With Van Herten Outerwear, designer Cate Latham creates rugged outerwear with an artistic flair drawn from her background in ballet.
From ballet costumes to rugged outdoor wear, Cate Latham has climbed a fashion mountain. After leaving the costuming department for the Richmond Ballet, she began her own clothing and accessory business, Van Herten Outerwear, in 2014. Since then, through years of hard work, the Richmond native and VCU graduate has learned what it means to come into her own as a designer.
Van Herten Outerwear supplies outdoorsmen and women with pieces that not only exemplify the rugged, durable style that nature requires, but also give back to nature through the products’ sustainability and eco-conscious creation. Through strong waxed canvas, leather, and hardware, Latham has created products that come backed with a lifetime guarantee to withstand all the hiking, biking, climbing, or whatever else you might be inclined to do.
“The biggest part that informs my designing are concepts of application,” said Latham. “Each design starts with practicality; each design element has purpose behind it. Style and nuance come second to function.”
Latham’s tendency to focus on the efficiency and purpose of a piece has stemmed from both her experience creating dance costumes for the Richmond ballet and her no-frills, get-shit-done personality.
“My time at the ballet has definitely informed my abilities,” said Latham. Her focus on practicality before beauty in fashion design was something she learned by designing clothing to meet the needs of a ballet company.
“Movement and purpose are always underlying factors that play into the design process from the very first steps to the last,” Latham said. “Costumes and dancewear look much simpler than all the construction tricks of which they are comprised.”
Making costumes also taught her how to create a broad range of garments. “Just the time spent in that field is invaluable because your comprehensive experience informs every future design,” said Latham. “So, while I am versed and capable of creating delicate pieces, I prefer heavy-duty designs, because it better speaks to my personality.”
With functionality and durability in mind, Latham has constructed a set of business and creative practices for Van Herten Outerwear that honor the values she grew up with and continues to stand behind. From creating sustainable and ecologically friendly clothing to upholding a passionate design process standard, all of her pieces are filled with purpose that goes beyond their day-to-day use.
“My mother always instilled in my siblings and I that, in life, one of the most important things is to be honorable,” Latham said. “Translating that to my profession means to produce things you would be proud to stand behind, and to treat your customers fair and honestly.”
Before she started VHO, Latham graduated at the top of her class from VCU’s Fashion Design department. Years after her graduation, she went back to get advice about starting her own business from professors she had known in her time at VCU. They told her to wait, that she needed to work at an entry-level job before reach for those bigger goals. However, despite the upfront discouragement, she pushed forward with her work. But later, she came to see her former professors’ cautionary words a bit differently.
“Months later, I realized how smart and appropriate it would be to respond in that way to any fashion alum trying to start their own business,” she said. “Most people would not succeed in starting their own business.”
She figured that her professors had actually had a secret plan behind their words. For Latham, the words of warning ultimately became more like a validation.
“I concluded that the type of person capable of creating and growing a business is the same type of person that would not let some discouraging advice prevent them from doing so,” she said. “It solidified what I had been saying since the beginning, ‘If I never give up, it will eventually happen. So, I will just never give up.’”
Beyond the motivation to persevere was the passion for the art of design. Latham recognized that without creative drive, this kind of business just can’t happen.
“You have to actually like the work — it can’t just be the idea of it,” she said. “It has to stem from a very genuine passion.”
As far as Latham is concerned, money is the wrong reason to go into business for yourself. “It should be something you would be doing anyway,” she said. “Whether it was your work or not, you would be doing it at home in your spare time, no matter what.” That’s what Van Herten Outerwear is to her.
Moving into the future of the company, Latham has prepared a structure for new designs to be released, along with a new website to fit it all into. She plans to separate VHO into three sections — the classic designs that have been popular in the years of the businesses run, as well as two seasonal capsules.
She’s still figuring out exactly what the two capsules will consist of, but she knows a few things she’s aiming for. “Each capsule should stay relatively the same,” she said. “[They] will include apparel for both sexes. I really would like to do some summery dresses, but also jackets that are unisex.”
Through these capsules, Latham also plans to incorporate even more of her own style into the aesthetics of her pieces. “It’s typical of a lot of designers — they like to design for themselves,” she said.
Her self-defined style is informed by nerdy, retro, and rock’n’roll styles, and she plans to add those influences into her designs — subtly, though. “The typical thing that comes to mind when you think of retro is something like stripes — so it’s just a little pop of color,” Latham said. “I usually don’t design things that are extra flamboyant. So there might be a couple of pop colors, but I doubt I would create anything that was an entire piece of neon colors. It’s simply not my style.”
As Van Herten Outerwear continues its steady growth, Latham
hopes to give back to the Richmond community by creating jobs for the city’s residents, and by continuing to encourage ecological sustainability through her work. In the meantime, she continues to create durable apparel with lasting appeal, replacing fast fashion with enduring passion.