07 The Moxie of Rachel Antonoff

In an industry rife with exclusivity and preconceptions, fashion designer Rachel Antonoff is breaking down every wall she encounters. Armed with a playful sensibility, Antonoff captures inspiration as it strikes and transforms her vision into captivating fashion stories—that transcend the clothes themselves. Here, she shares her no-holds-barred creative process, and the impact of a creative upbringing. “Family and friends were always a big part of my inspiration,” she tells Jonah Bayer.

Photo courtesy of Amy Lombard.
Photo courtesy of Amy Lombard.

I first met Rachel Antonoff in 2007, in Cleveland, Ohio. She was travelling along with her brother Jack’s band Steel Train, who was playing a club show with a few other mid-sized underground acts. As I learned that night, Rachel had only recently launched her own creative venture—a boutique fashion label called Mooka Kinney, for which she co-designed collections with her then-roommate Alison Lewis.

A lot has changed since then. Under her own brand name, Rachel has gone on to become one of the most progressive fashion designers around, with her work profiled in publications such as Vogue and Elle, and worn by celebrities such as Lena Dunham, Jamie Lee Curtis and Scarlett Johansson.

Her brother, meanwhile, hasn’t done too badly, either. After Steel Train derailed, he went on to play guitar for the Grammy-winning rock trio fun. and to front his own wildly successful project Bleachers. While each on their own distinct path, these creative siblings have flourished, likely thanks to their shared ability to bring ideas to life in their pure, unfiltered glory.

When it comes to fashion, Rachel brings a whimsical levity to the often-intimidating industry, stopping at nothing to bring the vision for her collections to life. From producing heart-string-tugging videos to transforming the Plaza Hotel into a summer camp overnight, she never lets convention (or logistics) get in the way of fully realizing a kickass idea.

We caught up with Rachel at her studio in Midtown Manhattan, where she was working on some new designs and babysitting her puppy Lafitte (which she jokes is a mix between a Wirehaired Jack Russell Terrier, a Dachshund and a small piglet). There, we talked about how she comes up with ideas, the way she manages to collaborate with corporate clients without sacrificing her vision, and why she thinks it’s important to challenge fashion’s conventions through her designs.FTP_Issue_07a_web-03aAs a creative person with a well-rounded set of talents, why fashion?
[Laughs.] I actually fell into this somewhat by accident. I had a roommate [Alison Lewis] in 2005, and we always had ideas for clothes and would talk about it all the time and decided to explore it. We had a run of really lucky events that gave us certain opportunities that I know are ridiculous now. We emailed editors and one of them wrote us back and said, “I’m going to write about you.” She called Barney’s and they picked us up and it was just a really bizarre time and experience. We did the label [Mooka Kinney] together for three years, and that was just a big learning experience; I feel like that was my education. Then, when we parted ways, I started my own label [Rachel Antonoff], so I really did fall into it, which is an interesting way to start something.

Had you always been interested in fashion?
I’ve always loved clothing and certain aspects of fashion: the dress-up element and how it can make you feel really transformative and confident. But I had worked in PR for another designer for a year, and—I don’t know if you’ve had much experience at the intersection of fashion and PR—but it’s just about as gross as it sounds. [Laughs.] It just wasn’t a great entryway into the industry. So when I quit that job, I thought I would never work in fashion again. But this is different.

Going off track: Rachel gets a lift from Steel Train, her brother Jack’s former band.

You do a great job of keeping things fun and light in a world that can seem very pretentious. You also use unconventional models instead of what people typically expect on the runway. Is that a conscious effort for you?
Yes, that’s been a big part of this for me. There’s so much about fashion that’s wonderful and positive and cool and interesting and funny—and then there are some things that lean more toward the elitist and exclusive, and I just have no stomach for that part of it. I’ve always tried to get away from that aspect and do it a different way. That said, it’s hard to do. When you’re casting a show for Fashion Week, you’re not seeing a lot of models of different shapes and sizes, and there are industry standards that are there for a reason, and it can be difficult or expensive to try to break the mold. So we try to keep it relatable and accessible, and sometimes it’s hard, but it’s always conscious.

Is this a political statement or a natural expression of your spirit or both?
It’s both. Every art has its own set of conventions. I feel like fashion gets a pretty bad rap, and I don’t know if it’s deserved.

The fashion world can be intimidating to a lot of people.
Right. And I think it should be open to everybody and it shouldn’t be as aspirational as it is. I totally understand why that’s a big part of it, but we prefer not to do it like that. [Laughs.]

How did the idea of doing fun videos featuring family and friends instead of the standard lookbook come about?
Kind of because of the former question. I don’t know if you’ve seen many other fashion videos, but we liked the idea of putting content out there that was actually interesting to watch and had nothing to do with the clothes. The other reason is that the presentations and the videos are the only ways to show people the world we see the clothes living in. So we just want it to be interesting and funny and not pretentious.FTP_Issue_07a_web-11

The last show I saw included a flash mob. Is that standard?
I don’t think it’s totally standard. A lot of people do presentations now instead of runway, and people definitely do interesting sets, so we’re not the only people doing that. But I don’t think a ton of people are doing it.

