Founder spotlight: Career Highlights & Inspiration
Welcome to another edition of our Founder Spotlight Series, focusing on Thea Pérez, Founder and Creative Director of Polychrome. This third post in the series highlights her early career and inspiration in fashion. Please feel free to submit questions for future posts!
Jessica: Ok, before we get into my questions, can you tell me about this photo? Looks like a fun time!
Thea: It was! This was taken in 1995. I was in Paris working for Geoffrey B. Small, and my two best friends from RISD, Susanne Barlett (at left) and Allison Paules (at right) were also there. Allison was working in Paris for Martin Margiela and Suz was there visiting her and getting her handbag line, Blanchard, off the ground. I was so happy that we all happened to be there at the same time. This picture was taken at a rooftop party the night before Geoffrey's runway show and I am wearing one of the hand-painted leather jackets from the line.
Jessica: I'm excited to have this opportunity to ask you about your career highlights. I think our readers are really eager to see how you've navigated the world of fashion! To start, did you have any early career experiences that made an impression on your work as an apparel designer?
Thea: Yes I did! A professional internship was required by the apparel department at RISD in order to graduate, so I had an internship for Mary McFadden during my winter session semester of senior year. It was a terrific experience for me because it was a small company and because of that I was given more varied work and responsibilities than I would have had at a larger one. Mary was in the office every single day and was very involved in the every aspect of the line; it was really great to have contact and be able to observe the founder of the company. I was also really fascinated with her signature fortuny pleating and how a line at that high price point was developed. It was here that I found others who were early mentors for me. I still think very fondly of her head designer, Tanya Ghantous, who was also a RISD grad. Tanya was very nurturing and kind to me, and really let me be involved as much as an intern could possibly be. There was also Dede Shipman, the President of the company; her office door was always open if you need to talk to her about something.
While I was there and almost at the end of my internship, Tanya gave her notice and she told me that Mary was considering hiring me to take her place. That would have landed me right into the position of being a full-fledged designer at a company I really enjoyed working with - and incredible opportunity. But I was so conflicted as to whether to take it or not. The main goal after graduation is always to land a job and launch your career, but to jump ahead and take the job without getting my diploma only one semester shy of graduation didn't feel right. So I decided not to pursue that opportunity with Mary. But it's one of those things that I look back on and wonder how different my career path would have been if I had chosen otherwise.
Jessica: Did you have a highlight working for Mary?
Thea: The highlight of my internship was actually having my designs put into the collection and on the runway! It's not all that common for an intern to have their own work put into a final collection. Here's how it happened for me... Most days I could be found helping Tanya in the design room, but one day the receptionist was out sick. Being the intern, I was asked to fill in at the front desk. Between answering phone calls or the door, I was sketching to pass the time because I was really inspired by the beautiful new fabric Mary had just gotten in for the new line. I didn't notice Mary approach because I was absorbed in what I was doing and before I knew it she had rifled through my sketches without saying much of anything and walked off with a bunch of them. I remember being really nervous because thought I was going to get in trouble for drawing while I was just supposed to be attending the door and phone. It turned out she had liked some of them and had brought them to the head seamstress to make protos. Months later, those pieces were on the runway and later in Saks Fifth Avenue. As you can imagine that was really exciting for me!
pieces above are some of the items I designed for Mary McFadden's 1993 Ottoman Sultans Couture Collection
Jessica: What was it like finding work early on after graduating college?
Thea: When I graduated, we were actually in a recession and it wasn't very easy for people to find work. I was pretty lucky because RISD has a legacy of helping students in the apparel department find placement. Unfortunately, the very first job I had didn't really work out, though. It was in New York and was for an evening wear company which wasn't necessarily my niche and the company that actually gone bankrupt not that long before I got there. I won't say who it was, but as you can imagine, it was not a great fit for many reasons.
