Brooklyn-based designer Suzanne Rae Pelaez’s pieces are full of delicate dualities. These aren’t loud contrasts or showy displays of diverse influence; they’re quiet but knowing quirks in fabric, silhouette, and historical reference that unfold the longer one’s eyes scan a piece.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the designer herself is similarly nonlinear in both the designing of her collections and her path to fashion-as-profession. Pelaez delivers an idiosyncratic biography, with stints in ballet and economics preceding an education at Parsons and the debut of her collection in 2010. New York City’s Maryam Nassir Zadeh and Portland’s Stand Up Comedy were some of Pelaez’s earliest stockists — not bad boutiques to have on your side — a list that’s rapidly grown longer since the label’s launch of footwear. We spoke with Pelaez about how she went from promising child ballerina to in-demand designer, the commodification of feminism, and how shoes have changed her business.
IN RESEARCHING YOUR BACKGROUND AND YOUR PROCESS I FOUND SO MANY AVENUES THAT I WANTED TO START THIS CONVERSATION FROM. LET’S JUST START FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE BRAND, WHICH IS ACTUALLY KIND OF A SECOND LIFE FOR YOU, BECAUSE YOUR FIRST LOVE WAS AS A BALLET DANCER, YES? Well, sort of. I mean, it was my first passion, my first love. My parents are professionals, and the life of a ballet dancer wasn’t exactly supported, if you will. I wanted to be homeschooled so that I could dance professionally in high school — it’s like gymnastics, there’s a peak, and I didn’t want to miss that.
I didn’t want to go to college, but my parents really wanted me to have a proper education. So I never really pursued [ballet] professionally, although I studied very seriously for a very long time. I did my undergrad at Bryn Mawr, and I continued to dance to a little bit; I was a dance minor.
WHAT WAS YOUR MAJOR? My major was actually economics, with dance and art history minors.
OH, WOW. HOW DID YOU WIND UP BEING INTERESTED IN… Designing?
NO, ECONOMICS! Oh, economics. Yeah, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. In retrospect, I would have loved to just have been an art history major, but also, when I went to college, didn’t know that that was a thing. I didn’t have that kind of upbringing. [With my parents] it was like, “Oh, you could be a doctor or a lawyer.” Those were like the two things.
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP? I grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia. My parents collect art, but it was never encouraged. They put me in ballet when I was younger for my posture, so I would be “poised as a young girl” growing up, and it just so happened that I fell in love with it, and had a natural ability that was able to be nurtured.
SO: THE BRAND. IT’S BEEN AROUND FOR SIX YEARS NOW, YEAR? Our first collection was spring 2011.
YOU’RE OBVIOUSLY SO CLOSE TO IT, IT PROBABLY IS HARD TO FEEL IT, BUT IT SEEMS TO ME – ON THE OUTSIDE – THAT THE BRAND HAS REALLY HIT ITS STRIDE. I’M SEEING YOUR NAME EVERYWHERE. Oh, really? [Laughs]
YEAH! DO YOU FEEL, RIGHT NOW, THAT PEOPLE ARE KIND OF CLICKING WITH THE BRAND, OR THAT YOU’RE KIND OF CLICKING WITH THE CONSUMER? Yes, it does. A little bit. But as you said, I am so close to it that it’s hard to tell.
THE ONE METRIC THAT WE HAVE IN THIS SCENARIO WOULD BE AN INCREASE IN THE NUMBER OF STORES CARRYING IT, OR THE SIZE OF THEIR ORDERS. IS THAT THE REALITY? You know, it’s hard to say. We’ve had certain stockists that picked us up way back when. Stand Up Comedy and Maryam Nassir [Zadeh] were two of our first stores, and we still sell to them.
When I started designing, I didn’t really understand sales, or market, or any of the business side. Even though I had studied economics, my economics was more third-world development and international trade theory. It wasn’t at all finance, or entrepreneurship, or business, or anything like that.
We launched shoes not so long ago, we’ve just shown our second collection of shoes. I feel like that’s helped put us on the map of other people.
THAT’S REALLY INTERESTING. KIND OF LIKE A GATEWAY, AN ENTRANCE TO THE BRAND, AND THEN PEOPLE GET TO KNOW THE OTHER CATEGORIES? Yeah, you know, it’s funny. When we started the shoes, we met a lot of other stores that I had no idea even knew who we were. I send a MailChimp out to make appointments for market, and I never know who’s actually going to make an appointment or not. When some of these stores came, they were like, “Oh, we’ve been such fans of your line. It’s just relatively expensive.” If you’re going to spend, like, $700 on a piece of clothing and people aren’t really that familiar with the name, that’s a big risk for a store.
I feel like with the shoes — I feel like shoes are so popular right now.
THIS SOUNDS LIKE THE MOST “FASHION GIRL” THING IN THE WORLD, BUT IT DOES, RIGHT NOW, THAT SHOES ARE HAVING A MOMENT. They are! And we don’t really do PR, but since we launched the shoes, WWD, and W Magazine — who I’ve never had a relationship with — and Vogue [have covered the brand]. I feel like we’re constantly sending samples out, I can’t even keep up with it, it’s so insane. I really think that this recent growth spurt is because of the shoes.