BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // The deeper I move into this work with Slow Fashion, the more I admire designers making thoughtful choices at each turn — considering fiber sources, ethical labor, longterm wearablity, options for repair/ reuse, and also what might happen to the garment after it leaves our closets. But perhaps the most inspiring part is watching a designer make these choices on the scale of production and distribution, and seeing a designer embrace upcycling or redesign in her work. I think Adrienne Antonson’s design of the State Smock might just be the epitome of refashioning on a commercial scale: She’s taken something that’s readily available as a castoff garment with very little value as is — the ubiquitous men’s shirt — and has made it wildly useful, amazingly stylish, and ultimately a beloved garment that holds signifcant value. It’s brilliant. I own two State smocks and love them so much I sometimes have to force myself to wear anything else.
So I started this interview imagining I’d learn something about Adrienne’s genius tendencies for natural fibers and refashioning, and more about her swoon-worthy aesthetic. Instead, I learned she has this very inspiring and varied history — as a fiber artist making stunning bug sculptures out of human hair; a traveling spirit who has called North Carolina, Washington, Brooklyn and rural Georgia home; and an entrepreneur who launched her slow-fashion brand, State the Label, while inspired by the alpacas she was tending on an island in the Pacific Northwest. What’s not to love?
Through this lens of getting to know her history I could see the depth these experiences offered to her work, but I was also reminded how sometimes inspiration, life experience and imagination cannot be overlooked in aesthetics and work ethics. How we must honor these aspects of design as much as we honor materials, labor and craftsmanship. In a very digital and polished world, there is something so refreshing — maybe even shocking — about remembering that inspiration and mindset are perhaps the most important aspect of slow fashion and slow living. Without inspiration and awareness, we really can’t create momentum or sustain change. So thank you, Adrienne, for this insight into your incredibly inspiring and imaginative process.
. . .
It’s an honor to share your work and to feature State in this series. You have such a rich and inspiring history as a fine artist, urbanite, alpaca farmer and clothing designer, while holding deep ties to the Brooklyn arts community. Can you talk about the beginning of State and what inspired you to launch a clothing line?
I started State while I was living and working on an alpaca farm, on an island off the coast of Seattle. Looking back, it was like a dream. I would rake the farm’s fields during the day and look after the herd, and I would sew for hours at night. This was back in 2010, and the ideas of sustainability and local production were just starting to get a foothold in the fashion world. I was endlessly inspired by my access to raw fibers. (The barn was filled with 500+ lbs of raw alpaca fleece just sitting there!) I convinced the farmers to let me set up a felting studio in the barn, and I spent hours teaching myself how to felt. Once I got the basics, I immediately went big. I was felting rugs, wall pieces, etc. I was totally hooked. I remember telling my husband that deep-diving into felting — a totally tactile and intuitive process — felt like falling in love. It consumed me. I would work until bedtime and then wake up itching to get back to the barn. I felted through the winter, my fingers going totally numb in the water. Usually, all my creative endeavors eventually lead to fashion, making something wearable, so it wasn’t long before the felting turned into garments. I was making bonnets and elements that I would incorporate into one-of-a-kind clothing pieces. They involved a lot of hand sewing and reclaimed materials — deconstructed garments, parts of old shoe leather — and found a high-end audience in Seattle that really got it. That was truly the start of State. It’s grown and evolved a lot since then, but it all started in a barn.
You have a background in fine arts and studied art in college, but I believe you’re a self-taught designer. Do you think your background in fine arts allowed you to approach fashion, and in particular sustainable fashion, with a fresh, outside perspective? Your work feels so unique and alive.
I studied painting and sculpture at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. I did a high-school fashion program at SCAD one summer and never felt quite at home with the “fashion girls.” I don’t read fashion magazines or keep up with trends or brands, so I always felt like an outsider. Art was always where I felt truly myself, so majoring in Studio Art seemed wise. (Haha, NOT what my parents thought!) My sculptural work – mainly out of human hair – was based on garments. I made an entire collection of lingerie out of hair that set the stage for much more sculptural work post-graduation. (Random Fun Fact: My insects made from human hair are collected in Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museums all over the country!) CofC was a great school but did very little to prepare the art students for how to actually make a living after school. It was only a few weeks after graduating that I decided to start my first clothing company, Spinster. I had NO clue what I was doing but dove in head first. I read business books, talked to SBA advisors, hired help, and just went for it. And truly, I’m still that same girl just making it work every single day. I think being a fashion outsider is fitting for me because I like making up my own rules. Same goes for owning my own business. I don’t think there’s any other path for me.