So, there I was - pretty unhappy in New York and my family was pretty desperate to get me back to Boston instead of being so far away (we have a close family!). During this time my aunt sent me a news clipping about a Boston-based designer, Geoffrey B. Small. I thought what he was doing sounded so exciting, and it was an opportunity to get out of New York, where not only my work situation, but my living situation leaved a lot to be desired. I was so certain that this was this right job for me that I did something really uncharacteristic and I relentlessly pursued employment at Geoffrey’s even though there wasn't a job to be had there! I basically hounded him until he hired me, which anybody who knows me would be shocked to hear because that really isn't my style at all. I just had a strong feeling that that was where I was supposed to be - kind of like my determination to go to RISD, which I shared in my last interview.
As I mentioned, I called the office relentlessly until Geoff agreed to see me even though there wasn't an opening at the company. Actually, I had no idea how small the company was - I knew it wasn't huge but it was a definitely smaller than I had initially thought. It wasn't until a couple months after I had been hired that the woman who had answered the phones all those times I kept trying to get hold of Geoff told me that she had threatened to quit if he didn't at least meet me to finally put an end to the phone calls! So that's a story most people don't know about me and probably would never guess. Typically, I get really squeamish about intruding on someone because I hate the feeling I'm pestering anybody, but in this case I didn't let that hold me back.
Jessica: What was it like working for Geoffrey?
Thea: When I first started working for Geoff, he was on Newbury Street in Boston. It felt like an extension of RISD's studios in a lot of ways because it was very creative and people were extremely committed to being there and we were working grueling hours just like at RISD. The pay was pretty terrible, but I was getting a very unique experience so it was almost like getting a masters degree in fashion, which didn't formally exist when I graduated. This job felt like a continuation of my education and I dug in and learned everything I could. At one point I was working six days a week and I was usually there from 10am to as late as 10pm.
I was getting a lot of responsibility at GBS very quickly. Geoffrey was excited by the aesthetic and philosophy of the Belgian designers that were so influential at that time (the early 90's). He was at the forefront of making clothing in the deconstructionist style, which is clothing that had been taken apart, manipulated, and put back together in a completely different way. It was really exciting to be part of that avant-garde movement in fashion. What was also really thrilling was the fact that the work that I was involved with was in Vogue magazine and we even made it onto the calendar of The Chambre Syndicale for Paris Fashion Week. I was working on the RTW line and was talking to buyers of top boutiques in Europe and Asia and traveling to Paris to help with the runway show and in our pop-up showroom. I even got to take a turn on the runway myself to close the show! Here is a link to some of the archived show images from the 90's.
Jessica: That does sound exciting! What kind of stores did Geoffrey sell his work in?
Thea: Geoff was selling in stores like Barney's NY, If Soho in NY and Beirut, Maria Luisa in Paris, Seibu in Hong Kong, and many others; the stores were very avant-garde and in really fashionable districts. The clothes themselves would have only been worn by people who would fearlessly try out cutting edge trends - they definitely weren't what the average fashionable or merely stylish person would wear.
Jessica: Do you have any of the work with you from your days working with Geoffrey B. Small?
Thea: Absolutely! While I was working at there I made some limited edition t-shirts that were kind of these marvels of stitching. They were existing t-shirts that we deconstructed and stitched back together and they had vinyl pieces in them which we would embellish with intricate machine embroidery. It was funny, because when I used to make these t-shirts, Geoff would come in the sewing room and then say he had to leave because he couldn't watch me working on the industrial machine that fast. He was terrified I was going to hurt myself and sew over my fingers. In order to get the embroidery we wanted, you had to sort of move quickly in and out with the fabric and he didn't like to watch me do this sewing.
This deconstructed T-shirt with machine embroidery from the GBS collection is one of the few pieces I still own.
Jessica: Do you have any stories from other early jobs that helped you focus your direction or stylistic choices?
Thea: I would actually say that all of my jobs have impacted my direction in one way or another. At each I have learned something about myself and what I liked to do and where my strengths are, or I made networking connections that impacted my career path. Every job was an opportunity and another step in the journey.
