Shelly Steffee may not be a household name, but among fashion cognoscenti she (and her designs) are held in the highest regard. Considered by many to be a designer’s designer (one who is more likely to be found in her mad scientist lab experimenting with latex and silicone fabrics than vamping for Patrick McMullan Company at the Boom Boom Room), Steffee has been working in the New York fashion industry for more than 20 years and has helmed her own label for the past decade, which can be found at her gorgeous, loft-like store in the Meatpacking District.
Dossier contributor Lauren David Peden has been following—and collecting—Steffee’s work for several years and recently sat down with the designer in her fourth floor workroom overlooking Pastis to discuss food, style, architecture and creative collaboration, all of which play a major part in Steffee’s approach to life and work.
Lauren David Peden: Why did you want to become a designer?
Shelly Steffee: Well, my maternal grandmother was a tailor and my paternal grandmother was a clotheshorse [who] altered her clothes a lot to fit her petite frame. That was my first introduction to a stylist format, because she really did style from top to bottom. You know: hats, gloves, muffs, shoes, belts. I also have her mother’s sewing machine—which is 200 years old now—in the basement. My maternal grandmother was an actual tailor. [She] had a room in her house and I spent a lot of time there. So my grandmothers influenced me; all the women in the family paid acute attention to details and grooming. Skin products, nails, hair, rings, jewelry—the whole thing.
Lauren: Where in Pennsylvania are you from?
Shelly: Northwest, in between Eerie and Pittsburgh.
Lauren: Was this common in the area or not?
Shelly: I don’t think so. I think it’s just part of the family. We broke out of the rural areas and went to Pittsburgh to plays. I grew up in restaurants. My parents owned restaurants. So I think I would have to say that they were progressive and forward for country people and then they were entrepreneurs as well.
Lauren: At what point did you decide you wanted a fashion career?
Shelly: I guess that I knew it all along, but in ninth grade my parents enrolled me in Barbizon School of Modeling. It was a company in Jamestown, New York.
Lauren: I remember their slogan: “Be a model or just look like one.”
Shelly: Exactly. It wasn’t like I was a model, but a portion of the education program was makeup artistry, show production and styling. They put you in all of it. Basically, you’re the model. You learn to do your own makeup, you choose your own three outfits to go down the runway and you produce your own show. You had to do everything; it wasn’t just about looks. I really did it to learn other aspects of the industry that I wanted to be in.
Lauren: And then you went to Drexel.
Shelly: I chose Drexel because a New York fashion school was strictly fashion design and I really felt that I wanted a well-rounded education. Drexel was a university that had five colleges within it. So I got a BA in fashion and a minor in psychology. I really liked the idea of spreading out. The other reason I chose it was [because] it was a co-op school. A co-op is a work experience in your field of study.
Lauren: Like an internship?
Shelly: Exactly, but you got paid. It was real work. You got off school for it. My first co-op job was in Philadelphia on Lancaster Avenue, where I was sewing 40 jackets a day. We did all the sportswear: boxing, crew, jogging; anything that was sport related. I would sit down and that day I might be the zipper setter or the collar setter, the sleeve setter, the body finisher.You moved around to all stations. Then my next program was working for a belt company in New York called Raymon Ridless. They did small leather goods, and basically I sketched design sheets, mocked-up belts. Then I came back to finish school. I won a lot of awards through my senior year. They started something in Philadelphia called Philadelphia Dresses the World. So my clothes were featured in the Bonwit Teller window.
Lauren: When you were how old?
Shelly: I was 22. I had one dress that they featured in the window when I was a sophomore, and then my senior collection I sold off to a lot of wealthy patrons.
Lauren: What was your aesthetic then versus now?
Shelly: Huge shoulder pads. That’s all I remember (laughs). It was definitely a point of view—minimal, architectural, geometric. That was also the ’80s. At that time my icons were Mugler and Norma Kamali.
Lauren: How did you get your first job in New York out of school?
