The Accidental Designer
- By Amy Sutherland
While Rachel Comey ’94 worked at her first big design job at the fashion label Theory, she moonlighted on her own small line of men’s button-down shirts, not thinking to inform her boss of the sideline. But when Time Out New York sent a photographer to a small show then ran a large photo in the next issue, word was out.
Her boss took one look at the magazine and fired Comey. “He said, ‘Why didn’t you come to me?’” she remembers. “I found out later that he really liked to help young designers get started.”
Still, getting axed had an unforeseen benefit for her 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 in Burlington, where she studied sculpture at UVM and scoured the city’s second-hand shops for bits of worn inspiration.
Comey grew up in suburban Hartford, Connecticut, but her clan often headed north to Ludlow, Vermont, for vacation. The family spent so much time there that when Comey cast about for colleges, UVM seemed a natural pick. “It felt like my state university,” she says.
At UVM, she majored in Asian studies but her real love was art. She studied printmaking with now retired Professor Bill Davison and sculpture with his wife, Professor Kathleen Schneider ’79. Both teachers, Comey says, were formative influences — from teaching her the mechanics of how to make things to shaping her nascent artistic sensibility.
Comey, however, did not make much of an impression on either 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.
“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.”
After graduating, Comey spent a few years in and around Burlington. She waited tables in a granny skirt and then landed a job at Jager Di Paola Kemp Design, first as a receptionist and then as the first director of the advertising/marketing firm’s Exquisite Corpse Gallery.
Comey continued to make sculpture during those years, but increasingly thought beyond the studio. She designed a line of novelty underwear. She created costumes and stage props for then-boyfriend Eugene Hutz of the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello.
“With sculpture you are alone in a studio,” she says. “I wanted to be more involved with industry.”
On a spring afternoon in her New York studio, Comey pulls her chair up to a folding table, her desk in a sea of open cardboard boxes and tangled piles of her signature wooden-heeled shoes. As reggae music bounces along, her staff quietly peer at computers or sort fabric samples in the same, light-filled space. A wail from the back of the room breaks the quiet concentration.
“I better go back and get that baby,” Comey says.
Though it might not appear so in the studio’s relative calm, the past year has been busier than usual for the fashion designer. Bruno (that baby) was born in fall 2010, Comey’s and her boyfriend Sean Carmody’s first. “I thought I did twenty things at once before,” Comey says of being a working mom. “Now it’s double time.”
Then in December she moved her crew from their longtime, cave-like Tribeca digs to a space three-times bigger (and with amenities like a bathroom) on an especially busy stretch of South Broadway in NoHo. Little more than a month after the move came New York’s fall fashion week. No wonder Comey and her staff have yet to even decide where their desks, when they get them, will go.
Comey has a petite beauty, somewhat like the French actress Audrey Tautou, contrasted by a broad smile and a hearty laugh. Her face is wrought of strong lines, pointed chin and dark eyebrows. Her manner is down-to-earth for a business and city that is anything but. “My friends in New York say they think of me as a Vermont person though I’ve been here fifteen years,” she says.
When Comey landed here in 1997, she worked as a production assistant, chauffering models to shoots and fetching props. She and Hutz 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 Hutz’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.
Her costumes for Hutz drew requests for other one-of-a-kind garments, which eventually led to the job at Theory. After Theory, with her unemployment checks in hand, Comey stuck with menswear for her first few collections. Then, after learning women were buying her men’s shirts in extra-small sizes, Comey added women’s wear and her down-to-earth shoes. Still, 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.
Early on Comey got tagged a hipster favorite, with live music at her shows and her vaguely vintage frocks with a contemporary twist that anyone could wear, and it has stuck. Throughout her collections, there’s an ease in her clothes, in the boxy yet loose shapes, that would flatter the average woman.
“My design comes from a very pragmatic view rather than from a red carpet glamour place,” she says.
Balancing the business side and her creative work doesn’t seem to faze Comey. She loves working with manufacturers, pushing them to make unusual fabrics, such as printing a cable knit sweater pattern on a delicate chiffon or hand painting on a cotton. The designer finds inspiration in the world around her, at bookstores or flea markets, but fabrics are her creative building blocks. Only once she’s decided on them, which are all custom made, does she start designing the garments. Just as when she made sculpture, materials remain all important to her.
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.
This story originally appeared in the fall issue of Vermont Quarterly magazine. To read the entire issue online: uvm.edu/vq.