It can be a tough world out their for the discerning womenswear shopper, be you buying for yourself, or, say, buying a gift for another. I’m in the latter category more often than not, for the record.
But, for us, the whole vegan thing has roots in a larger effort to do less harm to others, be them animal or human. So we’ve done our best over the years to seek out and support designers and stores with similar goals in mind; ones that abide by some set of ethics with regards to sustainable production and fair pay. One such designer we’ve long been fans of is San-Francisco-based, Curator, an independent womenswear design company started in 2001 by long-time best friends, Stacy Rodgers + Deirdre Nagayama. The line focuses on simple, elegant-yet-durable clothing that’s made in environmentally sustainable ways, employing organic fabrics whenever possible. That’s Katie down below and to the right, modeling their excellent Mabel dress and enjoying some wine in Sonoma.
We took some time to catch up with Deirdre (below, right, laughing) to get a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to start up a a company like Curator, what it’s like working with your best friend, and how the industry’s changed over the years.
raven + crow: Alright, first off, how did Curator start? You + Stacy are long-time friends, right?
Deirdre Nagayama: Stacy and i have been friends since age 16. We met in high school and became really close when we went to College in San Diego together. We were huge vintage shoppers at the time (sometimes scheduling our classes around the sales at our favorite thrift store tag sales). We started silkscreening in our apartment in 2000, selling tshirts outside of concerts, to stores and our friends.
Nice. Did you all have backgrounds in fashion or were you coming from elsewhere?
Stacy is a graphic designer—we could not do this without these skills—and a Jane of all trades. My degree is in English and I have a masters in counseling psychology. I usually deal with the business relationships and she deals with the specs. Fashion degrees definitely would have helped but maybe it was good we went in not knowing all of the ways its supposed to be.
I hear you—we try to look at my Geology degree as an advantage rather than a hindrance in running a design company. Is it tough working with your best friend? Are you ever like ‘I love you, but you DO NOT know how to keep to a realistic buying budget!’?
Stacy and I never fight, and we never put money in front of each other. We sometimes freak each other out with how much we’re on the same page about things. Our friendship comes first, after all these are just clothes.
I think many would call you lucky to have ended up together. What’s the idea behind Curator—what’s its spirit animal?
Picking a name is SOOO hard, we thought so very long and hard. Right now I feel like the label means the person wearing the clothes is the curator. There you are out there in life with so many amazing choices of things to purchase, you have access to so much more than before and therefore we’re all curators. Dressing like a curator means you want to look good but you may need to climb up on a ladder and adjust that picture yourself. Or climb up on the cutting table.
Workwear for the working mind. I like it. I think we were introduced to you all through Kate at Kaight in NYC way back when. Knowing your clothes and watching you over the years, it does seem like two important aspects of the work and common threads through the designs are environmental sustainability + durability. Why are those things important to you two?
Kaight has been a solid supporter of our line and for this we’re grateful. I for one am very hard on my things and I need things that i don’t have to be delicate with. Especially after becoming a mom, I’m basically in warrior mode all day long and I need clothes that can stand up to this challenge. We hope our clothes will become vintage someday. Since we’re a small company we can make decisions to buy organic cotton. We convinced one of our biggest mills to feature an organic fleece option back in ’05 and it’s now a best seller for them.
Creatively, what kind of things inspire your designs?
We’re inspired by simplicity, and we’ve learned the hard way that simple designs are not simple to create. Since we have this long relationship, we’ve discussed so many different styles; when one comes back into our brains—like a kaftan—it becomes something we have to make to get it out of our system.
Right. So, I feel like the big question—HOW do you not only stay afloat but succeed as an independent designer these days? Having lived in New York for the past ten plus years, we just saw so many of our designer friends struggling after the economic downturn. The playing field seems so much more…uneven than it used to be; it all seems so fucking difficult.
It is really fucking difficult, it is not an easy line of work. One of the hardest things is that twice a year it feels like we have to make a new company , with new designs and a new set of risks and we put ourselves out there . The recession brings to mind the “neccesity is the mother of invention” quote. We really battened down the hatches, we quit our sales rep and paired down wholesale. We opened a small retail location and focused on online sales. It put us at risk to depend on the stores too heavily in case they closed down. And many many stores did close down which would have left us holding the bag. Our biggest challenge now is not to try to do to much; creatively we want to use all these different fabrics and take risks but the smart thing is to tweak the successful items we have into new beasts. Becoming really “big” is not always the answer in this business—you want to be small enough so that you can feel the changes and adjust accordingly.
Well-put and all so true. Any predictions for the future of fashion commerce or independent designs? And don’t tell me we’re all going to be wearing those weird-collared shirts from Her.
I try not to make predictions…because I think fashion is about finding your own style and things that make you comfortable. But I do think simplicity with reign for a while….
