Hi Kayla! Tell me a little bit about yourself.
My name is Kayla Reefer, I am 28, currently based in the Greater Los Angeles Area. I am Black & Latina, of Afro-Panamanian descent. I am a multi-disciplinary artist and entrepreneur although I am primarily known as a photographer, but I would like to think I am more than what people see me as. Aside from photography, I am the owner and Creative Director of sister companies Jeune and PLETHORA.
When did you start creating? Did you have any kind of “first passion” artistically, and if so – how does that present itself in what you create today?
The most specific memory I have for when I started becoming autonomous with my creativity is early Middle school, I was around age 11-12. There were these group of girls I would hang out with that wanted to start a “step team” so I self-appointed myself the responsibility of designing the outfits. I basically designed the uniforms as basketball jerseys and shorts with this sort of multicolored airbrush pattern on them. The step team never happened, but for whatever reason I just kept drawing and coming up with all these ideas for things I wanted to wear at the time but didn’t have access to. After a while, I had binders full of designs ranging across hats, T-shirts, pants, jeans, sweaters, sneakers and more. Virtually expanding into drawing up sketches of everything under the sun. By the time high school came around, I’d come up with four different clothing lines, hundreds of designs and all sorts of startups. I sold a few tees from a couple of small ideas I had at the time but other than that, most of what I’ve thought of hasn’t seen the light of day. Not yet at least. Since then, I’ve carried on approaching things with the same whimsical nature. Creating simply for the sake of doing so, and in a way that is authentic to me and my story.
How do you feel your identity plays into your photography and everything that you make?
I feel like my identity allows me to see everything from this perspective that only a select few can tap into. Being both Black and Latina, I’m at this beautiful intersection of culture, flavor, sense and communication. Especially with my family being from Panama specifically, that’s another added layer to my identity. We carry ourselves a certain way, we speak our own language within the Spanish language itself. There’s literally an online “Wiktionary” that provides and intersects the complexity of Panamanian vernacular. The architecture, the music, our mannerisms, food, the typography on the local corner shops, it’s all distinctive.
I try my best to incorporate that specific individualism throughout everything I make. Whether it be through the symbolism I use when coming up with designs, specific typefaces, the fabrics I use when I put together my sets, all the way down to the way I use certain tones and color palettes. It all comes together, organically.
As a Black womxn, I also find that I approach things with this hyper-aware sense of care. No detail is overlooked, and more than likely I’ll add some sort of personal touch. I genuinely want people to feel seen and supported through my work, in whatever medium or iteration that it may be in.
Your photo essay “Identidad” is really touching. Something that stands out to me is the palpable joy in the images, it’s so beautiful. How did this personal work come about?
I started “Identidad” for a few reasons. The first being a personal archive for my family. There are so many family members that I unfortunately didn’t get the chance to meet due to their passing and aside from that, there is missing documentation and images of them. “Identidad” is my attempt to “fill the gaps,” while also learning more about both sides of my family history, getting to know each of my relatives individually and the trajectory of our lineage.
“Identidad” is also an extension of a wider subject I wish to address when it comes to the misrepresentation and inherent erasure of Afro-Latinx folx and how we do (or more so do not) function within the social dichotomies of latinidad. So, the series starts with my family, but it certainly does not end there. As I continue to make images for this project and do more research (because I still have so much to learn myself) my goal is to further extend my studies across the African diaspora, specifically within the Central American, South American, and Caribbean regions.
Clothing design and photography may seem somewhat disparate, but there’s certainly an aesthetic throughline in everything you create. How did you find your distinct visual voice in each?
Hmm, this is a tough one because I feel like it happened naturally. But I think I found my own distinct visual voice by staying true to the purpose of each medium as I applied it to my creative process. I learned as much as I could about each craft and the more practice and experience I gained, the more I went honing into my own personal style. It’s taken a few years to develop because a lot of what I aspired to visually has changed and that has directly inputted itself into my work.
