Style Q&A: Kara Chomistek



There are a few different sides to Kara Chomistek. She’s a biomedical engineer by trade and a semi-professional salsa dancer for fun. But it’s her role as cofounder and president of Calgary-based arts initiative PARK (Promoting Artists, Redefining Kulture) that has the fashion community abuzz.

A born-and-raised Calgarian, Chomistek noticed that the city’s emerging artists didn’t have a place to show or sell their art. So, drawing upon her own love of the arts and her gift of connecting creative people to other creative people, she filled the need. Whether it’s through her grassroots-style PARKSALEs or her ultra-sleek, high-concept PARKLUXE fashion shows, she has sent out a message to Calgary’s young talents: you will be seen.

You’re immersed in Calgary’s fashion and arts scene. What’s your day job?

I went to the University of Calgary and I got my degree in biomedical engineering, with a major in urban mechanical engineering. Biomedical is my specialization. So now I design operating equipment for joint surgery. It’s very different than everything I do in the fashion community. 

Why did you choose to study biomedical engineering?

It was funny, actually. Before I went into engineering, I was at this kind of crossroads. It was either going to be in the arts or in engineering doing a biomedical program.

Dress by Kara Chomistek.

And you went with biomedical.

Yes, but I always kind of had my foot in the arts community. It’s where my passion and drive is. Some of my good friends went to Alberta College of Art + Design [ACAD] and we got together, talking and brainstorming, and we asked ourselves, “What can we do in Calgary right now?” At the time — maybe four years ago — there really wasn’t a lot going on in terms of grassroots arts initiatives. We’d seen a couple of things going on in L.A. where they had these big outdoor estate sales with fashion and arts and we said, “Let’s do something like that, but let’s support students at ACAD. They don’t really have any avenues right now to sell their art, so let’s put something on campus and just see how it goes.”

So how did it go?

It went really well. Our first event was PARKSALE in 2008, and it was just a big outdoor sale where people could come and set up their booths. I think that year 400 people come out, and in the past few years, I think we’ve had as many as 1,000 people.

And they were buying?

People were buying, and people were making money. We thought, wow, maybe we have something. The next year we thought, instead of funding this out of our own pocket, maybe we should come up with a bit of a different idea. So that’s where PARKSHOW came into place. We featured eight local designers and the event was completely sold out. The room was packed and we had a lineup down the street and around the corner. And so that’s really where my passion for the industry and my passion to give Calgarians a little piece of what’s here in Calgary came from.

Dress by Kara Chomistek; shoes by Rag & Bone from ssence.com.

Why do you advocate for Calgary’s arts and culture?

The city is full of young professionals that are so passionate about the city — not what it is right now, but what it could be. There are so many people that have a lot of passion towards growing our culture here, and I think I’m just kind of caught up in that vibe. We have the money, we have the wealth, we have the jobs and we have the young, passionate professionals that really want to make it happen. I’m just kind of bringing everything together.

As of right now, what is the biggest challenge local designers face?

It’s really a difficult place right now because we have a ton of talent that’s grown and cultivated here, but there are no avenues for them to continue growing, so they leave. It’s tough because Calgary will never be New York. It will never
be London. I think we just have to find our own ground, our own vibe and kind of strive towards that and see how people can make a career for themselves here. 

Maybe we have to resign ourselves to the fact Calgary always was and perhaps always will be a bit of a transient town.

My goal with PARK is to keep hosting events to support local designers. If they leave, that’s OK, we can always bring them back for shows. Ultimately, our goal isn’t necessarily to make them stay right now, but maybe make them come
back in the future.

Plaid skirt and bustier from Cat’s Eye; sunglasses by Rodarte for Opening Ceremony.

What are the most rewarding aspects of what you’re doing?

I think the biggest reward for me is starting to see some of the events we’re holding being executed at a high level. And, just in general, seeing our designers start from a small, tiny place and grow to be bigger. Caitlin Power showed with us at the first PARKSHOW. Nobody knew who she was, and now she’s showing at Toronto Fashion Week and collaborating with people in New York.

How, then, do you think PARK has made Calgary a better place?

Say you follow us on Twitter or Facebook, you’d start finding out about these local people and local events. You’d have this little bug in your ear: “Maybe next time, instead of going to the mall, I’ll seek out these people; maybe I’ll seek out this event.”

I think it’s good for people to know there are scenes here.

We do have different levels within our organization and within our events for different target markets. We have PARKSALE, which is very all-encompassing; it’s very inclusive. Anyone can come and bring their dog and their family. It’s very relaxed. And then we have the opposite end of the scale, PARKLUXE, which is a luxury event, so it’s very high end, and PARKSHOW, which is in between.

Does Calgary have a definable style?

Calgary is transient so we have a ton of influences coming from all over, and people love trends here. 

Dress by Lanvin from ssence.com; shoes by Miu Miu from Holt Renfrew.

You’re a fashion original. Is it easy for people to be original here?

That’s the one thing about Calgary that I truly appreciate, that it’s a city of opportunities. It’s a city to be and do whatever you want, and people embrace you for it because there’s no one overshadowing you and inhibiting what you’re doing.

What direction do you see Calgary going, style-wise?

I think a lot of the more conservative generation is starting to grow older and retire, and it’s the young professionals that are moving to the city that, I think, are really going to define our culture in the future.

How would you define your style?

I really love beautiful, aesthetically pleasing clean cuts, strong lines and good tailoring, and I don’t love lots of layers and bulk. I definitely like a little bit of bold colour, and I love mixing patterns and texture right now. Also, I’m very tall [5’10”], so I like exaggerating that. I don’t really like shrinking down in a room. I like standing tall, and I like being the focal point [laughs]. Does that make sense?

A lot of tall women don’t do that.

I just like to embrace it. Especially when I’m going out to a fashion event, I love to wear a piece that’s eye-catching and strikes up a conversation. I don’t like to cower and blend in. I really like to push the limits and have fun with it because at my day job I don’t really get to do that.

Do you have a system, or a set of rules that you follow when you dress?

A lot of gut instinct. I’m not the type of person that can whip things together super-quickly. I have to try on a bunch of different things and get the right colour combinations and proportions. I also like to draw inspiration from what other people are doing — not necessarily copy what other people are doing, but take influences here and there.

Top from Zara; jeans by J Brand from Barneys New York; bag by Céline from Holt Renfrew; multi-chain necklace from Banana Republic; vintage-inspired necklace from Aldo.

Who are your style icons?

All the magazine editors are the people I’m turning towards rather than celebrities. They seem to be the trendsetters.

Who are your favourite designers?

For Calgary, I really have a strong appreciation for Caitlin Power and what she’s doing. Paul Hardy is another favourite. But my favourites are always changing. If you’d asked me two years ago, it would have been Lanvin, but more recently I’m really drawn to Chloé, Jil Sander and Céline.

You’re also a fashion designer. How did that  come to be?

Designing is a fantastic creative outlet for me. My first collection was in 2009 for PARKSHOW. I had all these people doing this amazing design work around me and I wanted to contribute to that. My mom is a seamstress and she taught me everything she knew about sewing.

How have people responded?

People have had a pretty good response to it. People want to borrow my pieces for shoots and they want me to participate in events and show my collections.

It sounds like you’re on several very different roads right now. What are your goals, professionally?

Right now, my goal is to pursue both directions equally until it gets to a point where I have to make a decision to choose. I’m about one year away from getting my professional engineering designation, which is something that I really want. And then, creatively, it’s really tough. I’m kind of just exploring the options. 

For more information about PARK, visit ourparkonline.com.

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