Today I have the honor of sharing the journey of my good friend, Kempe. Kempe has taken a concept for gender free athletic wear—originally conceived as a graduate school thesis—and built it into a brand focused on athletic performance, fluidity, and fit that seeks to be inclusive of all body types and identities.
Kempe combined experiences as an IronMan athlete, industrial designer, and supporter of the trans-community to create the KEMPE brand. Today, Kempe continues to raise funding to grow the brand with a focus on creating empowering active wear products for everyone—unifying, without labeling.
‘Kempe’ is a family name that means ‘warrior’ or ‘champion’—this is the focus of the KEMPE brand, but also the mindset of Kempe, the person. Someone who continues to push for greater understanding and acceptance of everyone through entrepreneurial pursuits.
Let’s dive in to his Begin Anyway journey.
Tell us a little bit about your background—where did you go to school and what type of career path did you initially intend for yourself?
I went to undergrad at Skidmore College where I majored in Economics and minored in Studio Art—focusing on Sculpture. I continued to pursue the arts afterward with coursework at Rhode Island School of Design and Massachusetts College of Art and Design which eventually led me to move to Chicago to pursue a graduate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Designed Objects.
When I was younger I thought I needed to find a clearly defined career path. As I got older that became less important. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school where I gave up trying to find a clear and pretty package of a career path and just decided to create my own. I was lucky to be at a school that encouraged this type of thinking. I embraced the spectrum of my interests from globalization and technology to fashion and human behavior.
It was your thesis for grad school at The Art Institute that planted the seed for the KEMPE brand that you have been building. What was the focus of your thesis and how did you begin to realize that your idea had power beyond satisfying a degree requirement?
My graduate thesis was on Transgender Design—creating more empowering wearables for the transgender community as an alternative to surgery or DIY options. A month before my thesis show, I had a review where a professor in the fashion department said, “make this as real as possible, go all the way.” It was then that I began to think that the work could go beyond an academic critique and possibly help people. My thesis won “Best in Show” and I started presenting my work outside of the academic community to anyone who would listen.
Give us the quick elevator pitch for KEMPE. You have a great deal of experience participating in funding competitions for your brand. How do you describe what you’re doing to potential investors?
KEMPE is a line of gender free, technical athletic apparel that meets the needs of ALL bodies in motion—designed for fluidity and fit. Our goal is to eliminate the antiquated binary system of male and female and replace it with a more inclusive, user-centered, web-based system where the customer tells us—who they are and what they need.
What I love about how you’ve grown your thesis into a brand is that you took what you knew—what you had experienced, what you enjoyed doing, what you were studying—and combined those pieces to create the whole. How did your background as an IronMan Athlete, your interest in physical augmentations, and your work designing prosthetics influence your path with KEMPE?
Training for an Ironman triathlon is an interesting experience. The misconception is that you are doing something super healthy but the reality is that all the training is hard on your body. During the year of training, I became very aware of the impermanence of my body. This awareness led me to become interested in how humans overcome malfunctions or augment our bodies to become “greater.”
From there, I was drawn to the world of prosthetics and I began consulting with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago on prosthetic arm sleeves. My work there led me to focus my initial thesis research on Transhumanism—the theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.
In my initial research, the area of medical procedures and products for the transgender community stuck out to me. When I started looking at what products were on the market I was shocked—not only were they made from low-grade materials, they were terribly designed. I knew I could do better.
So, you have this great idea, you’re personally inspired by the concept, and the ability to help people. How did you move that idea to the initial action and building stage?
The only way I have been able to move my concept forward has been with a lot of help from some very talented and gracious people. Initially, asking for help was the hardest part for me, and it is what kept me stagnant for a long time. I was worried that asking for help was an acknowledgement that I didn’t have it together. After spinning my wheels and going nowhere I started asking for help. The moment I gave up trying to do it all and started asking for help, things began to move a lot faster. I have been blessed with incredible support from my family and friends and I have been able to receive guidance from some amazing mentors.
Who do you find yourself turning to for advice or inspiration as you continue to grow? Are there any mentors along the way who really stand out?
I have an arsenal of close friends who are constantly helping me, strategizing with me, and letting me vent when I need to. I go to my parents for a lot of advice as well—my father is one of the most balanced people you could ever talk to, and my mother is one of the most creative people I know. I have also been very lucky to have the guidance of talented people from a variety of specialties—from social activism to business development.
You’ve presented your concept to many different types of investors and funds. What is that process like? I’d imagine it’s an incredibly vulnerable feeling to be on a stage pitching your ideas to an auditorium of investors and peers; how have you gained confidence speaking before large groups?
For me, the trick to getting over feeling vulnerable is to love what I am doing; and to come to terms with the fact that not everyone will love it too. The nature of presenting your work in competitions is two-fold—there is the prize, and the entertainment value. Money is nice—you cannot grow your business without it. Entertainment is also important—you want to engage your audience and excite them about your work. But winning isn’t always the goal.
I remember I was very nervous before presenting my work at a competition in Las Vegas—mostly because it was in front of 1000 people—and my mother had the best advice for me. She said, “If you do nothing more than get up on stage and talk to a group of strangers about what you love most in the world then you cannot lose.” I didn’t end up winning but the whole experience catapulted my progress. Now I try to go into all my meetings and competitions excited to just talk about what excites me.
Were there any experiences or conversations that you had early on that caused you to change direction or re-evaluate your approach for KEMPE?
The current manifestation of the KEMPE platform actually didn’t come to fruition until a couple years after graduate school. I was attending the Philadelphia Transgender Health Conference with the goal of talking to people about what I was working on and getting candid feedback.
At the time, the company was called Trans / Form and I was solely focusing on transgender wearables. While at the conference, I approached a group of youth to get their thoughts. A young trans woman of color had the most insightful feedback. She said, “I love it, but I would never buy it. Yes, I am a trans woman, but first and foremost I am a woman. I know who I am—I don’t need a product to try and label me. Design for me, but incorporate me into the whole—don’t segment me away. Don’t call it something trans. I like your name—what does it mean?” I told her, “Kempe is a family name that dates back centuries and means warrior or champion.” She said, “perfect, because that is what I am.”
Then came the task of figuring out how to create a company that made empowering active wear products for everyone—unifying, without labeling.
What have you learned about yourself, Kempe, while creating your brand, KEMPE? Has creating and building your brand changed you personally?
You learn a lot about yourself when trying start a company. In the beginning, a lot of people asked me why I was working on transgender wearables. Now, a lot of people ask me why I care about creating a gender-free platform and a new way of buying products.
My work has been a way for me to not only create something I am passionate about; but also a way for me to come to terms with my own identity. I identify as trans non-binary and, in many ways, creating this company has been a way for me to create a world in which the younger version of myself would have been safe and free to explore.
Do you find that influences your thinking as a mentor or trailblazer? What type of example do you want to set for a young kid who’s trying to figure out where they fit in the world?
I do not consider myself a mentor—I am still figuring myself out. I will say that I am less and less interested in fitting into the world and more interested in exploring all the world has to offer—and how I can be an active participant in creating something I find meaningful in the world.
Kempe, thank you so much for sharing your journey with us. Last question—you’re drinking your favorite cocktail with anyone in the world. What are you imbibing and who is sitting across from you?
Sweet tea with my parents. It’s not be the sexiest answer but it is honest.