The other thing that I would like to add is that I feel very lucky to have begun my career at the time that I did. Although there were some hurdles, like the financial recession I mentioned, the blessing is that I was able to work in fashion just before and then during the implementation of new design technologies and resources. I have had the experience of having to do in-depth research without the aid of the internet. This meant trips to physical archives, whether that is libraries, museums, or company collections. While I don't think that looking at digital images can completely replace those resources, it is difficult to imagine having only that laborious process to depend on now because it is so time-consuming. I have also had the experience of hand graphing sweaters (we'll get to that job in just a moment), and then later having to implement CAD graphing programs at the company to try to make our design development more efficient and seeing them through that radical transition was a great experience. I can even tell you stories of having to communicate with our manufacturing agents in Asia entirely by fax before email existed! When you stayed in Hong Kong for work, you would wake up each morning to a packet of papers shoved under your hotel room door of all the things your office back home needed you to address that day at the factories. It's hard to imagine working that way now, but I feel very lucky to have done it because it gave me a deeper understanding of the process in some cases. Also, I think figuring out how work as efficiently as possible and eliminate time-wasting techniques from processes has always been something that appealed to me - maybe you can chalk that up to my engineer father! Being in the industry when it was going through these transitions and implementing new processes was exciting and in a way all those experiences have come full circle in my current role, because overcoming inefficiencies and the frustrations they can create is one of the main reasons I started Polychrome.
Jessica: Did you have any other impactful moments in your career?
Thea: Yes, definitely. After I left Geoffrey B. Small, I decided I wanted to try a more corporate job for a different experience. Things like health insurance, a reasonable paycheck, and more financial stability sounded good for a change. Also, I needed a job where there would more opportunity for career growth and chances travel. Traveling is a large part of my inspiration and moving to corporate jobs gave me more opportunities for more varied travel. So I got a job at a company here in the Boston area called Robert Scott & David Brooks they had recently been bought from a small privately owned company by Kellwood, which is actually a very large manufacturer not just of clothing but of other consumer products as well. My new boss, Donna Bouchard, was the design director for the Robert Scott portion of the line which was the sweater division.
The Robert Scott counterpart was the David Brooks division, which was the wovens line and it had two design directors, Janey Cabral and John Brush. The three design directors had to work closely together to make sure that everything coordinated well. They had a high level of quality in their product, but it was a really different target customer then I had ever worked for before; my previous experiences were at a couture label, and then a very avant-garde brand, so this was a completely different target customer to keep in mind and not one I identified with easily. The product was better sportswear and the customer was considered "missy" and was a lot more conservative. The line was merchandised as outfits that were not necessarily matching but definitely coordinating.
This job was a major turning point for me because it was my first venture into knitwear. If I hadn't taken that opportunity at that early point in my career I never would have been a knitwear designer. It is a particular discipline within fashion, like designing activewear or denim, and it has its own path and skillset to acquire. The funny thing is that when I took that job I didn't know that I was specifically being hired as an Assistant Knit Designer and that sweaters and cut & sew knits were all that I was going to work on. Honestly, if I had known that before the interview, I may not have gone at all because when I was at RISD sweater design was my least favorite of all my classes in the apparel program! It's a good thing I didn't know that up front; all I knew was that I was excited for a change, and to work with other RISD grads (all three design directors were RISD alumna), and to learn something new. Initially, I started by working as a freelancer until both of us were sure it would be a good fit. After I was officially hired I actually stayed there quite a long time, but the the funniest thing was that the very first sweater that I designed for them was supposedly one of their top grossing sweaters of all time. It was again another high point for me, although I have to admit that the sweater I designed is not my cup of tea at all. The important thing was that the customer loved it, though!
This is the first sweater I ever designed for Robert Scott.
At this time, designs like this were started with a drawing on trace paper, which was then colored up, then you would chart all the colors and individual stitch variations by hand onto graph paper which corresponded to the correct knit tension.
The only way to get this information to manufacturers was to make several copies and mail them overseas - thank God copiers DID exist at that point!
