Collina Strada

Conversation held on April 26, 2020

When you and I first spoke in 2016, sustainability was already central to your vision for Collina Strada, but those ideas were being translated through a particular aesthetic—it was more about raw materials, minimal silhouettes, layered monochromes. Obviously, your approach has changed since then, grown much more colorful and experimental, and I wonder whether that change came about as a conscious decision or an organic development. How would you characterize the evolution of the brand’s aesthetic?

In my 20s, I was really conscious of wanting to be successful. I think with the early collections, it was less about being myself than making sure I was making products that people wanted. That was the focus, so it maybe wasn’t as authentic as it is now, where I’m making things that I actually like, things I’d want my friends to wear, letting things get as weird as they want to get. I think it’s grown into a more authentic version of myself with every season.

The notion of listening to the work, of allowing the process to go where it wants to go, is an interesting one. Do you have a strong sense of a garment beforehand, or do you find the form by working with your materials?

A lot of it is working with the materials, because when you’re trying to be sustainable, you have to find the fabrics first. You can’t just be like, “I’m going to make this dress”—you have to figure out what you have at your disposal and find a way to create something. Then, in terms of production, we also have to think about how to do these manual processes in a sustainable way. For example, we don’t even tie-dye anymore—we just paint directly onto the clothes—so I found this great studio in Bushwick who can handle larger runs for us. It’s really cool, because not only does it help us keep production local, but she also has these great hiring practices, where she’ll give the jobs to local residents and artists in the community. If you don’t have a job that day, you can go there, paint a flower on a piece of clothing, have fun, and get paid for it. To me, that’s another kind of sustainability: supporting a local artistic community as part of your business model.

I love it. What are some of your other current strategies for ensuring a sustainable process?

There’s lots of ways to do it. For one thing, I try to find fabrics that are deadstock, that are already in existence, rather than starting everything from scratch. I use a lot of Jams World fabric from the ‘90s—I found all these rolls of it, so we just bought it up. The idea is to use things that have been around for a long time and are in limited supply: once the fabric’s used up and the dresses are sold, that’s all she wrote.

There’s a certain level of flexibility built into that approach. Do you ever feel like the creative process is somehow its own entity, that you don’t really own it, or even control it?

Yes, for sure. That’s part of what makes it exciting.

I feel the same way. When you’re working with the materials on their own terms, there’s a kind of collaborative spirit there, where the work’s language is evolving naturally and your role is really just to feed it and keep it alive.

Right. You have to be like, “This is where it’s going,” and just follow its lead.

Totally. Then, at a certain point, it has its own set of parameters, right? It’s speaking to you, telling you, “This makes sense,” and “This doesn’t make sense anymore,” so elements get added and left behind as the practice unfolds over time.

Yes. In a way, though, I feel like I’ve stopped listening to where the work is taking me, and instead I’m starting to say, “I want to make this now.” There are both sides happening. The way I’m working now, I feel like I can do exactly what I want and no one’s telling me any different. That’s a really rare and exceptional place to be, and I’m super grateful for it. But at the same time, I’m a little worried that there’s going to be a point—possibly quite soon—where I’m going to have to listen to someone who’s telling me how many dresses to make and how this or that needs to be. That’s if I choose to work with or for someone else. I have a lot of collabs coming up, and as the brand grows, I know that means having to navigate a corporate environment. I’m a troublemaker, I’m definitely a rule breaker, so I know I’m probably not going to fit well into that form. We’ll just have to see how it goes. But for now, Collina’s in a great place, where we’re semi-successful and can eat and can make whatever the fuck we want.

As self-directed as the brand’s become, it seems like collaboration is still a very important part of how things are made and presented. For instance, recent years have seen you working closely with the photographer Charlie Engman. What’s his role been?

Charlie and I have known each other for over ten years. He actually interned for me, and then we started working on things together. We did a collab in Resort that’s out now in stores, where we designed everything together, and then he shot the lookbook. Now he styles the shows, too, which has been really fun, because he’s not afraid to let things be fucked up. I feel like we’re a duo now. We’re just better together.

There’s mutual trust creatively.

Yes, 100%. I know the inner workings of his fucked-up mind, and he knows how gross I can take things, so we’re able to push each other to go further. When he was working on his book Mom, I’d say, “I know you could do more. I understand that you don’t want to do more because of some commercial idea of what you think a photo book should be. But still, do more.” (laughs)

How does he reciprocate?

