One of the most exciting parts of following any creative field is watching new talents emerge. Claire McKinney’s career has only just begun, but she’s already turned heads with a capsule collection of de- and reconstructed workwear, devised as her senior thesis at the Pratt Institute and shown in Ralph Pucci’s showroom last month during New York Fashion Week. McKinney’s not the first to riff off the classics, few young designers possess her clarity of vision. And we’re not the only ones who think so — she also works full-time for buzzy New York label Creatures of Comfort. We chatted with McKinney about painting barns, her fascination with denim, what she’s learned since graduating from Pratt, and why she’s excited by collaboration. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Maybe you could start by telling me a bit about the collection that you’ve just showed at the Pucci Showroom.
That collection was a project that I worked on from September until May, really. It’s our senior thesis at Pratt. We spend a good portion of the beginning of the year working on concepts, ideas, developing our own dictionary of techniques we want to use for the collection. Our program is very focused on the actual making process. I don’t know that that’s true for every school. It’s definitely something that we all felt really comfortable with by the end of the four years. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to have this sort of focus on reconstructing and deconstructing workwear.
Where did that impulse come from?
I worked with denim a lot in my junior year at Pratt. I was drawn to the real hardiness of the material and how much distressing it could take. That was something I spent a lot of time doing the year before, coming up with controlled ways of distressing denim, whether it was removing sections of denim by picking out threads to sanding down denim in specific patterns like stripes and grids and creating my own controlled distressing of edges. I was sort of rolling off of that. Then after that school year, I spent the summer in Sweden working on a farm in the middle of nowhere.
That’s cool. What kind of farm?
It was more of a bed and breakfast, but we had a couple pigs, a couple chickens. Most of my time was spent actually painting barns red, which was kind of hilarious. I was just standing on a ladder for like three months painting. I loved it. I would totally do it again. I actually spent a lot of time just like thinking about the collection while I was painting barns.
That sounds like a good meditative activity.
Oh, totally. I was, like, so zen’d out when I was there.
Repetitive tasks are good for thinking. There were nine or ten looks in the collection — is that right?
Yeah, it’s ten looks.
How did you whittle down your ideas to the ones that we saw?
A lot of it’s just trial and error. I have bags and bags full of rough drafts of garments. A lot of just cutting apart things and pinning things together. We were able to have a fit model every week at Pratt. You had to try things on someone from the beginning. It was sort of part of the curriculum and the pace. It really got us to start working from the beginning in garment form. Then it just becomes sort of a visual process of taking hundreds of photos and looking at them and saying, “This works, this doesn’t,” or, “I like the way that detail relates to the color in this other piece,” or something like that.
And all of the pieces look to me like they were fairly labor-intensive, as well.
Yeah, that’s true. Definitely multiple-day projects.
How and where do you go about sourcing your fabrics?
All of my off-the-bolt denim is sourced in Midtown [in New York City]. I go to one fabric store that sells American-made Cone [Mills] denim. I bought a whole bolt of it and just used the entire thing in one collection. The denim comes with a very dark, starched, rigid quality. I bleached and dyed it to that super light blue color that you see in some of the looks. That was my way of cutting back on too much sourcing, because I just felt like, “Why can’t I edit this one denim that I really like into exactly something else that I like?”
The other fabrics, a lot of them came from thrift stores. The jeans that I cut apart, the workwear that I cut apart came from thrift stores in Oregon, where I’m from. I spent a lot of my free time there doing what I love, which is thrift shopping.
There’s something about seeing text on garments that really speaks to me, and there is some text involved in your collection. How do you decide what sort of text makes sense on a garment?
I wanted it to sort of not make sense and have it be these strange, floating isms running across the garments. The text came from a letterpress class that I was taking at Pratt during my senior year. I was listening to a lot of Talking Heads songs at the time. I went through and listened for all of the strange commands in their songs, all these bizarre, existential problems they were having. I wrote down all these commands that I heard in the songs and then arranged them. I ended up using that same set type on fabric later in the collection. I was never really choosing where to place the text. I was printing posters and I just thought why don’t I run my fabric through this and see what it looks like. I guess that’s my answer. I’m not sure.
How you think growing up in Oregon shaped your approach to design, or relationship with clothing?
I grew up in the suburbs of Portland, so I was constantly begging my mom to let me go thrift shopping in the city, since Portland is sort of a mecca for thrift shopping. From an early age, I started cutting up or editing a lot of vintage clothes. I think that really informed my collection, because a lot of the pieces are edited workwear.
My family comes from Sweden, but there have always been generations of them in Oregon in really remote towns. I grew up going there a lot. Most people in these towns are part of an agricultural working class, which I think is the key to their local economy. I think that was definitely something that influenced the collection. It just felt so much a part of me, and where I came from, and what I identified with.
In addition to doing your own collections and your own studies, you also work for Creatures of Comfort. How long have you been doing that. You were an intern there first, right?
Yeah, I started interning for credit through Pratt in January of last year. I stopped in May when my course credit ended, but then an opening came up in the company. We’re a super small team, so now I’m assisting Jade in design for the Creatures of Comfort line. I’ve been doing that since the last week of July. Not too long, a couple months.
