Katy Loeb interviews Kristin Mariani

Katy Loeb

April 10, 2014

Interview with Kristin Mariani, owner and designer of RedShift Couture

http://www.redshiftcouture.com/

(Questions from Katy in bold.)

How and when did you become interested in design?

I became interested in sewing before what we would call fashion design.  My mother didn’t know how to sew, but had such love for fashion and beauty, language and literature, quality of material and quality of life.  She was a mother of six with the spirit of an artist.  My mother was our protector and she knew how to put up a good front.  This is the essence of fashion for me.

You associate design and fashion with your childhood and upbringing, then?

Yes, fashion has always been a part of my family/home vocabulary.  Both my mother and grandmother possessed strong, individual style grounded in resourcefulness and practicality.  Both were self-supporting, single mothers (at one point).  My mother raised 6 children on her own. I, being the youngest, was the quiet, observant one in the family.  I learned early on that self-expression creates space, and that clothing was important to one’s sense of identity.

Sounds like fashion was a way for you to differentiate yourself.

Yes, though they all still inspire me in different ways.

Clothing was always on a hand-me-down basis. It was out of necessity because I needed (and wanted) to make my older sisters’ clothing fit me.  Sewing, and the development of that skill was a powerful personal discovery, which is why I always identify myself as a dressmaker first and foremost.  My interest has always been in how parts come together to make a whole–which must have something to do with growing up in a large family!

When did you learn the actual technical elements of design?

Well, really, sewing had to come first.  I started sewing when I was 13 years old in junior high home-ec, which was not very glamorous, but it was practical. I developed more advanced dress making techniques when I was in college as a pre-nursing major, learning draping, patternmaking, and tailoring techniques- all elective classes. We had a mini fashion show, and I won an award; so, my academic advisor took me aside and told me I had talent.   I was 23 years old and no one had ever told me that before!  She encouraged me to create my own major between the Fine Arts and Home Economics departments—because I was attending a small women’s liberal art’s college and they didn’t have a degree program in fashion.  So I switched majors and started drawing to translate my sewing skills into original design ideas.  The following year I received a summer scholarship to study at SAIC.  I met a number of teachers from the fashion department who looked at my portfolio and accepted me into the program, which I entered that fall (1991).

Fashion wise, what was your inspiration early on?

I’m not a designer that draws inspiration from outside sources, but as a student in the early 90’s I was greatly influenced by the Japanese designers.   These designers were turning clothing inside out—which is part of what I do.  (Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, and Yohji Yamamoto)  I admired Miyake for his innovative use of geometry, and Kawakubo and Yamamoto for pioneering a new dress aesthetic based in deconstruction.

That’s an interesting but sort of typical answer.  As in, everyone seems to say she was inspired by Japanese designers.  If it wasn’t the status quo fashion world, what or who were your other inspirations? 

To stand and be in awe of something or to be inspired by something is a wonderful thing but that’s not how ideas developed for me.  Mine has always been an internal vision, an internal world.  Inspiration for me has always come from the inside out.  Deconstruction as a method came very naturally to me because of this. Observing what I have available to me, working what’s in my midst, valuing what I have, listening to the materials, feeling it out, rubbing things together to conjure transformative possibilities—that’s how things start happening for me.  It’s design through the senses: see it, touch it, taste it, feel it.

So how would you begin your process for a particular garment?

The tiniest iteration of an idea is enough for me to dive into a project hands first, drawing out information and elements from the inside.  Innovation happens in the making process, not as a preconceived idea. There’s always some form in mind when I begin, but I’m not attached to that form. I’m always working multiple fronts to keep pieces in relationship to each other.  This is how I build a body of work.

You mentioned deconstruction as a starting point. Is this what drove you to work with salvaged/repurposed material?

I’m always looking for marks of distinction in the materials.  Sometimes this is the work of someone else’s hands discovered on the inside, which turns the piece in to a collaboration with an anonymous laborer.  Sometimes it’s a flaw in the material… a hole, a scratch, a tear.  These flaws become my road map—there’s beauty in the flaws.  I’m aesthetically interested in both blending in and standing out, looking for opportunities to rub up against standards of beauty to question them.

What did you do after school?

Upon graduating from SAIC in 1994, I was awarded a travel fellowship. First I went to Milan and worked for two American designers named Jan & Carlos.  They’re best known for their knitwear design but also design beautiful wovens.  They initially hired me as a fit model, but I also did some sewing and pattern making. This was a wonderful experience for me, gaining an international perspective on the design process in an Italian production facility that specialized in fully-fashioned knitwear.

Then in 1995, I moved to New York City and worked for an independent designer named Amy Chan, and soon after the mass market.  There’s a lot of grunt work and mindless design that goes hand in hand with much of the garment industry.  But it was eye opening to understand the design calendar, sales structure, and market demand.

After that I worked for The Limited in their textile department.  While this proved to me more interesting and innovative work, ultimately New York proved a stimulating, but constricted environment without enough space to make and create.

Why Chicago?  (As opposed to New York?)

Chicago’s the breadbasket!  Chicago allows me to gather my resources, make decisions with awareness. Here I make deep, genuine connections with other designers and artists.  This city provides me with time and space to ruminate, develop ideas, invent.  There’s also so much going on in dance, architecture, film, music, so many great museums.

Ok, but a lot of people would say you’re crazy, at least business wise!

