Interview: Samantha Pleet on inspiration, internships, and ethical fashion production.
It’s no secret that we at Coup De Main have been 100% obsessed with the designs of Samantha Pleet for a little while now - every collection she puts out is whimsical and magical, with the clothes lovingly designed to make you feel just that.
Pleet has been running her own designer label for over 10 years now, working with her partner Patrick to cultivate an entirely unique brand - of clothes that have been worn by the likes of Jenny Lewis, Lorde, and many more faves.
We caught up with Samantha in New York City last month to chat about her inspirations, collaborations, and thoughts on internships…
"...I tend to like things that look a little bit washed out - that you’ve already treasured. I don’t want it to look like this new commodity, I want it look like it’s part of you when you’re wearing it..."
COUP DE MAIN: What inspires your fashion? Is there a particular thing that you take inspiration from or just everything?
SAMANTHA PLEET: Everything! <laughs> I’ve been doing this for ten years, so when I first started out, the style was completely different, but at the same time I feel like I’ve stayed true to this magical whimsical fairytale world that I’ve wanted to create for myself.
CDM: When did you first have an interest in fashion?
SAMANTHA: I never really played with dolls - I would have my friends come over and I’d be like, “I have a dress-up bin! Lets go through it!” We’d just make plays and pretend, just kind of amuse ourselves in this fantasy world and then it started getting to the point where I would tie up fabrics together, like, "Hey look at what I just created!" I was really into acting. I was doing that as a child, and then singing, and voice-lessons, and learned five different instruments. I really wasn’t able to concentrate and learn them well enough, I was pretty mediocre at playing them, so I decided to just be an artist - I was going to be a painter, or a sculptor. So I did lots of fine arts programmes out of school and went to Pratt Institute, but then after my first year being at Pratt Institute and being in New York, I realised I really wanna do fashion! It’s something that I feel like I can bring all my elements into because there is so much that goes into it, in terms of inspirations and collaborations.
CDM: What was your style like as a child?
SAMANTHA: I went through many different phases. My first style, it was back in 1994 probably when I started becoming somewhat interested in fashion, and that was during the alternative-grunge era, so vintage Levis, ball chain necklaces. I had the two bleach blonde streaks in my hair, anime ringer neck t-shirts, blue lipsticks - that kind of sums it up. I would go to Hot Topic and Urban Outfitters to buy my clothes, I was definitely one of the most adventurous fashion-people at my school. People were like, “Go back to the 70s,” and I was like, “Okay, I wish - I’d really like to!” Patrick [Pleet] was funny because we were at school together, he was a skater and he had very similar boy-version style, he had green hair. Then I decided to become a raver, when it got to like 1997-1998. I cut all my hair off to look like Drew Barrymore from ‘Mad Love’, dyed it blonde and like Chloë Sevigny - that was the look - really giant pants, tube-tops, backpacks, and lots of bracelets with plastic pink and neon colours, lots and lots of eyeliner, that was my style! After that, when your hair is short-- I tried to transition. I was like, “I’m gonna be mod now! I’m just gonna wear Marc Jacobs and be really mod." And so that’s when I started to really get into fashion, and New York fashion in particular. That was kind of the last of my weird phases, since then I guess it just became normal Brooklyn hipster fashion. <laughs> When I started my line actually, my first year was back in 2007, and the style was like you wanted to look like a vagabond, like a pirate, so I had tri-point hats that my models wore walking down the runway, harlequin printed tights, little velvet blazers with matching shorts, rompers - I was one of the first designers to do them, so it had this very whimsical look to it. And then minimalism became really in, but I just kind of stayed true to not being a minimalist, and I’m quite a maximalist when I design, I can’t help it. <laughs>
CDM: Did you have any formal training for fashion?
SAMANTHA: Yeah, I went to Pratt Institute, where I did a BFA in Fashion Design, and then I did lots of internships while I was there.
CDM: What are your thoughts on internships?
SAMANTHA: I think they’re so important. I mean, I had amazing experiences, and I had some not amazing experiences. The most amazing one I had was at threeASFOUR - their studio is beautiful, it looked like the factory from Andy Warhol. It was kind of a dream, you’d never be able to be in a situation like that unless you put yourself in that position - it’s a very small company, so how would you ever have that experience? When you’re looking for internships, working for a small company is so much better because you’re not just gonna be doing one thing all day, you’re going to be observing every single thing that goes down in the company and you learn so much. I’ve had lots of interns, and most of them have started lines that are now even more successful than me! <laughs> I think that people really get to see, they get to learn from mistakes that were made at their jobs. I had some internships at magazines, and that can be a little hard, sometimes you’re in the way, and you have to make sure that you’re in the right internship for you.
