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How Rachel Antonoff Became a Famously Creative Fashion Force Without Ever Losing Her Way

What began as a hand-sewn line of just three dresses is now an eponymous label fueling women to live their most truthful, compassionate lives in its clothes.
Rachel Antonoff at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards. Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Rachel Antonoff at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards. Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

My favorite anecdote about Rachel Antonoff's delightfully wacky and achingly tender career in fashion is this: When she was 22 years old and running her first clothing line, Mooka Kinney, with her then-business partner (also, then-roommate and then-best friend), she used to borrow her brother's van to drop off their collection at a Barneys warehouse in Lyndhurst, New Jersey.

"When we got to the front driveway, we would chant, 'Bar-neys! Bar-neys!'," she tells me during a recent phone call. "Now we have these encode labels, and we'd never go up to the loading dock and pound on the door and be like, 'Weeeee're heeeere!'" I laugh. She pauses. "Oh my god, sorry, thinking about these things is so funny to me, and it's been a while. But it was a special time filled with new things and excitement and learning."

Our conversation — which was planned to be 30 minutes, but ended up clocking in at almost twice that — is peppered with vividly narrated stories like this one. They're juicily absurd, heartbreakingly endearing accounts of the trials and tribulations of growing up in the cradle of the fashion world. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, for one, would absolutely nail the silver-screen adaptation.

This is not to say that Antonoff doesn't take her job seriously, because she does, and gravely so. As she says, "Clothes are a character in our lives, a huge one. And it feels like a privilege to get to be a part of people's lives in that way." Today, she does that with her own eponymous label, Rachel Antonoff, which she launched in 2008 and which she has owned, run and creative directed ever since.

Rachel Antonoff, the line, is a lot like Antonoff, the person. Its guise may be lighthearted and whimsical, but its backbone is that of utter creative and ethical integrity, never, say, afraid to venture into politics, always aware of the responsibilities that coincide with a position of gained influence or inherent privilege. Antonoff says this has cost her in business over the years, but it's an area in which she's not and will never be willing to compromise.

So how did Antonoff kick off a famed 16-year career in fashion from her childhood neighbor's basement workshop? With sprinkling of "magical-fairy-tale shit," a dusting of "truly absurd mistakes" and a sweet, hefty tablespoon of a whole lot of heart. Read on for the highlights.

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Do you have a first fashion memory?

This is, of course, not remotely unique, but I loved dress-up. And not so much dressing up in my mom's pearls or heels or makeup, but... "Today I'm a detective. Today I'm a tap dancer." I've always felt like dress-up can be truly transformative. So I think that's my earliest fashion-ish memory, of being like, "I'll go to temple with you guys, but only if I'm going as a doctor."

And then in high school, I loved fashion and clothes, but my high school experience is a huge part of how I feel about fashion now and why I do what I do. And it's because I was into fashion for the complete wrong reasons. I was just — once again, typical — desperate to fit in, wanting to dress like everybody else, and that's what fashion was about for me then. Whereas earlier it had been about how I could be anything and anybody I wanted. In high school, it was like, "How can I be exactly like those four people sitting at that table?" When I look back on that, it makes me a little sad. That's how I got in touch with the things that I very much don't like about fashion, which is that you-can't-sit with-us, "Devil Wears Prada" exclusionary vibe. Which, of course, was fully self-imposed. It's not fashion's fault.

What first interested you about fashion?

I was just obsessed with models and magazines. I grew up in the time of Barbizon Modeling and Acting School, and I was desperate to see if they could make me not myself. I mean, skipping ahead, a huge part of my mission doing this as an adult is how can I not be a part of that for other people? And the industry is changing so much in that regard. Just the representation of different kinds of people is way more than it was then. When I was little, it was like, "Whoa, that model has short hair." That was diversity at the time.

I've re-found why I loved fashion in the first place and I'm definitely not dressing up as a detective and going to the office. But I've re-discovered why it's fun to dress for yourself.

What were your first steps getting into the industry?

My second job was in fashion, and it was working in fashion PR, in-house for a designer. And everyone there was lovely, but I did leave that job thinking something along the lines of "never again" because the combination of fashion and PR — especially in the early aughts and before, I'm sure — was sort of really, lethally stressful. PR in itself can feel pretty phony. And then, I don't know, the war in Iraq was happening. My cousin was over there and we were acting like we were curing cancer here. I was doing sample trafficking and I was miserable and bitter. And an asshole, also. Anyway, I left that job thinking, "No, I can't do this."

Where did you go from there, post-fashion PR?

