When fashion designers are asked about what provoked them to start a brand, many cite a similar origin story: They identified a hole in their closet and in the marketplace, so they launched a brand to fill it. In other words, necessity was the mother of their invention. I consider this noble enough, but when I started working adjacent to the industry and in proximity to the designers themselves, I noticed something odd: They rarely seemed to wear their own products. It prompted me to wonder: Do designers really design for themselves, and if not, which brands do meet their standards?
Instead of keeping these questions to myself, I asked more than a dozen designers to weigh in. We discussed whether they actually started designing for their own wardrobes at the outset, whether their internal philosophy still hews closely to such an idea, and what holes they aim to fill and which pieces have succeeded in doing so. I also inquired about what else, beyond their brand’s wordmark, they love to wear.
These designers run the gamut of the fashion landscape; I spoke with those who show at fashion week, one who aims to become America’s first plus-size luxury brand, one who designs viral activewear, one who conceives of dresses for women of all ages, one who sustainably produces undergarments, and one who zeroes in on perfecting the leather jacket. Each was kind enough to spill the beans.
On Designing Clothes for Themselves—or Not
Independent label Dusen Dusen grew out of Ellen Van Dusen making clothes for herself and her friends for years. Rendered in bright colors and geometric patterns with a level of sophistication and restraint, the brand’s genesis still threads through her collections a near-decade later. “I do design for myself,” she tells me. “When I start a new season I always think about what I wish I had. My personal style is a little narrow, so I picture what I think would look good on my friends and coworkers, too.”
Lyndsey Butler of Veda also has her co-workers, friends, and mom top of mind while designing a collection. She started Veda because she saw a hole in her closet, “but also (and arguably more importantly) in the market—for high-quality, great-fitting and well-priced leather jackets,” she says.
Baserange also targeted a specific niche: the brand materialized in part because its founders, Marie-Louise Mogensen and Blandine de Verdelhan, wanted to eliminate the limbo in underwear offerings, a gap they felt between sports underwear and lingerie. “I was wearing a lot of sports bras as underwear at that time, but wished they were in different materials or had thinner cuts,” Mogensen notes, resulting in sustainably produced pieces like Baserange’s soft bra, Triangle bra, Mississippi bra, and Odea Bra.
Rowing Blazers’ Jack Carlson cops to designing with himself in mind, too. “I pretty much design everything, so everything we make is, on some level, something I want,” he says. He rejects and revises samples until the product is up to snuff. “I approach a lot of the process with the question: Is it exactly, exactly, how I want it to be? When you’re designing stuff for yourself, instead of shopping for yourself, you have the ability to ask that question—so you might as well use it.”
Casey Blond of Mr. Larkin, a label that deals in statement sleeves and repeat patterns of embroidery, makes the distinction between designing for her tastes and for herself physically: “Aesthetically, I would say yes, but I do consider body types other than my own when designing a piece of clothing.” This formula seems to be working, as every product on her webpage (like this exaggerated-shouldered smoke blue blazer) makes a covetous woman out of me.
Designing for more than one body type opens up the possibility of engaging a customer base who hasn’t been recognized outside of fast fashion. Brands like Universal Standard, Second Sight, and Henning, which didn’t exist up until recently, have stepped in to fill these voids. Creative Director Alex Waldman pinpointed the absence of an entire genre of clothing through her own experience as a size-20 woman, spurring her to co-found Universal Standard. The company now closes the gap between regular and plus-size fashion by offering minimal, elegant essentials to sizes 00 through 40.
Kaelen Haworth also identified the absence of an “everyone is welcome here” mentality in fashion’s practices and addressed it with her sophomore label, Second Sight. Watching the way her friends’ shopping habits were changing, Haworth structured the brand around a direct-to-consumer “monthly drop” cycle: They released their 18th limited-edition drop of fashion-forward, considered womenswear for sizes 00-24 this September.
Henning, meanwhile, has planted its flag in the otherwise lonely plus-size luxury space. Before Henning’s conception, Lauren Chan was a fashion editor who had been between a size 14 and a size 20 and struggled with getting dressed for work at the level of her colleagues, which included iconic editors wearing current-season designer clothes. “I was stuck in fast fashion because that’s what fit me.” Hope sprang eternal each season as Chan hoped a respected designer would expand their sizing, but when nothing happened, Chan devised her own luxury brand rooted in workwear: “The pieces in Henning’s collection are the pieces that I felt I was missing in my life… I couldn’t wait to have a power suit. I really wanted a beautiful coat to wear with everything. I wanted a dress that I could wear to events with my fashion peers that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to be photographed in.”
Addressing another underrepresented demographic, 50-year-old Nichole Moss rejected the notion of age-appropriate fashion as a “monochromatic uniform with a price point of $500 or more,” and released Mrs. Jones, a line of wash-and-wear dresses made from deadstock fabrics, all of which “go with Air Force Ones.” Contrary to the invisibility cloaks marketed to her peers, Mrs. Jones’s slip dresses, smart smocking, and billowy sleeves still get Moss stopped in the street for, as she says, “under $300.”
On an altogether different continent, Carin Rodebjer had trouble finding “visionary yet sensible, youthful yet functional fashion,” and like Moss, strove to create something that checked those boxes. This led to her founding of her namesake label, Rodebjer, which carries garments that are the opposite of flimsy, some so lush with color they make your mouth water for Sockerbit.