CDM: What do you think is the number one piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring fashion designer?
SAMANTHA: Internships! In small companies, where you’re gonna become part of the team and have creative input, I think that is so important. Tyler, who was my intern last year, she was just so amazing and we worked so well together, and now I hired her. It’s such a great way of getting a job, especially since it’s so hard to find a job at a small company because we usually can barely pay ourselves, so to be the one person that’s picked - it’s great to have a relationship and be really into the line that you’re working with, and you can really become part of it.
THREE SONGS ON MY PLAYLIST…
CDM: The collaborations you do with artists are super rad, do you give someone a brief before you work together, or how does the process work?
SAMANTHA: Well, usually they’re friends of mine first. Recently I’ve just-- thank god for social media, because, Maria Ines Gul the painter, she’s an illustrator and I just love her work so I reached out to her on Instagram, like, “Let’s do a photo-story but instead of doing photographs can you draw people in clothing?” So that was an amazing one where I’ve never met her before and it was such an incredible collaboration. I just told her the inspiration and sent her pictures of the clothes. Then I’ll do ones that are much more hands on in my end - the one I’m doing with Jenna Gribbon, she’s a painter in New York, she does my prints, so we work together very closely. She’ll brainstorm and I’ll be like, “This is inspiration for the collection, and this is my palette." She’ll then put her whole mind into it as well, and it’s a whole lot of good back and forth, she’ll even contribute a little bit to my palette too because she may have some other ideas. She has to feel 100% confident in it because it’s her name on it as well.
CDM: When it comes to working on a collection, do you start a collection with a colour palette or a specific inspiration?
SAMANTHA: I kind of start from scratch every season. But I’ll make a Pinterest board of what I’m feeling right now and then I can share it with Patrick, we both add our inspirations together, then we’ll pull from there and maybe hang up some images. It kind of just starts with a major brainstorming session. We’ll maybe have like four different ideas of where to go but then there will be one idea that will take hold, and we’re like, “We can really design a lot off of this, this is great.”
CDM: The colour palettes that you use are incredible, I’m in love with your pastels. Do you think that specific colours in fashion can work to change how people feel when they are wearing the clothes?
SAMANTHA: Yeah! Definitely, colour makes such a difference in terms of attitude, like some colours can be so aggressive while other ones can be so warm and inviting, so I think that really matters when you are wearing clothing. I tend to like things that look a little bit washed out - that you’ve already treasured. I don’t want it to look like this new commodity, I want it look like it’s part of you when you’re wearing it, so I try to choose colours that are natural colours.
CDM: I feel like it’s good because they fit into what a lot of people already have, where as if you just have something crazily coloured it’s a lot more different to integrate--
SAMANTHA: Sometimes it’s nice to have a pop though, it’s just something that you want to be really juicy and beautifully coloured that you just wanna dive into!
CDM: I know in the new upcoming Resort Collection there are a couple of things that are metallic-coloured, which is a little bit different for you. What made you decide to go metallic?
SAMANTHA: It’s New Year’s, you’re designing things for a holiday. So when I think of 'holiday', I think of beautiful holiday parties, what would people be wearing this to, and confetti everywhere, and crystal balls. I’m thinking that perfect 80s New Year’s party. What would you wear? I thought silver, because you could look like an ornament at the party, it’s like you become part of the party, you’re a decoration. Also, it had an idea of armour which I really love as well, silver pieces that look like a piece of armour have always been an inspiration to me.
CDM: Do you shoot all your photos yourself?
SAMANTHA: I do a lot of editorials myself, but then I love to collaborate with people, like young photographers that I really want to work with, we’ll reach out and sometimes they’ll reach out to me, like, “I’d really love to shoot your pieces!” And then we’ll come together and come up with a story and cast and do the whole thing.
CDM: Do you prefer to shoot in a studio or outdoors?
SAMANTHA: For lookbooks I prefer to do it in the studio because it’s really about just getting the clothing captured and really understanding what I’ve created. It’s great to document my work and really show what it is, where it’s not gonna be too overwhelming - the model and the location - so it’s not gonna take away from that. But then I love to do photo-stories for my website where it’s more of the mood, it doesn’t really matter if it’s showing the clothing perfectly, it’s really about what we’re going for, more with designing the collection.
CDM: Is there anyone you haven’t dressed yet that you’d really like to dress?
