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You may recognize fashion designer Zulema Griffin from Project Runway Season 2, but you’ll remember her for her unique design aesthetic and her vision to change the way we view fashion. Clutch had an in depth discussion with Zulema on various topics ranging from the current state of affairs in fashion to defining life and careers on your own terms. This interview is recommended reading for anyone who wants to learn something that they don’t teach you in fashion school.

Q: What have you been up to since the days of Project Runway?
I’ve been busy showing my collections and working on my line.

Q: What would you like our readers to know about you? I’m a Ready-to-Wear fashion designer. I’m looking forward to growing and doing really creative things with the fashion medium. I think there’s so much room for growth A lot of people have grown weary of the classic fashion show. I’m really interested in being a pioneer in the industry in the sense of how they’re shown and viewed.

Q: You’ve been very resourceful in the manner with which you’ve chosen to show your work. For example, you debuted your fall collection via Youtube. Why did you decide to stray from the traditional runway fashion show format? Actually, It’s for several reasons. One, If you can’t get A-list celebrities, B-list celebrities won’t even cut it anymore, in the front row no one will attend your show. Fashion shows are actually really for major players and I’ll tell you why. The way fashion shows work is that they’re about instant gratification and an extension of the market place. You have the fashion show, you make the paper, they hear about your name they go in the store and they purchase. If you don’t have major distribution of your line it becomes an ineffective medium for you. I chose to do Youtube because it’s a democratic forum, everyone sees the clothes. It’s not necessarily dependent upon the news media to get your clothes out there. Youtube leaves it up to the audience to decide so they can reach out to purchase your items. That’s why I’m doing shows online and trying to use a technology medium to make it accessible to everyone.

Q: I admire how you’ve decided to show your work on your own terms, but do you feel like that’s helping or hindering your career? I feel like it can only help. The fact of the matter is that people are usually afraid when you introduce new things. I heard from several sources that the people from 7th on Sixth weren’t very happy about me doing the show. They were very vocal about their anger actually in a very entitled, very snobbish way, saying “What in the hell does she think she’s doing? This is not going to work.” And I say that’s ridiculous because technology is really pushing fashion, most fashion shows are on-line within 2 hours. The fashion industry has set up a very good thing for themselves and they’ve set up a such community where they can keep large numbers of people out of the industry while allowing a very select few in. I’m not complaining about the system because I love the fashion industry, I love fashion, and I love designing clothes. When it’s your magazine and your forum, you can do what you want to do, because you’re not stop me from doing what I need to do to get myself out there. However, You can’t ignore the fact that there’s a disparity based on race and various other factors in the fashion community. I can’t complain and say, “Oh well, Vogue they won’t let me in” because they can do what they want to do. I’m just happy that I was born during a time where I have technology on my side and I can get myself out there. And that’s exactly why I did my Youtube show.

Q: Can we talk a bit about your fall collection? (Zulema interrupts) “You mean what does it mean?” (We laugh)
Me: Exactly. Please share your vision for the collection! Well, actually my fall collection is loosely based on the idea of the church fashion show. During the Christmas holiday my mom passed and I was going to do a church fashion show in a church, reminiscent of the Ebony fashion shoot. The fact is, when this whole black model controversy came about and there was a time when black people couldn’t even be in the fashion industry and people don’t even realize that it wasn’t until the 70’s that you even saw black people in a fashion industry. That wasn’t even that long ago. That’s like one generation ago. I just kept saying to myself what did black people do before that. That’s when I started doing my research and came up with the idea for the church fashion show. That was originally what I was going to do and then my mom passed and then a lot of things came up, like money issues and I could no longer do the show. Then I remembered how my mom was and she always pushed that you have to keep going, life is for the living. My mom would want me to go on and be successful. Mind you, I put it all together in 2 ½ weeks because I spent most of my time crying, upset and depressed in bed and I was thinking that my mother wouldn’t want me to be this way, she would be so disappointed to look down on me and see me depressed like that. So, I just got up and did it. At the time I had a different idea on life and church. I remembered that I always loved the painting, Funeral Procession, by Ellis Wilson with the color blocking of black and white and the brown skin with an orange sky. That painting is actually what inspired me to do the collection in that manner.

