I am Sucker for versatility…
Fashion designer & textile artist Kelsey Lee shares her passion for designing and her personal experiences as an independent designer. When she is not designing, she spends time with her dog PIPPI a highly energetic herding dog via trips to the park or hours in her yard playing soccer. Kelsey, ” I love to use all my materials…I use spare materials to turn them into something new; however, my primary focus is on garments as well as some accessories…like I use some textile art in some things like handbags.”
One Wish as a fashion designer | “To always have the perfect amount of bobbin thread!”
Elaine | What does sustainable fashion mean to you?
Kelsey | For me, sustainable fashion is about more than just doing business with organic cotton. I believe in making pieces that are really special and unique, while also keeping things in very basic ready-to-wear shapes. I do not follow trends super closely, but I also don’t like plain clothes. I love the idea of a minimalist capsule collection, but I have never been a fan of all of the dark, solid colors that usually accompany them. I think you can create pieces in timeless silhouettes in super fun prints that can still be worn in a variety of ways. I feel that if people have a closet full of clothes that make them smile, they won’t feel like they have nothing to wear and those clothes will stay with them longer, reducing the amount of clothing that they buy and discard quickly without wearing. I’m also a zero-waste designer, and I collect 100% of the scraps that I produce. Every so often, I release truly one-of-a-kind pieces made from scrap fabric with various textile art methods of reassembling the scraps into new fabrics.
Elaine | What is sustainable fashion?
Kelsey | Sustainable fashion is really hard to define. In essence, it means that we are not using more resources to create fashion than can reasonably be regenerated by the next season. This could mean a circular system, where you can recycle old fashion into new fashion, or it can be made from all-natural fibers, or it could reuse ocean plastic waste, or zero water dye techniques, etc. There are never-ending ideas on how we can make it better, but everything will have at least some carbon footprint. Plant-based materials are renewable, but as clean water becomes an increasingly scarce resource, we may have difficulty growing the fibers or processing the material into the fabric. The clearest, immediate step that most people (while taking into account that some people cannot afford more than fast-fashion prices, but these people likely are not the ones contributing the most to the climate crisis through over consumption anyway) can take is to reduce our consumption by buying fewer items that are of a higher quality than typical fast-fashion pieces will get you.
Elaine | Should we all be concerned about sustainable fashion?
Kelsey | I believe that everyone should be concerned about sustainable fashion, as well as the effects of climate change as a whole and how our consumption plays a huge role in it. We can already see serious changes to the weather with record high temperatures, droughts, fires, as well as increased numbers of tropical storms and hurricanes happening simultaneously. At one point, I think a lot of people had themselves convinced that they wouldn’t be affected even if climate change was real, but that hope seems to be shrinking all the time. While the majority of carbon emissions come from huge industries and not individual people, consumers do still have the power to demand more sustainable options by supporting the brands that take the initiative to do so. Many sustainable brands are more expensive so I know not everyone can afford it, but if those that could switch just a few regular purchase items to better brands, and for even those that can’t support brands, they can by just following them on social media. It can really send a message to the larger brands that have more power to make meaningful change, and that would be a smart business decision to start moving to a more sustainable model.
Elaine | Do you remember where you were when you decided to become a fashion designer? Was it a light bulb moment or a gradual journey to be a professional designer?
Kelsey | For me, fashion was always something that I was interested in. I used to watch fashion shows with my mom, and I learned how to sew and knit at a very young age. When it came to thinking about what I wanted to go to school for, I really couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do other than design clothes. I applied to an apparel design program with really no backup plan if it didn’t work out, but thankfully it did and I have never looked back.
Elaine | If you had one wish as a fashion designer, what would that wish be?
Kelsey | To always have the perfect amount of bobbin thread! For someone that doesn’t sew, that might seem super silly. However, for anyone that has run out of thread while trying to run a basting stitch forgathers on a really long panel and had to rip out that whole row of stitching, I’m sure they can relate to the frustration.
Elaine | Have you a favorite garment that you enjoy designing and producing?
