Q&A | Kelsey Randall
Kelsey Randall is the Atlanta-born, New York-based millennial couturier crafting one-of-a-kind, bespoke garments. Graduating from Parsons School of Design in 2009, she went on to assist French womenswear company, Lilith. While immersed in business-ends of the industry, Kelsey worked on honing her craft in design after-hours; evolving towards the creation of her label in 2015. With subtle nods to McQueen, Rabanne, and Kawakubo, Randall’s garments exude a fresh take with a distinct personality. A melting pot of Kelsey’s visual influences, her designs reflect the fantasy that grows within her realm. The multi-faceted perfectionist retains the utmost control in drafting every pattern and draping and sewing all muslin samples. Unplugged from the industrial sewing machine, you can find Kelsey directing editorial shoots and video campaigns for web content, furthering her world beyond the creation of clothing.
“I'm going to figure out my voice in this, and I'm going to stick to things I believe in, and I'm not going to compromise on it.”
In challenging her creative process and following moral guidance, Randall designs with a code of ethics. Utilizing deadstock fabrics and reputable suppliers ensure “above board” practices in conjunction with her New York team of seamstresses. Taking a page from the book of old school couture houses, she also constructs pre-existing designs with custom fabrics in hopes that her customers alter their perspectives in future clothing purchases. The commitment for transparency throughout her practices are purposeful in opening dialogues about sustainability and what that can look like today; quality over quantity. At her Brooklyn design studio, I sat down with Kelsey to discuss her business, design influences, and the launch of her new diffusion line, GEORGIA.
After a decade of work with different brands, you launched your own in 2015; how did you decide to go solo?
I was working for nine years for the French womenswear company, Lilith, and I was doing a lot of wholesale and retail for them; really learning that business end, which I knew if I ever wanted to launch my own line, you have to understand all the business stuff. Once I got to the point where I felt confident that I could understand the backend of the business, I spent another year just writing my business plan and trying to figure out how I could go to market with it before I launched my line.
Did you always plan on creating your own line?
The thing is I graduated in 2009, so it was the height of the recession and everyone that had graduated the year before me were all getting laid off from their jobs--there just really weren't any design opportunities available. I was working for Lilith, and I was able to save up enough money that I could get my own studio space and start honing my craft. I mean fashion school is great--I went to Parsons, so you get this great, really intense three-year training in fashion, but there's just not enough to really develop your skills as a designer. I was able to have this studio space where I was going after work and on my days off and just teaching myself to be the designer I wanted to be. I was working on my pattern drafting skills because for each collection--I draft every pattern, I drape all the muslins, I sew all the muslins. It’s very hands on--I'm not just sketching it and handing it off to someone else. I think I needed all those years between school and launching my own line to really come into my own as a designer and have a clear point of view about what I wanted to do with my brand.
There's a million different design directions that I'm inspired to go down, so it was important to figure out where I fit into it big picture-wise. I knew from the start it was really important to me that my line was made in New York because I knew that was the only way I could oversee the production, and make sure everything was ethical and above board. Just given the higher production costs in New York, you automatically jump up into a certain price point. It was figuring out, “Okay, how do I match the designs, the fabrications-- everything, so I land at a price that I feel is fair to my customers but also takes into account our production costs?”
Do you find the overall production control worth the cost?
Absolutely. When I first started, I worked with the factory, but now I work with a team of seamstresses that I pay a fair wage. I think that's really important because when you look at my clothes, there's a lot of handcraft and they're meant to be these pieces that aren't just disposable--they're not just in your wardrobe for one season, it's something that you're going to hang on to and wear for years. It’s important to me that the people helping me bring that to life are compensated fairly for their efforts. I know that objectively there's ways to do that overseas, but somebody has to be there overseeing it and I’m not in a place where I can do that.
I read that Alexander McQueen’s work inspired your career path, is there a specific collection that inspires you most?