We’ll have the same exact conversations about my work. He’ll be the only the person in the room who says, “This is not a look,” or “This isn’t working,” but then he’ll also take it further and ask, “Why are you making this?” Sometimes I’ll tell him, “I understand why you think this look is too basic or normal, but for the girl who ends up buying it, this is her next step towards branching out. She wants to be cool—but just not scary cool.” (laughs) Sometimes you have to make things that sell, things that people want and can understand. The thing is, I don’t think my pieces are ever that crazy. I never make clothes where you’re like, “How do you wear that? How does it work together?” We style things to look a little bit more adventurous, obviously, but the pieces themselves are always wearable.

They’re very playful, too.

I want people to have fun. It’s not about being serious or super tailored. You can wear this dress going to work and make it business-professional, but it doesn’t need to be that way all the time. I just feel like there’s so much space to explore there. It’s true for myself, too: I only do this because I have fun. This is my only outlet to be able to give back to charity, to be able to do good for the world, to be able to have a voice and spread awareness on social issues. This is my way of doing those things, and I want to enjoy it.

I wanted to ask about the role of makeup in your presentations. With “Garden Ho” (FW 2020), for instance, your makeup strategies furthered the show’s themes—using dirt as eyeliner, yellow eye shadow mimicking pollen—just as they had in your Spring 2020 show (“Thank You Very Much For Helping Me”), where you had thin slivers of radish and cucumber applied to models’ foreheads, cheeks, and chins. At what point in the process does makeup become a decisive factor?

It’s always either at the very beginning or the night before the show. For “Garden Ho,” we actually had a completely different vision for the makeup, and then this other idea came together at the last minute, and it worked really well. But for the SS20 show, the idea for using the cucumbers and radishes was set from the beginning. I’d wanted to do that since the August before. My birthday’s August 3, and I remember I was putting cucumbers on shoes—I wanted cucumber shoes fucking everywhere. So that was always the dream.

For both of those shows, you worked with the makeup artist Allie Smith, whose work is great.

Oh, yeah. I’ve worked with Allie on three or four shows now. I love Allie. She’s always been my girl. I bring her on for shoots and lookbooks all the time. She’s my number one.

You’ve also been working recently with the wig artist Tomihiro Kono, who’s another personal favorite. For elements like makeup and hair, do you tend to have a consistent set of people you work with, or do your collaborators change to reflect each new collection?

It’s both. I love finding new people to work with, but sometimes you find someone who feels like the right fit, so you try to hold on those people.

So then what’s the process of creating a collection? All of your recent offerings have been centered on distinct themes; do those ideas guide your decisions in creating the pieces, or do they develop alongside the collection?

I always have a theme for a show, usually before the pieces are made. The idea can definitely change in the process and develop into something new, but there’s always an idea guiding all of these decisions, all the way up to the show.

Particularly in the last few years, it seems like the shows have been extensions of the collections themselves: more than a simple runway presentation, you’ve made a point of approaching each one as a live performance, a community-based experience.

I fucking love doing shows. That’s my thing. I feel like sometimes I want to design a collection just so I can do a show. The thing is, I’m a Leo, so I don’t necessarily like things to be all about me, but I still want it to be about me. (laughs) I don’t want it to be about my face, but I still want it to be my thing that people are there to see. So the show is my 20 or 30 minutes where it’s like, “You’re all here to listen to what I have to say.” It’s like a birthday party: everyone’s there to have a good time, but I still get to be the center of attention. I love that, although at the same time, it’s always insanely stressful. It’s like, this girl fits this look, and then that girl has to do a switch, and then we have to put this look next to this look because this look goes here, and then someone drops out at the last minute, so you have to find someone else who might fit the look, call her up at 2am and see if she can be there at 8am. It’s always crazy.

So again, it sounds like there’s this element of adaptability that’s informing your process—but at the same time, you’re clearly very decisive in how you produce and present your work. It’s an interesting balance.

Oh, yeah. I’m a total control freak, but I also understand that nothing is ever exactly how you want it to be. At some point, you have to let go. I feel like I used to get maybe 10% of what I wanted from the shows. Now it’s more like 30%.

I was talking to a friend of mine who represented his country in the last Venice Biennale, and I was saying, “That’s the highest honor in the art world. Where do you go from there?” He said, “Don’t worry about that. An artist is never satisfied, so there’s always somewhere else to go.”

You’re never satisfied. Never. And that’s what keeps you going.

So then what’s the motivating factor for your creativity?

To get that 100% control. (laughs) I want it all, but I also want it to be completely eco-friendly, and I want it to be the best thing for the world, and I want to inspire people, and I want to have fun, and I want it to look great, and I want it to be presented perfectly.

My dream is to take over a house, where I can have a full team at my disposal. My team right now is super small: I have one other person on full-time staff, a few freelancers, and then licensees and factories. But I have so many ideas of things I’d like to have made, and at some point, I want to be able to say, “Hey, this is an idea that I have: it’s this plaid on this see-through sweatshirt, but it’s comfortable,” and then have a whole team of people who know how to make everything in the world and just watch them make it happen. I’d love to be able to say, “I like this concept as a running theme through the collection,” and then have ten people sketching ideas, and you can just say, “Yes, no, yes, no, yes, no,” without actually having to make all those things yourself. It’d just be a bigger team to help you produce and fulfil your dreams completely. I want a situation where anything’s possible.