On your website you say, “Sustainable, organic, and recycled fabrics, reclaimed materials, and hand painting techniques are used in all designs.” Given your early work with redesigned garments, I’m guessing this was always central. When you launched State did you have slow fashion and sustainable design as the primary focus of the work, or did that evolve as the clothing line developed?
When State launched, the mission was to use the best fabrics and processes I could find. And that’s still the case today. I think what’s changed is that seven years ago it was a big choice to work that way. Now I think it’s a standard. In the beginning we talked about being “green” and “sustainable” constantly. But, thankfully, that’s become more of what designers and customers expect so, to me at least, it’s less of a talking point now and more of a given. Currently, with that as the foundation of the brand and how we approach things, I’m able to focus more on the other elements that inspire me to move forward. In the past few years we’ve been working to create jobs in our small community (population less than 7,000!) and to move more of our production locally.
Let’s talk about your smocks, because they blow my mind. They are such a perfect adaptation of secondhand clothing into something more stylish, more versatile, and ultimately holding greater value. I love how you created a pattern to use a men’s button down shirt for an artist smock so it can be replicated but each smock still has the unique properties of the original shirt. It’s magic. What inspired you to create this design?
I made my first smock to wear as part of my farm uniform! I needed something that could hold my farm tools and treats for the alpacas. I wore it daily and loved it. Eventually I put a few in the early State collections and they always sold out first. So it wasn’t long before that became a staple of the line and now it’s our biggest seller. [Editor’s note: The #smocktuesday feed is a favorite.]
Making an item from reclaimed materials isn’t the easiest or most scalable thing in the world. When I first started hiring outside help, I made a formula for how it’s sewn. Since each shirt is different and has different measurements, stitching, etc, each piece is unique. But once my seamstresses knew the steps, they were sewing circles around me!
Any chance there will be other patterns like the smock that redesign readily available secondhand garments? I see you’ve taught alteration classes at TAC in NY and you offer workshops in your Georgia studio—any chance you’ll offer patterns or classes on redesigned garments?
I’d love to add more reclaimed pieces to the line one day. It’s something we always toss around. After this next issue of the Secret Catalog releases, I’ll be able to turn my attention back to scheduling classes here in the studio. It’s something I’m very passionate about and know that it can impact our community and the region in a positive way. We have big plans for new classes this next year and hope to bring in a lot of visiting instructors.
I love when designers use upcycled garments in their work but I know it can be so impossible when considering sizing, scale and replication. Could you shed some light on this difficulty and maybe why it’s not more widely used in the sustainable-fashion community? Why, perhaps, organic cotton yardage might be more practical for a slow-fashion designer than thrift store finds?
Upcycling is challenging because there are so many variables. We have our smocks sewn cottage-industry style. Meaning: seamstresses sew each one from start to finish in their own sewing studios. This allows them to take on each smock as a new piece and sew it to completion. Factories and larger manufacturing solutions don’t have the infrastructure to think about each unique piece. Working with one large roll of cotton is much easier and is how factories are set up to function. For us, the best solution is a trained team of smock-sewers who know exactly where to cut each one, what steps are necessary, and how to troubleshoot if, say, a pocket is bar tacked or the sleeves are skinny. My ladies are rock stars!
Your work with The Secret Catalog is exciting. It feels like a celebration or a community art event or a party. Your role seems to be curator, shop owner and publisher, all combined through this one project. Can you briefly describe the project and your inspiration to cultivate this “catalog” community?
The Secret Catalog came about when I was living and working in Brooklyn. I was meeting so many incredible designers and makers and wanted a way to collaborate on a large scale. I’ve been a lifelong lover of mail order catalogs (Delia*s anyone?!) and the idea to make an alternative catalog with the work of small brands seemed like a great way to bring everyone together. We’ve since grown the concept a great deal and are currently working on our sixth issue. It’s the perfect mix of publishing, designing, curating and styling — all areas I’ve previously worked in and love having in my life. It’s truly a labor of love. It’s a TON of work, but totally worth it each issue. It’s a wonderful thing to work with brands of all sizes. In a past issue we had Ace+Jig and Alabama Chanin next to new designers who barely have websites. I think our audience loves being exposed to new and fresh work, and I love finding it for them.
We have big plans ahead for the catalog and see it shifting into a new model after the Kids issue. (Yes, a whole issue of Kids’ stuff!!!) So stay tuned for what we have up our sleeves.