When I was in middle school, I discovered that show on E! called Video Fashion, where they would be backstage at the runway shows and talking to everyone in the front row, talking to the designers and showing the runway shows. I think it was that great era of McQueen--this is late-90s probably--- he's doing these incredible runway productions that aren't just a model walking down a runway; it's the full vision of fashion and what it can be. I think it wasn't necessarily one particular collection, it was just seeing him season after season, create these new worlds. But there was still his signature running throughout all of it--he could take you into another place each season. It was just his vision--what was so inspiring is it’s just so fully-realized. It's not just the garments, but it’s the way he’s telling a story with them--he created a world and to me, that was so inspiring. As a designer, I'm always aiming to create this fantasy world. That’s what I loved about McQueen, too. It's so fantasy, but you can still walk into a McQueen store and buy something that is wearable and makes sense. But to me, it was always the big, high drama runway moments that were so inspiring.
Do you ever see yourself pursuing runway shows?
I would love to, but the reality is I showed the first two seasons that I did collections. I did presentations during fashion week and the cost is so high and when you're starting out, if you look at the full fashion week calendar, there's always someone showing at the same time that's bigger than you--that you know 90% of the people are going to that show. It just felt like I was putting a lot of money into doing presentations for my friends and family and a handful of press. Now what we do instead is we do press previews to our showroom--we have them for a week after all the fashion weeks are over and when everyone's back in town; they can come and see the new collection and what I'm working on for upcoming seasons. It’s a lot more hands-on and they can actually touch and look at the clothes. They can have some more insight into not just that collection, but what we're trying to do overall as a company. Of course, as a designer and loving that whole, “I want to create a world that people can come into,” someday when I hopefully have the money to do runway shows, then of course. But I'm also kind of a perfectionist in that I want it to be how I envision it, which would require a bigger budget. In the meantime, I do a lot of photo shoots that I style and art-direct, videos and stuff like that. Aside from just doing lookbooks and campaigns, I do a lot of editorial shoots and that gives me the opportunity to create these worlds for my clothes.
And another dilemma with runways, you see a look for 15 seconds and can’t appreciate the garments in their entirety.
Right? Exactly. You also see the same piece on Instagram over and over. There's those ones that make a statement in a moment. Fashion has just changed a lot as far as how people receive it. I feel like people are looking to Instagram more and more to find stuff, so I just try and focus on putting interesting visuals up on my Instagram and trying to keep a nice mix of editorials that other people have styled or people that are wearing our clothes. I would say at least half of my instagram is stuff that I've styled or art-directed.
How have your southern roots influenced your designs?
There is definitely the obvious stuff like gingham and cowboy hats and cowboy boots. Even when you look back at the first campaign for my first collection, the girls were wearing white cowboy boots. So there's certain nods that I go to naturally. I think one of the other great things about people that love fashion in the south is it's not quiet dressing--people aren’t afraid to wear bright prints or bright colors.
More than growing up in the south, what influenced me was my grandmother-- she was such a huge reason for my interest in fashion because she sewed her own clothes and when she was younger, she loved to throw big parties. She’s always throwing these theme parties and costume parties and she had kept all her clothes from that time, and so I'd just be at her house looking through her closet, seeing these beautiful dresses that she'd made by hand. She really put a lot of care into that; there are pieces that I still own to this day and they're still in great condition because they were made well. I think it's more so I'm really interested in that idea of heritage--things being able to be passed down and things that don't go out of style because they're not trying to be trendy. If you just come to it from a place of trying to create something that you believe in and that you think is beautiful in some way, there's that kind of authenticity that it's still going to look good five, 10, 25 years from now. I think for my childhood, that probably influenced me the most.
Did your grandmother teach you to sew?
When I first got a sewing machine she helped me with it. When I started my line, she helped me build the sets for my first presentation. She was just always so, so excited about everything I was doing. She was my biggest cheerleader and always told me to follow my dreams.
Of all your work, which garment holds the most meaning to you?