Are there any ways in particular you feel that you have grown as a designer from that experience, even though it’s still pretty new?
Definitely. I think it’s a very different process when you’re a student and you’re sort of wearing a lot of hats. You’re your own pattern maker. You’re your own designer. You sew all of your samples. You source all of your fabric. You figure out how those pieces might go into production if someone wants to place an order, how would you adjust the size for it or something like that. Once you get exposed to how a company works where there’s people who are specialized in each of those categories, you learn a lot. You can learn so much from a pattern maker on how to adjust something. While we had pattern-making classes at Pratt, it was just still such a difference between someone who’s been doing it specifically forever.
That’s been super helpful just to learn from the people I work with every day, but also how you can simplify things. I’ve been getting a lot of inquiries about production, how I would produce this collection, and a lot of the pieces are so one-of-a-kind that it just gives me a headache to think about. I think in my next collection, I’ll have that idea in the back of my head from the beginning and save myself more time in the end. Like, making complete patterns, making something legible to someone else, all those details.
Have you started working on a next collection yet?
I’m in the idea phase right now. I’m excited about collaborating with some of my classmates. I think school is a naturally competitive environment, and you’re still being graded individually, but I made some really close friends. We all have a lot of skills that we can help each other with, so I think the next collection is going to be sort of a group collection. I’m really excited about it.
I feel like the desire to work collaborative is something I’m seeing more and more from new grads. The impulse to work as a collective rather than as an individual. Why do you think that more and more people are choosing this route or this mode of working?
I think it’s because there’s just so many designers now. I feel like everyone’s a designer. Kanye’s a designer. A fashion designer is so much less specific now, and you have to figure out a way to sort of identify yourself or put yourself above the bar or something. I think another side of working collaboratively is it’s just the most productive way. I mean, all of my friends have full-time jobs, so, with the amount of hours we have at the end of the day, it would take me a year to make the collection I made at Pratt with the free time I have now. It’s exciting to think about how much work could get done in a short amount of time with five people working instead of one.
But, I think in terms of the collaboration I see happening among a lot of new designers, it’s just the fact that I always think a couple brains put together are always better than one. Having that flexibility in giving people options within one brand is super special and interesting and sort of mind-bending.
Yeah, I think it’s really rare to find a designer who is truly singular and can do everything on their own. I feel like there’s this fantasy that the fashion industry perpetuates, where there’s one figurehead designer that does everything. There are whole design teams that rarely get mentioned. I have a big problem with that.
I do too. I think it’s interesting how companies are divided up. It’s still a little bit of a myth to me. I was just thinking, “I wonder what the Acne design office looks like? Or Céline? What’s the creator director doing and how many people are working below them? How many people are sketching?” There’s a reason why it’s kept so secret I think.
What do you think that reason is?
I don’t know, maybe that there’s just so many people’s ideas and brains coming together, and while the creative director can have a really beautiful vision for the collections… I don’t know. I’m afraid to say too much.
I feel like we’re ready for a big company like that to just be, like, totally transparent. I feel like it would be really refreshing. If Acne was like, “Yeah, we’re going to Periscope our design studios all day. You can watch whenever you want.” I feel like that would make me more… I would want to buy more of their clothes.
It would be like a little radical. It would be like eating at a restaurant where you can look into the kitchen.
Yeah, exactly. The exact same idea.
One of the big topics in the fashion industry now is this growing sense that the industry’s reaching a critical mass in terms of how fast it’s moving and how much is demanded of designers. As a new grad, a young designer, do you feel any sort of anxiety about stepping into this industry?
Yeah, I think the main one is just this crazy circuit of fall/winter, spring/summer. I could never imagine my clothes as fast fashion. I don’t think they’ll ever get even close to that as far as production and working in foreign countries and stuff. It’s not even in my vision, even a glimmer of it at all. I think in terms of the actual physical pace, it gets very daunting. I just think it doesn’t allow enough time for real ideas to become their best. I think the best way is to just carry ideas through. Every collection doesn’t have to be a complete new concept and idea. I think you saw it with Margiela, and even smaller companies like BLESS. They’ve got these real ideas that they keep exploring and keep building on.
Yeah, I’ve noticed more and more designers using that iterative design process, which is maybe taking a page from the world of industrial design.
Which I think is great. To expect a designer to come up with an idea and execute it perfectly in one season and then abandon it, that seems so strange to me. You said that sort of that super fast-paced, fast fashion idea of how clothes can work is not in your vision. What is in your vision for your work?
I think just to go back to the idea of collaboration is really exciting. A lot of my friends at Pratt make beautiful things, whether it’s furniture, ceramics, or jewelry. I feel like I’m part of this little community that has a lot of fresh ideas and forward-thinking concepts for materials. I think a lot of my friends, we’re all drawn towards new explorations of materials, whether that be old materials used in a new way or new tech, new materials.
I guess the best thing about the fashion week cycle is that it brings a lot of press and excitement. People really have their ears up when it’s fashion week, but I wouldn’t be so opposed to working off of that cycle and just creating when it seems like the right time.