Jessica: With such an ever-changing world that fashion can be, were there ever any surprises in the industry that college hadn't prepared you for?
Thea: Fast fashion! We were completely unprepared for that in a lot of ways and the industry is still dealing with the ramifications of it. This wasn't something that was present in the industry prior to the 90s. Originally, fashion brands were always started by designers that were creatively driven, but in the 80s, consumer product corporations we're buying up smaller fashion brands and even mid-size fashion brands. Those brands then stopped being designer-driven (creativity at the forefront), and started becoming more product-driven, with productivity and efficiency the top priorities. As business mindset changed from the forward-thinking work of a designer, it was more focused on the demands of shareholders or ideas of executives who didn’t have fashion forward insight but were looking at prior profitable sales for direction. It’s such a different philosophy because it often looks backwards and it wants to replicate those sales without taking the same risks that a designer driven company would, but what suffers is creativity and a sometimes a clear brand aesthetic. Another feature that large companies had that propagated fast fashion was the manufacturing power of a large company with a lot of capital. These companies were able to negotiate deals with overseas manufacturers by buying in such large quantities, and this helped to create the current state of textiles and apparel manufacturing. The other important component that precipitated the rise of fast fashion was a drastic change in the transfer of knowledge of what was happening on the the runways to the end consumer. Prior to the explosion of the internet in the late 90's, people largely relied on the "gatekeepers" of this knowledge to tell them what was fashionable, but once runway shows and trend information became readily available to the general public, consumer appetite for change really escalated. The influence of social media has only accelerated this frenzied pace.
Fashion has always mimicked, copied, borrowed, and even stolen, but with fast fashion, it now takes a fraction of the time for somebody to look at info in real-time and just replicate it in mass-production. That was a big change that I hadn't seen coming when I chose fashion as a career; I don't think many of us could have. I had no idea that these changes could create so many companies where being creative was not a priority. Overall, I think it has been a destructive force in the industry not to mention the impact it has had on the environment and in working conditions for manufacturing countries.
Jessica: I agree with you here. I think fast fashion is something that had hit the fashion world rapidly and continues to have a foothold in the community today.
Thea: Exactly! Even the way designers have showcased their work has evolved. Fashion Week wasn't something that the whole world was exposed to back then; it was exclusively for magazine editors, important buyers for big department stores, and maybe the occasional valued customer. It wasn't something that everybody everywhere could see paraded down runways and broadcasted around the world. All in all, the change of how quickly fashion could be accessed has been one of the catalysts for fast fashion. Now something seen on the runway can be replicated and hanging on a rack someplace else within 2 weeks, so it's not only the information exchange that has expedited, but also the manufacturing capability. That exponential speeding up of the fashion process has been really detrimental in a lot of ways - to the planet, the industry, the designer, and even the consumer. More people are starting to get concerned about sustainability recently and it is finally starting to register at the consumer level. I think it is only a matter of time before consumer demand necessitates a shift for companies to implement better practices. That's when we will start to see real change and hopefully it won't be too late to reverse some of the damage to the planet, but I think the more nuanced change in how this has affected the jobs of designers insofar creative freedom may never be quite the same.
Jessica: Did you ever have any moments of doubt in your career when something took a turn that you weren't prepared for or you didn't envision things going the way they did?
Thea: Almost everyday (hahaha!), but seriously, I never doubted that I should be in the fashion business. I still really love researching trends, creating, and helping to develop beautiful product. I honestly can't see liking anything else quite as much, but that doesn't mean that I don't have doubts all the time. Just like every creative I know, there are moments when I can doubt my abilities. For example: sometimes when you are working so intensely on developing trend, you start to worry that your timing isn't right - maybe you're too late, but really that usually stems from having looked at the imagery for that particular trend for so long. In reality, that the trend is not old at all, it just looks old to you. If anything, more often we have found that we launched a trend a little too early and maybe didn't give it enough time to mature.