I get really emotionally attached to my pieces, just in general. I think it's because I have a really big hand in the crafting of them, so I feel like I tend to get really attached to the pieces that I've made from start to finish. With plenty of my pieces, my seamstresses are helping to sew and that sort of stuff, but yeah, I think I just tend to get more attached to the ones that I've just walked through the whole way. That's such a hard question. It's like which of your kids do you like the best? I guess I could say from my most recent collection, I really love all the chainmail pieces and the crystal stuff. The chainmail has been something I've also been incorporating into this next collection; just trying to evolve. I really like those pieces because I find making them very therapeutic--I really like the repetitive action of just linking the metal chains and slowly building the pieces. I mean, those feel very close to my heart.
With the chainmail ones, a lot of them take upwards of a month to make, and that's a month of working on it for multiple hours every single day. It’s just that kind of slow, meditative process. I work in sections and then at the end I put them all together, so the final piece really comes together in a day or two. There’s just such a big, slow build up and just a trust that, ‘Okay, this is going to work and it'll be cool.”
How do you define the cohesiveness of each collection?
For each collection, I definitely want to have a mood or a theme. I don't go so far as to being like, “Oh, it's inspired by ‘X,’ this one thing.” It tends to be sort of a melting pot of things that I think go together in an interesting way. So my last collection, the story was very midnight cowboy, very kind of Gram Parsons. There was a lot of this idea of sparkle and holographic and touches and this western feeling-- very late-60s rock and roll. I would say a through line with a lot of the work I do kind of goes back to these classic rock feelings. Probably because it's my favorite period of music, but I tend to be really inspired by Mick Jagger and anyone that Bob Mackie dressed--I'm a big Bob Mackie fan. I tend to get very excited about that kind of stuff; I tend to look to the past for inspiration because you can create your own kind of fantasies about it and just kind of imagine what it would have been like. I like to build one collection off the last one, so this next one's still feeling a little bit western--but it's kind of going toward an old-school, Vegas showgirl kind of feel. Classic Hollywood starlets and the slinky, bias-cut dresses and the feathers and lots of bling--silvers and pinks and things like that. It usually just starts with a handful of inspirations that I think have a nice dialogue together and then I just build out their fabric story and start designing from there.
What’s your favorite material to work with?
I think just in general, I love working with muslin because it's easy and such a good base because I put together this muslin dress for each design and in my mind, project what it would be like in all these different fabrics. I think it helps me the most, but I guess from a standpoint of actual dresses that people can wear, I love silk taffeta. Taffetas and Shantung and Dupioni silks--I love silks. They're great, I mean I could just do everything in them.
I also like silks because you can find a good mill to work with that has a good reputation; they have all the stock colors available, so it makes it easier. I feel like with my collections, I'm always trying to source fabrics that are either deadstock or from really reputable suppliers because I'm not buying in large quantities. It’s just always that push-pull of trying to find fabrics that make sense for our price point, but that are still luxurious and ethically made. It’s kind of nice with my silk suppliers that I'm like, “Okay, I know everything's above board here.”
What does the importance of ethical fashion mean to you?
I think for me, luxury fashion is aspirational. I feel if something's aspirational, it needs to be made in the best possible way. To me, the best possible way to make clothes is to make sure it's not doing harm and that hopefully it's doing some good, as in the people that are doing the production and labor are getting paid correctly, and that the mills that we're working with are manufacturing in a way that is not doing damage. Also, I use faux furs and leathers in our collections, or upcycle old leather. For the new collection I’m working on now, I am using faux feathers I made because I really wanted ostrich feathers. But after a quick Google search on ostrich feathers, it left me horrified with they’re obtained. So it was just like, “Okay, well I can't have ostrich feathers then, unless I find a way to make something that looks like them.” I think a lot of the time for me it’s trying to problem-solve.
