Kailee Heagney on Being Overly Feminine as a Form of Feminism
“I miss nothing about you,” “handle with care,” “fragile,” and “I used to care what you think about me” are just some of the phrases that appear on Kailee Heagney’s handmade garments for her brand Only Friend, unexpectedly paired with gothic fonts and handcuff prints. The surprising edginess of these melancholy words make you wonder—is vulnerability punk? The soft and sensitive side of Only Friend has an aggressive energy, a reminder that femininity has vastly different social contexts, personal meanings, and layers of clashing. But there’s also an ironic bite. Looking at an Only Friend piece is likely to have you wondering just how much of it is expressive and how much of it is inviting you to be amused. Kailee sits down with Milk to chat more about her ‘90s babydoll-esque DIY looks, as well as the inspiration for subversive femininity she finds in grunge.
Where does the name come from?
When I graduated college and moved back to my mom’s house I kind of spent a lot of time with my sewing machine, and alone, so I just came up with the name through that.
Cool, so it’s a reference to your sewing machine being like, your only friend?
Yeah. Also, it has a lot to do with myself being my only friend.
Can you tell us a little more about yourself, where you’re from, and what you were doing before you got into fashion?
So I grew up in New Jersey, and then I went to college for textiles at SCAD, Savannah College of Art and Design. I mostly did fine art work there, like a lot of tapestry work and wall pieces, and after I graduated—I guess I struggled trying to sell my fine art, so I started forming my textiles around a body and using prints on recycled clothing, and garments I got from the thrift store.
Are you still doing work in fine arts as well?
Yeah. I still make fine art pieces, like wall pieces.
Yeah, I saw your Bedroom Gallery—the wall pieces there—on the Only Friend website. Can you tell me a little more about those?
Sure. So that was for a show called “NOBODY ASKEDD MEEE IF I WAS OK” and it was devoted to my twin brother who passed away two years ago. It was sequential, so you walked in and you would read the pieces in order. It went clockwise from one end of the room to the other and it just told a story that way. Everything was text. It was all quiltwork on tapestry with text.
I wanted to ask you about the presence of text in your work. I think something that really struck me when I was looking at it were the words on the fabric, like “I miss nothing about you.” Where do these phrases come from?
I try and keep it pretty tongue and cheek, and also pretty universally relatable, so a lot of it I just think about if I were talking to somebody and what I would say. And then other text comes from songs. Like I’m really inspired by pretty much anything by Alanis Morissette, or Natalie Merchant…I love Jewel…and like, other female artists.
Who are some other female artists, or artists in general who inspire you?
Within the industry, I’m obsessed with Mimi Wade and Meadham Kirchhoff…I love Vivian Westwood, so that’s kind of where the whole DIY punk idea comes from, and so the aesthetic of Only Friend. And other artists—I love Janine Antoni, she’s a fibers artist, she does a lot of poetic feminist work, and as for musicians—I love Bjork, I love The Slits, and again, female singers like Fiona Apple, Lily Allen.
For your 2017 Lookbook, I noticed that the video was set to music by Veruca Salt.
Yeah, I love Veruca Salt. I love all of their music. It’s definitely a band I listen to.
Can you tell me a little more about the grunge aesthetic in your garments?
I think just being able to customize clothes using weird materials. A lot of it is because I don’t really have the funds, so I kind of have to make with what I have. So I use old materials, and that in itself is pretty grunge. I love the idea of DIY punk. When I was growing up I had this book on T-shirt making, so that was all very punk, like used materials you find in your home, hand-stitched, stuff like that. I kind of grew up with that book, learning how to make different tops that way.
What appeals to you about the grunge look?
I think just the ability to draw a lot of inspiration through grunge, but with it you can also make it your own—like you don’t have to follow any rules.
You talked a little bit before about feminist artists. Are feminism and social marginalization ideas that influence your work?
I think it does intuitively. Not necessarily on purpose, but—I think about the whole grunge era vibe as attacking femininity with femininity, so being overtly feminine is kind of feminist, at least showing that through Only Friend, and through fashion.
I think that there’s like, a lot of anger to be shown through fashion, or at least like the value of anger to be shown through fashion, and I think in our current political climate, it’s important to be contemporary, and that is like a huge contemporary issue that we’re facing now.
Anger, and femininity?
Can you talk about an example in your work that uses femininity?
