When Aza Ziegler presented her thesis collection as a senior fashion design student at Pratt, she thought the next step in her career would be jumping headlong into freelancing for other designers. Instead, she found herself fulfilling international orders for Calle del Mar, the label she'd created in college. A few years later, Ziegler's colorful brand is not only paying her salary but also attracting a dedicated following that includes cool girls like Beyoncé protégés Chloe and Halle.
So how did Ziegler go from student to self-employed in such a short time? It started with her ability to create clothes that seem to genuinely embody a lifestyle — something plenty of designers talk about, but many struggle to actualize. Having moved to New York for school, California-bred Ziegler's homesickness for the sunshine-filled, easygoing land of endless summer became the starting point for what would become Calle del Mar.
"Calle del Mar is actually the street I grew up on," Ziegler says over the phone. "When you turn onto the street, you see the ocean between the trees, and it's sparkling. It's kind of a meditative moment."
Even if you've never laid eyes on Ziegler's childhood street in Northern California, it's easy to see how her memories are manifested in her clothing, from the sparkles of her sequin-stuffed organza pieces to the embroidered wave patches that show up on dresses and varsity jackets. Ziegler's ability to create designs that are both tomboyish and whimsically feminine without compromising either feels like a refreshing alternative to androgyny in a post-gender fashion landscape. And with separates easygoing enough for sitting around a beachside bonfire and special enough for a night out, it's easy to imagine living a dreamy California life in Calle del Mar clothes.
Her ability to create a vision of a whole way of life through her clothing is something Ziegler says she learned through her parents, Mel and Patricia Ziegler, who founded Banana Republic.
"My dad was a writer and my mom was an artist. They would make handmade catalogs where they just told these stories. They bought vintage clothes, and my mom would fix them and then they'd sell them," Ziegler explains of Banana Republic's origins prior to her parents selling the company to Gap in the '80s. Their love of vintage extended to how they dressed her as a little girl, too, so much so that it's all Ziegler remembers wearing before she learned to sew.
Ziegler insists that their founding a household-name clothing brand actually had less of an impact on her childhood than people might assume. Still, the creative atmosphere that Ziegler's parents created for her and her brother Zio (himself an artist who has collaborated with Vans and exhibited his paintings worldwide) certainly shaped her.
"I made a lot of my clothes with my mom growing up," she says. "I didn't have cable. We drew; we played outside."
It was the strength of her visual storytelling and cohesive aesthetic that first kickstarted Ziegler's career, as it earned her a place on the runway at Pratt and later a spot in the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator. Ziegler's careful curation through beautiful-but-accessible imagery — favoring friends and herself over professional models wearing her clothing — also helped her build a healthy Instagram following that connected her with even more customers in the U.S. and abroad. When she eventually decided to go direct-to-consumer, it was partly out of a desire to connect more intimately with the people buying her products.
"I really wanted to have a relationship with those people the same way that I did with the people who were making the clothes," she says.
Because all of her clothing is made in the U.S., Ziegler has a deep relationship with the factories and people producing her garments, so much so that she calls one factory overseer she works with "a mentor." Though she cites the relational aspect and tactile satisfaction of actually getting to see and touch the garments as paramount, it's clear that the social and environmental upsides to producing locally aren't lost on her, either.
"I care a lot about our Earth and the beautiful places on it, and I think how fashion impacts that is something we should be keeping in mind," she says.
While it's a popular idea to give lip service to these days, Ziegler's actually been looking at fashion through an environmental lens since her teens, when she designed an upcycled clothing line "just for fun" that resulted in her getting written up in WWD.
"I think it's important that the people making the clothes are happy to be doing it and being well paid and are able to take care of themselves."
Keeping the good vibes equally strong for the garment makers and garment wearers is a rarity in the fashion world, but with a strong moral compass and equally strong design skills, Ziegler's up for the challenge.