With my brand, I am very aware that the clothes are expensive and that they're not for a mass market just because they're more expensive and often kind of fantasy and outlandish. But at least by having people being fans of the brand, we can maybe open up a dialogue a little bit about ethical manufacturing and what sustainability can look like. I think more than anything, the message that I hope to get across is: We need to think harder about our purchases. Instead of just this, “I'm just going to wear it once and it doesn't matter.” Getting people to think about, “I'm going to think about this piece, I'm going to invest in it.” All our clothes are made to order, so people see the line, they'll come to a trunk show or an event in our showroom, they'll try on stuff. They'll talk with me about, “What fabric do you want to do it in?” We take their measurements and we have it made for them, and it's just a different way of shopping; it’s very old school how the couture houses used to be. Even 20 years ago, people didn't buy half as much shit as we buy now.
The market is so over-saturated these days...
It's completely, and when you look at landfills across the world, they're full of clothes, so I think, “How can we get people to slow down and be a little bit more considerate about their consumer-spending habits?” Even if people can't buy my clothes, if they can maybe appreciate the idea of looking at things for quality or looking for things that speak to them on a deeper kind of emotional level; thinking a little bit more about who makes your clothes. If you're buying a $15 pair of jeans, you have to really stop and think about, “How much could the person who sewed this possibly have been paid to make these?” Because you're buying it from a store, they're taking more than half of that money, and it just keeps getting cut down the supply chain . When you start thinking about it that way, you're like, “Am I really comfortable with someone getting paid literally pennies to make this for me?”
How do you feel about fast-fashion companies?
I think they’re completely irresponsible. A company like H&M is a multi billion dollar company that could easily afford to pay their garment laborers a living wage, but profits are their top priority not the people who make their clothes.
When I first started my line, I was doing two collections a year. Now I'm just doing one because I firmly believe that the designs that I’m making aren't going to be going out of fashion or style anytime soon--whatever that means. I'm not trying to hit a trend. We always have the pieces from all our collections--they’re always available to be purchased. It’s not like, “Oh, you can't have it anymore.” I'm launching a diffusion line called GEORGIA by Kelsey Randall at the end of the spring, so it's going to be a lower price point. It's a collection of everyday dresses, very size-inclusive. It’s still all made in New York and everything's still made-to-order; it’s a shorter turnaround time, so you just pick the silhouette you want, you pick the fabric you want out of an option of different fabrics, you pick your size, and then we make it for you and we send it to you. I think delayed gratification can be a nice thing if you're willing to frame it like that. I'm guilty of wanting immediate gratification with ordering shit things off Amazon Prime and being like, “I have to have it today.” I think our culture is so instant, but I think we can at least try to--for some of our purchases--slow it down, roll it back, think a little bit harder. I used to be a total shopaholic because I am a fashion lover, and so I used to buy stuff all the time and I would buy things that I liked even if I didn't love it: “Oh I don't really like that thing it's doing in the back, but I like the piece, overall.” But then you never wear it because that little thing that's wrong with it is always kind of keeping you from wearing it. If we can spend a little more time only buying things that we know we love or things that speak to us and we know that we're going to wear over and over. What I hate is this idea that you should only wear something once--I think it's so stupid. I'm a firm believer in having signature pieces. I wear my white cowboy boots pretty much every single day--they’re something people know me for. I have the same faux fur coat that I've been wearing every winter for eight years and it's something people know me for and always compliment me on, no matter how many times they see me wearing it because they're like, “It's part of your look,” and it becomes part of who you are. But I think there is that thing in culture where we're being pushed to reinvent ourselves every five minutes. I just don't think that's sustainable or healthy, either.
Would you ever create a collection of upcycled and re-worked pieces?
I would love to do that. Since I did these jackets in my last collection that were reworked from old leather jackets, a few clients that I’ve done pieces for have been bringing me jackets of theirs to reimagine and do something new with. There is that element of, “Oh, well you can't mass-produce this,” but at the same time, I'm kind of like, “That's not what my brand is about, anyway.”