Sure. I make a lot of the pieces fitted so there’s darts along the waistline, or I’m really attracted to ribbons and bows and flowers. I have a piece that I just completed—I’ve shown a couple of images of it, but it’s for an upcoming show. It’s like this early 2000s prom dress that started off awful, and I just began adding keychains and roses and teacups and beads and, these girly, almost niche novelty items.
That’s really interesting. Especially with the contrast of the barbed wire graphics.
Mhm. Yeah. I also like violence, but mostly the idea of it, not really. Just insinuating that I can be soft but also hardcore.
Yeah, I definitely get that. Do you have any other favorite materials to work with?
I love lace. Other materials I love to work with—I love yarn, knitting, and crochet. I make my own yarn out of fabric strips. I haven’t been doing it this year as much as I used to, but if you look at my older work, there’s a lot of knitting and crocheting in it.
What is that process like? How long does it take you to make your own yarn?
[Laughs] It’s pretty therapeutic. Some days it’s kind of torturous, and I wish I had an intern to do that kind of stuff, but other days I think it’s pretty important to do the therapeutic work without having to think about what goes where. So, I usually just rip the fabric in strips, and I have to sew with my machine each strip together, and then I roll it up in a ball of yarn and then I’m pretty much unwinding it as I’m crocheting it, so it’s kind of—sometimes it’s frustrating, but it makes the entire piece more my own rather than buying some yarn.
Going back to working with lace—what gave you the idea to pair lace with t-shirt material?
I think it’s mostly a motive to make lace more wearable in everyday life.
Can you tell me a little bit about your studio, and like what a normal day in the studio is like for you?
Sure. So I work part-time in the morning in an office for an architect, so all my studio work happens in the afternoon through the evening, unless I’m waking up super early and getting some work in before, but usually it just begins with a project I know I’m already working on. If I’m not working on a project, I kind of search for one to start within my own closet. So I take a piece that I love that I haven’t worn. I like to start by putting a print on it, or cutting, and then usually it goes on to my dress form and I decide whether or not trim should be added or…a lot of the time I decide I just want to keep the piece for myself, and then send it off to a friend. So, usually I decide what goes where through like using myself as a fit model and what I would want to wear technically.
I wanted to ask you about your video work, since you shoot your own video lookbooks. How does your cinematography style inform your work as a designer?
I almost like to think of it as like—an image with blackness, an image with blackness, and then all of a sudden, the image doesn’t coincide with the previous image.
That’s really cool. I really like the glitchy, almost like vaporwave aesthetic of it.
Thank you. Yeah, I used to make videos in fine art like not incorporating my own garments, so that was the first video I made with my own work, with my own footage. I have a lot of experience editing, it was just the footage, and the filming that was my first project.
So are you working on a fall lookbook right now? Or what’s next for you?
So right now, I have a show coming up. It’s called “Spill the Tea”. It’s pretty much just like, kind of pop-punk inspired grunge tea party. I don’t know if you grew up watching Gossip Girl, but there’s an episode where Taylor Momsen decides she’s going to debut her fashion show, and she crashes the party and does it that way, so all the models are walking on tables and it’s really messy and controversial through the episode. So the aesthetic of my show is going to be very girly, but like interrupted.
That’s cool, I did watch that show, I really liked it. [Laughs] So what else is next for you? What can we expect to see in the fall?
I’m gonna start making cut and sew projects that can be recreated, and I’m just trying to build my brand slowly, because I don’t feel like I’m truly ready to debut myself to the fashion world, so I’m kind of trying to remain underground for a while and work on my techniques.
Are you mostly available online now, or do you have stuff in stores?
Yeah. I’m available online and there’s a local consignment store that I sell in called Pearl Street, and I have a rack of clothing and I do custom work through that store, and then I sell in Cixous 72, which is a shop in Brooklyn.
Most of my sales do come from the internet though.
Who’s your audience, or who do you imagine looking at your clothes and your Instagram page?
Mostly my friends. I try to think about my friends. And then I also have dream customers. Like, I’m obsessed with Courtney Love, I love Alice Glass.
Oh my gosh, I was actually going to mention Courtney Love, because your Bedroom Gallery reminded me of the video she did for—what is that song—“Doll Parts.”
Oh yeah! Actually, my friends just went to go see her like two weeks ago. I wasn’t able to make it, but it was really exciting.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
One thing I did want to mention was just like, a lot of the time, ever since I was a child, and I’m 25 now, so—all I wanted to do was be a designer, make dresses, make clothes for people, but sometimes I dream of doing something totally different or finding a completely different career, but I find myself coming back to this, because it’s what I know best.
Images courtesy of Kailee Heagney
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