All The Real Girls
Designer Rachel Comey re-imagines the world of downtown cool with clogs, skorts and other oddities
Story by Angela Cravens / Photography by Estelle Hanania
’Im kind of sneaking away a bit,” says Rachel Comey, with a conspiratorial stage whisper.
Having just wrapped up her Spring 2010 show on a Chelsea rooftop with a performance by St. Vincent, the New York designer is preparing to head west to Zion National Park in Utah while her team travels to Paris for market. Though her voice betrays a twinge of guilt, the trip will be a necessary refuel and revamp as she shifts gears and begins thinking about her fall collection. The idea of trekking so far from the fashion world’s pulse points to find inspiration seems like a seamless fit for a designer who has made her name largely by following her instincts.
Rather than breathlessly chasing trends, Comey effortlessly captures the energy of the downtown girl of the moment — quirky, confident, and cool. You know her girls when you see them: natural beauties, noses often tucked in a book, hair a bit mussed. The kind of girl who can pull off something like a crop top with elegance (see Spring ’09), or lend an understated sexiness to a pair of clogs (Comey re-imagines them season after season, in supple leathers and hefty wooden platforms). “I always like to give myself challenges,” explains Comey, “to take something interesting or fun or weird and make it feel fresh… When people talk about ‘downtown’ I think it’s just about finding that fresh thing.”
Though she intrinsically understands her girl, courting her with hand-painted prints, chunky knit sweaters and, lately, skorts (all the better for riding bikes in the city, she explains) Comey actually got her start designing menswear. “At some point I decided that I’d like to do some women’s clothing and it kind of ate the men’s,” she says with a laugh. Though her dudes now have to make due with a seasonal collection of footwear, the shift to womenswear has been, like much of her career, “a really natural progression.”
Raised in “a crappy little suburb” outside Hartford, Conn., Comey studied art at the University of Vermont, enjoying the creative community offered by a thriving college town. She migrated to New York after school, but not necessarily with her eyes on the fashion world. “I’m not the type of person who was obsessed with glamour from the time I was young,” she says. “I liked clothes, but I didn’t necessarily want to be defined by fashion.” She now finds herself inspired by every aspect of bringing her sketches to life. “I love the manufacturing process, the atmosphere in the factory, the people in the garment district,” she enthuses.
Eighteen seasons in, Comey has an ardent and growing fan base of young women with an eye for quality and a unique way of throwing themselves together. There seems to be a shorthand among her followers, a shared, subtle sartorial nod. “They’re thoughtful and they appreciate good design,” says Comey. “We haven’t blown out one season… it’s just been slow, gradual growth with loyal customers and I feel proud of that.” A true independent designer, Comey has built her business without outside funding, responding only to her own creative impulses. “In the end, it’s garnered us an audience that I really care about and think about.”
That audience will certainly be on her mind as she discovers Zion, conjuring up images of sandstone, prickly pears, and dusty shades of orange. “I don’t know, maybe my whole new season will be something like trekkers’ clothes,” she says with a smile. Somehow, in Comey’s world, that could look pretty hot.