Life by Design // An Apparel Designer’s Path of Purpose

By Alli Schuchman

On a Brisk September Morning Above Fletcher Bay, Laura Holding sits on the deck of her new studio, recalling the twists and turns, the challenges and seized opportunities, and love that brought her here. Where once stood a dilapidated outbuilding, today stands a shiny new dual-use workshop and guest suite, home to Holding’s freelance apparel design business, Praxis Outdoor. A working reflection of her style and philosophy, the space is a second skin for the designer. But the accommodations weren’t always so cozy. Initially, Holding had been working out of her home’s dark, cold garage. “I no longer wanted to go to work because I didn’t want to go back to the garage.  actually found myself looking forward to folding laundry or washing dishes in the warm house. This,” she said of her new workshop, “is better. Way better.”

Cleary in love with her new studio, Holding recounted the bendy route that brought her to where she happily sits today, telling a story that began in 1993 when she was a student in an industrial sewing class at the Bridger Alternative High School in Bozeman, Montana. Not a typical teenager, the 18-year-old was at a crossroads. Holding—then Laura Metzler—was single, pregnant and unsure what direction her life would take. “But my pregnancy woke me up and delivered, in no uncertain terms, two distinct possible futures,” she said. So when high-end mountaineering company Dana Design (which had sponsored the class) challenged the students to create a hip bag—offering the person with the best design and construction a job at graduation—Holding saw a fork in her road and got busy sewing. The winning piece launched her career.

After starting work for Dana as a production seamstress, Holding gave birth the following fall. Faced with what she calls the most difficult decision she would ever have to make, Holding placed her baby in an open adoption with a family that would give the child the kind of upbringing she knew she couldn’t.

“I compartmentalized and threw myself into work,” she said. Nose to the grindstone, Holding sharpened her skills before co-founding Cirqueworks with a friend in Portland, Oregon. Several years later, after Cirqueworks ran out of funding, she applied for a senior design role at alpine apparel and equipment icon Patagonia. “A good friend who knew I was in need of a new career made a call and landed me the interview,” Holding said. “I realize now that it’s those moments, those small acts of kindness, that can change a person’s path.”

As fate would have it, the man who interviewed Holding recommended Patagonia not hire the young designer because he predicted she wouldn’t stick around for long. Thankfully he was overruled, although ultimately his projection proved true when he and Holding—who had become his protégé employee—married, prompting her resignation to avoid a conflict of interest. The Holdings’ next move was to the upmarket Arc’teryx in 2002, in Vancouver, B.C., where Laura shifted her focus to apparel and husband Bob advanced to senior vice president of sales and marketing. The couple would spend the following seven years in Canada, having two children there before eventually moving to Bainbridge Island where they added their third.

In dire need of a new workshop after launching Praxis, the Holdings contacted Smallwood Design & Construction and found the company’s ideas about design aligned with their own. “Throughout my career there has been one fundamental code: Form follows function,” said Laura. “And that holds true for my work, my workspace and my personal life. I’m always thinking about the end user first.” Laura worked side by side with owner Rob Smallwood to create the modern workspace, including a workroom and guest suite, that’s as cool and beautiful as it is practical.

“Working with Laura on this project was great,” said Smallwood, recalling the collaboration. “She is so creative and engaged. She got it. Material, color pallet and product selection was smooth, and the mix of reclaimed items, reused materials and fixtures came together effortlessly.” The organic minimalist design of her workspace—where Holding works 30 hours per week—is truly a study in thoughtful design, every inch a purposeful element. The materials include polished concrete floors, wood beams with chunky metal hardware, paneled ceilings, and a dozen stainless pendants that make the workroom as bright as need be. To balance the modern design, a wood-burning stove adds warmth. The west-facing deck, accessed by French doors, provides a space to recharge and enjoy a breath of fresh air.

Finishes like subway tile and custom wallpaper (designed by Bainbridge artist Lauren Love of Abnormals Anonymous) in the bath, shiplap walls and a sliding reclaimed barn door add interest and personality. Giant, industrial worktables with generous storage space underneath—which Holding found on Craigslist—run the length of the studio’s two-story tall lower level. “To be creative I need light and organization,” said Laura, her cache of tools, bolts of fabric, a heat press and a nail machine all in neat, designated spaces. “It was really important that we started with a clean foundation.” A blackened steel ladder-like staircase leads to the loft where the Praxis office as well as a guest bedroom for visiting business associates can be found. Downstairs, Laura was eager to show off racks of her current work, a variety of technical outerwear apparel for police, secret service and security personnel. “Many of my new designs will be on officers in about one year,” said Laura, who is creating the designs for her primary client, Fechheimer Brothers’ Flying Cross and Vertx brands. Holding won the account shortly after relocating Praxis to the new studio.

Contrasting the current prototypes against samples of traditional garb—the new gear is more form fitting and less boxy—Holding was quick to point out that it’s also more functional because the fabrics are lighter and more breathable. Laura describes ongoing considerations like a variety of climates, body types, the officers’ duties and even differences in coastal formality that inform her design choices. “Ideally, the last thing officers should be thinking about is their uniform. It’s right when it just works,” she said. “I’m so proud of these designs because they have the potential to make a really hard job not just more comfortable but safer too,” she said. It’s safe to say that Laura—through work, through her studio renovation and through personal choices—is living her life by design, one which places beauty in the service of function. “It’s humbling to look back over the last 23 years because I truly came from humble beginnings,” Laura said. “I often wonder if I hadn’t learned how to sew on my mom’s sewing machine, or if my father hadn’t taught me the importance of hard work, if I would be where I am today.”