You can’t do much when you’re dead: Exploring the misfit lifestyle with Kingi Carpenter

Start a business. Write a book. Quit a life-draining job. Travel the world. What are the things you really want to do, but feel like you can’t quite take the leap? How are you waiting to express yourself? What do you feel you are hiding from the world? What needs to finally be set free? So many of these questions connect back to our authenticity: who we really are and how we really want to be living.

But being yourself shouldn’t feel so hard. Sometimes, all it takes is some inspiration, advice, and encouragement to see the way to being a truer version of you. In the Authenticity Series, I talk to people who are all walking different paths, in their own ways, in the hopes that others will be able to do the same.

Kingi CarpenterKingi Carpenter is a Toronto-based fashion designer and entrepreneur. Her clothing line, Peach Berserk, has been a staple in the city since 1987.

When I was growing up in the suburbs, the thing to do on Saturdays was walk along Toronto’s Queen Street West. While this part of our city has changed drastically over the years, becoming home to many more chain retailers, back then it was the place to go to shop at independent stores for clothes, records and zines that you would never, ever find at the mall.

Inspired by punk rock, Andy Warhol, museums and art galleries, Kingi’s screen-printed clothing always stood out on Queen West, and so did Kingi herself. She started her business at only 24, and eventually built a community through Peach Berserk by hosting workshops to share her skills, knowledge and the DIY spirit that runs through her entire brand.

Today, Kingi, who is also a single parent, is still going strong with Peach Berserk. Though she’s since moved off the Queen West strip, it’s impossible not to walk down the street without feeling the ghosts of screen-prints past. I talked to Kingi about the obstacles she faced in her days as a budding business owner, and how she managed to stay true to herself at every step.

Q: First, let’s start at the beginning. How did you know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur? Because I often find entrepreneurial spirit is highly connected to authenticity – it’s a life without being told how to be, or what to be.

When I started in 1987, there was a bit of suspicion towards entrepreneurs. It took me a while to get a bank account for Peach Berserk. It was why, “Why do you want to do this? Why don’t you want to get a real job?”

Now they’re all about supporting small businesses, but back then it was almost looked at as a default for people who couldn’t get a real job. Especially as a quirky looking 24 year old girl with little education.

But to me it was necessary, because I always liked making things, and I always liked selling things. And  when I was in my twenties, or even late teens, and started getting jobs, like waitressing and stuff, I always got fired.

I sort of held this claim to fame that by the time I was 24 and was starting my business, I was fired 13 times in a row. Some on the first day. In fact, it became so well-known in those days that CBC Radio was doing a show on work, back in the ‘90s, and they found out about me, so they had me on live radio talking about my firing. And I told them all the jobs I’d been fired from and the guy goes, “Actually, that’s 14.” {laughs}

But through sharing those stories I’ve had people come to me over the years and say, “I’ve always been a misfit. I got fired and I felt like such a loser.”

And I’ve told them that we’re actually cool for that, because we don’t fit. In fact, big businesses miss out on our innovation and our creativity. But they’re forced to fire us because there are certain rules they need and they can’t have us.

Whenever I’ve tried to fit into the constraints of a job, something goes wrong. So really, doing the stuff I do, like making clothes and running my workshops, I can do on my own terms.

I’ve cobbled together a job that works. It’s the misfit lifestyle. What makes you misfit is really going to work for you in entrepreneurship.

After my final job, I remember saying to myself, “Kingi, you left university, you didn’t finish art school, you get fired from every waitressing job you ever get. What the hell are you going to do? Do you want to be a fired waitress all your life?”

And I thought, okay, no. I’m going to create this business based what I’ve seen out there –cool stores, beautiful fashion, artists like Andy Warhol. I took all the things I loved and crammed it into this business.
Peach Berserk Prints
And everyone said, “It’s not going to work. What are you doing? You don’t know anything about business.”

And I thought, oh, shut UP.

And that’s how it all started.

Q: So how did you overcome doubt along the way? Especially in having come up against resistance so early, like hearing those naysayers you just mentioned, or convincing the bank to give you a business account.

A: The first thing that comes to mind, and I’ve heard this said before so it’s a bit of a cliché but I really believe it, was vision. I used to say to my friends, “It doesn’t matter what goes wrong. As long as I make an inch towards my goal, I’ll get there.”

Whether it was designing a business card one day, or getting a good piece of advice the next day, or getting some cute fabric, or starting an interesting new print, I was getting towards this vision in my head.

And once that vision is strong enough, all the crap you’re hearing from other people just becomes unimportant.

Q: What was your earliest realization that you were – as you say – a misfit?

I never really fit at school. Probably a lot of us say the same thing: we never fit, we were never popular, we always dressed a little different. I was always one of those kids.

I also came from a different family. My dad was fairly high up in the armed forces, then retired in 1969 and bought a farm. We moved to this farming community and were always outsiders.

My dad was a military man, but he was a pacifist, and he started teaching at this disarmament school and lecturing all over the place. And then he became a socialist.

When I was 14 I was a year ahead in school, in Grade 10. And my dad told me to quit. He didn’t think it was a very good school, out in the country, and he thought it was a waste of my time. So every day he would say, “Kingi, you should just quit school and stay home.”

