Meet New York’s Next Jean Queen, Claire McKinney
Move over Levi’s: there’s a new young designer in town. Fresh off the graduation boat, Claire McKinney has landed onto the denim landscape to bring you the jeans of your dreams. Having graduated from Pratt’s fashion program this past May, Claire is already making waves in the industry for her reworking of traditional heritage and industry-standard workwear. With a coveted position as assistant designer to downtown staple Creatures of Comfort and a presentation at the Ralph Pucci showroom this past Fashion Week, Claire has big things on the horizon. As an Oregon native, Claire’s senior thesis collection has been influenced by the classic tropes of Americana with an ultimately modern update and a fresh sensibility that’s altogether functional and wearable.
Claire’s collection uses the power of denim as a democratic material to explore gender-neutral dressing in fashion. Both concepts seem to be having a moment in the spotlight. Recent style trends are witnessing a resurgence in the fabric, and there’s a major media conversation that’s shifting towards a more open attitude of gender fluidity, and the breaking down of traditional gender norms. The Claire McKinney collection transcends beyond fashion archetypes, leaving room for its wearer to create their own notions of gender, sex, and style. We sat down with Claire to talk growing up in Oregon, Home Depot, and how we both suck at knowing about pop culture.
Tell me about your collection and how you got started.
The collection was based off of a reinterpretation of workwear. I’ve always been drawn to uniforms, pieces of workwear that are out of denim–those pieces of textile that are really hearty and wearable, and putting them into a more conceptual mindspace. I did a lot of denim processing. We spent a year on one collection at Pratt on our senior year, and we’re all very sick of our collections at the end.
How’s working at Creatures of Comfort?
It’s good! I’m learning a lot. We’re super small; it’s just me and Jade who is the Creative Director. We work on designs in a studio on Centre Street, which is just around the corner of the store, and it’s been really fun! I work with a couple of pattern makers and a seamstress who are in house.
When do you have time to work on your own stuff?
Like, weekends. Maybe I need to stop sleeping. I’m also just running off of a year of no sleep though. I’m still recovering.
Wow. Do you go back to Portland?
Yeah, I was back for a month and a half this summer, which was so nice. The summer’s really nice there. Have you been?
Funny story! When I was in 5th grade I had to do a state history project and my state was Oregon, and I felt really cool because I was the only one that had the closest state. So then I made my parents go on a road trip to Oregon, and it was really cool. I loved it.
That’s awesome. You were just like “I’m gonna go kill this project.”
I had photographic evidence!
[Laughs] Yeah, I really love it there. Some of my friends are moving there from Pratt, because it’s so much cheaper.
Is Oregon the next Williamsburg?
It’s blowing up. They say it’s like a housing crisis. There are so many people that are moving there, and so many people from California. If you go to a bar there, everyone’s from California. People are complaining about it, but it’s good for the city.
Do you like living in New York versus Portland?
I do. I love being in New York at this time.
It’s a big adjustment though. I don’t really know what the fashion scene is like in Oregon—
There is one. It’s super small; I feel like I know everyone in it already. I feel like my dream would be this awesome balance of back and forth. Because nothing is worse than summers here—
Winters here! Are you kidding?
I don’t know. I can kind of deal with the summer. It’s kind of perfect, because I love the summer in Oregon but I hate the rest of the year in Oregon. It depresses me.
Did you style the collection yourself?
We do all the styling ourselves. I think that could be really interesting to bring into a school setting. We were all thinking, how cool would it be to have a stylist come in and be like, “what if you tried this with this?” The whole process over the year is planning through looks. You’re not really doing pieces, but how do you see a model walking down the runway in it? That kind of gets stuck into your head. A lot of the time you spend a lot of the time working on one piece and less on others. You have your real showpieces, and your more basic layering pieces.
How does your collection translate into the actual photos — the editorial slant?
When it came down to the Pratt fashion show, from the beginning they’re like how many looks do you have? There’s not a lot of wiggle room there. When you’re shooting it yourself, you can do whatever you want. You can pick which friends to put it on. For me, the editorial process came from me wanting to document the progress I’ve made throughout the year. Some of the photos I took halfway through the year ended up being the ones I love the most now. Even the most rigid photoshoots don’t always produce the photos you want. I keep going back to these old grainy photos. It’s been fun to rescan through the photos I’ve taken and see which ones I’m still drawn to.