In Copenhagen, designer Stine Goya cited frustration as the catalyst behind her eponymous line, reacting to the characterization of Scandivinavian design as limited to the palette of mid-century modern furniture, muted beiges, and grays: “The Scandinavian design aesthetic has for decades been understood as synonymous to minimalism, which from my childhood is just not something I experienced or felt reflected my environment.” The label Stine Goya was then born out of Goya’s hunger for new ways to articulate her colorful Danish character, evident in her silken pistachio greens and Super Mario sky blues.
Designing to meet your own needs runs parallel to a maxim in writing, which declares that the specific detail or example is in fact more universal than a generalization or cliché: the logic follows that if you see something distinct missing in the world, other people must sense that as well. Or at least that’s what gets the ball rolling in the world of fashion.
On the One Piece They Genuinely Designed for Themselves
The Longjohn’s Successor: Sandy Liang’s The MaryMary Fleece Dress
For Lower East Side darling Sandy Liang, her favorite piece that ever filled a void in her closet was her first fleece dress and “favorite cozy piece,” the MaryMary: “It features a fleece upper with a zipper, and then it has a super white and smocked taffeta skirt. It kind of filled a void that I didn’t know existed—I wanted something that would be so warm and comfortable on the coldest New York day, without feeling like the only option is to wear thermals under pants.”
The Elusive Straight-Leg: AYR’s Bomb Pop Jean
Jac Cameron of AYR acknowledges the brand’s first rigid jean as her favorite: “The Lil Dude is the perfectly broken-in, sun bleached, pajama-soft, authentically-distressed straight leg. The Bomb Pop is the stretch version of that, which I wear about four times a week. I always had a great stack of dark washes but really felt a need for something that looked faded with age and wear. It’s historically a pretty hard wash to achieve and make it look authentic and natural.”
The Uninhibiter: Outdoor Voices’ Exercise Dress
As the design director of Outdoor Voices, Alexa Day Silva works as the colorist behind the activewear brand. (The New Yorker has called Day Silva “ebullient.”) She ranks the scarlet Exercise Dress, a bonafide viral sensation, as her favorite piece to wear: “I’ve been someone who leans feminine but not in a stereotypical way. I love the idea of just putting a dress on and [being] dressed for the day, but oftentimes the aesthetic of dresses feels two steps more feminine than how I like to dress.” Leading the design of the Exercise Dress, Day Silva found it satisfying to create something where the mere silhouette of a dress made it inherently feminine, without ruffles or any other frills. She also touts the dress as “super flattering,” with the bonus liner inside that makes you feel secure, covered, and like you could do anything in it. (I caved and bought an Exercise Dress immediately after this interview.)
The Brassiere-Friendly Slip Dress: Mrs. Jones’ Jessica Slipdress
For Nichole Moss, her version of a slip dress feels like something she can finally wear: “Growing up I was always large busted and slip dresses were simply off-limits. So I designed the Jessica Slipdress to look and feel like a traditional slip dress, but it can be worn with a full granny bra and not show your bra straps.”
The Boyfriend Jean That Cracked the Code: Universal Standard’s Bae Boyfriend Crop Jean
For someone who once sat on her living room floor mapping out how to design her ideal pair of jeans, Alex Waldman can enjoy the sensation of things coming full circle: her personal favorite Universal Standard pieces have always been the jeans, which she considers the key ingredient in an ideal outfit. Waldman’s loyalty lies with the Bae Boyfriend Crop Jean.
On What They Love to Wear by Other Designers
After being immersed in your own ideas and designs, I imagine it might be a relief to wear something else for a change. Van Dusen believes in the sartorial vacation: “I do find it refreshing to wear things that I didn’t make. I can be really critical of my own stuff while I’m wearing it, which I think is an important part of my job, but also makes me kind of insane.” This year, she’s changing things up a little: “All my tees are from Dreem Street and I love pants by Caron Callahan. For everything else, my favorite store is eBay. I’m always on the prowl for Marni. I love everything they do but most importantly their shoes. I’m totally addicted and I think nothing else compares.”
Goya’s day-to-day uniform usually consists of layered Stine Goya pieces paired with trainers: “Right now, I’m very into Salomon sneakers and have them in pretty much every color.” Rodebjer also mostly wears her own brand or vintage, and is aboard the Marni train as well: “Marni has a DNA that [helps] me stay true to who I am.”
Haworth of Second Sight declares that Rachel Comey has perfected jumpsuits: “I wear them all the time. I love that she’s really leaning into her signature. I have a denim one that I literally wear three times a week and I just ordered another canvas one last night.” Chan, meanwhile, pairs her classic Henning pieces with Tanya Taylor’s dresses, Universal Standard’s collaborations (like with Rodarte, for example), and Good American Jeans.
Butler mostly sticks to her own brand (her favorite Veda pieces as of late include the Howard Skirt, the One Jacket, and this ¾ leather coat), often testing new styles, falling in love with samples, and wearing them to death before the production even hits stores. She otherwise makes the case for supporting her community of independent designers, like Nikki Chasin (Butler owns several of her signature Baroness dress); Vada, which makes fine jewelry in Austin; and Summer People, a new swimwear brand made with recycled materials and tie dye. Carlson of Rowing Blazers likes what By Wells is doing with madras shirts, and what Eric Emanuel is doing with shorts. (Agreed.)
Alex Waldman wears only Universal Standard at the moment, though she hopes that won’t always be the case: “I really and truly hope that there will come a day when I can go into any store in Soho and buy more than a scented candle and an expensive bag.”
Feature photo of Sandy Liang via Getty Images. Photos via the designers.