Normcore! You + I first started talking right before Fashion Week in NYC—how was that? Insane?
We did not do Fashion Week and honestly it’s not really even on my radar. We did a show in NY called Designers and Agents where we were selling our Fall 2014 line six months ahead. In January we signed up with a showroom called True Collaborative Fashion who handled the whole thing for us. We cut our teeth on the trade shows from 2005-2010 and, as a small company, it’s not efficient for us to physically go to the shows. We’re excited to partner with them and expand the wholesale business now that the economy seems to be a whole lot better—fingers, toes, and everything else crossed. We picked up 80 new stores and will start shipping in July.
Aw, congrats. That’s awesome. Alright, hit me—why is SF awesome?
We both grew up in San Francisco and, while it’s not really known as a place to raise kids, it was the backdrop for a fantastic childhood for both of us. We rode public transportation, experienced all kinds of people—the city I knew had a deep range of income levels. You could go over to someones house that was in the projects, apartment, house, basement-in-law apt, and whatever it was you were like let’s play. One of my best friends lived on Haight Street. I would just wade past the people and ring her doorbell. The range of income levels…things definitely seem to be changing. It feels like everything is for sale now and I don’t think that supports the soul of the city. Right now, if you lose your apartment in the city you cannot get back in if you’re not seriously balling. That’s a scary climate for art and interesting people whose sole motivation is not money (like us). Of course it’s always been a fight to live in SF. In all my memories when we had to rent a new place as a kid we were panicked. This somehow does feel different now.
That’s interesting. I seriously love your city, but all we hear about it recently is how expensive it’s gotten to live there. I mean, rent’s higher than in New York. That’s just CRAZY. A friend recently told me ‘not to bother’ going to the Mission any more, that it was essentially a Disneyland of shopping for the nouveau rich…but that can’t be totally true, can it?
The Mission will always have things to see and experience but maybe drift more down to Mission street rather than Valencia? It’s def. changed a ton, but it’s still sunny and people are doing interesting things in the food fields down there.
That’s good to hear, at least. You all opened up a storefront in the Upper Noe in 2009—congrats! How is it transitioning from ethereal, space-time Interweb existence to having a real world location too?
Having a store has been a fantastic adventure for us. We’ve been learning on the fly, like we both like to do. We both learn by doing. The store is tiny—320 square feet—but it has been rad to meet our customers; to watch them try on clothes, to talk to them about what they can’t find and to have real life fits happen in the store.
Yeah, cool to have the excuse, kind of, to open things up in terms of what you offer your customers too. What are some of the non-Curator products that you all sell that you like a lot?
We carry a few other clothing pieces in the store depending on the season—UZI, Modaspia, Micaela Greg. We love apothecary products and manage to balance some food stuff in the store too, like fancy salt and Dick Taylor chocolate bars. Basically, if we like it we will try to sell it to you.
Sign me up! I don’t think I know that neighborhood at all—it’s cool?
We love our neighborhood—they have been so supportive of us. We have an old school butcher, drycleaner (where we offers free alterations on our styles), Michelin star restaurants…and most of all, a supportive community who pops in. There is a dog park around the corner from us and we put a water dog bowl out for the pooches.
Nice, we’ll have to swing by our next time through. Any spots—besides your store, of course—that we should hit up next time we are in town?
What are some of your favorite independent shopping spots in LA?
You tell me!!!
Ahhhh, the tables have turned. We’re still finding our shopping legs, as it were, after moving from New York. I just keep ending up at NYC outposts in LA. I’ve got to do some groundwork, especially on the men’s clothing front.
Well, I really like Taylor Stitch. I don’t know a ton about menswear, but I’ve bought my husband a few pieces here and I know he’ll have them forever. They are super sweet in store as well, no attitude. We sew at many of the same factories. The other company that is sewn in the same factory as us is GUSTIN—it’s cutting out wholesale which is genius.
Oh, awesome. Thanks for the recommendations—I’ll look into them. So, I’m sure it’s like choosing a favorite child, but, what are some of your favorite Curator pieces right now?
Excellent. Take that, other kids. So, what’s to come in the near future for Curator? What’s got you excited?
For our fall line, we added some space dye knits and vertically integrated stripe. We’re working on Spring 2015. We really expanded distribution so these four hands are full.
Awesome. Thanks much, Deirdre.
You can shop Curator’s current line on their Web site, where you can also find a list of stores who stock their clothing. San Franciscans—be sure to stop by the store Sunday, noon to 3PM for Lip + Sip, an in-store party featuring bubbly and lipsticks + glosses from Elizabeth Street Cosmetics. Details here.
Below, shots of the Church Street store, courtesy of Curator. PS—I spy the talented Wild Unknown in one of those shots.