As much as it is important to reevaluate your work and try to be objective, it's also really important not to second guess yourself unless you have gotten new data to justify that. The most destructive doubt that happens to a lot of creative types can stem from something that should be wonderful - being surrounded by so many incredibly talented and inspiring people can lead you to a place where you're wondering if you can cut it. That impostor syndrome can really hit creatives hard. Instead it is so much more constructive to allow all those talented people around you to challenge you to practice, grow, and get better. It is vital to work collaboratively when you can; I really think that's the greatest weapon to fight impostor syndrome when it creeps up on you.
And just like everyone else, I am learning everyday and I have to acknowledge to myself that I am a work in progress. So is Polychrome, but unchanged at its core is the reason why I started the business - to alleviate some of the stresses in the development process for apparel and product designers, so they can focus more on creating beautiful product.
Jessica: Can you tell us what your career highlights are at this stage of your career?
Thea: I guess my career highlight would be creating Polychrome and being able to recruit so many talented artists to come on board and take this leap of faith with me. I feel privileged to create the trends that drive the collection and to collaborate with these talented artists and designers to deliver to our customers a print that is working tool, not only a thing of beauty. I also genuinely enjoy building client relationships and getting to know more about their businesses and what their needs are as far as prints and trend forecasts. I take pride in what Polychrome has blossomed into and that we are providing client-focused benefits that other print studios do not. I am really excited to watch this company I built continue to grow!
Our global team of artists and their wide-ranging set of talents and styles are what make our print collection so unique!
Jessica: You mentioned previously that travel has been a part of your inspiration in your career. What other things are key sources of inspo for you?
Thea: I think if you ask most designers they will tell you that travelling is such an important inspiration for their work, and I am no exception. When you're traveling, I think your senses are more acute and you're really in observation mode - you're experiencing new people, sights, culture. So, I think to be really inspired closer to home, you need to simulate that heightened state of awareness by creating even small experiences of newness. Things that are really inspiring for me are: meeting with other designers to see what they are working on and challenged by, going to museums, not only art museums (although those are what I frequent most), but also natural history museums, science museums, and cultural museums - the Tropen Museum, in Amsterdam is a favorite, but for me that involves travelling, so that's cheating a bit! I also love books, and find films to be very inspiring; we actually have an ongoing series of posts on the Polychrome blog all about films that are really inspiring for fashion - they're tagged #FashionFilmFun. I enjoy attending events with the Apparel Designers Network as well. Experiencing art exhibits, lectures, and studio visits with the group is very inspiring because you can exchange ideas and insights from a common perspective. Just recently, we visited Boston’s MFA to see their impressive Gender Bending Fashion exhibit and we also attended a lecture at Mass Art by the iconic shoe designer, Stuart Weitzman.
Jessica: How do you help your clients solve problems around inspiration in their work?
Thea: The only two products that Polychrome offers on our online marketplace are original print artwork and trend forecasts. The trend forecasts are extensively researched and then condensed to be a concise and insightful source of information. There are other wonderful trend services that provide a ton of resources and information, but sometimes it is too abstract, or simply waaaay to much info to wade through, so the task of doing so can get put off in a busy design room. Our reports get right to the point and deliver inspo and mood materials, but also palettes with Pantone TCX codes and specific direction for prints, silhouettes, and other important details. They are very focused and really help kick off the design cycle with clarity.
The prints themselves are developed directly from our trend forecasts, so if there is a particular trend that resonates with you, you can find corresponding prints that go with that trend's aesthetic direction and colored in that corresponding palette. Our global team of artists are not only up to date on our trends but are also attending important exhibits, cultural events, and traveling and all that informs their work with us. The outcome is a distinct and varied collection of beautiful original artwork all of which is in true repeat and engineered to be easy to use. In fact, they take a fraction of the time to recolor or edit compared to competitor's prints and that can alleviate the bottleneck that often happens at the CAD'ing stage of development.
