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In Conversation With Designer Suzanne Rae

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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loud contrasts or showy displays of diverse influence; they’re quiet but knowing quirks in fabric, silhouette, and historical reference that unfold the longer one’s eyes scan a piece.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.

Shop Suzanne Rae >

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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.

Suzanne_Rae_chloe_photo_06-pngWHERE 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.

 

"The success of our business is our small boutiques."

WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE SOME OF THE QUALITIES OF THE SHOES THAT ARE MAKING THEM SO POPULAR? It’s so hard to tell. I did an interview with WWD, and they were like, “Well, your shoes are so smart right now because they’re at a relatively low price point with elevated design”. I was like, “Oh, I didn’t even think of it that way.” I just knew that when we made shoes, we had to keep it in the $350 — $450 price point, just because I just know I can’t compete with a mega-brand at the moment. We we’re looking to do shoes for a while, actually, for a couple of years. We met with people in Italy, but our shoes would have been like $700, and even at $700, even if they were so beautiful, I feel like people would still just buy Celine, you know? I mean, I would.

WHEN YOU WERE DESIGNING THESE SHOES, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING ABOUT? WHAT WERE YOU INFLUENCED BY? WHAT WERE YOU TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH? Well, I wanted something playful. I personally like a relatively playful shoe, but I also am a very practical and sensible individual, so I wanted something that embraced this juxtaposition. That practicality, that really dirty sensibility, but also versatile.

We wanted shoes that felt more like a personal statement, not like, “This is my dressy shoe,” or “This is my practical shoe.” Something that was more like, you could wear it with anything and it would just be like, “Well, this is just me.”

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THAT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL SENTIMENT. BESIDES THE SHOES, HAS THERE BEEN ANYTHING THAT’S REALLY SURPRISED YOU THAT SHOPPERS OR BUYERS HAVE BEEN REALLY EXCITED FOR? We did this feminist print [in the most recent collection] that a lot of people were drawn to, and I wasn’t sure if … You know, prints are a hard thing. People either like it or they don’t. We did this print that I feel like people were really responsive to, as well as these feminist symbol crests that said like, “Humanité, egalité, liberté”.

FEMINISM IS SUCH A DENSE TOPIC. YOU KNOW HOW THE INUIT HAVE 50 DIFFERENT WORDS FOR ‘SNOW’? WE NEED 50 DIFFERENT WORDS FOR ‘FEMINISM,’ BECAUSE WE’RE ALWAYS TALKING ABOUT DIFFERENT FACETS OF IT. I KNOW THAT FEMALE EMPOWERMENT AND OWNERSHIP OVER YOUR IMAGE AND YOUR SEXUALITY HAS ALWAYS BEEN PART OF WHERE YOU HAVE BEEN COMING FROM, BUT NOW ‘FEMINISM’ IS DEFINITELY FASHIONABLE – AND I THINK THAT’S A GOOD FASHIONABLE – BUT WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE WHEN A VALUE THAT YOU’VE HELD FOR A LONG TIME IS SUDDENLY SOMETHING THAT DIOR IS DOING ALSO, BUT TO MAKE MONEY. HOW DOES IT FEEEL? A lot of people ask me that. I feel happy that there’s progress, I’m really happy about that. When I started my line my own very close friends were like, “Well, Suzanne, I don’t know that you should use the word feminist. That’s really aggressive.” I was like, “Well, I don’t see it that way.” I guess part of my MO is to talk about it: let’s talk about why you feel that way and why I feel this way; what that means, and what it can mean. I am happy that a lot of feminism in general is more widely accepted.

I don’t want to be an opportunist, and it’s weird when people are sort of opportunistic about these important things, just slapping text on clothing. It needs to be a little bit more meaningful than that.

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BESIDES FEMINISM, WHAT ARE SOME OF THE VALUES OR VISUAL REFERENCES YOU ALWAYS FIND YOURSELF COMING BACK TO? I’m a big late ’80s, early ’90s fan in terms of music and fashion.

HOW OLD WERE YOU THEN? I was in middle school.

POTENT YEARS. Those are the formative years. During that time you become so self-aware of what’s cool, and what’s not cool, and what it means to be cool.

MY LAST QUESTION FOR YOU IS ABOUT THE FASHION CALENDAR, AND HOW YOU’RE APPROACHING IT AS A YOUNG BRAND. [Laughing] Oh my gosh, it’s so complicated.

WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT ETHODS? We were with Maryam Nassir showroom for a little bit, and they were encouraging me to do Pre-Spring because it’s a way of adding onto your sales. My hesitation was always like, well, I’m not sure if there’s enough demand to warrant that supply. Here’s my economics, I guess.

If there was such a demand — and our clothes and our shoes were just flying off the shelves — if was that crazy, then I would consider doing a pre-collection and filling in [between fall/winter and spring/summer]. I literally have been designing for the last week a potential Pre-Spring collection, and this morning just before you and I spoke, I decided not to do it. We’ll just transfer it into the regular Spring collection, because [Pre-Spring] ships in November. I know that that’s holiday time, but I feel like people aren’t buying for themselves in November. That’s like Christmas, and Hanukkah, and other practical stuff. I just don’t think that there’s enough demand. Not at the moment.

SO YOU’RE KIND OF LIKE WORKING WITH THE TRADITIONAL FASHION CALENDAR, BUT BEING SMART ABOUT WHAT MAKES SENSE FOR THE STAGE THAT YOUR BRAND IS AT. Yeah. I feel like a lot of the reasons people do pre-collections is that it’s on the shelves longer before it goes on sale, and a lot of department stores really like those pre-collections because they have the budget to buy it. But we don’t really sell to that many department stores. The success of our business is our small boutiques, and so many of them don’t have a Pre-Spring budget. That’s my audience, and so I cater to them.

DO YOU HAVE ANY INTEREST IN GROWING TO BE AT SOME KIND OF LARGE DEPARTMENT STORE, OR WOULD YOU RATHER JUST KEEP A NETWORK OF BOUTIQUES? I mean, I think it would be great to be in a department store, but I just don’t see … I don’t know that that would happen any time soon, and I wouldn’t want to join a big department store and have those sales hurt my current stores, too. I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t been buying us all these years.

By Nicola Fumo

Photography by Chloe Horseman

This interview has been edited and condensed.  

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