Since I have developed my own visual language, what I see in photography I can apply directly to film or even design. The concepts shift as they move through different applications. To be quite honest, I’m not entirely sure I would consider myself a clothing designer just yet. While I have been designing in private for years, I’m just now getting started publicly. There’s still so much I have to learn in that regard, but I’m looking forward to finding my voice in that as well.
Do you see a reflection of your upbringing and heritage in your multi-disciplinary work?
I definitely see a reflection of my upbringing in my multi-disciplinary work! I get my entrepreneurial business side from my father. He works endlessly hard, owning and operating multiple businesses all at once. Most of the time when I talk to him, he’s at work, handling or fixing something. I figured if he could find something that he’s passionate about and start his own business then I could too.
When it comes to the arts & crafts and self-expression, that’s my mother’s side for sure. She herself is very crafty. Growing up I’d remember she’d always be working on these ceramic houses. Collecting and painting each one of them individually, hanging them all about the house. She also was/is very naturally good at drawing. Which is something I don’t understand because I’m terrible at it. Although she doesn’t indulge in it too much anymore, her fervor for art making is absolutely still there.
I also have an uncle who is an incredible painter. An aunt who makes her own beaded handbags from scratch. Another aunt who has all these home remedies and is all around well-knowing, seeing. She can pretty much fix anything ― the family list goes on from there.
These are the people I come from. They all do these things because they simply like to do them and they’re good at it. I think it’s no surprise as to why I am like this too.
What is your advice for new/budding entrepreneurs? Is there anything you wish you’d been told when you were starting out?
As cliché as this may sound, I say “just do it.” That’s one of the biggest issues I personally have. I am the type of person who won’t make a decision until I’ve weighed all 20 possible options. You know that gif with the mathematical equations flying around and the person behind them is very obviously perplexed? That’s me. I am an overthinker by nature; I need answers and things have to make sense to me.
But that’s just it, some things simply don’t make sense. Some questions truly don’t have answers. So, while you’re over here doubting yourself and stopping your progress out of fear, you could’ve just “done it” 20 options ago.
Obviously, I recommend that budding entrepreneurs act responsibly. Have a budget mapped out. Figure out what you’re comfortable spending, what’s your absolute cap? And if things don’t go as planned (which they more than likely won’t) how much, if at all, are you willing to go over your initial budget to invest more? See what works for you and then just do it.
Budget notwithstanding, the most important part of this process is having a real conversation with yourself. This doesn’t apply to everyone, but for me personally, things that I make have to be born from some sort of intention and those intentions have to be pure. Ask yourself what you’re bringing to the table that really separates what you’re doing/creating from others. Why do you want to create or do this “thing”? Is this reasoning self-serving? Does it extend beyond materialistic gain?
In my opinion, if you go into something for the wrong reasons it’s just not worth it and it’s never going to work out.
What’s next for Jeune, PLETHORA, and you?
Someone recently described Jeune and PLETHORA as opposite sides of the same spectrum and I love that analogy. I love how people are naturally coming to that conclusion on their own because that’s basically what Jeune and PLETHORA are. They are two separate representations and expressions of myself that coexist fluidly. I’d like to play around more with what that means.
As far as tangible items, I would love to drop a couple more things before the end of the year. There are so many ideas that I’m aching to bring to fruition! However, I’m not putting any pressure on myself to meet any hard deadlines seeing as the world is in constant flux right now and I feel as though life is only going to get more intense. While I usually “push through” I’ve found it reinvigorating to take some time away, rest, and reset. If it feels good, I’ll release more items and if not, I’ll hold on to them until I feel like it’s time.
There has been a lot of growth for me and my career this year as an entrepreneur and photographer. While it was always my plan to officially launch both brands this year, doing so during a pandemic and subsequent state-sanctioned violence was not something I anticipated. Moving forward, I’m going to focus more on personal growth. I’m trying to work on a no-pressure basis. It’s more fun that way.