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Studio Stories No. 4: Feral Childe's Moriah Carlson and Alice Wu

Swati Argade

Posted on September 14 2014

We’ve been selling the gorgeous and intellectually quirky collections of Feral Childe, pretty much since we opened our doors nearly two years ago.

College besties, Moriah Carlson and Alice Wu produce their collections in New York City with sustainable fabrics, and some of the most eye-catching prints you’ve ever seen. The brand has a cult following of thinking women who recognize the often historical and literary narratives in their prints, and if they don’t, just resonate with the cool and appealing mix of easy and structured silhouettes, a hallmark of the Feral Childe brand. I always feel like there’s mystery in the clothing. It’s as if I am carrying a special secret in the pocket of a printed tencel linen Feral Childe dress, and I’ve been transported to another time and place, but I don’t know where or when.

 I love hanging with these ladies. There’s always so much to talk about. Read on to hear more about their collaborative process, their passion for producing ethically in New York City and what bi-coastal design looks like.

Oh and please, swing by Bhoomki on Thursday, September 18th anytime between 5-8 pm for our first ever Feral Childe Trunk Show. Get 10% off items in Feral Childe's FW14 collection and any other full price Bhoomki item while enjoying light refreshments. RSVP here.

Enjoy! Swati xx

Phantom Shell Top

How did you both meet?

We were both undergraduates at Wellesley College and first met through a mutual friend. After graduation, we were both hired as studio assistants for a former art professor we greatly admired and with whom we're in touch to this day. Working side by side, we got to know each other pretty quickly. We chatted about everything, from our common interests in sewing our own clothes, to our dreams of making a living as artists. We shared similar values about art making and we wanted to encourage and support one another as young artists. It also seemed fun to explore new materials and techniques together. Our relationship has evolved over the years, especially now that we are living on opposite coasts, but the roots of our friendship run so deep that it seems everything we make comes from some conversation we started a long time ago.   

 Tell us a little about how you first got started in design.

Both of us started out in fine art -- in printmaking, then painting, sculpture and performance. Making our own clothes was simply an extension of our creative practice. We didn't set out to start an apparel company. Besides making everyday clothes for ourselves, we made garments and wearable objects specifically for art installations and performances. When people asked where they could buy the clothes, we gradually transitioned from making clothing as art objects to designing clothes for production, and started distributing to stores. You have to approach garment construction differently when you are designing to manufacture versus making one-of-a-kinds. So it was partly an organic process, transitioning from fine art to designing clothes, and largely trial by fire, because in the fashion business the stakes are so high and mistakes are very expensive. We quickly learned that design and production have to go hand in hand. We now create all of our textile prints, which derive from our drawings, paintings, and collages. But design sketches and artworks on paper don't automatically translate into wearable and flattering garments, so figuring out scale and image density for example, have made for a continuous learning process.

Penniman Blazer, Spectre Sweater and Old Pretender Pants

What is it like to design as a team bi-coastally? (Moriah lives in Brooklyn, NY and Alice lives in Oakland, CA.)

While we have been working together as Feral Childe since 2002, Alice has been based in Oakland, CA since 2006 and Moriah is in Brooklyn, NY. The creative process is still pretty much the same in spite of our long distance relationship! We start with a loose concept for each collection. With each conversation, we get a little closer to figuring out the motifs that will appear throughout the collection either as print design elements, or construction and styling details. It's important for us to make all design decisions together. So we'll pool our individually collected visual references, fabric swatches, and maybe some rough sketches of ideas for prints and start the distillation process. At our Brooklyn studio, we make our fabric selections, work on the drawings and collages that become our textile designs, sketch the garments, sew our first samples, and review the garments together. We then divide and conquer: working remotely we will always check in with each other and reconvene when a new batch of samples is ready for review. We develop the concepts for our look book photo shoots and style them together. The collections come together through constant editing and refining.  It is challenging but an important aspect of our creative identity, as having a West Coast outpost is a great way to broaden our style perspective and reach new audiences.  

When did you first launch your line, and where do you hope to take it in the future?

It's hard to pinpoint a launch date because we've been making things together as friends and artistic collaborators since college, and we've gone through so many phases. We started using the name Feral Childe back in 2002 when we invited friends to our then-studio in Williamsburg to see a bunch of clothes we had made under the theme of "Cattle and Bones." After that, we explored another theme, "Sherwood Forest," and showed an evolving "collection" three times throughout the next year and a half; there was even an art installation that went from Brooklyn to Tokyo. We were already selling clothes to a few stores, who didn't care we weren't showing on industry schedule, and so we didn't really start working in season until 2006 and waited until 2008 to start doing proper collections and trade shows. Before that, we made new things whenever we felt like it, for art exhibitions, or when we were on artist residencies. We got away with a lot of craziness in those early days. Those first clothes we made were pretty wild! Because we came into design as "outsiders," without formal design or business training, every season is like starting fresh. We joke, "OK, now that we're doing X, we're a real business!" In 2012, we pared everything down, to focus on simplifying our silhouettes, perfecting our fit, and refining our aesthetic. So 2012 feels like a real launch date, but true to our name, we're ever-adapting and ever-evolving, and subject to reinvention at any moment. 

When did you make the move to focusing on sustainability? 

