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Five Questions With Local Designers

We asked a few questions of local fashion designers and owners of startup brands. Below, they share some of their experiences and thoughts about their trade. Here’s who they are:

You and Who
hm2 Jewelry
Savage Millinery
Nesting Doll
Only Comrades

Dan Gigante, You and Who T-Shirts

Heather Mordaunt, hm2 Jewelry

Julie Schworm, Savage Millinery hats

Kayleigh Small, Nesting Doll

Max West & Zack Boehler, Only Comrades collaborative

AV: What drew you to fashion?

Dan Gigante: I’ve always had a thing for cool T-Shirts. I was so inspired by what Blake Mycoskie, the Founder of TOMS, was doing with TOMS Shoes, and I had this realization that I could do something similar with T-Shirts—where every shirt sold has an impact in someone else’s life. I could make an impact, one shirt at a time. Clothing is something that binds all of us together—it’s a basic human need. But for those of us who are fortunate, we probably have more than we need, so in some senses it’s more of a want. I could channel that want for cool shirts into helping those in need.

Heather Mordaunt: I like being a part of “the new.” I get bored with what’s been done a millions times, but I get excited about taking familiar elements and tweaking them to create something new. My apartment is forever evolving, the same old ingredients in my fridge are paired differently, just as some rusty nuts and bolts aging in Pop’s basement will be reborn into something that hasn’t been done before, like my Hardware Series. I look at fashion and specifically my jewelry design the same way. I’m drawn to things that spark my curiosity, drive my creativity and inspire a newness that make people wonder “What is that?...I want that” simply because it’s unique.

Julie Schworm: My background as a fashion designer was originally in costume making. This required extensively researching specific eras in history to find out what was fashionable during those time periods. I was drawn to hand crafting and designing hats because truly well-made hats require extensive research and they are like pieces of art. The process is extremely artistic too, similar to the process of making a sculpture.

Kayleigh Small: I’m not sure if it was really just one thing that drew me to fashion initially. I loved color and expression from a very young age, and I think it was almost an instinct to pursue it.

Max West & Zack Boehler: We were brought to fashion from art, and have been designing clothing for two years now. Initially, the plan was to produce high quality goods at an accessible price. We focus on visual communication—the clothing delves into fashion, and aims to create ads or paintings. The apparel is an opportunity to interact. Almost like another mode of interaction.

AV: When did you start designing?

DG: I’m not a designer myself—my partner had the idea to find artists from across the country to come up with the designs for our shirts whereby when that artist’s design sells, the donation would go to helping someone back in their hometown. This gave our mission a hyper local focus, and speaks to the type of people we are—passionate about our community. There are a lot of great wholesale T-Shirt companies out there, but we wanted to make a better shirt and decided that we could increase our impact with our shirts if we made them in the USA. So, we designed our own custom pattern for our new shirts. But again, since I’m not a designer, I asked for help from a friend, Ali Eagen of anatomy, who is a local clothing designer. She helped with the pattern and now we work with great family-owned businesses in Eastern Pennsylvania to cut, sew and dye our new shirts.

HM: My first memories of designing involve legos on the living room floor in my pajamas as a young kid. Now I’m working in a studio holding a torch and building with metal and found objects—sometimes still in my pajamas. I started metalsmithing in 2002, but design has always been a part of my life and still is in many ways beyond making a piece of jewelry.

JS: An opportunity arose to apprentice a well-known milliner in New York City. I decided to move there and work alongside her so I could master the art of hat making.My apprenticeship lasted for three years and gave me the confidence to branch out on my own. I eventually moved back to Buffalo and began my company here.

KS: When I was four I learned to sew, and shortly after that I was making tube tops and wrap skirts for all of my dolls. I was more into dressing them and making clothes for them then I was with playing with them. Then around 12 I started sketching fashion in a more serious way in my Lisa Frank notebooks. I was hooked.

MW & ZB: Started designing together separately. We were simply making art before the clothing—and Max, a prolific designer, printed goods, and different forms of printed materials. Same aesthetic quality...minimal design, rock & roll, basic color pattern, anonymous, more poetic than bright colors, everyone we look up to wears black.