Do you have a uniform?
I actually wear a lot of pieces of actual uniform. I’m wearing Pratt security guard pants I found at Salvation Army. I like wearing a lot of literal uniform pieces. My daily uniform is a favorite pair of black cutoff denim jeans. I found my uniform was head-to-toe denim while working on the collection. It’s just the most comfortable thing for me. It became a real uniform throughout the year.
Is there a favorite uniform in general?
I love guys in garage suits. A bunch of my family lives in the middle of nowhere in Oregon. They all own auto body shops, and they literally wear coveralls everyday covered in grease.
Do you have a favorite fashion moment in denim or workwear?
One big discovery for me was that I love going to Home Depot. I don’t build furniture, I don’t have a need to go there, but I find it this really interesting place for objects and things. I found this little drummel kit–which is an electric spinning sand wheel–and I ended up using it for a lot of the denim I did like two years ago, and sanding stripes into the denim because I had spent so much time trying to do these distressing techniques and having this power tool do it for you is really fun. Everyone is looking at you like, ‘what the hell are you doing?’
I feel like some of those brands should just stick to what they know. Levi’s makes incredible jeans and always will, but their other clothes always just seem so unnecessary to me. I think it starts to become something else when you start to build a brand off an idea or something. I feel like designers get stuck onto “American,” and they become stuck in this place of the past. Everything is so nostalgic and cute. I try to push my stuff to be a bit more interesting or sculptural.
I know you work with traditional gender constructs within clothing. How does denim allow you to be transversal with gender and dressing?
I don’t know if I’m going on a limb here, but I feel like denim is the one thing men and women will always want to wear.
Like boyfriend jeans?
Exactly – and everyone wants to wear the other gender’s sort of thing. You see guys in super tight denim jackets. You see girls in boyfriend jeans. I feel like with denim, its just universal. It has no timeline; we’re having a big denim moment in fashion right now but it’s great because everyone’s putting their own stamp on it.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve made in denim? I’m sure they’ve already done denim thongs, right?
That’s a good idea, some denim lingerie. I mean, denim swimwear has been around since the ’60s. It can be an awesome material to get wet
I feel like there are a lot of these new denim brands coming out of LA and California. Are you kind of influenced by them at all? Are you in conversation with them?
I guess it has to do with the California lifestyle, like super casual. But you don’t realize how elegant and fancy New York is until you live here.
Do you have an ultimate crush, like someone you’d like to see in your collection?
Yea! Hmmm… I don’t know, I think it would be fun to see some boy celebrities in some denim. But I’m so bad, that’s my weak spot. I’m so bad at celebrities. If you made a list of 10 celebrities, I’d have to really think about it.
I’m the same.
All my friends watch those Real Housewives shows and stay super updated on everything, and I don’t know anything.
I’m so bad at pop-culture. I saw the new Drake video on the day it came out, but that was a first for me.
Usually you’re like, a couple days behind?
More like weeks. I saw you mentioned pulling lines from Talking Heads lyrics?
One that I really liked from them was this sentence in one of their songs: “Tell us a little bit, but not too much.” The big kind of thing that I did with Talking Heads lyrics is look for commands, like funny things they’re telling the listeners to do or say.
I love Talking Heads. Do you have any ideas for what’s coming up next?
I’m thinking of working with a couple of my classmates. It’s obviously competitive, but we’re sort of bouncing ideas off each other. At this point, we’re sort of just working organically, and seeing how its going to come together.
Is it hard being so young and building a business?
I guess so. I guess the hard part is deciding how serious I am about having my own thing. You have to reject the—I mean, people say you can’t have a business until you have this many investors, and I kind of reject that. But then in terms of people making personal orders and stuff, I don’t have a ton of time to do it. It’s been interesting to figure out how I talk about my work, and how I talk about what I’m capable of doing.
Do you do trades for clothing?
Yeah, I’ve done some trades with friends. We had a thing at the end of our school year where we all took our rough drafts and muslins of the collection and just traded each other, so that was fun. I still have all the shoes from the runway show at my house. I have like fifteen pairs of spray-painted white shoes, and I keep thinking I should probably sell them.
If you have any size nines, I’m in.
All Photos courtesy of Claire McKinney. Check out her site here.