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Rachel Comey '94

Fashion designer

Rachel Comey
Rachel Comey (front, sunglasses) walks the runway at one of her shows

Getting axed from her first big design job at the fashion label Theory had an unforeseen benefit for Rachel Comey career — an unemployment check. That gave Comey enough money to get by and enough time to dig deeper into design and launch her own fashion line. Ten years later Comey’s small label not only still exists, a miracle in the fashion business, but thrives. She’s become known for non-trendy designs in eye-catching prints that make for a hip librarian look. Her clothes are sported by the likes of Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal and carried by more than one hundred stores, including Barney’s New York.

Most fashion designers of Comey’s rank have wanted to be such practically since they were in onesies. For Comey, though, it was a slow evolution, one that started at UVM, where she majored in Asian Studies, studied sculpture under Professor Kathleen Schneider ’79, and scoured the city’s second-hand shops for bits of worn inspiration.

Comey, however, did not make much of an impression on her professor at first, if only because she was so quiet, “not one of the cool kids,” as Schneider says. Then Comey turned in her first assignment in Schneider’s sculpture class using found objects, a mirror framed by feather pillows.

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“It just surprised me so much, this radical use of soft pillows,” Schneider says. “From that point on it was clear that she was a more visionary student than others.”

When Comey landed in New York in 1997, she worked as a production assistant, chauffering models to shoots and fetching props. She and her then boyfriend rented an apartment on the Lower East Side for $400 a month. “We had to pay in cash, that kind of place,” she says. Comey kept making sculpture as well as props and costumes for her boyfriend’s band. She had yet to set her sights on fashion. “It took a few years for me to get interested, to not see it as being frivolous,” she says.

The band costumes inspired requests for other one-of-a-kind garments, which eventually led to the job at Theory. After Theory, with her unemployment checks in hand, it took Comey, who juggled credit cards to finance her company, six years to turn a profit. “I never realized it would take that long,” she admits.

Around her hang samples of each of her collections from the past ten years. There isn’t a sculpture in sight. Comey kept none of them, just some prints from her student days, and hasn’t made one since she launched her label. She doesn’t miss it. Making sculptures isn’t that different from making garments, she says, and those she has racks and racks of, and racks more to make.