Do you ever come up with an idea for a video before a collection?
Sure, the different ideas totally vary in schedule. Sometimes it’s a great idea for a video that spawns a collection and sometimes it’s totally the opposite. This season when we did the “Camping at The Plaza” concept, we were without the idea for the show until about three weeks beforehand. I was really stressed out.

How did that idea come to you? Do you remember?
Well, the idea for the collection was already bird watching, and so we kept thinking of bird-related show ideas and then, I don’t remember why, but we refocused it to wilderness. Camping seemed like a natural transition.

Then you stayed up all night?
Yeah. It was horrible. I really hate all-nighters. I’ve never done drugs really, so cocaine probably would have come in handy, but it didn’t seem like a great time to try it. [Laughs.] It’s just so gross staying up all night. It’s the worst. But then it happened and it was over and it was good.

It seems like you and Jack both have that drive to get stuff done, whereas a lot of the time I’m like, “Eh, I’m gonna just sit here and eat pizza.”
I mean, I’m like that 80 percent of the time.

Family is a huge influence on you. Your grandmother helped you sew your first collections, your mom models the clothes, your brother soundtracks and has acted in your videos, and one of your more recent clips features your parents’ love story. How do those collaborations work?
Easily, because there’s very little paperwork and almost no payment. [Laughs.] My family is really close, and family and friends were always a big part of my inspiration. I remember years ago Jack and [fun. singer] Nate [Reuss] used to help us with serious hard labor—like when we moved offices—and it just never occurred to me to hire professionals. So it seemed really natural to me to involve them. And it’s just so fun and funny. We’re shooting my grandma tomorrow, actually. We have these t-shirts that say “World’s Smallest Pussy,” and I’d really like to get one on her. Not at the expense of her comfort, but we’ll see.

So you haven’t brought it up to her yet?
No. I think it’s going to go over better in person. [Laughs.]

In a previous interview, you mentioned your first designs came out of ideas for dresses you personally wish you had but didn’t yet exist. Does your current work still come from your desire to fill a perceived void?
Yes. It’s really hard to do it any other way. Now we have a pretty big library of styles, so we use those as jumping off points and build from them. But in general, when I’m thinking of ideas, I’m selfishly thinking of myself on a date and what I want to be wearing. Because I date a lot. [Laughs.]FTP_Issue_07a_web-05As you’ve gotten more successful, you’ve started to design for other labels like Bass shoes and Kmart. Have you felt any outside pressure to compromise your vision?
Yes. It’s such a tough balance of finding stuff we want to make and also making sure it’s sellable to the brand’s audience. All of these buyers have a very clear-cut vision of who their customer is, so we’re constantly trying to figure out how to appeal to that customer without feeling like we’re selling out.

How do you navigate that?
We’re still trying to figure it out. A lot of those girls are wearing the super-tight bandage dresses, and there’s definitely a line where you have to be like, “That’s just not what we do.” So we’re not going to be doing that, but it’s an interesting challenge to try to look at things in a different way like, “I love it like this, but if we tweaked this strap or did a small cutout here, would this appeal to a whole different audience?” So that’s been fascinating, actually.

This year you returned to New York Fashion Week for the first time in four seasons. How does a showcase like that differ from your typical showcase?
It doesn’t differ, it just depends on where the better idea is. Sometimes we have really exciting video concepts, and for that show [Designer/Production Manager] Sara [Lopez] had such a great idea [based on a science fair] that it seemed like it would be a waste not to do it. But shows are also typically more expensive than videos, so we try to take that into account, too.FTP_Issue_07a_web-06It seems like it could be overwhelming to do a huge show like that. Do you have to act like you’re always in control, even when maybe you don’t know what to do?
There are usually enough people around where somebody knows. But there are issues where two models will drop out the day of the show, and there’s definitely moments where I go to the bathroom and cry and then come back out. [Laughs.] But after doing it enough times, you know that those epic things are going to happen, it’s going to feel insurmountable and then it’s going to be fine. Unless this is the time it’s not fine, but usually it’s going to be fine. [Laughs.]

Do you like participating in those types of events or do you prefer to ignore the industry and do your own thing?
I like doing it the way we do it, because it really is genuinely fun. I was a musical theatre kid, so getting to create a big set and bossing people around is really fun. But I fully ghost after that. I don’t go to stuff, but I’m also not invited to stuff. [Laughs.] In general, when it comes to parties, when you don’t go anywhere, people start to not invite you, so I don’t think I’m a big part of the fashion community, for better or worse. Probably for better.