Both of these products help free up time while also providing important inspiration, so our clients have more time to focus their energy on the actual designing of their product. For clients who need help with custom design work, we are always open to collaborating whether it's developing custom prints, helping with trend interpretation focused on their specific target audience, illustrations, or custom color palettes, so there are lots of ways we can help our clients stay on calendar.
As a matter of fact, next week I'll be in NYC April 16-18 to give in-personal print viewings of our Polychrome print collection. We still have some slots available in our schedule, so anyone who is interested can book a viewing by going to this link!
Jessica: Speaking of connections, you also mentioned in our last conversation that you're the founder and leader organizer of a network group for fashion designers called Apparel Designers Network. Can you tell us a bit about creating this group?
Thea: I started the ADN for several reasons, but one of the main drivers was Polychrome. As I was launching my new business in 2016, I knew that rekindling old connections and cultivating new ones was going to be vital to its success. When it comes to networking, I am convinced that is is one of the most important things you can do for your career no matter what the field, but I admit to having a bit of a contentious relationship with it personally. It used to play out something like this: even though I may have been really interested in the event I signed up for, I would often find that when the day came around to actually attend, I would sometimes talk myself out of going. There's an endless supply of justifications for this, and I'm sure lots of readers out there can relate to these - you're tired at the end of the day and there's nothing you want less than rallying to making an appearance and be professional for a few hours more; you're not feeling so confident and just want to go home where it's safe (and there's ice cream); the weather's lousy; blah, blah, blah - it doesn't really matter why you just don't want to and your resolve is spent.
The really silly part of all this is when I did follow through and force myself to go I almost always had a good time, came away energized, and made some good connections with my peers. The desire to shirk networking is powered by the same mysterious and malevolent force that keeps you from establishing any healthy habit even when you feel so good after doing whatever that is. Anyway, I decided that the best way to cut that out and make sure that I was networking would be to actually run events myself because I had to show up to something that I organized, right? No more lame excuses, because you can't bail out on your own events (haha)! So, that's one of the main reasons why Apparel Designer Network came about; just my own life hack to force myself to go exercise my networking muscles not only for the benefit of Polychrome, but for my own creative self as well.
Above is a photo of the holiday gathering of the ADN at Boston's Museum of FIne ARts - we saw the Ansel Adams exhibit together.
Another important reason why I started ADN was that I saw a void especially in the New England area for people who are already working professionally in the fashion industry to get out and network. There seem to be plenty of supports for independent designers or for recent grads who are trying to start their own lines and have their own runway shows, but what I didn't see was support or events of interest for people working at established mid and large brands. Those designers really need to network, too. Almost every designer I know can trace the majority of their jobs back to some connection they had that smoothed the way. We all know this, but yet many neglect networking until they need to find another job or ask for something - that is not the best time to network. The best time to network is when you have something to offer because then you are operating from a position of generosity and it's so much easier to establish connections when you know you have something to give and don't feel vulnerable. When the time comes that you do need something, you have already established connection and it is much easier to ask when you've already helped so many people.
The last reason is that I truly enjoy connecting people. When I meet someone who shares a goal they have in mind but not yet achieved or a specific need or interest, I’m excited to link that person with someone I think could help or that has a common interest. Connecting people is something that's just in my nature and I'm happy to have created a platform to facilitate that. Lots of people that have come to the Apparel Design Network have made really meaningful connections to help each other with creative projects and collaborations or to smooth the way to achieve a goal. We have members who have gotten a job through the network, found resources for materials or solutions to problems, or found their next rockstar intern. I think it's excellent that members of the ADN group are open about needing help, exchanging ideas, and supporting each other.
Jessica: Thank you so much Thea for giving us a look at your career in fashion! Next time we talk, let’s delve into trend forecasting - what it is and why it's valuable.
Thea: That's one of my favorite subjects! I’m excited to chat with you again and I hope our readers feel free to ask me any questions because I can address them in future posts.
We hope you enjoyed this bit about our founder and creative director. If you have any questions, leave them below!
We'll be sure to cover them next time in our #AskMeAnything series.
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