At the time, I lived in the West Village and I had a roommate. We were really good friends and we both loved dresses. I guess this is when I started to find my way back to my original love of dress-up without really knowing it.

I had this big closet in my room, and we combined all of our clothes in that closet. And every night, even if we didn't have anything to do, we'd get really dressed up and just walk around the block or go get a drink. It was magical in a way that I think things can only be magical when you're really young and first living in New York. And it wasn't fancy dress-up. We were obsessed with vintage and buying a hideous vintage wedding dress and then cutting it short. It was so sweet, looking back on it. Even though I said I'd never work in fashion again, it was a huge part of my life, and my comfort and my joy.

How did the launch of your first brand, Mooka Kinney, come into play?

This part's always fuzzy to me. We'd started talking about how it'd be so great if we had a dress like this and a fabric like that and it had these kind of pockets, not really knowing that what we were doing was designing. And then the part that I genuinely don't remember is what made us think, "We both have full-time jobs, but let's go get some fabric and try to do this!" But we did.

We went to Mood Fabrics and we found these prints and took them to my childhood neighbor in New Jersey — this woman, Marlene, great person. She wasn't a seamstress by trade, but she made my curtains when I went to college. She's just the first person I thought of. I didn't think, "Why don't we do some research and find local pattern makers?" I was like, "No, Marlene will do it." So we went to Marlene's basement, which I remember was like entering like Wonka's studio. It was just an explosion of magical crafts.

We had three ideas. We translated them to her somehow because I know they were not good sketches, and we gave her the fabric and the trims. I don't remember how long it took her to make the samples, but I remember so explicitly going back there to see the first one and see it hanging there, and to have the feeling that I still get now: That was an idea last week, and this week, it's tangible and it's there. It doesn't matter how clear the idea is in your head, but it's always a little different when it's a real thing. And usually better because it's thrilling that it's real.

So anyway, we had these three samples from Marlene and we had a friend photograph each other in them. It did not occur to us to get a model; we were the models. It really was a time of insane self-confidence, which I usually look back at with a little bit of shame mixed with amusement. But talking about it now, it feels sort of sweet and special.

So now that you had the product in-hand, how did you get the collection off the ground?

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We just cold-emailed every editor I worked with when I was at my fashion PR job. And almost nobody wrote us back. But one person did, and it was Jane Keltner [de Valle] at Teen Vogue. She had us into her office for a meeting and we brought our three samples. I don't remember much about the meeting, but she said, "I'm going to write a story about you guys and I'm going to help you." She called the then-buyer for Barneys and made an appointment for us. It was just magical-fairy-tale shit. In the meeting, she was like, "What's the name of your company?" And we had to go confirm in the bathroom because we didn't know yet. That was the magical side of it. The flip side is that we had no fucking idea what we were doing.

What were some of those challenges you had to overcome in the early years of Mooka Kinney?

I used to feel really insecure about the fact that I hadn't gone to school for this and that this part of it was my education. And now it's something I feel really proud of. That took us three years. And it was three years of my partner and me figuring it out on the ground and straight-up sobbing at least once a day in public. Everything I did was wrong, which, of course, makes sense because we didn't know what to do. Now, a huge part of my days are filled with margins and numbers. And so this is one of my favorite stories about back then.

We sashayed around this store in our own clothes, literally just waiting for them to be like, "I like your dress!" We did that repeatedly, maybe three or four times, before [the owner] said something. She placed an order for, I think it was 16 units. And again, it didn't occur to me to try to find a factory. Marlene will make them! That order was placed in June and it took Marlene two months to make 16 dresses in her basement workshop.

Marlene charged us $125 per dress, not counting fabric, trims, et cetera. We charged them $100 a purchase. Our wholesale was lower than our fucking cost. And at the time, I remember saying, "We're so lucky we only have to pay $25 a dress to be in a real store!" Given that this was our business model, you can only imagine when Barneys put in an order for 300 units, it was just a nightmare, one of those dreams where you're taking the LSAT that you didn't study and that's not even something you've ever thought about doing. So we got this large order from Barneys and we didn't even buy wholesale fabric. We were buying fabric from Mood to make samples without even checking to see if they had more.

I’m realizing now these stories might make me sound like just a regular moron, and maybe I was. But anyway, my point is that I got my education through three years of making truly absurd mistakes and fixing them. I think that a classical education sounds great and there's surely a lot that I don't know, but I would love to know. But it's always interesting to me when people are like, "Wait, you don't know how to sew?" And it's like, "I'm sorry. Do you think any designer you admire is sitting there sewing up their own samples? That's not happening." So the shame that I felt around that for a while is now something I have as a badge of honor.

