Interview: The rising New York designer inspired by Japanese philosophy and boyhood

Originally published on HERO online 31st October 2016

Since launching her own menswear line while studying fashion at Parsons New School of Design, Colleen Allen has championed a unique vision in celebrating the imperfect. From her debut collection inspired by the Japanese philosophy Wabi-Sabi to her archeologist-referencing FW16 range, the Chicago born designer selects muses from the fields of science and nature, experimenting with unconventional shapes and fabrics to realise truly unique pieces.

Now presenting her third collection, Allen is looking to shake up SS17 with her interpretation of a seismologist’s boyhood nostalgia. Perfectly captured by photographer Luke Abby, the campaign sees musician Dan English tinkling on keys, staring into a super 90s screen and generally hanging around on a bedroom floor. Here Colleen shares the inspirations behind the collection and campaign and tells us why celebrating the individual spirit is so important to her.

Natalie Turco-Williams: Tell me about the inspiration behind your SS17 collection…
Colleen Allen: SS17 started out with the idea of the seismologist – one who studies earthquakes and seismic waves. I loved this very literal personification of impermanence and mortality and began to think about the shifting of the earth as this representation for the shift between boyhood and manhood.

From there, I began to explore this transition through breaking down the “uniform” of the typical suburban American man of the late 90’s-early 2000’s that I grew up with. I wanted to subvert these archetypal items to serve the spirit of the teenager who wants to break out of the confines of suburban expectations.

NTW: So having grown up in the late 90s, what is your favourite nostalgic moment growing up and did it have any influence on your collection?
CA: I grew up with two older brothers, who really provided the inspiration for this late 90s-early 2000s boyhood nostalgia. I have a vivid memory of sitting on the couch eating cereal and watching Power Rangers and Spiderman with them before they went to school. The red turtleneck is definitely a direct reference from that, and pieces like the layered tee, hoodie and boxer trousers follow in that spirit. The other pieces such as the boot-cut denim, khakis, and sweaters derived from the way my dad, and other Midwest men dressed at the time. As a woman designing for men, I think this collection tapped into my earliest perceptions of how men dressed and sort of made fun of those ideas.

NTW: In your collections, your muses have always been intellectuals within particular areas of science and nature, including SS17’s seismologist. What drew you to such a specific person as a seismologist?
CA: It’s refreshing for me to explore science and the natural world because so much of my work is based in the abstract. The seismologist just came coincidentally; I was reading an article from The New Yorker about earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest in the US and I sort of got on this imaginative tangent from there. I never know where inspiration will come from but once I find a new idea I become obsessive until I feel like I’ve fully entertained its possibilities.

NTW: With your muses being so specific, it feels as though your inspirations have always been about celebrating the individual spirit – is the idea of individuality something you focus on when designing?
CA: Definitely. The men who inspire me are the ones who are unapologetically themselves. They don’t conform to societal norms – whether it’s through their personal interests, the way they dress, or their sexuality. Wabi-Sabi is the celebration of the imperfect and impermanent. It’s an ancient philosophy, but I feel that it’s more relevant than ever in a society that’s obsessed with perfection and immortality. The scars you have, or the rips in your jeans all make up the stories that create the individual. I want to encourage that attitude and relationship to the physical world which we have such an obsession with editing.

NTW: Having used Wabi-Sabi as inspiration for your debut collection, have you continued to use the idea of ‘imperfections’ within your SS17 collection?
CA: There is a Japanese practice called “Kintsugi” which is based on the Wabi-Sabi philosophy. When ceramics break, they are pieced back together with gold. The idea is that the more life the object experiences, the more beautiful it becomes. I wanted to explore this same concept by utilising darning, which is a really domestic and intimate way to repair clothing. I purchased some of the denim and knit fabrics secondhand, which had holes in them from their previous owners. I felt that the pieces that referenced manhood needed real history in order for the feeling of experience to come across, rather than if I had faked distressing myself.

NTW: In your collections you often cross the boundaries between gender, what’s your take on gender when you’re designing?
CA: I see gender as a spectrum, and within that I want to give men a larger spectrum of clothing that they can interact with. Again, it goes back to celebrating the individual, rather than trying to make every item I create work for an entire category of people. I hope that each person who looks at the collection can find at least one piece that they relate to. As a woman, I wear my own menswear collection, and I have had many other women wear pieces as well. It doesn’t mean that we identify as men, but can interact with levels of masculinity or femininity that compliment our personalities.

NTW: So you’re in the midst of revealing your SS17 collection, what else have you been up to?
CA: I’ve just moved to London and I’m so excited to collaborate with the people that I’ve met here. The amazing thing about the medium of clothing is how much it can change and evolve in new contexts – each wearer, stylist or photographer can give each piece new meaning. I’m hoping to keep making pieces that I can put out to interact with the real world.

Photograph: Luke Abby


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