Eliana Gil Rodriguez began working at American Apparel part time when she was just 15 in her hometown of Montreal, Canada. In the 10 years that followed, Rodriguez gradually worked her way up, and West, to the Downtown Los Angeles headquarters, ultimately becoming the fabled brand's head womenswear designer and advertising director.
"It was February in Montreal and it was freezing," jokes Rodriguez about being offered a creative role in LA. It's strangely impossible to imagine her living somewhere cold; in real life and on Instagram (where she has nearly 40k followers), she epitomizes a certain effortless LA Eastside look — a smart mix of basics, vintage, athletic pieces and mermaid hair. When we meet, she looks intimidatingly and yet effortlessly cool wearing a black unitard of her own design, an airy oversized white button-down, Martiniano glove booties and a minimal lipstick-and-blush makeup look. She mentions something about being able to go from meetings to pilates, which is, well, extremely LA.
In Montreal, she had been studying political science but wasn't sure it was for her, so she made the move and has stayed in LA ever since, though she left American Apparel four years ago.
Since then, she's done a mix of modeling, acting and consulting with the goal of one day starting her own label. "I always wanted to be an entrepreneur and knew that, and when I started working in fashion that felt like the obvious thing to do," says Rodriguez. "American Apparel gave me a lot of the tools and the training that I needed to do that — especially making things in the U.S. They were really ahead of their time with that."
With her own money, she launched Gil Rodriguez, a small, considered, locally-made line of elevated basics — plus one eye-catching swimsuit — last month. There's a bodysuit, a unitard, a T-shirt, a tank, leggings and the aforementioned swimsuit, all with a sexy, retro-yet-timelss feel in a muted color palette. Aesthetically, it feels a bit like a more upscale American Apparel.
"I really wanted to make designs that were lasting," she says. Figuring out what that looked like proved challenging, though. "It just felt like the fashion industry was really oversaturated with newness all the time and we know more and more about what we're doing to the environment, yet we keep speeding up fashion cycles and producing more and more stuff." After taking some time to figure out if launching a clothing line was really what she wanted to do, she realized there was something missing in the market.
"With the demise of American Apparel, it kind of left this hole where you didn't really know where to find a good basic, and I still felt like the American Apparel basics could be improved upon. I wanted something that was a little more grown up and luxurious and better fabrics and from a more feminine point of view: the point of view of the woman who's actually wearing it," she explains. "This is what I know how to do really well and this is what I actually feel is needed, so that's when it finally clicked for me."
She acknowledges there are a lot of pricy elevated basic lines out there, but wants her designs to be the kinds of things people fall in love with and can afford to buy multiples of. So, in an effort to keep prices accessible while still making everything locally, Gil Rodriguez is entirely direct-to-consumer, at least for now, even though she says she's gotten offers from retailers that are "difficult to turn down."
"I think it's important for me right now to do this on my own and with my own funding and that's really difficult to do when you're doing wholesale because you have to put up a lot of production costs and it's a really big financial risk," she says, noting that she's also been approached by investors.
Rodriguez also hasn't spent any money on advertising or PR. In addition to spreading the word through her circle of friends and industry contacts, Instagram has proven a powerful marketing tool, as it has for so many brands in recent years. "It's already a struggle to just keep things in stock," she notes.
Going forward, Rodriguez plans to release new items as she sees fit rather than following a traditional seasonal schedule. Right now she's working on outerwear, "wintery basics" and even a fragrance — all timeless items that "can naturally be built into your life." She wants the brand to feel like a "pharmacy" in the way that she feels American Apparel did, where you could just order a bunch of of underwear or T-shirts as needed.
"I want to keep that concept alive of something you can count on for the necessities but obviously in a more elevated, grown up fashion," she says. "I just want to make things that I want to wear, that my friends want to wear. That's kind of the whole point of it."