Ilana Kohn I Fashion Designer
"I think I’m lucky in that I enjoy almost every part of this, which if you’re going to do this, you gotta love it. Because it’s not like I’m making tons of money and there are so many headaches. But you get through the headaches because you love it so much."
Where did you grow up and how would you describe that place?
Arlington, Virginia. It’s pretty much what you expect. It’s right outside of DC. It was a good place to grow up. It’s all row houses. We had yards, but the yards we had were the kind of yards you have in New York—you get a little box. But we were able to walk to each other’s houses really easily. We’d just roam around and ride around on the metro. I was a skater kid so there was a lot of good stuff for all of that down there. It was nice.
What’s your family like?
Pretty typical. Parents are still married after all these years. My mom works as a collections agent at a bank—don’t get on her bad side. My dad has been a million different things. He was a naval engineer, then he became a systems analyst, and then he got a doctorate in systems analysis or something like that. He’s a perennial student. He’s a professor at Virginia Tech now. He’s basically an intellectual about really nerdy stuff. My brother and I joke that when he goes, his book collection is going to Goodwill. It’s all books about systems management.
My dad and I are a lot alike actually. It took us awhile to figure it out and we’re not the kind of people who would be happy just doing a job. We want to find the thing we love! One of the lessons he taught me was that it was never about what you know, it’s about who ya know. Even when things were bad, he was lucky in that everyone he worked with always loved him. So if he got laid off from a job, there as always someone to catch him. He’s just a pleasant person.
Were you a super creative kid?
I always liked making stuff. My parents totally indulged me. Every summer I’d stay with grandma for a month, and before we went, I got to go to the arts and craft store to get 50 bucks worth of supplies.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was a kid I used to tell people I wanted to be a cartoonist, but I don’t think I had any idea what it meant. I always liked to draw, and that’s what I went to school for, illustration.
How long were you in the illustration world?
That’s what I did for about ten years. And then the recession hit. I was working mostly for publishing and editorial, and then the whole industry just basically fell off a cliff. But I wasn’t that broken up about it because I had been feeling I had hit a wall creatively with illustration anyway. So then I went to school for something totally unrelated, for historic preservation, which is not a creative field.
So how did you get into making clothes?
Well, I was studying historic preservation, and I just got bored and start sewing for myself. I always loved clothes. This was when the handmade movement was really starting to gain traction, and I thought I’m going to give this a whirl. So I went to Kmart got some crappy machine that busted within a couple of weeks. I decided I had to get nice one and really do this. Eventually I decided to sell a few things and people liked it so I just kept doing it. By the time I graduated, I was like, “Screw preservation, I’m just going to do this instead.”
Did you have any books or anything to help you out in the beginning?
I don’t really remember any of them being too helpful. I guess when you start to do anything a million times, the dots start to connect, you start to understand how patterns work, how you can tweak them. And now there’s really not a pattern I can’t do.
What gave you the courage to finally start selling?
I wouldn’t call it courage. I would call it naiveté. It was just pure ignorance. I think if I had known what I was getting into financially I would have been like, “Whoa!” I think that was one of the biggest shocks…just how insanely expensive this was all going to be.
Who was the first to carry your work?
My very first stockist was Thistle & Clover over on Dekalb. I went in there when I was still hand-making the clothes and was like “I only do size mediums” (laughs). And they told me to come back when I had a full size range. I didn’t know how to [size] grade yet. I can’t say enough great things about Thistle & Clover and Camilla for really supporting me and helping me. I’ve been lucky in that there’s been a lot of great people I met early on because I knew nothing. I had no fashion background.
When did you go from handmade to manufactured?
I decided to take the leap in 2012. I thought, “I was illustrating for ten years, why am I not doing my own textiles?” So that’s when I started doing textiles and manufacturing. Instead of buying fabric at the store and sewing a little dress myself, I started designing my own fabric and not sewing it myself.
It sounds like you already had a lot of skills that came in handy in the fashion world…
It’s nice that this marries everything I’ve ever done. I did a stint as a graphic designer and I did illustration. It’s kind of a lifesaver that I’m able to do all of my own design work. I’m not reliant on a third party. At one point, I freelanced at InStyle Magazine in the imaging department, so they taught me how to retouch images professionally. So I’m also a good retoucher and can do my own retouching, if my photographer can’t turn it around. And when I was an illustrator, I worked for myself, so I had to know how to market. It’s just all these skill-sets.
What was it like launching your first line?
I had no experience in fashion until 2012. I launched the summer ’12 collection that May and started emailing buyers and they laughed because, ya know, they had bought summer of 2012 last September (laughs). But I just went for it. I produced it on a small scale, and it did great. Summer ’13 was my first real delivery, when I was actually on the fashion calendar and taking wholesale orders and working with a bigger factory.
That must have been a steep learning curve…
I was lucky enough that I was introduced very early on to In God We Trust. They have an in-house sampling team. I got introduced to Annie, who heads that up, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. They were nice enough to start do my samples early on and do my production. I’d give them patterns on newsprint and Annie would be like, “Okay, go buy draft paper…this is how you do it…don’t do your patterns like this …don’t waste your time grading patterns, you pay someone to do that. ….” And really just showing me stuff. I was lucky that I started off in that atmosphere because I would have just totally floundered and lost it if I had gotten tossed into my current factory that early on. It would have been disastrous.
