Style Profile: Amy Walsh Kern

WATCH executive director Amy Walsh Kern breaks every rule except her own

Odds are Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has no idea that Amy Walsh Kern is one of the chicest women in Minnesota. She only knows Kern as the John Marshall Law School student who, some 15 years ago, published a Law Review paper postulating that Ginsburg had spent her career working to bring equality to women under the equal protection guarantee of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. When a letter arrived in the mailbox of the “lowly law student” on Supreme Court stationery, Kern recalls, “My stomach dropped. I thought, ‘Oh no, I must have messed up. She’s going to tell me I got my theory wrong, that I was presumptuous to even postulate it.’”

Instead, she got a note from Justice Ginsburg congratulating her for getting it right. Today, that letter is a prize possession that hangs on her office wall for all to see—right after they take in whatever prize possession she has pulled from her closet that day: an Azzedine Alaïa leopard print dress, perhaps, or a Peter Pilotto digital print pantsuit. For Kern, 42, the colorful, richly patterned outfits that are her signature—and have rendered more than a few buttoned-up courtroom bystanders speechless—say as much about her as the letter from Ginsburg. “My wardrobe is an extension of me,” says Kern. “It says ‘I’m strong. I’m confident. I’m creative. I have personal power.’ I think that’s an important message.”

Now more than ever. After focusing on discrimination and harassment suits at Leonard, Street and Deinard (now Stinson Leonard Street) for 13 years, Kern recently resigned her partnership to become the executive director of WATCH, a non-profit that places volunteers in Hennepin County courtrooms to monitor treatment of women and children in cases of domestic abuse and sex trafficking. “I got started in employment law because I am passionate about issues of women and equality,” she explains. “WATCH is a continuum for me; it’s about teaching respect for women in the court system and demanding that their loved ones treat them fairly.”

The seriousness of her mission does not mean she will be playing down the animal prints. “For me, serious doesn’t mean looking like a man in the 1960s. It means looking appropriate—not too tight,  short, or revealing. After that, it comes back to individuality and strength.” Kern has been dressing to her own drummer since she was a kid in Indianapolis spending all her “meager allowance” on fashion magazines. “My mom refused to indulge me,” she says. “We didn’t have the means. So I babysat and worked checkout at a grocery store.If there was a trend, I was on it. Buying clothes was a symbol of freedom.”

That independent streak remains: She and her husband, Mitch, a California-born private-equity investor whose job brought them to Minneapolis in 2001, eloped to Scotland when she was in law school (“I’m not even positive we’re married for sure,” she laughs); she sends their three children off to parochial school with a reminder that “God is a she,” she says; and she shows up pretty much everywhere looking like she stepped off a runway: “I get a lot of, ‘Man, you’re dressed up.’ It does makes some people uncomfortable.”

She’s learned to deal with occasional discomfort—like the time Mitch came home to find a stuffed peacock sitting on the mantel. “I was upstairs and I heard him yell, ‘Aamy!’ What can I say? I have a thing for taxidermy.” Happily, the people she loves love her the way she is. In fact, Amy recalls a time she picked up her son from nursery school in exercise clothes. “He looked at me and said, ‘What are you wearing?’” Take it from the kid: This peacock needs her plumes. 

The Look

An art lover who sits on the board of trustees at the Walker Art Center, longtime litigator Kern is unabashedly unlawyerly in her fashion taste. She is wearing a Peter Pilotto for Target skirt, $35, and blouse, $35. “I love the message—that you don’t have to spend a fortune to look great and express yourself,” she says. Shoes by MM6, $595, at Grethen House, 4930 France Ave. S., Edina, 952-926-8725. Jewelry, her own.

Insider Info

Favorite Shops: Grethen House. Fashion Avenue. Room No. 3. Big Island Swim & Surf Company for the caftans I wear all summer. Ann & Jack’s for vintage jewelry.

What She Shouldn’t Have Admitted: I had a mean perm phase in middle school. I’d get up really early and wash and crunch my hair just so, then sit on a pillow and lean forward so it could air-dry.

Why She Digs Miley Cyrus: I’ll admit I was sheepish when I called a shop to ask about a Marc Jacobs dress saying, “The one Miley wore.” But I think she’s great—a young, talented woman boldly putting herself out there. She should be allowed to make some mistakes. Maybe it is how bold she is that makes people uncomfortable. Ugh.

Online Extra: Take a house tour of Amy Walsh Kern’s stylish abode.

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