaply made clothes. I could see the waste, but I needed clothes. I wanted clothing and shoes that would hold up and have something uniquely special. I wanted to see woven patterns and colors that were purposeful and personal. In the 90s, the Adidas child labor scandal broke. I loved everything Adidas as a soccer player, and I woke up then to the sickness behind what I bought. I started to pay attention to Fair Trade. In San Francisco before Renegade arrived, I found shopping events that featured individual designers. Talking to them, understanding their passion and the challenge of costs and high quality design work was the tipping point for me.

How did your educational/professional experience inform fashion work?

I think studying literature and the liberal arts – history was so interesting to me – to understand how people lived throughout time—what they wore, the social barriers, architecture, and how it defined relationships. My college education brought to the surface my great passion for art and design. I would wander the halls of the art building at San Jose State. I envied those students, their creativity, and all their ideas expressed in all kinds of mediums. I couldn’t really draw so I thought creating art was not possible for me. I loved to write but it wasn’t the exact expression that held me. I had all kinds of ideas, but didn’t have the skills to capture in form what was in my head. Professionally, I started to write proposals for sustainable business models, and I was hooked because there was now a very real bridge between social good, and products and services that were carried through with ethics, and people, and opportunity in mind all along the way.

What is the importance of ethical and sustainable fashion designers and companies?

For me, it is life changing. Consumers can know exactly the materials and processes that go into making what they buy. They can see and perhaps understand better the difficulty of the decision making for brands and what we will not compromise on and what we must compromise on at times. Large companies when they choose ethical and sustainable practices can ensure that mass production, if it is a necessity in terms of the global economy, can offer and ensure safety, prosperity, and mobility in a person’s life. That is the importance of ethical and sustainable fashion. That, as consumers, designers, small businesses, and large companies, we are making sure that what we want in our lives is equally possible for someone else. Not through charitable giving always, but in making our everyday and special consumer purchases a real expression of our belief in and support of all people.

The first Kámen Road weekender — Equestrian inspired — unlined suede inside — Saddle leather support on bottom. Six feet. Natural 100% Hemp canvas to close and for extra packing space.

Who is a personal hero or heroine within the ethical and sustainable fashion world for you?

I have to say Andy Goldsworthy. I know that he is not in fashion, but I so admire what he has shown is possible in terms of nature and beauty.

What is Kámen Road?

Kámen Road is a travel and work bag collection that uses natural materials that last the longest and age the best, using local artists and makers as much as possible, with the ultimate goal of one-bag travel so we can connect better with the world around us every day.

What are some of its feature products?

Right now, we offer a signature leather and hemp canvas weekender, a laptop/book bag messenger bag, a portfolio case, and soon to be released touring bag.

What is your customer base – the demographics?

All people – all lifestyles – who are seeking very personal connections with the people who make their bags.

15″ Laptop clutch/sleeve with zipper pocket inside for phone, keys, and other essentials. Available in brown, black, cognac. Full grain leather.

There have been large tragedies such as the Rana Plaza collapse, which was the largest garment factory accident in history with over 1,000 dead and more than 2,500 injured. Others were the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911) and the Pakistan Garment Factory Fires (2012). What are the importance of human rights and worker rights in this new movement, and to the garment industry?

I hope that ethical and sustainable fashion is no longer a new movement very soon. To answer your questions about workers, especially women, and children, we have to ask: how is a material product ever more important than a person’s life? Fair labor standards should be a given. If you would not work in that factory, why should someone else? The fact that the fashion industry is still connected to these tragedies is absolutely a human rights violation.

The fact that companies don’t know about the conditions of the factories is impossible to understand. We know that large fashion companies have auditors that are responsible for conducting factory inspections, but exploitation still happens, so where is the break down? Can we monitor, report, and correct labor violations as individual consumers and people in the fashion industry as a global community instead of one country versus another?

Right now, consumers have options to purchase nearly every type of clothing and accessory from ethical and sustainable brands. The higher cost of ethical brands is said to be a main reason for a consumer’s decision to buy larger and cheaper brands. I understand, and I am open to, identifying every possible method that will show people what is at stake when companies produce without caring about the human impact of their profit.

How can individuals, designers, fashion industries, and consumers begin to work to implement those rights so that these vulnerable populations in many countries of the world have better quality of life?

I think of all the Fair Trade organizations and all the brands investing in their workers, but it is still not enough. We have fair trade certifications. We still have the tragedies. Do we have a global march? Do we write a global agreement? Do we already have these mechanisms in place but without enforcement, we continue to put material things over people. I usually speak to the choir about our consumer power to change the fashion industry. But at every show, I have an opportunity to talk about the decisions that I make and how ethical and sustainable business is an ongoing process of research, improvement, and ultimately social good.

What topics most interest you?

Bio-mimicry, sustainable travel, a contemplative life.

Did you have a mentor in this work?

I stepped in blind and have learned so much from so many people. I have to say Maureen Dougherty of Quiet Clothing and my friend Beth who works for an environmental organization. We have debated every topic in the consumer world and challenged each other to consider our actions. They have inspired me so much by their commitment to sustainable living and they support my vision as someone creating a material product.

Have you mentored others?

I am so new myself. I have so much to learn. I am always here to help people who have an idea. I hope to encourage every person to pursue his/her creativity and ideas. I have met with start-up entrepreneurs in the online marketing and social media space who are committed to ethical and emerging brands. I would do anything to help in order to make sustainable fashion a driving economic force.

Black Laptop clutch/sleeve with rust suede lining.

What are the importance of mentors in the fashion world for professional, and personal, development?

Mentors are critical touchstones when self-doubt starts to blurb and weaken your vision. Our experiences may be completely different in style and approach, but they give me the reassurance that I am on the right track.

They don’t dismiss or limit the discussion of any topic or idea. Their honest critique on a practical level has saved me so much time. Their passion inspires me to stay the course. My mentors in the fashion world understand the crazy rants and ramblings, the confusion, the moment of clarity, and the joy of design for me, which is to give a person something that they love and will cherish for a life-time.

From personal observations, more women than men involve themselves in the fashion industry by a vast margin of difference at all levels. Why?

I am not sure.

What personal fulfillment comes from this work for you?

It is really life changing. I was never really fulfilled until I worked to create this vision I had of traveling freely with one bag that could hold everything that I loved. I did it. I know now that I can realize my ideas in a form that is as useful, ethical, personal, and beautiful as possible at this moment. I have so many ideas and I now have a way to express them and give a product to someone who knows that we value their work, their life, and their travels like our own.

What other work are you involved in at this point in time?

I still write proposals for non-profits. Because of Kámen Road, I focus on job training and job creation because I felt that I could not give back enough as a small business owner.

Any recommended authors or fashionistas (or fashionistos)?

Still thinking.

Any recommended means of contacting Kámen Road?

Through the contact page on our website, and follow us on Instagram @kamenroad

Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?

I want to thank Trusted Clothing and all your supporters very much. Together, we can bring more and more ethical brands to more and more people.

Thank you for your time, Kathleen.

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About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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