Designer Kelsy Parkhouse has accomplished what not many recent college graduates have: she's successfully transitioned from one Brooklyn institution (Pratt) to another: Bird. Within a year of her senior fashion show, Parkhouse received a compliment from Cathy Horyn, an endorsement from Natalie Joos, and perhaps best of all, a write-up in Vogue.
Now, she also has the thumbs up from Bird storeowner Jen Mankins, who will stock pieces from Parkhouse's label, Carleen, this spring. Of the collection, Mankins explains: "I love the handcrafted look and feel of Carleen. The colors and textures of each piece are beautiful and unique, and each one-of-a-kind style has its own story and history. In today's mass produced market, pieces like this really stand out."
Last month—just before her collection arrived at Bird—we spoke to Kelsy on how she was able to start her own line, what it means to have it sold at her dream store, and the advice she'd offer other up-and-coming designers.
How long have you been designing?
I didn't get serious about it until I was applying to design schools, and then when I attended Pratt. I've always made stuff—paintings, skirts, anything. Ever since I was a kid I've always had a project. It's hard to draw the line of when I really started designing, because it used to be more of, if I wanted something, I made it for myself. And now it's a full-fledged line.
Pratt's fashion design program is pretty small, right?
It's really small. It's pretty intense, and there's a high attribution rate from freshman to senior year. My graduating class was about 34 people—just for the fashion design department. We do an end-of-the-year show, and not everyone in the graduating class is in it. Only 17 students show.
And Cathy Horyn wrote something nice about you. What did that feel like?
It felt amazing. I spoke to her a little bit at the reception. She's such a persona in the industry, but she was really down to earth and really nice. I just kept thinking, you're probably taking it easy on me because I'm a student. She knew where I was from and asked me about Long Beach. It was a really short conversation and then she walked away and I was like—did that really just happen?
What was the next step after you graduated?
Well, a big impetus to starting my line was that I won a grant at the Pratt fashion show. It had never even been on the table before that. But that happened, Cathy Horyn saying something nice about me in the New York Times happened. Before the fashion show, we had a jury panel—all of the students go to that, and that's a part of the decision process for who actually shows. Everyone has different people from the industry on their panel. [Vogue's Senior Market Editor] Meredith Melling Burke was in a different panel on the other side of the room, and she saw my coat and was like—I want to see that! She spotted it from across the room and called me up for a deskside at Vogue. It was all very exciting.
That kind of made me feel like there was this perfect storm of things happening, and it made me feel like, now or never. And I'm still nervous everyday—there's still a lot to be done, and I still want a lot to happen.
Natalie Joos wore one of your dresses to Paris Fashion Week. Did you know that she was going to do that?
Yes, I lent it to her. At the time, I was a super one-woman show. I had some contacts that someone I had worked for gave me, and someone recommended her blog. I sent a mass email—I didn't even specifically send it to her, but I should have—and she responded within five minutes with a screen shot of that dress asking if she could borrow it for Paris Fashion Week. And I just said absolutely, when do you want it?
Then she wore it, and there are a billion pictures of her in it. That dress photographs well, but she really made it look great. It was really exciting to see it styled differently too. In my lookbook it's very formal—it has a long underskirt—and I think that really showed people you can just take it and make it your own.
That's just another thing that goes to show how huge of an impact street style can have on a designer.
I don't know this for a fact, but I think she wore it to the Dries van Noten show too. Which made it extra exciting.
So your collection is going to be sold at Bird this spring?
Yes, they're getting their shipment in within the next couple days.
Jen is easily one of the strongest store owners in Brooklyn, if not all of New York City. How did you get your collection to her?
Bird was my dream store, and it was something that I've really been aspiring toward since the get-go. I hounded them a little bit: I sent physical lookbooks, I sent a lot of emails, and I didn't get in right away but eventually the Assistant Buyer Catherine emailed me back and said, "I'm so glad you sent me so many emails because I do really like this!" I always thought it was a good fit, and I'm glad they came around and thought so too.
What kind of advice might you offer up another aspiring designer? Do you feel that persistence is a really big piece of it? It sounds like that worked out well for you.
When I started approaching people about spring I was doing it on my own. I think that some designers can be really good salespeople, but I don't think I'm one of them. The follow-through that's needed for that type of persistence is really challenging. So, my biggest advice to anyone starting up would be to really have a plan for sales and know if you're the kind of person who can do it on your own or not. Because nothing goes anywhere if you don't sell it.
Where would you like to hopefully be within the next five years—would you ever want to open your own store?
I have been thinking about that more recently, but it's still pretty far in the future. A lot of growth is really important to me. To turn this into a sustainable enterprise it needs to get a lot bigger, but I really hope to maintain some of the things that I can do now because it is small. I want to keep that feeling of brand being special and independent.
How would you sum up Carleen? What's really important to you?
My main thing is that I really want things to be special without being too precious. I'm a wash-and-wear kind of girl, and I really want my clothes to be the same way. I don't want you to feel like you have to wear Spanx under them, or to feel that they need to be handled with kid gloves and kept in a cellophane bag in the closet.
I want it to be something that's really exciting to you, and you want to pull it out of the closet again and again and make it a part of your daily life. Or, maybe it's a dress you bought for a special occasion for a wedding, but then you put it into your rotation and style it down and make it something that you can wear more than once.