On your website you wrote, “As an artist, I’ve continually struggled between my desire to create new, boundary-pushing work, while balancing customer expectation and demand. It can be a hard tightrope to walk, and so The Secret Catalog seemed like a project that could inspire everyone involved — me, the other designers, and our customers.” Is The Secret Catalog something of a respite from making clothing? Or does one ultimately inspire the other?
I’m an artist, first and foremost. So I get bored easily. I love new challenges and ideas, and the rush of excitement that comes when you try to creatively figure things out. So the catalog is the perfect project for me. Each part of it is a total variable from issue to issue. From the very start I made it clear: There are no rules when it comes to the catalog. We can do anything we want, take risks, think outside our box, and it usually works out in our favor. It’s a wild and free creative space for everyone who works on it, and I think you can feel that when you hold one.
Each issue, I’m inspired to make a collection for the catalog that is fresh, a little crazy, and that will really excite our customers. I also love the freedom to make whatever I damn well please! This last issue I made some weird latch hooked straw hats, collaborated with Turkish towel makers to make round beach towels, and had washcloths hand-crocheted here in town. My dream is to be able to have a brand where we can make anything we desire — not just clothing. And the catalog is a place where I can live that dream a little right now.
I loved the Bomb interview where you talked about the bug sculptures made of human hair. I actually see your work with fiber art and sculpture and then fiber farming as a natural progression into sustainable fashion, but I imagine some folks see them as separate. How do you see your trajectory from sculpture to alpacas to sustainable fashion — surprising, inevitable, or just pure circumstance?
This is the struggle/story of my life! I’ve always had a bit of an identity crisis when it came to what I am — designer, sculptor, curator, farmer?! If I had the money I probably would have spent my 20s in career therapy! And to be honest, I still have these debates within myself. Just the other day, I was telling my husband I wish I could be a fine art painter full time. (I don’t even paint anymore!) I just love making and creating, and it’s hard for me to stay in one lane. Some days this is a blessing and others a curse. I’m sure there are a lot of other artists who feel the same way. To me, all my various bodies of work somehow feed into each other. I remember there was a year when I did two large collections of clothing, and made two large shows of insect sculptures. To begin, I would transform my tiny studio into a sculpture studio — jars of hair, adhesives, source images on the walls, etc. — and work for months making insects. When that show finished, I’d totally rearrange the studio. I’d shelve all my sculpture tools, give it a deep clean, and pull out my sewing machines, fabric, dress form, etc. I’d then set about making a collection of clothing. Because I was balancing two very different creative modes, I needed to totally switch my brain (and space) from one process to the other. It was the only way I could truly focus. And I found that a pair of wings I had painted for a moth sculpture inspired the painted pattern I’d do on a dress. Alternately, the tiny hand stitches on a neckline would prepare my hands for the meticulous work of sculpting beetle antennae. So, yes, to me everything fed into each other. I just always fretted that I needed to choose.
You have such an inspiring vantage point of the contemporary art and design community, and your work with The Secret Catalog highlights the work of so many truly amazing artisans and makers. But if you had to choose just 3-5 artists or designers that are currently inspiring your work, who would you choose?
Oh man, this is a hard one.
First, my mom. She’s incredible. She and my stepdad just finished making the most incredible dollhouse (a replica of their own Art Deco house!) for me. It’s featured in the next Secret Catalog and is truly one of the most incredible things I’ve seen. She’s a self-taught woodworker and is constantly pushing her boundaries. Collaborating with her is my most favorite thing in this world.
Tara St James of Study NY is a brilliant designer, and I’m lucky to call her a friend and contemporary. On top of being an incredible designer, she’s also smack in the mix of the sustainable design, technology, production and sourcing worlds in NYC. She works at the BFDA in Brooklyn and is always working on the most inspiring projects. Conversations with her leave me so energized and motivated to change the world! When I first moved to NYC and had zero clue about how actual fashion stuff worked, I would bribe her with cookies and coffee in exchange for asking her a million questions about the industry. “What is a linesheet?” “Where do you get patterns graded?” She’s an endless source of wisdom and I often joke that WWTD is a frequently uttered phrase around my studio.
Hillery Sproatt is one of my favorite designers right now. She makes a range of work (blankets, illustrations, embroidered mobiles, etc.) and everything she touches is so fresh and special. She’s been in two of our catalogs, and I have loved everything she’s made. Her style is totally unique and that’s rare to see.
. . .
Thank you, Adrienne! Such an honor to share your work in this series.
PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizens: Elizabeth L. Cline
Photos © Adrienne Antonson, used with permission