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Flashback: An Interview with NYC Fashion Designer Shaolin

Are you mapping out your New York Fashion Week schedule yet? The big shows are now on the calendar, and we’re pumped. But first we’re flashing back to one of fashion’s (and the city’s) greatest diamonds in the rough.
Designer Shaolin’s background is a real NYC success story: she got to live in the time when NYC had a raw and powerful energy and the city was a bustling mecca of creativity and invention. She has designed for companies in the Garment District and had an opportunity to do some work for some amazing designers. Currently she mostly designs for Peruvian Connection, an apparel company which produces a collection that includes handmade sweaters and apparel made from Alpaca Wool and Pima Cotton from the mountains of Peru. Erin O’Brien caught up with Shaolin to talk inspiration and all things NYC…

Interview by Erin O’Brien 

 

ERIN O’BRIEN: So I met you back in 2007 on a boat cruise for an Irish Rock band named Black 47. We had a magnetic connection immediately and I was drawn to your sassy, unique style and rainbow hair made me smile! What was it like designing fashion in the 80s in New York City?

SHAOLIN: And I was immediately inspired by your genuinely shining energy and sparkles of light! Back in the 80s I whined about the bitchy buyers’ narrow-minded tyranny and fraidy-cat fear of newness – them only understanding stuff that had “already sold,” although they did allow DareDevil colour. It was actually really exciting! And kind of insane. The Garment Center was a shadeless ghost town, plus I had the opportunity to travel a lot and was always learning, especially back then. It was frequently a creative challenge to just get paid, since there was a lot of shady Jekyll-and-Hyde coke-infused activity going on and shelling out for freelance designers wasn’t always a top priority.

Sometimes the staff would stay late and I’d admire their dedication, although it was actually a whole different kind of dedication.

What is your view on the current fashion scene in NYC today, seeing that you live in the heart of it all in the West Village?

Although there are cool stores in the far West Village, I’m not feeling the west as the new frontier. Though I never thought I’d be reliving every era of fashion I lived through, and more, in a spin cycle.

I love the “anything goes” rule-breaking and fun of now. Halloween is finally everyday, especially hair and cosmetics and people are doing their own things. A dream come true. I especially love that many women and kids are becoming their own superheroes and Bond girls (also yoga pants replacing jeans is phase one!).

You started out in Queens and lived the music and fashion scene of the late 70s when Glam Rock and Punk Rock was changing the world. You got to go to Max’s Kansas City, The Ritz, Save The Robots and all the cool small shows of bands like The Ramones, Iggy Pop and The New York Dolls. So what would you say to new creatives moving to NYC today – how should they make it here in NYC to succeed?

I was lucky to experience some sparkles of underground alchemy in a time that was more innocent and especially had a lot more mystique, so you had to discover stuff “out there,” or through word of mouth, not just online. Things were created a bit more from within one’s soul. Of course there is always inspiration, but it was all less self-conscious reference points or cut and paste.

Though now, with the magic of the internet technology, social media and Etsy, and zillions of events and outlets, so much more is possible! People starting out don’t even need to be here. Though we still have inspiring street energy unlike anywhere (despite gentrification) and we have more sharing and cooperative opportunities for those wanting a real live store! There are less rules and less authority.

So the best thing is to just do what you believe and love make it happen! Don’t necessarily follow any beaten path, you know what you visualize, so get it out there. Today you can sell at a flea market, in an alley, or online. When I was a student, Donna Karan told me I should “know my customer” and I think that was great advice. Also my design research teacher told us to never limit our horizons to the narrow category of fashion, to be open to different inspiration and outlets. I’m still working on all this!

You are an eccentric, unique dresser who really has a style all of her own… Who are your favorite designers and what are you wearing right now? Yes, right at this very second!

I have too many favorite designers to name at random: Courreges, Vicki Tiel and Mia Fonssagrives, Cardin, Mary Quant, Barbara Hulanicki for Biba, old Paco Rabanne, whoever did the rest of Barbarella, maybe Jacques Fontenay, Issey Miyake, Ossie Clark, whoever did David Bowie’s early clothes, Kansai Yamamoto in 1970s and Masayoshi Sukita, Norma Kamali, Anna Sui – the list is infinite!

My uniform is usually stuff I don’t want to mess up that shows as little dirt as possible, so usually black damaged tights, some kind of boots, a featherweight drapey neck long T-shirt with too-long sleeves, a short black skirt (usually knit and ripped and repaired) and light lacey layers or torn and frayed or moth-holed. A zillion bracelets, mostly plastic and lucite – two are from you – and glitter and colored hair extensions. Long ago Ant from the band Gunfire Dance told me “style is more about knowing what doesn’t work” – I think he was so right!

What are some of your influences when you design a collection? 

Influences can be random – whatever attracts me at the moment mixed with the climate of the times we are entering and the times we are in. Then when I research it, it can lead to more. It could start in a dream and usually it is something I desire or am obsessed with, or somewhere I want to be! I hope I can get other people to want it and love it too – my true interpretation.

The constants are a fascination with nature, magic, fantasy and the occult, and faraway civilizations, past and future. I can see something in the street and I am in love with my library (Jefferson Market Library) where I can explore almost anything and be surprised too.

If you could trade places with anyone who has passed for one day, and be in NYC, who would it be and what would you do?

Maybe genius beyond and style icon Jimi Hendrix. We’d just hang out near Washington Square Park and the West Village just to feel the vibes. His quote was, “Stay groovy, stay free!” I seriously wonder what it would be like to be him.

Erin O’Brien is a prop stylist, props master, window artist, freelance writer and Jill of All Trades who lives and breathes music. Learn more about her at erinobriennyc.com or follow her on Twitter at @emorocksnyc.

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