Shelly: I graduated in ’87 and came up to look for a job, and basically there were two types of jobs: You could work at Geoffrey Beene for $13,000 dollars a year or work with a company that could pay you, and I didn’t have any way to survive. I didn’t think it was wise for me to try to waitress and take a low-paying design job. So I ended up landing a job at Liz Claiborne. The pay was better and I felt that maybe I could learn some business things—because I felt that my aesthetic was my aesthetic. So at Liz Claiborne I started as an assistant designer and I was there for three years. I was promoted each year and ended up being an associate designer. Then from there I went to Tahari, where I worked for about two years as a designer in the sportswear division. From there I was hired at Anne Klein II, where I remained for six years. I left in ’97 and went to Brooks Brothers as the women’s design director and I was there until the end of ’98.
Lauren: I know you launched your own line in 1999. Why did you decide to do the line then?
Shelly: I started it because I felt that I had something to say and I saw an opening in the market. I had worked for a lot of bridge companies and bridge was ending, contemporary was not quite what it is today. That was a real niche I felt I could fill—a collection with a designer sensibility at an accessible price point and a conscious fit to an American body. You know, ages 25 to 45.
Lauren: Many designers have a line for a while before they open a store. You opened a store in the Meatpacking District pretty much right away, in 2001. Why was that important to you?
The Shelly Steffee boutique in New York’s Meatpacking District
Shelly: It was always a life dream to have my own boutique in New York City. I mean, I wrote myself a letter when I was in 12th grade, which my mother [recently] sent to me, and that had always been my dream. I wanted to do something beyond clothing and this was a way to showcase that and my interest in the arts and design in general. That’s why I started [the store]. Because my collection is pretty clean, minimal and subtle, and I felt that if I was gonna spend money—instead of spending it on having a couple of fashion shows—why not invest in a store that could be a long-term conversation with the outside world via editors and clientele. They would get an ongoing sense of the image and DNA of the brand. I felt that was the right vehicle for me to communicate my brand in the best way that I could.
Lauren: How did you hook up with [architect] Stephan Jaklitsch [who also designs all the Marc Jacobs stores]?
Shelly: A girl that I worked with at Liz Claiborne ended up becoming the head of Marc by Marc Jacobs. I was looking for architects and calling all my friends, and that’s how we met.
Lauren: What did you like about him?
Shelly: I felt that he was still young and willing to collaborate. I was very definite on what I wanted, because I had been collecting and making an architectural inspiration board and I had kind of been watching this neighborhood and knew what I needed. Because I was inexperienced in retail, I needed a space that could serve as a runway venue, a showroom for wholesale, an ongoing retail store and—possibly if that didn’t work—I had to make it an event space to rent out. I didn’t know how successful [I’d be] or what was going to happen, so I had to have a flexible space. I really wanted someone that could understand that. He had a clean aesthetic and we got along really well.
Lauren: What was the mood you were going for?
Shelly: You know, I had been traveling a lot and I felt at that time that everything was getting too cold in the retail environment. Everybody was kind of into the [minimalist aesthetic] of the Calvin Klein store. Everything was like that. And it started to feel very much the same; even though it was high-end and very refined, it was almost very cold, very separated, very disconnected. I wanted to have an environment that was attacking the five senses. Since I was new at this, I also wanted something that could be flexible and communicate different things to the person. Because I knew I wanted to do art exhibitions and other things, I needed the space to be timeless, yet have a point of difference from all the other stores that were out there. I just knew that I wanted things to be a lot more intimate. I wanted a salon feeling.
Lauren: Tell me more about the artistic collaborations.
Shelly: Every time I design a collection, there’s an inspiration from somewhere. It can be from the street, an architecture book…anywhere. I want to put an exhibition in the store that is linked to the collection at that time. So there are those types of collaborations.
Lauren: Can you give me an example?
Shelly: I did one spring collection that was based around the portrait artist Fernand Khnopff; he’s Belgian. He seemed to capture a woman that I felt directly spoke to me and that I was trying to speak to. They were very modern, very deep women. And he seemed to somehow capture something in their eyes or in their face that told a whole story. They really had a soul and a real story. Good, bad, indifferent or ugly, it was all there and he captured it. I knew once I was doing that collection that I wanted to bring in three different portrait artists for each month I was delivering the collection. So that’s what I did. One person I brought in was a painter (Sydney Albertini), one was a photographer (Maura Sulivan) and one was an illustrator (Zayne Armstrong).