It sounds like the fashion world has been really kind to you.
I think the fashion world is a lot nicer than the illustration world ever was. Maybe because it’s mostly women, and you’d think women would be cattier, but maybe it's people realizing that helping other people doesn’t hurt you…just spread the love.
I know you mentioned Annie from In God We Trust, but are there any other mentors you’ve had along the way?
The ladies from Ace and Jig. I consider them my informal mentors. Whenever I have a question, I can call them.
How would you describe your clothes?
Casual, print-based, not for fussy people. In my business class they asked us to give three words to describe your clothes and I was like, “Um. Machine washable?”
Any woman you have in mind while designing your clothes?
Me. Me and my friends. I’m very breezy, pathologically casual. I feel like a clown if I’m too dressed up. I don’t like things that are very fitted, I never have. I’m into very un-boyfriend/husband friendly stuff. Boys don’t get it
Do you remember the first item you sewed for yourself?
I remember the very first dress I sewed for myself. I’m pretty sure it was a blue and white striped fabric. There was a twenties drop-waist thing that was happening and it was massively too big for me, but I thought it was pretty badass. I think I only wore it once or twice.
Do you draw out your patterns first or is it all done digitally?
The textiles? They start in my sketchbook, and then I scan them into photoshop, clean it up a bit and take it to illustrator, but they all start as a hand drawing.
Do you have to set aside time for sketching?
Sometimes an idea will pop in my head, but I usually have to sit down and go into the rabbit whole for a few weeks.
What materials do you work with?
I prefer things that are machine washable. I love cottons. Silks I’ve been moving away from. I work with all natural for the most part. There’s a lot of linen in next season.
What was your favorite fashion period in history?
Maybe turn of the century to the ‘70s. After that it just goes down. Or at least we can skip over the '80s and go straight to the '90s.
Any favorite designers?
All the girls at the Dobbin Mews studios. They're all just such sweethearts. They’re very picky about who moves in there, so it’s just a really great group of people. And I have a friend Amira Marion, she has a line, Archive New York, that she just launched. She is nothing short of a sweetheart.
You work for yourself. What’s it like running your own business in fashion?
I thought, “Oh, I ran an illustration business for all those years, how different can this be?” It’s not even on the same planet. I was in the DENYC Program last summer, and they taught me excel, which I couldn’t believe I had survived in this business prior to excel because I use it every day now. A lot of people ask me what it’s like to go into fashion, and I tell them it’s 50% business and 50% design. If you don’t like dealing with business, don’t even try. Go be a fine artist. You have to have some interest in it.
Even the design process is business-oriented. I don’t just design whatever I feel like. There’s always business thing in the back of my head like, “Oh, this is going to be too expensive to produce if we cut it like this” or “This is a type of silhouette that sells better…” But I indulge myself and put in maybe 1-2 prints, where they’re so crazy and will never sell, but I love them. Maybe they’re more for editorial than selling. Or with a few silhouettes, I’ll think, “No one’s going to want this oversize muumuu set, but I want it so I’ll just put it in there.” And then you throw in some boring dress and it’ll sell like crazy.
What’s your favorite part of the process?
I think I’m lucky in that I enjoy almost every part of this, which if you’re going to do this, you gotta love it. Because it’s not like I’m making tons of money and there are so many headaches. But you get through the headaches because you love it so much.
What are the biggest headaches?
Production. Just keeping control of everything so nothing gets screwed up. So much can go wrong during production, and it’s hard because it’s just me and I’m still learning. So it’s sitting down with the factory and saying, “What do you need from me so that nothing gets screwed up? Tell me what I need to do to give you 100%,” instead of just me hoping things work out.
My biggest piece of advice? Be nice and be upfront. If there’s a problem, tell people before they bring it up to you. Be communicative. Apparently, a lot of people are not. Be nice to the people you work with. It’s good to not always lowball people because they’re not going to budge when you need them to. With my factory in New York, I bring her cookies whenever I come. She’s a friend, and I know her whole family and I like that. She knows that I’m fair with her.
What do you do when you’ve hit a creative block?
Walk away for a bit. Maybe go and visit friends and their studios. Just feeling some good, creative energy. I’ve met a lot of really wonderful people while doing this. We all work for ourselves so there’s a lot of coffee dates and we go into the garment district together.
What's a typical day for you?
Every day is different, but I like that. It can be anything from going to the garment district to running god-knows-what errands to just doing emails or packing orders. Every day’s a different hat.
Any daily rituals?
I love going out for greasy diner food. I go to John’s Donuts and get a sandwich with an english muffin, fried eggs, turkey bacon and coffee. They know me by name. That’s my favorite thing. It’ll get me out of bed in the morning. I just have to have that sandwich to start the day. I’m so afraid of getting my cholesterol tested…
What's it like to have your studio in your home?
When we moved into this space, we rented it specifically so I could have this. I could have gotten an outside studio, but I’ve always worked from home and so I prefer it. I’m going to be really upset when I can’t work in this space anymore.
Do you find it hard to separate work from home life?
I’m a workaholic so if I’m not working I don’t know what to do with myself. I don't really want them separate.
What does living authentically mean to you?
Just doing my thing. This is me. There’s pretty much no question about me or my business I won’t answer. I’m pretty transparent about it all.