The New York-based designer's designer looks back on 25 years in business.
This year marks 25 years of your own label being in business. Is it surreal to think a quarter century has passed since you started?
Yeah, my son is 25. The company is 25. I turn sixty. I never thought I'd be this fucking old. I'm a grandmother! It's just that, in my head, I still feel young. I think, "Wow, who's that?" when I look in the mirror.
In standing back for the anniversary and creating a timeline of your work, is there anything that stuck out to you now that you're able to view everything at once?
It all started with geometry. The pieces fit together quite nicely because of their consistency. And I think it's also being creative and having a creative conversation with my team. It isn’t how I worked in the beginning. I want to get back to drawing again because I haven't drawn for a long time.
In fashion, we're in a weird place where it feels like there are more brands than ever. But it also feels like everything is consolidated within big conglomerates more than ever. What's it been like for you to have been independent all this time?
Yes, this is true. I'm very proud of being independent, but it has also been really tough because there are not a lot of independent brands still around 25 years later. It's never easy. It's always a struggle. We have good years and not-so-good years; we just went through the pandemic. Sometimes I think, "Oh my God, I just wish somebody would come and help us. I wish we had a big bank account."
The reality is that we're only as good as the season in the store and what's selling. Fashion is creative but also commercial. You're only as good as your sell-through. Therefore, it's very hard to feel like you've accomplished anything because there’s always another season. I call it the window of happiness: when a collection's done, we shoot it and do a show, and there are 48 hours where there are no comments. It just looks beautiful, and nobody dares to say anything. But then with certain things, even though we designed them a year ago, all of a sudden you hear that they’re selling or not selling, or that certain people respond to them.
I've had to become less sensitive about it. When I first started designing, I used to take it very personally. But now that I'm older and have had kids and a life, I'm less emotional about it. I don't take it as an offense. In fact, I always say the things that I really love never make it.
Really?! God, that's so heartbreaking to hear.
It is. So I steal the sample if I can.
That's a smart move. Like you said, things feel very precarious from season to season when you're independent. What got you through? Because, as a designer, business is not necessarily what you set out to do.
I'm quite practical, and I think that has gotten me through. That and having a family. When I got back into it after a short time away, I did not want to be in the fashion business. I just wanted to be creative and make something that would be like art. When I opened [my old] store on Mott Street, it was very much going to be a gallery space or a collaborative space, and my ex-husband and I were going to have friends join and do openings. I also think what got me through is that I kept my ego in check.
What pulled you back into fashion and designing clothes?
We got the space and it was originally going to be for hosting other people—a creative atelier where I was making things and hosting like-minded friends who also made things. But then it became very hard because artists are unpredictable. Instead, it became about what I could make because that's what was working. I love my artists, but a lot of them are hard to pin down.
That's the perfect segue into my next question. You have an incredible clientele with customers like Cindy Sherman, Michelle Obama, Christy Turlington and Tara Donovan. The list goes on and on.
Cindy Sherman was one of my first clients. She said in an interview with Vogue that she has over 200 pieces in her personal archive. And I only found out because we photographed her for our 20th anniversary book. I didn't even know she had that many pieces. I worked with a lot of artists, and I'm not talking about the female artists that we work with now. In the beginning, we were basically trying to corral them and turn them into staff. It was a very different working environment back then.
You do have such a strong following among artists, in particular. What do you think makes them feel so comfortable in your clothes?
I think it's because I'm a woman and, for me, clothes are an armor that you put on to face the world. I'm not particularly confident, and what we said was that clothes are there to make you feel like a better version of yourself. And I think they get that. They feel embraced. Plus, they still look like themselves. I'm not dressing them up into some vision in a corset or something like that. We just did this dress for Wangechi Mutu, who asked me to do something for the New Museum opening. They feel good about themselves. I think that's what clothes are supposed to do for us: they create a better version of ourselves.
When you started designing, was that already your philosophy? Did it evolve at all?
It evolved because I moved to America, I moved to New York. I just had a six-year-old and an eight-month-old, and I didn't want to wear mom jeans. I still wanted to wear cool clothes that were interesting but in fabrics I could relate to. My idea was to do these couture T-shirts and denim. I would upcycle fabrics in the beginning.
For me, it's always been about wearable things and never just designing showpieces. Even if something felt like a showpiece, it was meant to be worn. Do you know what I mean? Because I think having cool, sculptural pieces that you can actually wear is more interesting than having something sit in your wardrobe that never gets worn.
Do you think that is an issue in the industry overall?
There's so much stuff out there. I don't know. At one stage, yes, you would definitely say certain people's collections were just for the show. You never saw those pieces because their modus operandi is basically to do the crazy show and then sell a lipstick or a pair of glasses or a handbag. There are very different types of businesses in fashion. For me, it was always about the clothes. It wasn't about the periphery of fashion.
I think a lot of the female artists relate to me in a weird way. They say I'm a sort of artist, as well, which I thought was really weird. Or architects who think I’ve done architecture before maybe because I think of a body more in a 3-D way. That's why it was hard for us at the beginning of Instagram because I don't design flat, Instagram clothes.
That's a big deal because that's how a lot of designers work now.
