Charles Warren Womens FW15 BTS - Alanna Gilgert - Deux Hommes

A Chat With… NYC Womenswear Designer Charles Warren (Part I)

Women, Fashion, Interview

Hey Charles! Thanks so much for sitting down with us. So, we know a little bit about your time spent in New York — you’ve been here ten years, give or take. But, tell me about your roots.

I’m from Missoula, Montana, which is in the Western part of the state. Missoula is a shockingly liberal town. Most of the cities in Montana in the Western part are very liberal. They almost balance the state in like a blue or red. So, the rural is very conservative, and then the cities are like university towns and more liberal.

Did you grow up in a university town?

Yeah, a block from the University of Montana. Missoula has this vibe to it, this sort of 70s hippy, dippy vibe. You can ski in the winter, hike in the summer — it’s kind of like a hideaway destination for a lot of people who move there. And so, I got to grow up with a lot of very interesting people, lots of writers and doctors. People also traveled outside [of Missoula] to visit things, which is what my parents tried so hard to do, and I think they did it very successfully; they took us all over. Every spring break and summer, we were going somewhere. In middle school, they took us to France almost every year.

Was that unique in your environment?

It depends, yes and no. My high school was of the very liberal kind. It was a public school, so it wasn’t like a magnet school, but a lot of people would transfer out of where they should be going and come to ours. I guess, it is just sort of that community sense, and the education standard that pushed a lot of people East for college. We were always aware of a much bigger world. It was always that you had to get out, you had to do things and go back East for college.

Were your parents teaching at the university?

No. My mom is in finance, and my dad has always worked for himself in a career that is sort of between historical architecture and real estate.

Is this how you received your entrepreneurial drive?

Yeah. When I was born, he owned this incredibly forward company — it would be like a Design Within Reach, but it was in the 80s and ahead of its time.

At what point, did you think that fashion was going to be your career?

Late. It was the summer before college. I was studying at Parsons during the summers in high school. They have like a pre-college program. It was just for you to dabble and see it. I got really intro product design, specifically industrial product design.

Kind of similar to your dad?

Yes! Furniture and all that. And so, yeah, that was a very interesting projectory. Now that I have the hindsight, I think I really absorbed that initial design education, being the first design education that I had. Product design is so different in the approach and process to fashion because it is all research based. That’s 90% of the work: the research. There’s the design problem, the need, the solutions, the feedback. And that’s really how the studio, after college, with private clients felt — so natural. Because it was all research based. You talked to these people, you see what their lives are like, what they’re wanting.

Did that make fashion design easier since there’s a lot that goes into creating a product?

It did certainly. Because, when I got to the fashion major and the classes, it was much more mood based. But, mood boards didn’t seem quite genuine enough. To design a collection based off a small amount of images didn’t give me the materials to really make all those decisions that go into a whole collection. You really need to know what you’re trying to say, your audience, your price points, the climates — those are the real decisions where you can start narrowing [it down].

Where do you then find inspiration or influence for your collections since the mood boards do not really do it for you?

I can’t say that it’s always been this way — it just now seems to be a pattern within the past few years — but my job as a designer is to reflect whatever’s happening, what people are wanting. You know, design exists for an audience — it’s not art for art’s sake. That’s how I view it. You want people to wear these clothes, you want people to engage it, and if it’s not engaging then it’s like, why did you do it?

 It’s not made to hang in a museum.

No! Or someone’s closet! You want people to wear these clothes out. So, I sort of take my cues from just being, for lack of better terms, plugged in. Like you read, you pay attention, you have your ear to the ground.

I had the pleasure of meeting your mother at your Autumn/Winter 2015 presentation—she’s a fabulous woman!  She was the first person I spoke with. She gave me a big hug and we chatted for a little bit. But, what struck me was her style. She was sophisticated but simple. These are two qualities I see in the Charles Warren label. Do you get any inspiration from your mother?

Well, I think the reason she looks that way is because of being around the furniture in our house growing up, and the clean aesthetic of everything. I think it was supremely minimal compared to everyone else’s thing. It was always this European minimal, like a Jil Sander vibe. Her big thing is no clutter. Clean surfaces and nothing to really look at. And, she was 5’11” in the eighth grade, and that’s tall. Nicole Kidman tall! Towering! I think that when you command that sort of attention, whether you mean to or not, you do a lot to sort of counteract it.

I’ve been told that my work allows you to appear and disappear when you’re wearing it. If you really want to be noticed, you can mix things in a way, and if you really just want to hide, you can do that too. I think that’s a very New York way of dressing as well. We’re always going everywhere; we have to navigate so many different situations throughout the single day. You need things to really work for you — there has to be a utilitarian thing. Even though I’m not really one to go on and on about what clothes communicate, they have to work for me. I think that’s what I try to give people.

You studied at Parsons where you received your B.A., however you spent some time in Paris as well. Tell me about the different experiences, but also how New York fashion and industry is different from Paris’ and vice versa?