And they have! New York has so much to offer, and it’s considered the center of almost everything (though the center is really everywhere) As an artist living there it sometimes felt like a bombardment of stimulus.  So much in your face all the time. It’s depleting! As an independent designer it was hard to operate outside of the demanding 6 month fashion cycle.  New York’s a city where you need to conform to certain structures to survive.  In Chicago I can build my own structure, my own methodology of design, my own modality of making.

Realistically, I have much more time and space to devote to my practice (physically, mentally, emotionally) than when I lived in NY. And, all of my maternal history is here—my great grandmother survived the Chicago fire (she lived on Oak Street) and a great aunt was a milliner on Wabash.  I feel deeply connected to the city.

When and why did you conceive of RedShift? How did you think of the name?

In 1999 I attended a lecture by an astrophysicist (who also happened to be my husband at the time) and he discussed tracking the redshifts of galaxies—measuring the distance from the blue to the red spectrum of light to measure the relative distance.  I liked that the term immediate conjured multiple meanings for me.  “Shift” as a verb to indicate movement, or as a noun to mean a simple dress that hangs straight down from the shoulders persisted in my mind.  Expansion and change, movement, malleability, dress—all of which relate to what interests me about fashion and design.  In 2000 I began the trademarking process, and put the label to use with a series of custom designs

How would you describe RedShift’s vision? 

It’s always been about custom work.  In New York, I balanced working in the mass market with a freelance practice, designing for dance, performance, as well as custom design.  RedShift is a label that offers women another way to engage in the momentum of fashion.  RedShift is about the design process, the dressmaking process, developing prototypes as a continuum, an expanding body of work, rather than a new collection every 6 months.  Approaching each iteration in the same time each way, but with different results.

How has this evolved since you started the line?

My vision for RedShift is always evolving.  I believe the infinite exists in the everyday.  For this reason I draw from my immediate environment, taking what’s in my midst, using what’s available to me, and seeing something beyond.  RedShift is about taking the everyday and creating something new. The details are not always obvious which is good.  I seek to create a unique balance between standing out and blending in.

Talk to me about the aesthetics.  You mostly work with black leather…

I love color but darks are very important to my line of clothing.  I believe there’s a dark side to every woman and that this is where elegance emerges.  I design for a complex woman, sensuous and sensitive, knows better than to expose everything, knows what to cloak and what to reveal, she’s confident but playful, wise but open to new experiences.  She bears a mark of distinction without making a spectacle of herself.  

How about material? 

A lot of it is an immediate environment in Chicago, but also to the raw materials that I was most attracted to.  I started with wool and leather, because they were consistently available and materials I’d always enjoyed them.  Due to my interest in Japanese designers and their want to deconstruct garments, I’ve always taken clothes apart to discover, explore, and dissect them so thrifting and taking those items apart also became a large part of my practice.  It was something I was doing already anyway.

I should say that it’s not primarily about environmental concerns.  I am interested in my designs standing out as well as blending in, so using found materials facilitates camouflage in their various layers and textures, but the overall affect is unique and unreplicable.  Again, I want a RedShift garment is unique, distinctive, but does not create a spectacle.

You have these four projects you usually design within.  Can you elaborate on them?

For RedShift I’ve developed four material streams:  Salvaged Wools, Silk Remnants, Second-hand Skins, and Tee-hees Tee-shees. I’m interested in design as a continuum, as a narrative that can expand and contract, rather than this 6 month cycle.  I see a garment rack as the structure on which the pieces hanging change over time, emphasizing the raw materials and their evolution.  All are based on repurposing, thinking long-term.  This requires a drastically different alignment, and a consistent revision and consideration of materials.  I’m trying to reinvigorate them and constantly consider their value, which is not so much the value of the material, but of the labor and creativity involved.

How do you operate in your studio?

In my studio I work on multiple fronts.  My creative process is aided by amassing a surplus of materials to draw from and refine. I’m sort of working on all those four material streams at once.  There’s a lot of play involved. I design hands first not head first.  I see through my hands.  I think through my hands.  I design by doing.  I rarely draw a design before I make it anymore.

Do you have rules?

No, but parameters are important… Good parameters allow for freedom in design, allow for chance occurrences that open up possibilities.  Parameters don’t restrict freedom they allow for freedom.

How do you see yourself in relation to your practice?  What are your designs vs. RedShift’s? 

They’re definitely both. They have to be. My design is very personal.  I design for my own interests but for my ideal customer as well.

How do you think about the body? I’m always struck that the MDes degree is “fashion, body and garment…”

Right.  I think clothing is our immediate architecture.  We wear it every day, so I consider it high design.  Also it’s about the other bodies involved, right? and integrity in process is equally critical.   Therefore, I see each piece I make as unique in its process and labor.  Each piece requires its own solution.  When designing garments I think of the body as site-specific work, that site presents its own set of problems, which requires its own solution set; the making process must be particular to a certain body or material.

What role does being on faculty at SAIC have in your own creative practice? 

Teaching at SAIC enhances my design practice.  The SAIC environment provides a solid and generous creative community of all kinds of practitioners.  Working with students keeps me on my toes and willing to question my process.  Learning how to sew was a powerful experience time in my life, and I want to pass this experience on to others.  To have the opportunity to transfer my design and construction skills to others, to experience the voice and the vision of the student emerging is a gift.

What’s now and next?

Currently I am focused on having my practice occupy more physical space.  I’m interested in “dressing” other spaces that the body inhabits.  I don’t want to be tied to the constraints of the dress form.  Having a cross-disciplinary practice is critical.

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