Yes. They're just designing on a flat screen. The clothes aren't made with a woman's [body] in mind. And it's all the same, they way they design in CAD. It's a very different way of designing.
You mentioned that some artists call you an artist. Do you think of yourself as an artist, or do those comparisons make you uncomfortable? Do you embrace them?
I think it's flattering. I never thought of myself as one, but maybe that's why I was never super commercial. Even my sister said to me, "You really need to become more commercial." I told her I thought I was being commercial.
It served you pretty well.
But it's interesting because my vision of commercial, or what I think is wearable, may not be everybody's vision of [commercial]. We wouldn't have survived 25 years if there wasn't a signature and there wasn't a signature way of cutting because that's our niche.
I can't do anything basic. I always bitch and moan about that because sometimes I just want a really boring thing, a really nothing kind of thing that is not designed. But we can't sell anything that's too basic. We can sell an interesting top in a basic fabric, but we cannot sell a basic. Our identity is why we still have an audience.
On top of being an independent business, you also produce many of your garments in New York City, which is less and less common.
When I first opened the store, I had the idea of an atelier. I had one person doing pants, one person doing jersey, one doing tailoring. As we grew, some things went to the factory, but I wanted to try and keep as much of it local as I could because I wanted to know what was going on. Once somebody complained about the price of something, and I said, “My team working in the back has medical insurance and everyone is getting a fair wage. That's what it costs to buy things made that way.”
During the pandemic, it served me well. It was almost like we made stuff to order. It was really nice to work in that way. It was about what people reacted to.
You've had this incredible longevity. But fashion, in particular, celebrates newness, what's next, and who's coming up. What does it feel like to be in an ecosystem where that's the case?
Oh, it's hard to be 60 in this ecosystem, especially the last few years at all of these CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America] things. I'm on the board with Thom Browne because he asked me to be. I get introduced as sort of an icon now. It's just weird to me because it is a business that feeds on its young and they become disposable, which I think it's really tough. I think the difference with me is that I've always had my niche and what I love, and our clients. The fact is that, as a woman, you attract like-minded creative people.
Do you think this “feeding on the young” has gotten worse or better over the years?
What I don't like is that it’s irresponsible, especially in fashion, which is sort of an endless black hole of money. It pushes some of these kids into a slot where a lot of people get pushed after they receive awards or awards funding, and they disappear after two seasons. I think it's irresponsible to push people into the limelight so quickly before they've had any experience or know how to survive.
One of the things I always ask, especially of female designers, is: Would you wear this? Dries [Van Noten] asked me to be a judge for Festival Hyeres, and I asked that question of the girl we ultimately voted for, who was really good. I remember saying to her, “So I love all of your ideas, but you're a woman. What would you wear out of this?"
I always say there's the intellectual love and then there's the love love. Do I want to wear this? Is this just a total wank off? Or is this set on some sort of reality and beauty because that's what we're supposed to do as designers: bring some beauty into this world. Especially for me because [my family] were political refugees and for my father, it was a big cop-out that I went into fashion.
Oh, yeah. He could not understand it. But I said, “I'm political in the way I work, and also in the things that I get behind." He was very disappointed. He wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, or something much more useful in his eyes.
Did he think it was frivolous?
Yeah, he did. But he eventually understood. I said, "You can only change things from within." And that's what I've tried to do. You don't change things by turning your back. That is why I must be part of things like the board of the CFDA, after all these years of actually purposefully being on the periphery. I don't really want to be in the fashion business, because in the fashion business, you're in for three years and then you're out. I would rather just have a business that is based on design and interesting clothes.
Now that you're 25 years in, is there anything that you haven't done yet that you'd really like to do? Or anything you'd like to accomplish with your business or designs?
Oh my goodness, lots of things. I don't want to limit myself to fashion. I would love to make other things. I've been asked to do collaborations. I think if you're creative and you have certain tastes, there are different applications for it, right? I could design a car even though I can't drive. [laughs]
Oh, really? I love that. That's such a New York story.
OK, I think this is going to be our last one: What do you think about legacy? Does that matter to you? Do you think about younger generations looking at your work, either now or in the future?
I always said that I hope my clothes make good heirlooms, good vintage, because I don't want them to be disposable. When I did my book, I noticed all the fashion books are all about the tear sheets or the celebrities, but I wanted the sketches. I wanted it to show the actual work that went into the collection because there's this disconnect. It's actually quite a tough job, and we don't sit in an ivory tower creating. We're problem-solving. We're like the mechanics. But within that, we make beautiful things.
I wanted to burst that bubble for kids to be aware of what it really is. It's not just sitting there and being on “Project Runway” or Instagram and being fabulous. It's hard because today it's not even about the product. It's become about who are you photographing for your social media or how much you reveal. I'm quite private, but all of a sudden you see these female designers, who shall remain nameless, putting pictures of their kids up, and everybody not only wants the product; they also want your backstory.
The people became the products in a weird way.
Which is funny if it's just me, you know what I mean? I'm not going to post pictures of my grandchild with me in an outfit. And for me, I think privacy is the chicest thing now. It's the new luxury to have privacy. Not everything needs to be overexposed. I think it's more interesting what you don't say or show. Even for the clothes, I always say, let's be sensual. It is not about showing everything; it's about hinting at what's beneath.