It was literally night and day. It could not have been more different. I mean, Parsons runs on clockwork, attendance is mandatory, you cannot be late — there are so many rules and guidelines. We had to apply to go to Paris, and I think ten of us ended up going, and it was a little frowned upon by the New York school. Parsons in NY is very New York centric — it’s just American designers. I wouldn’t say Seventh Avenue, but it’s just American. Parsons Paris was like this artist studio workshop. It was kind of bizarre but in a really good way! We’d be in a classroom, and there’d be a class on one side, like couture fabric treatments, and then on the other, it might be model drawing, but all in the same room. Kind of chaotic.

But, it was met with such a different manner — it was much more experimental, but in a safe way. It was like Parsons Paris was a safe place to make a mistake and try things and have things be disastrous or have things be incredibly successful. There’s always this forward notion of “how do we reinterpret this” or “what would this look like if we did this to it?” I think the New York industry is more about serving your audience. I wouldn’t say it’s simply more commercial, but it’s a little more business centric on the surface. Obviously, Paris has huge successful brands, but I noticed certainly in my own infantile stages, that everybody was kind of seeing price point, the buyers, the woman, the fabrics. All those questions that are really based on sales.

In Paris, it was more about your creative process.

In Paris, it was like, “let’s create it, then figure out how to sell it.” Whereas, here, I go into fabric meetings and it’s like “we need to see everything below this price point.” Because the economy here in the USA is very consumer driven. We have to make sure whatever we put out is going to sell. So, that’s exactly how we start with that in mind: the commercial aspect. It’s always at the forefront of what we’re doing. Which I don’t think is sad or depressing, it’s just different.

But, at the same time, you absorbed everything!

Yeah! And they were like “It’s fashion week, go to the shows,” which never would have happened in New York. The French are really serious about that. I went to all the shows. Valentino’s last show at the Louvre, Viktor and Rolf when they had the giant collars, all of them.

Your internship portfolio pretty much spans the entire spectrum. You worked in design, publishing, as well as beauty with the Queen, Pat McGrath. How has that diversity helped you to build your label? 

Well, I’m glad you mentioned that because it was no accident. I didn’t want to intern anywhere that I wasn’t really interested in. I think not a whole lot has changed in my interest in the industry, and I just wanted the broadest view that I could have. To see how different menswear was from womenswear, the beauty industry. I love Bobbi Brown — they’ve done every single project for us since we’ve started. Every shoot, film, runway show, all of it; every single one has been with them. So, beauty has always been a huge interest of mine, and I think we will definitely try to pursue something [in the future].

Publishing took a crash in what, 2008? I was at W just before that when magazines were still being read. These were publications I grew up looking at. I remember back then Style.com was the home of Vogue and W. They just poured content into one site. That’s what everybody cared about. So, I mean, I still think about that overview of the industry. It’s like we’re creating work for real people when I’ve been asked questions “well, would you just give away your stuff to so and so?” It’s like, not really! It kind of depends on who it is, but that’s not my marketing strategy. When your mind revolves around the people and your audience, you think about all the aspects that inform that.

Which one was the most valuable experience in your opinion?

Well, I was studying design at the time, so I can’t really say the design internships were most valuable because they just felt so natural, it felt like school. But, Pat McGrath was incredible. That was a big one. I remember when I took the internship, a lot of my classmates were like, “What? You have two years left and you’re going to blow it in beauty?” And I thought, well, she’s kind of a big deal! That kind of lifted a curtain on the whole logistical side of fashion.

Pat McGrath must have been amazing! She’s the makeup artist. She’s Beyonce. She’s just so talented and creative. I’m sure that was amazing to see.

She works like Beyonce. Nonstop. I remember cars would pick her up so early in the morning, and then she’d work all day. Like crazy hours. And then do it all over again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. It was her day to day. This woman is a machine.

We’d be sending cars and messaging product, and she’d be like on location at a gas station in the Bronx for like Vogue Italia. And then, she’d be doing like the Dolce and Gabbana campaign shoot the next day, and then she’d be doing a Vogue shoot the day after that or creating product. This was around the time she took the Proctor & Gamble thing. In between that, she was also inventing certain products. She just worked nonstop.

She’s a hustler at heart!

She had like her 90 bags with her, the “luggage library.” Like anything you could possibly need just went with her all the time in her entourage. It was crazy! So, that showed me a level that was outside of a small design studio. It was like here’s a woman who flies all over the world all the time, and is just really doing it on her own.

It was never like she had a President; it was just an assistant and her team of people and her office on Fifth Avenue. And she made it look so easy! That’s probably the biggest thing I learned. Plus, she’s always happy. 

I mean, I always get tired of these people who are like, “I just work so hard.” It’s like we all know it’s hard, at least try to hide it. We get it, we’re all right there. So, I think there’s something to be said for the people that make it look really easy.

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