AV: What are some challenges designers face?

DG: I think the biggest challenge is exposure. It takes either time, money, or luck to break through. What’s particularly hard with T-Shirts is it’s a huge landscape. The competition could be someone selling $5 shirts, to free shirts given away at events, to high-end retailers selling shirts for $60 or more. You compete both with retail and even more so online—especially in Buffalo where there are probably more T-Shirt companies per capita than any other city in the world. That actually says a lot about the local style here. As a result, you have to work that much harder to get your brand noticed and to develop a loyal customer base. It’s also why our mission is so important for what we do—not just to me and to our employees, but to our customers and fan base as well.

HM: The biggest challenge I face as a designer is staying focused on the desires of my clientele while staying true to my own vision. Designers really are catering to someone else in order to make a sale so sometimes that means we have to hone down certain ideas for that perfect combination of freedom of creativity while satisfying what someone else wants.

JS: I’m still in the process of learning how to market and promote myself. I currently sell my hats on my website, and on Etsy. Locally, Wild Things carries my hats and I’ve been making appearances at The Larkin Market every other Thursday. I’ll also be at The Elmwood Village Art Festival for the first time this August.

Another challenge I face is obtaining correct measurements for custom made hats, particularly for orders that are placed online for customers who do not live in Buffalo. I must have the correct head measurements, which is done my measuring the circumference of the head directly above the eyebrows. The process is very artistic. I have to sketch a hat pattern and choose fabric in addition to selecting accessories and adornments for the final piece of hatware. I work with an array fabrics including Felt, Straw, Canvas and Wool. There are also fabrics that lines hats which are important because they absorb sweat and moisture.

KS: I think the main one is the economy right now. I know that a lot of young people just don’t have the extra cash to support young designers. It’s hard to make a living solely on your own designs—most designers I know have part time day jobs to support their design habit.

MW & ZB: Breaking through. So many people are constantly making things. The biggest question is how do we build a more personal network, and go from there. Only Comrades is a cohesive culture. We have art shows, which features ~30 artists each time, music events, parties, and other miscellaneous showcases. OC is building a developmental kind of vision.

AV: Can you describe your vision of what is stylish?

DG: In my opinion, being stylish means something different for everyone. Ultimately, being stylish is owning your look—or really, in every day terms, just being yourself unabashedly. I think You and Who allows people to express themselves, and that’s one of the things I love about our line.

HM: To me, “stylish” is the harmony of cutting edge while being put together in a way that is asthetically pleasing.

JS: Many eras of history influence the way we dress and accessorize in present day society. There are a variety of hats that are “stylish.” There’s the classic Bowler hat which originated in England in the late 1800s and is still worn today. Fedoras are currently in style and have been popularized by celebrities. I am also working on feminine head pieces which are especially popular with brides-to-be. I do believe there’s a hat for everybody out there and they’ve remained a fashion staple in both men’s and women’s wardrobes throughout history.

KS: The big thing is confidence and originality. I love style that is unique and emanates their personality—whether it’s simple, bold or anywhere in between.

MW & ZB: Top button, all black. Ultimately, the designs and artwork end up being an extension of personal expression and taste.

AV: What would be your dream job in the world of fashion?

DG: I already have my dream job. I’m leading a company that helps so many people across the country, works with so many incredibly talented artists, and carries high-quality, thoughtful products. We work with family-owned American manufacturing companies, we’ve helped thousands of people through the organizations we work with in our 40 cities, and we have a growing team at You and Who that does meaningful things while having fun in the process. And to me, there’s no better thing in the world.

HM: Would it be great to one day be a household name in the world of fashion and design and making the big bucks? Yes. I would still want to create with my hands, just have a lot more of them helping me, allowing me to share my work with a larger audience and be rewarded with more free time than I have right now. I’d hope to stay very involved in the process and experience the same passion I have now for art and design.

KS: It would definitely be to travel all over the world participating in craft and art shows selling my wares and meeting lots of other amazing designers.

MW & ZB: To build space suits. (Ha!) We’re already doing it­—our independent company’s hope is to produce on a larger scale. We’ll continue to participate in events to support local art and music, the cornerstone to what we do.

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