And I would say, “But dad, I gotta go to school.” And then one day, around the end of September, I didn’t feel like going to school. And my dad said, “Well, drop out.”

So I did, and I spent that whole year at home with my dad. He was very intellectual and we would listen to music and tend to the cows and all that stuff, and we really had a fun year.

But I really became way more misfit, because I all I hung around with was my dad, this retired general, and his quirky, intellectual, political friends. He had all these interesting people who would visit the farm, and I became part of this little group that not a lot of kids would have been exposed to.

The next year I started boarding school in Toronto, and I really wasn’t a regular 15 year old girl by then.

Q: Has there ever a time along the way where you thought, “Maybe I should change?”

No. I always thought it would be good if I made more money (laughs). But a lot of us didn’t. I’ve talked to my friends we just didn’t choose that path. And there are paths you can choose where you do make a lot of money.

Q: Sometimes people are going along their path. They have this vision, and all of a sudden they’re like, “This isn’t working the way I want it. I’m just going to give up. I’m going to get an office job.” Did you ever have those moments?

A: Well yeah, sometimes you just think, why not go for the simple life that a lot of people choose? Because it’s an easy trajectory to work your way up and to get holidays and get more pay.

But because of my early experiences with getting fired so much I realized how much I hated having a boss. And how much they hated me. For me, being self-employed means I control my time.

To me, a regular job is almost like being in Grade 5. I have to ask for a day off? I have to ask to come in late? No wonder I would never be able to do it.

And the thing is, when you’re self-employed, sometimes you can get a really concentrated job where you a lot of money and then you’ve got time to spend on other projects. No one’s telling you to sit there at your desk, wasting your time.

Peach BerserkBut I think it’s important to always be examining your life, and be critical of yourself. I’m constantly examining my life and thinking of what I could have done, and what I could still do, and how much I want to achieve.

After turning 50, for me, instead of slowing down, I’ve become the opposite. Now that I’m older I know that there is so much I would love to do. Because you can’t do much when you’re dead.

Q: What would you say to someone who feels they are destined for bigger, but have compromised their vision or calling along the way?

A: They can take small steps towards what they want. Because real success, I think, is formed in small steps. When I started Peach Berserk, I took a few steps forward, a few back.

The mistake people make is thinking you have to make a profound change, or have a huge epiphany.

I remember someone asked me, “How did you become a fashion designer?”

I said, “Well, I made some clothes. And then I begged people to buy them, and the first dress I sold was for seven dollars, less than the price of the fabric. But that made me a professional, because someone bought it.”

So I would say just do it with very simple steps:

– Make something.
– Sell it to someone. Even if it’s your mother.
– Come up with a name for your business and get a business card and a website. Then you’ve branded it.

Don’t wait for someone to give you the okay. Just start.

Q: And what about those obstacles that inevitably come up? I think a lot of us get little fork-in-the-road moments that we don’t always recognize for what they are – like someone saying “you will never make it.”

A: Well there are so many you get. I remember when I was in that meeting at the bank when I was first opening my store, and they were looking at me and I knew they didn’t want to give me a bank account, I was so chicken and so scared.

Or landlords who didn’t want to rent me stores. I was always pushing against something negative, especially as a woman. I was always pushing. Sometimes I thought, “I don’t feel like pushing all the time.” But you just get used to that resistance.

Q: Did you ever worry that those things were signs, that something was telling you not to do go down this path?

No, because I’m not superstitious. I don’t think I had time. I had my vision, and a very practical streak. Entrepreneurs have to have that. I didn’t want to see myself at 30 with a shit job. I was so single-minded about where I wanted to end up.

Q: What’s the biggest insecurity you’ve had to overcome along the way?

A: Well, my mother was very looks-based, and quite harsh. So I always worried I wasn’t good enough, because of my mom. I get excited by opportunities I get, but then I get scared about whether I’m good enough to pull it off.

I think that humbles you a bit, though, to keep questioning yourself. Sometimes I find myself scared out of my wits. But then there’s this other half of me that forces myself to stand out, and I have this business that stands out. So it’s like this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde going on in my head.

I get scared about money, but I have a job that has no financial security. It’s constant friction, but maybe it’s a good thing. I take all these risks even though I’m scared to death of them. Peach Berserk Shoe Print

You can feel at times like you have no clue what you’re doing, but one of the best rules of life is to always do something that’s a little bit harder and needs a bit more skill than you’ve got. It’s the only way you’re going to get better.

So always pick a job that’s just a bit beyond your ability, a little bit too tricky for you. Sabotage yourself a bit. If you don’t feel you’re really that good at something, then great, then that’s your next job: aim to become good at that thing.

When I first started sewing I always took jobs for things I just did not know how to sew. “Oh yeah, I’ll do that. You want two more? That’s no problem.” And I was like, “oh crap, I don’t know how to make that.”

I probably wouldn’t have gotten anywhere with Peach Berserk if I hadn’t have tried new things. I never went to fashion school. I just learned as I went along.

And if you make a fool of yourself, who cares. You’ll learn from it either way. The sky’s not going to fall. You’ll just grow from there.

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