Kelsey | I think my favorite piece is my Victor Cowl, which now feels like a fall staple for the brand. It was one of those pieces that I had been trying to develop for years, but the sizing and shapes were always just a bit off, so I abandoned the project many times. I believed so strongly that it would be an amazing piece if I could just figure it out that I kept coming back to tit. Eventually, I just told myself that I was going to fix the pattern, no matter how many tries it took. I ended up finishing my final iteration after just two more tries, so I was really proud of it and it gave me a lot of motivation to persevere through other patterns that were giving me trouble because those are usually the only pieces that are really special.
Elaine | If you had to design a garment for the next two years and no other, what would that garment be?
Kelsey | Probably some type of pinafore dress that could function both as a regular dress in the summer, but would also work in the winter over a long-sleeved top or sweater. I’m a sucker for versatility!
A lot of fashion programs view fashion as an Art | at the end of the day it is also a Business.
Elaine | What change would you like to see in the fashion industry regarding support for aspiring and emerging fashion designers like yourself?
Kelsey | I think it would really help aspiring designers if there was a decline in the demand for fast fashion. There are a ton of really amazing designers that want to participate in a slower fashion movement, with a focus on independently made pieces that support local economies, and demand from the public for that would really open up a space for them to showcase their talents.
Elaine | In your opinion, what is the most exciting thing about being a fashion designer today?
Kelsey | There is such a huge amount of change happening in the industry right now, and I think there are a lot of opportunities to make it so much better. I think the younger generations are really pushing for transparency and accountability in the supply chains of big brands, and it is really putting the spotlight on the industry’s dirty laundry that they can’t keep hiding in a closet any longer. Because of that, there is a real opportunity to acknowledge the wrongdoings, learn from that, and try to improve. I’m hopeful that we will see improvements in at least the working conditions in the future.
Elaine | Where did you receive your training in fashion design, for instance in college or via an apprenticeship? If so, would you recommend their services? And what one event was most memorable about your training that you may be using today?
Kelsey | I went to the University of Minnesota for a double major in apparel design and retail merchandising. While a lot of fashion programs view fashion as an art, my program definitely viewed it in a more practical realm. A lot of people that go into fashion are super creative dreamers and want to use it as an art form, but at the end of the day, it is also a business. I think that I really needed that knock-back to reality a bit to really take it seriously for the business that it is, with real-world repercussions. When you’re working in fashion, you create a product that needs to fit into the lives of real people and their needs so you need to think practically, while also taking into account the ethical considerations of how your business might affect, for example, the people making the fabrics you use or the environment in which the fabrics are being produced. For me, the conversations in school about the ethical side of the business have been some of my main drivers and motivations for starting my own small business as opposed to trying to work for a larger company where profits are the biggest motivation.
Elaine | During your training, what was one thing you learned that was most helpful to you now as a fashion designer?
Kelsey | I interned with a locally based MN clothing brand, and it really taught me the power of connections. As an introvert, I really wanted to just do everything on my own, put it out there, and hope that people like it. I learned pretty quickly that that was pretty unrealistic. Getting to know the right people can really help to put more opportunities on the table, in everything from knowing who to call when you need a model, photographer, makeup artist, or hearing about and getting into runway shows, or even just getting in touch with potential clients that never would have found you otherwise.
Elaine | Once you have completed a design project, what is it that you hope to have accomplished?
Kelsey | Ideally, that someone will wear it! I hope that every piece I make can bring someone a bit of joy when they put it on. Seeing someone wearing something that I make with my own hands is just the most amazing feeling in the world!
Elaine | Is there a famous designer that you admire? If so, who and why?
Kelsey | This is really a hard question for me, and I’m really torn on the answer. When I was younger, there were a lot of designers that I really looked up to, but as I grew older and learned more about them as people, it became apparent that most of them had lived quite tortured lives. They would make this absolutely brilliant work to express themselves, but as they became more successful, so did the pressure and control of other people out to make money off of them. It seemed like they were never really happy, and it makes me question first, whether or not you could truly make such touching pieces if you were happy, and second if success was even worth it if you couldn’t enjoy it. As a child, I adored Alexander McQueen. I wanted to be just like him when I grew up. Then, when he died by suicide, it occurred to me that he would probably have thought it a bad idea to idolize him.