In my last collection, we have all these lace pieces, and they're all made out of Quaker lace tablecloths. Back in the day, everyone loved these Quaker lace tablecloths; they’re cotton lace that were made by the Quakers in Pennsylvania, so they're great quality, super-soft cotton. You can go on Ebay and find a zillion of these tablecloths and they all are the exact same color of cream lace, so I'm just using old lace tablecloths instead of buying new lace. Even though some of them are old, and it’s a tablecloth so sometimes there's a spot on them, I can lay my pattern out around that and I can cut around if there's a stain on it. They’re some of my favorite pieces from our most recent collection because I really like that they're everything that my brand is about. The materials themselves were made in America, made from American cotton, it’s deadstock waste fabric, if you will, that we've given a new life to. I'm just trying to look for more opportunities to do stuff like that.
On your website, you’re transparent about every process throughout your operations. Do you think brands should practice transparency on topics of manufacturers, fabric suppliers, and so on?
It's hard to say that other brands have an obligation to do it because at the end of the day they can do whatever they want to do. I might not like it, but there’s no strict laws about transparency. But I think it matters to the people who buy my clothes; we have a shared value about it. I'm fortunate enough that with my clients, I tend to have a direct relationship with a lot of them that when we're selecting their fabrics, because a lot of what we do is bespoke, it's based off a sample from the collection, but I'll do it for them in a fabric that speaks more to them. We have a lot of conversations about where the fabric came from and how production works. There's just an understanding there that is, “If we're doing this custom piece for you, this is the timeline; this is how many months it takes to do it because we're going to do this here.” It means a lot to me, so I think I tend to attract people to my brands who care about it, too.
Five years from now, how do you envision the growth of your company?
My whole life I have very much been a future tripper--I'm always just thinking about the future. It's been very hard for me to be in the present moment because I'm just so focused on my goals and where I want to get to. I think if you had asked me that question a year ago, I would have laid out a very distinct list of goals I wanted to hit--who I wanted to dress, how much money I wanted my company to be making, where I wanted my brand being sold. But I feel like right now, I'm just sort of at a point where I'm trying to appreciate where we're at now and what we're doing currently. I think I'm just going to say that I am happy with the direction that we're going in even though that part of my mind wants it to be 50 times more successful than it is; I want it to be 15 years from now and I want to be running an empire, I want to be the creative director at a heritage house. Of course I want it to be like that, but I'm also just trying to re-focus on taking the next right action for our company. Hopefully launching our diffusion line, GEORGIA by Kelsey Randall, is going to bring in a whole new group of people that have really loved the aesthetic of the brand, but buying a $1,500 crystal rhinestone halter top isn't necessarily applicable to their day-to-day life. I think it will bring in new people to be a part of what we're doing. I'm really excited about a lot of the artists that I'm collaborating with, the musicians that I'm doing a lot of summer tour wardrobes for; music videos I’m styling and wedding dresses I’m working on for clients. I'm dressing people that I think are contributing in a positive way to society. In five years from now, I hope I'm still doing it--that's my biggest hope. That I'm still getting to make these clothes and that people still are getting to wear them and that I'm still getting to sit down and have conversations with people like you who clearly care about fashion beyond just the materialistic aspect, or how many followers you have or whatever it is--that actually think about these things on a deeper level.
It’s hard when you start your own company because you want to do everything right so you can be successful. But at the same time, I have to remind myself that it's the disruptors and the people that always rebel a little that end up doing something that's really impactful. It’s like when I started my brand, it felt like I was being pushed to wholesale the line and to just get my price point down as low as humanly possible and try and move my productions somewhere cheaper. It was always, “Can we make it cheaper?” I'm really glad I didn't try and do that. I just said, “No, I'm going to figure out my voice in this and I'm going to stick to things I believe in and I'm not going to compromise on it.” In fact, I'm going to try and go further towards, “What does sustainability mean to me?” I think hopefully I'll be able to keep doing it and hopefully the audience will grow, and that's all I can hope for because I'm not someone that's in it for the money. I'm just in it to be able to keep fucking doing it.