That could also have implications for how the brand operates as a business. As it stands, you’re not just a creative mind—you have to deal with the practical realities of running the daily operations.

Right. There’s a lot of looking at spreadsheets that my marketing director will send over with line plans that I have to design for her. She crunches numbers based on our e-com sales and what sold for wholesale and tells me how many tops we need, how many dresses we need, how many pants we need to design a collection and meet the demand for what’s going on in the market. It’s very specific, but it’s fun. It’s like a puzzle, with all these pieces you’re trying to fit together.

Thankfully, I really like and respect all of the people who work on the business side of my brand. It’s been a careful selection of people, slowly over the years. I’ve known my marketing director for ten years; she’s one of my best friends, and she just happens to be amazing at her job. It’s like that with everyone on the team: there’s a sense of respect and understanding and kindness, where we all want to do the best we can for each other.

Your vision for Collina is not only as a fashion label, but also as a platform for addressing social issues. How does that side of things inform your decisions, in terms of both creativity and business?

It’s really important to me that the brand speaks to these larger ideas about how we want the world to be. We’ve always been non-binary, both in our designs and our casting. We cast trans people as early as 2014. We did a whole show centered on Black Lives Matter, featuring all Black models. We’ve worked with the OR Foundation to address material waste and the secondhand clothing market. We’ve always been part of these issues before bigger brands were allowed or inclined to be. But the thing is, it’s not because we feel we have to do that, or so we can have a “diversity” factor—it’s because that’s our community. That’s simply who we are.

I really just want to bring humanity into fashion and have that voice of reason, where we can have these discussions and say, “This is how we can be better people.” It can be tricky in fashion, though, because it can so easily become a trend, or something people do because they feel socially obligated. I think it’s a dirty thing when brands do that.

Right. “Sustainability” is such a relative term, as are “diversity” and “local.” Along similar lines, it’s been interesting to see how labels have responded to COVID: certain brands are halting production to pivot into fabricating masks, while others are reassessing their supply chains and refining their business models. There are different gestures being made in the short-term, but you wonder to what extent the lessons learned through this experience might translate to meaningful long-term changes within the industry.

Right. But at the same time, brands always take cues from their customers, and I think people are getting a lot smarter about how they shop. Especially during COVID, I think a lot of people are seeing these huge corporations stopping production in their factories and not paying their workers—seeing the human impacts—and making different choices in response. I’ve been getting emails from people saying, “Hey, I saw this dress on Nordstrom, but I really want to buy directly from you because I want to support your brand during this time.” That gesture means a lot: rather than just clicking “Add to Cart,” that customer took the extra time to find my site and reach out to me to try to help my brand, because they now realize that maybe the stores aren’t paying their designers. Consumers are just thinking more broadly now. We’re seeing more and more people gravitate towards smaller businesses, helping smaller artisans, helping people who really need the money. These past few months have been by far the best e-commerce months that we’ve ever had, and I really appreciate that.

So as a brand, it’s still just about being authentic to your consumer, and I think we’re going to see a big shift in authenticity when we come out of this pandemic experience. This has been a huge moment of reset, and people are going to be much more conscious of how they spend their money. They’re going to be like, “Using less water for this T-shirt, does that make it sustainable?” It’s just a much more thoughtful and deliberate mode of consumerism, and I’m really excited to see what happens next. I think the brands who’ve had a good voice and took action during this time are going to be lifted up, and people who did nothing will be left behind.

You’ve gone out of your way to take an active role in responding to the pandemic: you developed your Quarantine Collection and donated all proceeds to charity, but you’ve also put a lot of effort into producing PPE masks for Masks4Medicine, as well as providing an online tutorial for self-made masks and including free masks with orders from the Collina website.

It was weird, because at first, they were telling us that people didn’t need masks, that they don’t help, and that they even helped spread the virus—but then I’d have doctors DMing me, being like, “Hey, I need a mask. Do you know where to get one?” So I was just like, “Fuck it,” and I started making them. This was in March—and here we are, not even two months later, and everyone has to walk outside with a mask on. It just goes to show, never blindly follow the people who claim to be in charge. 

Ultimately, it goes back to what we were saying a minute ago: it’s about being aware of your role in a community, in society as a whole, and figuring out how you can help. My skill is sewing, so that’s what I’m doing—but everyone has their own means of contributing. You just have to be willing to find it.

Photographs by Hannah Metz