Adam Arnold – Fashion Designer

Bespoke of clothing made to order

Bespoke.  That is what the Adam Arnold brand is.  The Adam Arnold name is about being made to order.  It is about taking a client from concept to design, and about clothing made and tailored specifically for that client. Working out of his Portland studio, Adam has been creating his designs for years. Knowing that designing wasn’t just a choice, but a calling, Adam decided early on that his path was already set. AboutFace had the chance to ask Adam a few questions about his designs and processes, and for a little advice for aspiring designers.

Adam-arnold-poolHow do you think your education and internship/previous jobs prepared you for the industry?

    “My pre-college experiences taught me how to ‘pump out’ designs related to an abstract idea in a relatively short period of time.  My formative years (12 – 20) were spent working with my aunt, who was a freelance designer and contractor for Nordstrom’s visual merchandising team.  I was responsible for brainstorming costume and design ideas, taking general cues from the visual department, sketching those ideas, and then choosing fabrics, drafting patterns and making prototypes that my aunt would then contract out for production.  These were always on strict deadlines. So I learned to respect the deadline, and to be able to come up with and sketch many ideas based on a theme in garment form.  Consequently, what I lost in developing social skills, I gained in becoming a design machine.”

What challenges as a working designer, have you found in the Portland Market (i.e. do you have enough support from people looking to actually buy your designs? Is the market here big enough to support a full time designer without having to do a “day job”?)

“Because I make bespoke garments, and I need the people to be present to do fittings, all of my clients are in Portland.  The ones who aren’t used to live here and I have their patterns on file.  I am a full-time designer, and I have found that as far as I am dedicated to my craft, the means to which I can perpetuate that craft reveal themselves.  In fact, working for myself, I find that I work longer hours than if, say, I worked for someone else.  As far as challenges in the Portland market go, I’ve found that I constantly have to educate people on what it is that I do.  People in this area just don’t see a person who can make a garment that fits them from start to finish, so I need to describe what that process looks like.  I assume that in other, more metropolitan cities with an established fashion industry, people are savvier to this kind of profession.  I am truly thankful that I have been able to create this life here, where I am able to pursue my passion, and continue to do so.  I know that this is because I have established a trust with my clientele and they tell others about their experiences and my work.”

Portland is so “green” in their thoughts and lifestyles. Does that influence you in any way with your designs or your fabrics?

“A lot of the things that I do could be considered ‘green.’  I would never say it though.  ‘Green’ brings to mind another popular Portland term, ‘sustainable.’  I can’t think of many other things that could be considered more sustainable than being a designer who has lived solely off of his work for the last thirteen years, a few of those being during the “Recession.”  I would never call myself ‘sustainable’.  Calling yourself these things, to me, is kind of like calling earrings ‘fashion earrings.’ If you have to call yourself that, that’s probably the one thing you aren’t.”

Are you inspired first by an idea and then go looking for fabrics and textures or is it the textures and patterns of fabrics that help decide the direction of where you will go for that season?

“It really depends on the project or situation.  I always surround myself with fabric. So I am constantly being inspired by it — its color, texture, use, and so forth.  It’s kind like a kettle simmering on the back of a stove.  Sometimes a client will come by and be interested in a garment, and I reach for the fabric that has almost been waiting just for them!  Also, often a client is looking for a specific item in a certain fabric, and I will need to source it.  Through the process of searching, other possibilities arise, sometimes better than the original idea.  And of course, there are times when I have an idea of something I would like to make that may or may not have a particular fabric involved.  In those cases, I will sketch it out, and sooner or later the correct fabric is found.  Sometimes even later down the road, I’ll make it up in yet another fabric that completely takes the design to a new level, therefore inspiring a new design, so the whole thing is like a giant wheel turning and turning on itself.”

Where do you see future trends going? Do you incorporate trends in with your designs or do you “create” your own?

“I actually try to make an effort to not know what is going on trend-wise.  I think this goes back to my previous statement about exercising the ‘personal vision, muscle.’  You lose a little bit of your unique vision when you worry about whether or not someone is going to like something, or whether or not the public is going to react positively to it.  I think it’s much better to be certain that YOU like what you are making.  Someone told me a while back that if you make something that you like, and no one else does, at least someone likes it; but if you make something that you don’t like, and no one does, then NO ONE likes it. “

What trends have you seen during your career that make you just want to scream “ENOUGH ALREADY”?

“The trend of people whining about how there aren’t the resources here for designers.  I was under the impression that, as designers, we were supposed to be creative people.  Being creative has always been about finding ways to express yourself using the materials that you have access to. There is a wonderful quote by Søren Kierkegaard, saying, ‘The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful, he becomes.’ Oh, and I absolutely DESPISE topknots.”

What do you think of the garments coming out of countries such as China or India that are mass produced? Do you think the quality is there or does it get “lost in translation”?

“I like the concept of factories, breaking down what I do in the studio into steps, and making thousands of things at once.  Obviously, there are ethical issues related to this subject.  I suppose there have been since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  I think the quality of garments manufactured in Asia and sub-continental countries have far surpassed the 1970’s or ‘80s stigma of “Made in China”. The US began outsourcing production to these countries, and like everything, the quality gets better over time.  What is lost is the ability of the US to compete anymore, as skilled labor in this country has begun to die out as a result. “

How do you balance your creativity with commerce?

“When what you do on a daily basis for a living is your passion, it becomes inseparable from your life.  It feels like your life’s work.  Think about how fiercely one will fight to survive.  This is how fiercely I will fight to continue pursuing my passion.  It is indeed inseparable.  I feel like it is more difficult for a person in this position to balance their passion and life with self-care and downtime.  Creative burnout is a very real thing that can be curbed by the consistent practice of discovering new ways to make yourself happy.”

Who would you consider your Muse? What celebrity (past or present would you love to get your hands on and dress and how do you see what you would do for them?

I think my ‘muse’ changes.  There have been many muses for different periods of my life.  Muses tend to appear when you least expect them, and when you are craving that little push in the inspiration department.  I decided to start working for myself when I met someone who absolutely sent me reeling with wanting to make clothes for her.  It was like I had created a parallel reality where I imagined her life and everything she would wear.  As far as celebrity muses go, Shelley Duvall comes to mind.  So do Ali McGraw and a young Dean Stockwell!”

How did your personal history influence your views on fashion or does it?

Growing up in rural Washington, I was always ‘dressing up’ to go to school.  This could be because I have always been fascinated by the costumes and reinterpretation of the self through clothing.  Who hasn’t put on an outfit and felt more confident to do something, or felt transformed by the clothes they wear?  As in costumes, we ‘become’ the costume we put on.  This is something that we all can do in our personal lives to experience transformation.”

If you had to give advice to your younger self, what would that be?

I would tell him that he was actually very brave to be himself, and to express himself through his clothing; that being different is not something to be ashamed of, but to be celebrated!”

What recommendations would you give to an aspiring young designer if you were going to mentor someone?

“I have actually mentored many aspiring designers, and two of the main things I stress to them are:  1) To gain as much knowledge of fabrics and construction as they can, for I believe it is nearly impossible to be a good designer without mastery of materials; to spend as much time as they can working with fabrics, learning to sew and make clothes, and becoming insatiable for new knowledge surrounding these subjects.  2) Develop your inner voice in terms of what you are inspired by, and don’t be afraid to follow this voice when it tells you to find inspiration in places other than current fashion magazines and trends.  This voice is your expression, and it is a kind of muscle that grows stronger the more you use it.”

Feature photography by Dax McMillan

Fashion photography by Adam Arnold

About The Author: Jewel Mignon