Suzanne Rae is a Bushwick-based fashion designer who has found success through her deep-seated passion for the arts and unfaltering determination. Rae’s menagerie of experience — from her tenure as a professional ballerina to her work for the late Holly Solomon — is conveyed through her multifaceted approach to design. Rae extends the conventional idea of what it takes to be a contemporary artist in NYC. She proves that doing what you love, while allowing yourself the room to grow, is the key to success. With this ethos underlying everything she creates, the artist activates clothing as a medium for communication by utilizing fashion to reflect the current issues of today while exploring concepts ranging from women’s equality to the socioeconomic implications of fast fashion.
Rae’s studio acts as a metaphor for the progression of her practice by expressing the inextricable link between the artist’s professional and personal life, while resonating with the bootstrapping vibes of her beginnings. Lotte, Rae’s fashion director and sales guru, has worked with the artist for the past three seasons. Lotte brings a sense of organization to the line, guiding the artist within the scope of current trends, while remaining true to Rae’s vision. The following excerpt provides a personal look into the artist’s life, outlining her progression toward success as a designer, and how she started her own line by trusting that everything would fall into place at the right time.
MORRISON: Where did your love for fashion and starting your own line begin?
RAE: It really started when I was working with Morgan Le Fay; when I left and decided to start my own line. I decided to do it in 2000… I’m going to feed [my daughter] I hope you don’t mind… [laughs] But… I knew I wanted to do my own line two weeks after I started Parsons. I didn’t grow up thinking ‘oh I want to work in fashion.’ It never entered my mind to work in the fashion industry.
MORRISON: It wasn’t a childhood dream or anything?
RAE: No, I grew up in what I want to say normal, but normal is all relative… My mom’s a doctor, my dad does business, but growing up I really wanted to be a ballet dancer.
MORRISON: I thought you were going to say that. I can see that in that there’s nothing rigid in the way you design. Everything is very fluid and elegant.
RAE: Oh really… some people are like, “You used to dance?” [laughs], because I’m all goofy. But I wanted to be a very serious ballet dancer. I had been traveling to Europe every summer to tour since I was 10 by myself, without my parents. So I had this intense ballet childhood and through high school, and I didn’t want to go to college. But my parents said, “You have to go to college.”
MORRISON: Because you were dancing and didn’t feel like you had to go to college?
RAE: Well, I was dancing and knew those were my golden years. When I was in high school I didn’t want to go, I thought I should be a trainee for a serious company.
MORRISON: Can you do that, where there’s a path and you just go to dance school?
RAE: Yeah, you can do that. A lot of my friends were home schooled, or they went to ballet school where they are training all day and then they have classes in between. Almost like a training school or a vocational school for the arts. But my parents didn’t want me to be a ballet dancer. They put me in dance for poise and grace or just for after school activities. But I got really into it. They didn’t want me to live that starving artist lifestyle. They wanted me to go to college, you know? So… I went to college. I went to Bryn Mawr. Two years after Bryn Mawr I worked at an art gallery in SOHO. Well, we moved around. I worked for Holly Solomon. And then she passed away, and I was trying to figure out what was important in life.
MORRISON: Quarter life crisis?
RAE: [Laughs.] Yeah, quarter life crisis. And I actually went back to Bryn Mawr for a post program for medical school. I moved from New York and went back to Pennsylvania, took the MCATs and did everything. The summer before I was suppose to start medical school I was like, ‘I can’t.’ It was one year, and I had slowly faded out of this blip I was going through.
MORRISON: I guess you were going through the motions and it didn’t occur to you until it started happening.
RAE: Yeah, and I know that being a doctor is such a wonderful and honorable profession, but I just wasn’t so interested in it. I think if you aren’t so interested in it, then you can’t be a very good doctor. I also felt it wasn’t satisfying enough for me, per say. I really missed being involved with the arts.
MORRISON: So how did you get out of it?
RAE: I decided to apply for Parsons really late; it was July. I was applying for September and I was like ‘look, if I get in, it’s meant to be.’ And I… got in!
MORRISON: How old were you when you started?
RAE: Twenty-four. I mean, some people there were really intense lawyers who wanted to become designers. It’s a two-year program where you have to take six courses a semester. I never pulled an all-nighter in undergrad, but at Parsons it was all-nighters frequently. We had to make portfolios — that was really helpful, although then I never really used my portfolio. After Parsons I worked for Costume National in Milan for about half a year. I did an internship there. That’s where I really learned how to be a practical design, because I worked with them everywhere, from inspiration to sketching to fittings of the samples to the show. After that I worked with Morgan Le Fay whose a local designer and does local production. It’s a small business, and in my head I was like, ‘Damn, I can do this too.’ And I didn’t want to paint by numbers — you have to compromise a lot of your personal design philosophies — I really wanted to start my own line. So I started working retail and making collections for myself. And I worked weekends, so I had at least two weekdays to make fabric or factory appointments.
MORRISON: How many pieces were in your first collection?
