Publish date:

The Enduring Appeal of Rachel Comey

The designer returns to New York Fashion Week with a new collection and a new approach that marries the brand's heritage with its future.
Author:
Rachel Comey at her Spring 2005 show at Bryant Park.

Rachel Comey at her Spring 2005 show at Bryant Park.

Rachel Comey doesn't concern herself too much with commemorating milestones. She doesn't remember how she celebrated her brand's 10-year anniversary a decade ago, but she does remember the runway she staged outside of her store in SoHo for its 15th. There have been plenty of turning points worth celebrating, like the opening of the first store, the hiring of her first employee six years into the business and the getting out of debt that same year. Still, this one's a bit different. 

"I mean, 20 years is a long time," she says. "It was a lot of learning, which is great. That's one of the fun things about this job: You're always learning."

By her own admission, Comey operates a step outside of the fashion establishment — and has for years, more committed to following her customer than following the show calendar. She's done New York Fashion Week, but has also opted not to when it didn't make sense; she's toyed with alternative ways to debut a collection, whether that meant heading out west to L.A. or hosting a dinner with customers, muses and people close to the brand. That was another milestone, by the way — "knowing ourselves [to say] like, 'Oh yeah, this is the thing that makes sense for us, my team and my customers,'" she says.

This year, the Rachel Comey brand turns 20. The designer is ringing it in "mostly [by] just thinking forward," she says. ("It's still young. We're still young.") There will be plenty of opportunities to celebrate, though: There's an upcoming collaboration with Target, and also a return to fashion week

"After this year and a half of quiet and reflection, it just felt like a nice thing to do, to get together with my team and even find new collaborators," she says. "That's a moment, an experience that I missed."

For her Spring 2022 presentation, Comey's working with choreographer Beth Gill ("a fellow New York artist") to create a different kind of presentation. Because of the anniversary, she and her team felt compelled to "revisit the show experience," a big part of the Rachel Comey story in the early days. It's how it started. Plus, there's the fact that New York is so central to the brand's identity.

"In New York, there are a lot of needs in our lifestyle — I love that about New York, and I love that about dressing in New York," Comey says. "You can really change up your mood and your experience very easily, by a short trip to a different building in a different outfit. I feel like that's kind of New-Yorky in the way that I relate to it. There are just so many interesting people here; being able to outfit them feels New-Yorky."

Recommended Articles

As her business nears the big 2-0, Comey has also been thinking about "what's next for us as a company and how we can be more responsible as manufacturers" – big and small, "whether that's down to the fiber or to the compost in our studio" to poly bags: "There are so many ways that everybody, in business and in practice, can improve upon." So, to both celebrate the brand's first two decades and weave in what's at top of mind as it enters its next one, the new collection will appear alongside pieces from the brand's archive, "to show a new take on them, a new way of looking at them; standing behind their relevance and their timeliness and looking at them in a new way." This starts at fashion week, and continues through a partnership with Recurate, which will allow customers to buy and sell their own old Rachel Comey pieces, right there on the brand's e-commerce site, alongside new product.

Rachel Comey has become a sort of shorthand for people with taste and intellect — the thinking person's fashion brand. Its designs have a cool sophistication, indicating that their wearer has a discerning fashion palate, maybe a subscription to New York in print. The brand's IRL sample sale, too, is legendary, an opportunity for said crowd to gather and for the aspirational to get their hands one of its cult-favorite items. 

"It's just community," Comey says of what draws people to her brand, "and, I don't know, I want to say respect for shared experiences, shared interests. We're kind of doing our own thing and involved in a lot more than just fashion. My customers have a diverse range of career paths, and we're always thinking about [that] — 'Okay, you're a writer, you're a lecturer, you're an artist, you're in the studio, you're a chef.' We really focus on thoughtful, thinking women." 

"If they work in politics, maybe they're advocates for women's health — there's such a diverse range of women that motivate me and my team and keep us thinking about them," she says. "We have so many great customers all over. I think being outside of fashion and thinking about women getting dressed and their needs for their work has been a big driving force."

This customer-first, customer-centric approach has cemented Comey's staying power as a designer. Not to say it's been a smooth upward trajectory: Comey admits she's not sure if she'd make all the same choices that got her to where she is today, "or if I would take time to work for other companies. I bet I would learn faster if I did that," she says. "I just didn't have that opportunity. I didn't go to school for fashion or anything, so I really had to dive in on my own and figure it out."

She does believe that staying true to oneself and one's vision is the best advice — "but, I mean, I was in debt for the first six years, freelancing on the side and doing all this other stuff. I try to share that as much with people, so that they don't think that you have to make it out of the gate. I also was 28 when I started my company; I already had explored a couple other different career paths by that point."

Still, this commitment to not only understanding the customer, but always striving to serve their needs and meet them where they are, have empowered Comey to follow her instinct, whether that be in terms of what fabric makes sense for a specific garment or in terms of coming back to fashion week. And clearly, that has served her well. 

"I've grown up a lot over the years. I think fashion week has changed, too. But I find it to be an opportunity," she says. "I don't show every single season — we have to go with the flow of what inherently feels right for the collection that we're working on, for the cultural mood, for how crowded the week becomes. You think, 'Let's just give some space to what other people are working on, and we'll just do something over here.' It's hard as a designer with a brand that has their name on it to be like, 'Okay, twice a year, give me all your attention.' It just seems a little gluttonous, so I think it's nice to slow down and step back sometimes... Selfishly I've really missed performance and human interaction this past year, so I think it's nice to have an opportunity to be involved in that again."

Never miss the latest fashion industry news. Sign up for the Fashionista daily newsletter.