SAMANTHA: So many people! There’s always actresses I’m like, “Oh I would love to reach out, I would love to get that person to know about my line.” I’m trying to think of a particular person... It would be great to dress someone like FKA twigs. I feel like when I first started my line, I was a lot younger and I knew a lot of really great bands and I’d be working with them, but I’d love to always reach out to new musicians. New York is great, but we’re definitely losing some of our music to other places that are really great, so I’d really love to reach out to people beyond the city as well.
CDM: I know our fellow New Zealander, Lorde, is a big fan of your work!
SAMANTHA: She is amazing, oh yes, she is a person I would have said! But she already does. <laughs>
CDM: Do you ever get designer’s-block? Do you have a technique to deal with it?
SAMANTHA: Everyone does! Take a vacation, take a bath. Just try and get yourself out of it. When you’re forcing yourself to come up with ideas it never works out. You have to take a break for a second. But then also, if it’s still not going well, then you really just have to sketch through it, and just keep sketching and sketching, just think out of the box a little bit then you’ll hit something and you’re like, “Wait this is amazing!”
CDM: I love that there’s kind of a girl-gang that wear your clothes, like Jenny Lewis and Lorde, and I think the clothes are really empowering. Do you think that fashion has the ability to empower people?
SAMANTHA: I definitely do, actually, Meredith Graves was here earlier is my friend and she is always the one who tells me, “Your clothes make me feel smart and sexy." That really nails what I’m trying to do with the clothes. It’s for strong women who wanna still look sexy and beautiful and have personality shine through in what they wear.
CDM: As fashion designers, you sort of have to sell yourself as part of the brand, it’s similar to being a musician in that sense. How do you balance being yourself but also selling yourself as part of the brand?
SAMANTHA: It’s an interesting thing. I do all of my own social media and I think it’s been really fun to just have friends that you can run around, take pictures with, and be yourself and you know - being able to find people that you can do that with, you can’t be by yourself. You can’t really explain who you are by just being in a room all by yourself, it’s really who you are associating with and who is around you. I feel so lucky to have met such creative, awesome people that we can take vacations and run around together, and be inspired! Just keeping your schedule full of interesting, fun things to do, is great for yourself as well and you just feel more happiness.
CDM: How often do you wear your own pieces?
SAMANTHA: I wear them everyday. I’m wearing this right now! <points at outfit> I don’t buy clothes - like why would I when I can spend money and just make my own? It is a little harder when you’re pregnant, but it also made me think about women who are.
CDM: Is it true that you ethically produce all your clothing?
SAMANTHA: Yeah, we’re really into making sure that they’re made with love, so we’ve produced in New York for years and years and years. Small companies like mine, the factories are just shrinking and shrinking and shrinking, and we were just taken advantage of a lot. We’ve been working with this amazing fabric mill in New York that produces in India, very fair-trade, organic fabrics, and we’ve been working with them since we’ve started. They’re like, “This is crazy, we need to make your clothes, we’re gonna set up a fair-trade factory for you in India and you should go and visit a few times a year." And it’s been the most amazing experience. We’ve gone seven times now in the last four years of making the clothes, we know everyone there, it’s a small-- there are 17 people that are working there. The women are running the office and I have a friend over there, she handles all the production. They also have offices in New York and it’s a family-business. It’s one where you just go and you have tea with everyone there and work directly with the pattern-makers and the sewers. We see the same people every time and they really understand how to make your clothes, and they really need the work.
CDM: Especially when there are so many commercialised companies out there.
SAMANTHA: It’s so true. When you go there, some of the conditions even in the cities are not wonderful, and I feel like in India it’s not cheap, but you’re getting incredible hand-skills that we just don’t have here anymore. The attention that each piece gets is amazing. We do a lot of embroidery and printing, so that’s been incredible. I’m also just amazed at how they take so many holidays. I’m like, “Where’s the staff?” They’re like, "Well, there was a holiday this week!" They get in at 9am and leave at 5:30 to 6pm, so the hours are very reasonable, it’s definitely not anything like a sweatshop. Although it is hot in India, even though there is air-conditioning in the factory, it’s always hot!
CDM: You’ve done two collaborations with Urban Outfitters now, how was that produced?
SAMANTHA: We produced it ourselves. The first one actually in 2008 they produced, but the one we just did, we did all the production. So my factory loved me, they were like, "This is so busy! This is wonderful!" We were two months late because it’s India. That’s the thing, they are always like, “We’ll do it! We’ll do it!” And it comes late. But I think that’s part of the price you pay for really good quality, fair wages, and important things like that.
Samantha Pleet’s new collection is out now - click here to shop.