In The Studio With Of Her Own Kind: Sustainability With a Feminine Touch
Life has a funny way of pulling us in different directions, and perhaps no one is more familiar with the adage than Of Her Own Kind founder Kathryn Alex. The New York-based clothing designer studied International Relations as an undergraduate and worked as a business professional, and it wasn’t until she spent time volunteering in India that her passion for creating was reignited.
Following her enlightening trip abroad, Alex went back to school to pursue a MFA in Fashion Design and immediately began honing her skills in construction and luxury design with prominent fashion designer, Prabal Gurung. It was only a few years later that Alex would take a leap of faith and independently launch her own ready-to-wear clothing line, Of Her Own Kind.
Founded in 2016, Of Her Own Kind was created to encourage women to embrace their strengths, passions, and individuality. The elevated and empowering ready-to-wear sportswear line blends oversized silhouettes with romantic details that celebrates the strength and beauty of femininity. Alex is also firmly committed to producing her collections locally in New York City’s Garment District—preserving a decades-old industry that is quickly disappearing to the overseas manufacturing of fast fashion.
We recently caught up with Alex in studio after she returned from her trip abroad where she showed her Fall Winter 2018 collection at the MAN/WOMAN show during Paris Fashion Week. Below, we learn more about the inspiration behind her three collections, her thoughts on sustainable fashion, and what’s next for the emerging designer and Of Her Own Kind.
How long have you been designing clothes? What inspired you to pursue a career as a fashion designer?
I have always loved fashion and have been designing clothes for myself as long as I can remember—cutting up my mother’s vintage t-shirts from the 70s and reworking my grandmother’s saris. I was lucky to be growing up when Alexander McQueen and John Galliano were at their height and staging shows of complete fantasy. I fell in love with the idea of creating worlds through reworking discarded elements of the past, dusting it off and making it new again. To me fashion is this amazing visual language that allows people to express who they are as individuals and show the path they’ve traveled.
Your brand is about supporting women to walk their own path and be strong individuals—how has your own journey reflected this mission?
My path has been far from straight and narrow and this journey has played a huge role in my mission to support women taking the path less traveled and encouraging them to be themselves, to be the heroine of their own lives. My life #ofherownkind goes back to my childhood and being the product of two very different cultures; my mother immigrated from Sri Lanka and my father grew up in rural Maine, so I understood from a very early age how diversity can coexist to create something new and wonderful. My two grandmothers have played a huge role of inspiration in my life—on one side I was surrounded with these rich, colorful saris and the other with beautiful Victorian heirlooms in a white farmhouse from the 1800s. As I grew up I continued to choose the path less traveled. I quit a very secure job to volunteer in India and travel throughout Asia on my own where I realized I wanted to create for a living, made the decision to go back to design school and get my MFA in fashion design, and finally to take the leap and start my own line.
My mother immigrated from Sri Lanka and my father grew up in rural Maine, so I understood from a very early age how diversity can coexist to create something new and wonderful.
On the subject of design, Of Her Own Kind’s current and past collections blend romantic florals with an elevated sportswear vibe—a bit of a dichotomy yet somehow you make these ideas work beautifully together. Can you tell us more about this connection and what has inspired these collections?
Thank you! The sportswear influence comes from exploring the idea of women taking up more space in an actual, physical sense as well as the influence of the city of New York. New York has always had an attitude, a swagger—an imbued confidence that I want my woman to feel when she puts on a piece of OHOK clothing. Being a woman has so many layers, many which contradict each other—very few women are completely tough and hard so the florals represent a softer, more romantic spirit. I think part of a women’s journey, and beyond that every person’s journey, is exploring the tension and balance between these two sides.
There are also classic literary references that weave throughout your brand’s Instagram feed but also in your Fall Winter 2018 lookbook. It’s poetic and lovely! Do you have a favorite writer or book that has inspired your work?
I love books and get a lot of my initial inspiration from literature—every collection is about conveying an emotion and a feeling which to me can be found as much in a beautifully crafted sentence as an image. My favorites are sweeping Victorian epics like George Eliot’s Middlemarch and of course anything by the Brontes. FW18 was inspired by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar—however instead of being suffocated by the bell jar, my woman breaks through it to become the main actor of her own life. Sylvia Plath grappled with a lot of conflicts that are still relevant today—the tension between being a poet and a mother, the infidelity of her husband, and proving herself to the male-dominated publishing world. My hope is that eventually these conflicts become less and less common as women continue to come into their own.
Being a woman has so many layers, many which contradict each other—very few women are completely tough and hard so the florals represent a softer, more romantic spirit.
Before you launched Of Her Own Kind, you worked with Prabal Gurung for a few years. What was it like designing for his brand?
Working with Prabal was such an amazing experience for learning about the craft of beautiful clothing—everything is made in the New York garment district and so much attention is put into making the inside of the clothes look as beautiful as the outside. I really fell in love with working in this personal way and being able to communicate directly with the person who is sewing my garments. Many factories in New York treat making clothes as a craft and take great pride in their work—having them share their extensive knowledge with me helps make me a better designer.
So at what point in your career did you feel confident enough to launch your own ready-to-wear clothing line? Has it always been a goal?
It has been something I have wanted to do for a long time. I don’t think you’re ever really completely ready but I am a huge believer in taking risks and seeking challenge for the sake of growth and passion. Life is an adventure.
Let’s talk about production. New York City’s Garment District is historically known as the center of textile manufacturing, but over the last 50 years that has changed. Domestic designers are outsourcing clothes manufacturing to lower cost foreign markets yet you’ve made a conscious decision to support the industry here. Can you explain why it’s important for you to make your clothes locally?
Slow fashion is a big part of the brand and making clothes locally is actually a huge way to produce clothes more sustainably—shipping clothes back and forth during development and production creates a massive carbon footprint. Larger brands can actually have their fabric cut in one country then shipped to be sewn in another!
Producing in New York also means supporting a local industry that is in danger of becoming extinct—many of the factories here are family-owned and have been run by multiple generations. It’s heartbreaking to have to see them reduce their space and struggle to make ends meet due to brands moving offshore. It does mean our garment prices are higher than if we produced abroad, but I am really committed to creating fewer, high-quality pieces. I think more and more people don’t want to simply consume but want to bring things into their lives that are meaningful and have a mission they believe in.
I think more and more people don’t want to simply consume but want to bring things into their lives that are meaningful and have a mission they believe in.
On the topic of consumption and sustainability, it has been reported that the apparel industry is one of the largest industrial producers of waste—the second largest next to oil according to the Danish Fashion Institute. What are your feelings on that and what do you think the industry needs to do to clean up their act and make fashion more friendly to the environment?
Fast fashion has created an environment where clothes are treated as disposable and much of the craft of clothing has been lost—a scenario where everyone loses: the environment, the underpaid workers, the young designers who get their designs ripped off. Fast fashion will always exist in some form, but I think more and more smaller, independent brands are showing there’s an alternative way to make and consume clothing. I think it’s about fewer, smaller, more thoughtful collections and less low-quality product.
On that note, where do you see Of Her Own Kind headed in the future? Any goals for the brand?
I am currently working on expanding the social mission of the brand—in addition to creating less waste I believe the products we buy should also help give back to make the world a better place. There are many ways to do this so we are still working on what feels right to us and the overall brand, but it’s always been a goal of mine from the beginning to connect my previous social work abroad to the visual, aesthetic work I do now, bringing everything full circle.
Images courtesy of Lanna Apisukh
Stay tuned to Milk for more slow fashion.