Then there are the other collaborations, which are things like hosting the ICFF—the International Contemporary Furniture Fair—and the Food Festival. The ICFF I did with Stephan, ’cause the theme of that particular design week last year was all about architecture. So I thought it might be great on my ten-year anniversary to celebrate both Stephan and I, revisit what we built together and go one beyond. The new thing I felt was happening with architecture was about the outside coming in through the use of glass, or the garden might be right off the cement or on the roof. So I asked him to think about something that was inside out and he came up with this thing called inversion. From there it developed into the camera obscura. That was a really kind of intimate collaboration. With the Food Festival, I am a foodie and I really had been a supporter of being local—considering that I’ve stayed local as an independent designer all of these years.
Last year’s camera obscura installation
Lauren: Is your line produced here?
Shelly: It’s all produced here in New York. As local as upstairs and in the Garment District. So when I got the chance to do the Food Festival, I thought it might be nice to showcase this whole green, local approach in the state of New York. I went with three chefs that are local, including the chef from Diner in Brooklyn. It was really amazing ’cause I felt that the approach, thoughtfulness and consideration that these people approach their jobs with, they’re aligned with the way that I operate and the way that I think and the way I would hopefully like to approach life.
The important thing is why I collaborate in general. It’s the old thing: Two heads are better than one. If you’re gonna do what you love, the best thing is to work with other passionate people who do what they love and hopefully you’ll enhance each other’s skill, craft and whatever you wanna call it…artistry or creativeness, let’s say that. I consider that one of the best parts of having my own business—the collaborative work that I do.
Lauren: And in terms of your actual design work…
Shelly: I feel like the best thing as a designer is evolution. You hope to keep getting better, and I feel that I have gotten better. I really try to approach it in an old-fashioned way because I love the process. I try not to be geared solely by money. In my own company I have a little liberty to do that.
Lauren: What is it about the process you like so much?
Shelly: Conceptualizing it. I like trying to test the concepts I’ve come up with and letting them evolve into something, or not. There’s something about that that’s really rewarding, being creative.
Lauren: Can you give me an example?
Shelly: I guess the recent one we’ve been working a lot with is silicone and latexing. Obviously there are a lot of things that come into play with that: How does it stay on the garment? Is it toxic? It’s on shoulders, belts. We’ve been trying this since the Zaha Hadid collection in 2007. I was really inspired by her because a lot of her works are these kinds of model materials. So for us, I was thinking it would be really great if we could translate that into clothing somehow—anything from caulking to siliconing, latexing. It finally came to fruition in fall 2009 with the equestrian collection. We started putting small parts on garments that gave [them] “wear spots” like an old leather chair. So it’s really about starting and trying it on different fabrics, and then when you finally get it to work it’s really rewarding.
From left: The FW07 Zaha Hadid collection; the FW09 equestrian collection
Lauren: Is there a unifying thread among your collections?
Shelly: They’re built from the inside out. Industrial. Things that are functional and modern, [like] architecture, because you’re really worrying about the inside and the infrastructure. You want the garment to stay and last. I like things that are timeless. There’s also always a touch of eccentricity and darkness. It’s about enhancing the individual and trying to break down the avant-garde to a more digestible form.
Lauren: I know your spring 2010 collection was inspired by the architecture of fish. How did that come about?
Shelly: My husband and I were on vacation in Berlin and we happened to see an exhibit about the architecture of fish that just spoke to me. I think after coming off spring ’09, it was all about going back to foundations, literally the bra and the panty and building up, wardrobing again. The architecture of fish, along with the ethnic movement, felt like the next progression. Basically, I think that in fashion right now there is a cleansing and rebuilding. I think it’s more important than ever that you strike the right chord between the right silhouette, the right color and the right fabric. It’s kind of separating the boys from the men as far as designers out there. It’s coming back to craft and showing a design muscle. I think all of that was kind of in the hour, and I felt that the architecture of the fish was so complicated, yet so simple.
Lauren: So what’s on tap for fall 2010?
Shelly: I’m still addressing this foundation and still feeling strongly about going back to key items. [The idea of] wardrobing keeps coming up. It’s about a clean start. It’s back to basics, my roots. It was more focused, more intentional.
Lauren: Is that a reaction to the economy?
Shelly: It is. The economy and getting back to what I feel strongly about, what I do—back to the tailoring, color and the right items.
Lauren David Peden is the New York Correspondent for Vogue.co.uk and editor of The Fashion Informer. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, Surface, Time Out, Plastique and many other publications.