When did Rachel Antonoff, the brand, come into the picture?

As many young business relationships do, ours fell apart in a big way. And we ended our business and we're not friends anymore. So when people talk to me about going into business with friends, I'm very cautious with my advice.

Then I immediately started Rachel Antonoff. I was really scared of losing momentum. That was in 2008 — I know our first season was Spring 2009 — and that partially feels like it was 40 years ago and it partially feels like it was yesterday. That's the very beginning.

You've adapted to the industry for a long time, but you've also made choices that are best for yourself and your business. How have you maintained that mindset throughout your career?

I came from a place of unwillingness to be flexible. Whether it was about my ideas or that, well, that-person's-politics-are-fucked-up-so-we're-not-selling-to-their-store kind of thing. Which, when you have an investor, it's not their favorite thing to hear. Maintaining respect for myself and how I go about things while not running our company into the ground has been a very delicate balance. And I think it's important to know what your bottom lines are; these are the things that aren't going to fly. I'm never going to not be vocal about what I think is important.

I won't name names because it feels obnoxious. But one of these big accounts that we really, really wanted to be in — they would've made a big difference in our business — told us, "We really like this stuff, but there's no way we could ever have a brand that's as openly political as you on the site." And, I don't know, I don't want to be Pollyanna about it because I get it, I'm in business, I understand, but it's also disappointing. There's things like that, that don't give me pause. There was not a moment for me of thinking, "Oh, maybe we should be less political." That would not sit well with me. But I also realized that the ability to be openly political and honest with your feelings is a privileged place to be coming from. So I think it's important to recognize that.

Has your design aesthetic changed over time?

Actually, it's really changed. And it's changed partially with me. I'm 38 now and I started doing this when I was 22. I have different tastes. I've grown up and I'm a different person. Some of it has changed with me and my own preferences.

I can't say exactly when, but I stopped designing for me and started to try to really hear what it is that people want from us. And sometimes it might be something that's not my favorite thing, but we have built a customer base and they have likes that, maybe, aren't my likes. To what degree do we try to give people what it seems like they want from us and we still feel proud of and excited about what we're doing? It's not always fun to do the same jumpsuit 45,000 times in different colors. That's not necessarily flexing our creative muscles, but people like them.

Our design rule of thumb when we started was that we designed for ourselves. And if we liked it, then there would probably be other people out there who would like it and they could buy it. But that's also a lofty, somewhat naive business view. So that's been one of the bigger changes, actually thinking about what people want from us — not just what we want to wear. And then finding the system around it.

How has social media and the complete digitalization of the industry affected what you do now?

It's actually changed the business in every possible way for the better. I was just having a conversation about social media with a bunch of people and the main takeaway was that social media is a net negative. It's horrible. All we do is look at our phones all day. And I don't disagree with any of that. For me, though, social media is something that leads to direct sales. We post something and we sell it. Our Shopify makes a sound that’s literally like cha-ching! every time we have a sale.

And e-commerce has changed our business. We're no longer at the mercy of stores who may like us, but then the buyer changed and now they don't anymore. Something like 96% of our e-commerce sales come through Instagram. So it's pretty great. I like it.

What career advice would you give to young designers today?

I would tell them that, realistically, it’s a really hard industry. I used to answer this question so differently, and it's important to acknowledge why my answer was fucked up. My answer was like, "Don't think, just do! Just go for it!" And it's important to acknowledge that I’ve been privileged to be able to do this. That I had an investor early on. And I think that that's just a reality, that it's expensive and like having a dog. It's joyful, but expensive. I think it's important for people to really know that and not just say, "If you dream it, do it!"

The times that I've been the most in my own way have been when I'm obsessing about what other people want, as opposed to just listening. I do think there's so many voices out there. If you're going to join the chorus, make sure that you have something to say that feels even just a little different.

What's your ultimate goal for yourself?

I strive to make clothes and fashion that will not make people feel the way I felt in high school, stuff you can really live in and have fun in and have experiences in. That's my greatest joy in what I do, hearing people's stories of how and where something we made got to be a part of an exciting experience for them. I love that. Because we all even remember the bad stuff. “He broke up with me, and I remember I was wearing that shirt. I didn't wear it again for two years because it made me too sad." Clothes are a character in our lives, a huge one. And it feels like a privilege to get to be a part of people's lives in that way. That's why I want to keep doing it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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