What’s next for you? Do you want to break out of fashion and get into directing film or anything?
No. I never imagined doing that, but I really want to keep growing the business. We have really enjoyed doing different collaborations like the Bass one, so I’m hoping to do some more of those and just live life with Lafitte.

FTP_Issue_07a_web-19How much influence do you have on your brother’s music?
I think you’d have to ask him. I would imagine some.

You’re probably coming from a similar place.
We have so many years of shared references. There’s the tiniest things where someone says a word a certain way and I know that Jack is thinking of that line from that movie because of the way she said that. So as far as inspiration goes, we’re probably both drawing from the same place or feeling irritated by the same thing. But I don’t usually send him stuff and say, “You should do something like this.” I’ve actually gotten really out of touch with music.

Do you have any advice for creative people just starting out, regardless of medium?
I think it’s very important to feel confident in what you’re doing, and if you decide to do it, just go for it and try not to do too much hemming and hawing. It’s best to just make decisions and not stress over the little details, because then you’ll get nothing done. That said, doing your own thing is really difficult and quite costly, so those are just things to consider if thinking about it.

Do you feel like you had a turning point where you realized this was your job or did it just end up that way?
A little bit of both. I mean when we started being carried by a major department store, it seemed like it would be silly to not see where this goes. And then I did fall in love with it and realize this is what I want to do. But it’s never been easy. Every step you reach, there’s a new interesting host of issues and obstacles, so there hasn’t been one moment yet where we’re like, “We’re in the clear now.”

Some of your work includes images and phrases that could be considered controversial by some people. Do you get a lot of negative reactions from those types of designs?
Not yet, interestingly enough. The stuff that we can’t keep in stock and keep reprinting is the female reproductive system t-shirts. “World’s Smallest Pussy” is a new adventure for us, because [actress/comedian] Jenny Slate commissioned that shirt just for her. So we made her one and she Instagrammed a picture of herself in it and we had a lot of requests. I never thought we would put anything like that up on our site, but we’re trying to listen to what people want, so we’re going to be running it for the first time, hopefully modeled by Grandma Ann. It’s interesting, because I would have thought we would get more of a negative response, and I don’t think we’ve had much of anything, aside from a few insane Planned Parenthood-hating people on Twitter.

Do you feel a responsibility to use your platform to talk about social and political issues?
Kind of. I mean there are so many people with considerably larger platforms, and they seem to be doing an okay job of that. But in general, I like the idea that if there are younger girls who are into fashion and like our stuff, they can see that maybe you don’t have to be just one size. You can think farts are funny and see that fashion doesn’t have to be this The Devil Wears Prada caricature of it.FTP_Issue_07a_web-07bWhere and when do you come up with your best ideas?
Anywhere, like at the most random times. Every time I have what I think is a good idea, I always follow that with “I’m so glad I was two hours late and driving down a one-way street because I never would have had that idea otherwise.” I feel like they all come differently. They definitely don’t happen over there [points toward a desk]—that’s order fulfillment and invoicing and seems to take so much time.

Designing a dress seems so different from, for instance, writing a song. Instead of just recording what’s in your head, it seems like an involved process of designing, looking at samples, tweaking them, etc. It seems so complex.
It’s funny, I feel the opposite.

I guess so, but writing a song is one of those things where I truly don’t understand how people do it; it’s like magic to me. With clothes, we all more or less have the same private parts to cover; we all want to stay cool when it’s hot and hot when it’s cold, you know what I mean?

How often do you have an idea that you think would be cool and then you see the physical sample and realize you don’t really like it?
Constantly. Or I’ll have an idea, think it’s cool, get it made, love it and no stores want it. Actually, right now we are getting back our spring orders from stores—we do sell stuff on our website direct to customers, but mostly we wholesale to stores—so it’s crazy to see all these things we totally believed in and this one only has three orders, but this one has a hundred. It’s also so interesting to me how these buyers know so clearly who “their girl” is, because for us it’s a total crapshoot each season as to what people are ordering.FTP_Issue_07a_web-08Do you ever feel like you have a cool idea, but you’re not sure it fits for the Rachel Antonoff brand?
Totally. And that’s so annoying, because it kind of goes back to the salability of stuff like, “Does this merchandise well?” and “Is this going to sit well next to that?” That’s not the reason I got into this stuff, but suddenly that seems to matter.

What’s next for you?
We’re doing some exciting collaboration stuff that hopefully will happen soon. Then it’s just a never-ending cycle; every time we finish one line, we’re in production for a previous line, and doing sales for the current line, so there’s always some piece of the puzzle that’s happening. It never feels linear like something’s next, it’s just a hamster wheel.

Do you ever get a chance to stop and look back at what you’ve created?
Yeah. Sometimes I’ll think, “I really liked this” or “I feel really proud of this.” I try to make a conscious effort to do that so those moments don’t pass.

Conversation edited for length and clarity.