Q: What moves you as a designer? People. I love walking down the street and looking at people, seeing people well dressed. I even like to see people badly dressed. I actually learn more when I see people dressed badly than I do when people are well dressed. You always learn new ideas. I find that even in the worst dressed people, there’s a good idea in there. Be it for proportion or color, there’s an idea in badly done fashion. So I just always try to keep my mind open.

Q: Do you have any personal style icons?
Yes, quite a few. I love Madeline Vionett. I love the spirit of Willi Smith and what he was able to do. He’s quite the pioneer, I read an article about him a long time ago and that actually gave me the idea to do a Youtube show. Willi Smith was actually the first person to do a videotape of his show! These days it’s so common to do a video of your show and send it to editors, but nobody was doing that before Willi Smith. He took a VHS tape popped it in, recorded his models wearing his clothes in front of brick walls and fire hydrants and then sent them to the editors to get their attention. To this day, he’s still the most successful black fashion designer. I love Balenciaga and the great Jean Paul Gaultier. Yves St. Laurent is eternal; I love his classic effortlessness. There’s such an ease to everything he did.

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Q: How would you describe your personal style? My aesthetic is a clash of two worlds, based on what I saw as a little girl. I didn’t grow up in the projects, but I grew up in the hood. I was one of those girls that grew up in a really nice apartment complex, but it was surrounded by the hood. I am very much attracted to geometric shapes, because those types of buildings are always constructed in those cookie cutter squares in mapped out calculated spaces. I absorbed a lot from that in the sense that I’m very specific and structured in how I do things…. The color palettes from looking at graffiti on the trains as a little girl, I remember loving that so much. That’s what inspires me in fashion all of the time. That sort of juxtaposition of efficiency of space, color splatters, and then just screw it all up by throwing something on top of it.

Q: You went from modeling to costume design to fashion design. Were any of the transitions hard for you or was it more like a natural progression? I’m still a costume designer, I’m still in the union! As a costume designer the transition is usually difficult. Mine wasn’t because I did something, and this is the only time that I will briefly talk about Project Runway, Project Runway helped me make that bridge, because it’s almost an impossible bridge to make from costume design to fashion design. You rarely hear about a costume designer who’s made that transition because those two worlds rarely cross. Project Runway helped me do it seamlessly because I was on a national forum. People only really knew me as a designer and not a costume designer. So in that sense it was seamless.
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Q: What advice would you give to someone that’s just starting out in the business?
It depends, it’s different for different people. I would advise one of 3 things, if you know someone in the industry or you know a celebrity I suggest that you become very close to that person, that would be helpful. But say you don’t have a rich relative or if you’re someone like me you have to a) intern or b) because of the way fashion is now, I would do what a lot of designers are doing now; go to school and study business. The fact of the matter is people don’t really sew anymore. You have to know how to design, but you don’t actually have to know how to do anything. It’s more important to get a business degree than it is to get a degree in fashion. Intern, intern intern! I can’t stress that enough and working at retail stores. The only mistake that I can say that I’ve made was that I never really worked in a retail store, because you really get to understand why people dress the way they do. A lot of people get caught up in the pictures in the magazine with these huge feather outfits and they don’t understand retail. That and really understanding business are the most valuable things that you can really do. If you have natural style and really great ideas you can hire someone to do patterns and that’s actually how the business runs anyway. Have a degree in business, intern, intern, intern and get a job in retail; those are the most important things.

Q: One last question Zulema, where do you see yourself in five years? I hope to be in at least three different markets and also working to try and expand people’s idea of what a fashion show really is, and what fashion is. The future of fashion is finding other mediums to express your vision artistically. I’m really looking forward to exploring various mediums, for me right now it’s film but it could possibly change to something else.

To learn more about Zulema Griffin please visit www.zulemagriffin.com

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  • B!

    I still want that Grace Jones shirt you made, Zulema!

  • Zulema, beautiful work, and I am proud to say I was fortunate enough to shoot the 29 Wifes collection. I found that collection to be a wonderful introduction into what could be called tribal fashion. I was also fortunate to have met your mom at the show, and now that photo has some very special meaning. Again great to see your collection presented in a new and unique way.

    George