Elaine | If you were given a coat to design, what would you do first? Why or why not?
Kelsey | I always start with the fabric! if I start with an actual garment in mind, I can never find the fabric that I’m picturing in my head. I would immediately go look for fabrics and see what spoke to me, then design silhouettes and shapes based on what would compliment the fabric.
Elaine | During the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders, was your creativity affected in any way? If so how and if not, what helped you through the challenge?
Kelsey | I think I went through stages of designer’s block. For me, it’s a cycle that I get stuck in because I can’t be creative if I feel like I’m not being productive and I can’t be productive if I don’t feel creative. Generally, when I feel stuck, I make more stock of popular pieces that I can do pretty mindlessly. It helps me get over the frustration of feeling like I’m getting nothing done because I am actually accomplishing something by making more stock.
Elaine | Have you ever experienced a creativity block when designing? If so, how did you overcome it?
Kelsey | All the time! I am beginning to think that it is actually part of the creative process, at least mine. It is always when I feel stuck and about to give up that I just try desperately to create what seems to be the most simple thing my mind can dream up and make last minute. Those pieces made under pressure always end up being my best work.
Pieces made under pressure always end up being my best work.
Elaine | What one fashion show did you participate in within the last three years? And what was the experience like for you? What did you take from participating in the show?
Kelsey | This past spring, I participated in Evolve, the finale show for Minnesota Fashion Week (and will be again this fall!). It was so much fun and I think it really made me feel a lot more confident in my abilities as a designer. I had done a resort wear show as the first runway show after the official launch of my brand, but the pandemic shut everything down literally weeks after that show, so my feelings around that one were so tainted. Everyone was panicking, so obviously there was no interest in the line and no one was interested in shopping. It was really debilitating, and I felt like maybe my brand wasn’t meant to be and I should close shop shortly after launching. I decided to stick it out, and I am really glad I did! The Minneapolis fashion community is just so kind and supportive, and I really felt like I was contributing to this wonderful community of people that wanted to support the local economy and have fun and look fabulous doing it. It was really such a treat!
Elaine | What do your friends think about you having chosen fashion design as a profession?
Kelsey | Most of my friends I met in design school, or while I was working in the costume industry post-grad, so none of them are surprised. We are really all birds of a feather that have very similar personalities and hobbies, with just slightly different roles in fashion or the entertainment industry.
Elaine | Who do you design for? | Who is your customer?
Kelsey | I started out doing menswear in school, but quickly found out that there wasn’t a huge market in menswear for more unique and interesting designs that I was inclined to do. I switched it up to focus on womenswear with loose-fitting shapes that could really work on a wide variety of bodies. I believe strongly in creating fun and unique pieces that are comfortable and easy to wear for casual, everyday dressing.
Elaine | How do you define success as a fashion designer and business owner of 1004 Designs?
Kelsey | I’m a pretty simple person with simple needs. If I am in a place financially that I am able to continue making pieces for the brand, I consider that to be a success, even if it never becomes wildly profitable. For me, it is not about money, but just being able to do what I love.
Elaine | What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring fashion designer today?
Kelsey | Try not to take anything too personally! I think a lot of times when you’re new, people give you really blunt advice and feedback that can come off sounding harsh. Even if it doesn’t seem constructive, there are usually at least a few good pointers in there that can be super helpful if you’re willing to listen.
Elaine | What do you do to rejuvenate when completing a challenging design project?
Kelsey | I really enjoy playing video games, so I am always happy to finally get a chance to play when I finish a project. It really reduces my stress and gets me charged up to start something new.
In closing the interview, the last question that was asked of Kelsey was, What do you do in your spare time when not designing?
Kelsey | I have a very rambunctious herding dog named Pippa, but no livestock for her to wrangle, so she has to settle for trips to the park, agility practice, and endless hours of soccer in the yard. Her energy is literally neverending, so almost all of my spare time is dedicated to making sure she is happy and healthy, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. | KL | 1004 Designs
Interview by | Elaine Pizzini
StitchnPost | Content Creator
Minneapolis | Fashion Designer | Kelsey Lee