RAE: I did a mini show for my friends. I didn’t know anything about press; I just had a mini party. There were maybe 20 pieces. Now we offer a bunch of different SKUs but we sample about 60 pieces. Because I didn’t work wholesale with Morgan Le Fay and Costume National (and even though I worked retail), you don’t really see that side. You don’t see how buyers and sellers operate. When I started my own line, I didn’t think of it as a business at all. So this is how it started, I got to Parsons and was like, ‘I fucking love this.’ I felt like clothing designer was the best way for me to combine all of my interests. My interest in economics was more like an interest in socio-economics. Why we act the way we do, how everything is related. Because in my studying of art history, art is always an expression of the times, and that has to do with socio-economics. So this is a great way for me to express thoughts through clothing. Because you feel different when you wear something, it creates this experience for you and creates this attitude. When it came to style, it came to how I like to dress myself. A certain ease, comfort and elegance — and being down to earth is also really important.
MORRISON: I think your fabrics also help juxtapose your style. It’s really difficult to mix thick neoprene fabrics with sheer, lightweight organza and create a seamless, strong style.
RAE: Thanks; I don’t know how to explain how it happens — at least my design process. I spend a lot of time just staring off and thinking. Sometimes people draw and discover it through drawing. That happens for me sometimes, but I like STARE, and my mouth is probably open. Now that I have Lotte working with me, and interns, I don’t design during office hours. At least my initial designs — I do them in the morning, at night, or in the middle of the night, because I need time to think. When I’m with the crew, we look at fabrics together. We go to different agents in the garment district. When I started the line we would get orders and I would be like ‘oh shit, I have to find a fabric really close to that one.’ And if the quality or color were off, I’d have to cancel orders. I didn’t know how to do business. I was really bad at it in the beginning, actually. I bought really expensive fabrics. I didn’t work backwards like we do now. It’s, what’s our price point, who’s our competitors, who are we sitting next to? Going from those goals, we work backwards and see what we can make.
MORRISON: Was it more creative in the beginning or now?
RAE: I feel like in the beginning I felt very creative. It was impractical — it was almost like a hobby. I was like, ‘I want to make this,’ and I loved the process. The thing is, now those processes are like second nature — how to produce something, how to get the sample made. Or I have to sew the sample myself, or I got to go on Craigslist and post for a seamstress because I have to make 40 samples in three weeks, and I only have me! So that was a lot of my stress in the beginning, but now we sew some samples here or with the factory we work closely with in the garment district. I still feel like its equally creative, because now we are creative in different ways like brand building and lookbooks. Lookbooks are still relatively new to me; this is the first time we are really heavy on the live aspect.
MORRISON: What are your price points now?
RAE: Retail now, our shirts are $250 to $350. Our wool coats are $700, but we have a lot of bomber jackets that are $500. There are so many technical names for it, like better contemporary or entry-level designer.
MORRISON: Are you associated with the luxury market as well?
RAE: Kind of yeah… it is a luxury to buy a button-up shirt for 250 dollars. I would love to be able to be more egalitarian, and I do have this mission of creating clothing with this positive and progressive experience. I would like it to be more accessible to more people, to more women through a lower price point, but I don’t want to sacrifice certain things. Maybe one day when we have crazy volumes, we can produce at a lower price. People have to change their spending habits. I feel like I know a lot of girls who buy so much fast fashion, and if they put all of their money that they spent on their clothing for that one year, they could actually buy some really good, quality, long lasting pieces that they’d use year after year after year. And to me, I think that is way more responsible and sustainable. Rather than wearing something and saying ‘oh this is so out of season’ or ‘I hate this shirt that was a copy from H&M.’
MORRISON: It’s a very classic American way of thinking, when you buy a refrigerator and it lasts for 30 years. You have that way of thinking with your clothing — that it’s going to last a long time, like an investment.
RAE: Yeah, I think so. It is an investment. Even when designing, I so loath looking at trend reports and looking at what other people are doing, because I don’t want to be too influenced. I don’t want to be too trendy. You look at it like ‘oh that’s so 2009.’ I know we need trends — Lotte is always like, “Did you look at the show? Did you look at the show?” And I can’t, you know? She does it and will at least be able to look at what we are doing and say, “This is great, we are going to be able to sell this.” Here’s a specific example; we were making stuff and she said, “We should throw a bomber jacket into the collection.” A bomber jacket? Meanwhile, I’m trying to drape some coat, and in my mind we have a pattern of how this shirt is going to work and… a bomber jacket? That’s such a simple thing. But it’s an investment piece and it’s trendy now.
MORRSION: What is your favorite piece in this collection?
RAE: I really like this coat that we did. We have it in this nylon and organza. I like it because it has a lot of elements that I’ve used before. But it’s new, still a little bit different, it’s really easy, it has a little bit of wow factor but everyone can wear it at the same time. It’s in a practical waterproof nylon, so it’s a raincoat.
MORRISON: Do you have names for each of your looks?
RAE: No, I number them. I’m not into naming things. My showroom wanted me to name things, but I just can’t commit. I couldn’t even name my daughter. My husband did. One day I was like ‘how about Electra?’ But that’s a stripper name. And then everyone’s like… ”Carmen Electra?” [Laughs.] I wanted to name what not to name my daughter.
More on the featured designer: www.suzannerae.com
words: Ellie Morrison
photography: Cameron McLeod