At the start, we only used remnant fabrics purchased from the fabric jobbers downtown. Closeouts, damaged goods, odd lots -- the more unloved and unusual, the more we relished the challenge of repurposing these unwanted fabrics into beautiful and useful garments. As artists, we liked to use, save, and re-use materials.  As we began to manufacture more garments, we continued with this practice, first seeking out higher quality mill-ends, closeouts, and production leftovers from other designers. When our orders increased we also needed reliable, consistent fabric sources. That meant developing relationships with mills and purchasing new or custom-made fabric, and it was only natural to seek out responsibly made fabrics. Whether organic, made from renewable or low-impact crops, artisan or fair-trade made, there are many approaches to "sustainability." Since our design process starts from the fabrics, it's our moral responsibility to consider all angles when making our sourcing selections. From fiber crop to customer, a garment passes through many hands before it ever hits the shop floor, so we put great care into every decision along each step of our supply chain to do our part to cause the least harm to planet and people. We make our clothes locally because logistically it makes the most sense, but also, we can't imagine not personally knowing those individuals who print and dye our fabrics, and cut and sew our garments.      

 Have you found any particularly helpful resources in Brooklyn to help with the process over the years?

 When we first started out, we rented studio space from a retired garment manufacturer. This was a former knitwear factory in the Gowanus. Our landlord still showed up at his old office everyday. He'd poke his head in our studio every now and then, saw what we were up to, and started giving us unsolicited advice on how to produce some of our styles. He repeatedly told us we were out of our minds because we had been making things without any foundation in manufacturing at a larger level. Of course, then we started seeking out his advice on how to get our things made.  He actually taught us how to create a hard pattern for production. Since then, we've learned from almost every one of our suppliers and contractors, from our dye house in Williamsburg to our first pattern grader in the Gowanus. Our first textile designs were printed by the t-shirt company upstairs. Lately we've been working with a sewing contractor in Sunset Park just a few blocks from our studio. The cutter there has recently shown us a few new tricks! Our manufacturing network has been entirely referral-based.

What is the inspiration for the little coin sewn into every Feral Childe garment that says “Feral Childe – City of New York”.

The little brass oval is based on the old brass doorknobs found at public schools where we have taught as visiting artists.

 What are some obstacles you’ve run into trying to use more conscientious materials, methods, etc.?

Factory minimums, mills closing, long production lead times, inconsistent quality. Many fabrics fitting our criteria are more expensive than conventional options, and this creates design challenges. For example, if a fabric is expensive, we simplify or even give up a design detail, so that the garment isn't cost prohibitive for the customer.

How do you deal with the push-and-pull of using ethically sourced materials, production, etc. and keeping price points reasonable? 

It's a challenge. We try to keep things simple by working with the same suppliers each season, and using tried-and-true fabrics that, if we can get our orders high enough, allow us some price breaks. Through the seasons, we've experimented with materials to determine which ones fulfill our quality, price point, and sustainability criteria.  We try to be innovative with the patternmaking. There are ways to adjust the design and cut of a garment to use fabric more efficiently, with less waste. There are certain production expenses that decrease with higher volume -- such as your cutting table fee, or digital fabric printing -- but other production steps don't cost less just because you order more. For example, if someone is screenprinting fabric yardage by hand, or hand-looming fabrics -- these methods are never discounted with volume. Also, fiber prices go up and down. Cotton and wool are commodities, just like gold and silver!

What are some of your design inspirations?

We frequently turn to loose literary references or some kind of play on words (Alice is a recovering English Major), dreams, outer space, and the idea of travel. But more recently, because our latest studio looks out onto the New York Harbor, we've been pretty mesmerized by the color of the water at different times of day, and the lights on the ferries at night -- they look like birthday cakes drifting through the darkness.  We could do dozens of collections based on the parade of tugboats outside our window. 

Penniman Blazer Old Pretender Pants

Tell us about your Fall/Winter 2014 collection.

Feral Childe’s FW14 collection, The Medium is the Message, neatly dovetails with the prior season’s themes of disappearance and reappearance (disappearing object phenomenon). The Medium is the Message asks, what about the things we thought we saw, but perhaps were never really there to begin with?

Feral Childe FW14 takes visual cues from literary classics such as “The Yellow Wallpaper” and 19th century spirit photography, set to the sonic backdrop of Satie’s Furniture Music. The collection’s spectrum of chalkboard green, ghostly vapor, and blue-gray shadow conjure up haunted ballrooms, wallpapered parlors occupied by overgrown houseplants, and hushed conversations in stairwells.

Feral Childe seeks to capture evidence of those things felt but not seen, and encourages viewers/wearers to look for the hidden pictures. The print “Thieves,” inspired by a 15th century German woodblock print, depicts mischievous characters stealing ripe fruit in the dead of night. Translucent vellum cutouts form the ectoplasmic print “Furniture Music.” In another print, electric raspberries and giant brooding pomegranates bring bursts of color to the collection’s otherwise subdued palette.

Feral Childe’s FW14 silhouettes are romantic (Maisie Dress, Geode Mirror Dress), yet thoroughly modern and minimal (Phantom Shell, Magic Lantern Skirt, Mumler Dress). All are rendered in natural fibers; highlights include supple organic cotton jersey blended with yak down, futuristic reversible bonded Cupro, hand-loomed silk cotton coating, and additional silk, hemp, Tencel and linen blends. While invoking the infinite possibilities of everyday theater, Feral Childe’s FW14 collection is eminently wearable. As we like to say, the clues are in the clothes. Made in NYC.  


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