Rachel Comey’s success has come by eschewing the standards of the fashion industry and going with her gut. Since launching her eponymous line in 2001 with a guerrilla show in a Tribeca parking lot, she continues to mount Fashion Week happenings rather than traditional runway presentations, usually serving dinner to an eclectic guest list in venues like LA art gallery Hauser & Wirth or The Met Breuer.
Clogs, jumpsuits, and raw-hemmed jeans, now perennial trends in womenswear, were initiated by Comey over the last decade. From Mylar to laminated cotton, Comey uses unconventional materials to create distinctive collections season after season. Her Fall 2017 presentation employed Maharam’s Waxed Cotton Leno, a resilient netlike material traditionally used as a window covering, in ready-to-wear garments and accessories.
Comey also leverages her brand platform to incite change within the industry. After the 2016 US presidential election, she bussed her team to the Women’s March in DC and penned a letter to the CFDA imploring her colleagues to support the people who largely float the fashion industry: women.
Quietly, Comey’s brand has grown into an independent powerhouse that tends to uniform powerhouses. Her cult attracts thoughtful, creative women: architects, celebrities, entrepreneurs, designers, and artists, with fans including Michelle Obama, Parker Posey, and Solange. The Rachel Comey woman can do it all—while dressed in architectural silhouettes and comfortable shoes.
Amy Auscherman: Rather than fashion, you studied sculpture at the University of Vermont. How does your background in sculpture inform your approach to designing clothes?
Rachel Comey: I think being attracted to and interested in exploring materials—how they work, and what their general properties are—comes from my background in sculpture. I tune in to experiments and any kind of material production. I’ve always been curious—I’m always thinking, “How can I use that?” These basic instincts then get translated into garments. Both fashion and sculpture place similar emphasis on proportion, but I feel I put a lot more thought toward function and purpose when I’m dealing with a human body and personality versus something inanimate.
AA: Describe your research process when starting a collection. Where do you go for inspiration?
RC: Textile archives and libraries. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I go to markets and spend a lot of time looking at fabrics and developing fabric with my mills. A lot of times I try to be responsive to people I know, experiences I hear about, or customers who come in. I think about those people—those occasions and bodies—and how to fit those puzzle pieces together.
AA: Have any archival pieces been particularly inspiring to you?
RC: A specific armhole that I found by designer Charles Kleibacker. I saw a coat and dress in a vintage collection and they each had this beautiful sleeve—halfway between a raglan and set-in sleeve. It was something I’d always tried to work on because I'm short, so I struggle with the width and proportion of shoulders in pieces I wear. Kleibacker’s had a soft, in-between line. I used his sleeve in a collection and to this day I still use it. I remember finding it ten years ago and thinking, “This is it! This is the answer!”
AA: Do you document your own work and collections? Is there a Rachel Comey archive?
RC: We do keep an archive. It’s very functional. It’s always useful to return to styles that you want to see again. The archive is for holding on to the work we put into something and thinking about how we might want to continue or improve it. If it’s a silhouette, the shoulder of this jacket, the drape, the sleeves of this shirt—you can access them quickly in the design process and can continue moving forward.
AA: Your New York and Los Angeles stores are menageries of texture: travertine, Maharam’s Cotton Velvet as dressing room curtains, poured concrete, leather, acrylic, shag rugs. What’s it like choosing and using materials to design in a 3D context?
RC: In the stores, it’s not only about the space, it’s about the experience. How do you want your customers to experience your collection? How do you define that space? For me, materials are a strong part of that. They’re not precious. Or there is the juxtaposition of something really precious and not precious.
AA: Your designs are human-centered—stylish and empowering but also comfortable. How do you push inclusivity and equality through design? How do you propel feminism in your industry?
RC: I try to think about all the complicated things that women are doing in their lives and careers, how they might want to feel, and how they want to project themselves. That doesn’t rule out feminine things. I listen to women of all ages and sizes. As a brand and a business, we try to find thoughtful ways to communicate. Some of the ways I can do this in fashion specifically are to cast older women, and to cast women of different sizes and ethnicities. Those are opportunities and, really, responsibilities that I have.
There are opportunities in fashion to reach people and try to influence them, or start a conversation. One great quality in women is that we know how to get things done. Getting things done has always been helpful for me creatively. It pushes you forward. That’s the great thing about the deadlines in fashion—you have to do it, you have to figure it out. It didn’t work? Try it again. Next time it will work better. I think resilience is an inherent part of being a woman.
Amy Auscherman is the archivist at Herman Miller and an editor of the forthcoming book Herman Miller: A Way of Living to be published by Phaidon in Spring 2019. An editor of WHY Magazine, she chronicles her design research via @acid_free.