Hi, I'm Erica. I'll be your designer.
Founder of Erica Waddell Clothing, 2010
All-Around Good Person (I Think)
Twenty Questions with Erica Waddell
Q1: Let's start off easy. How long have you been a designer?
A1: Mom taught me how to sew when I was about 13. It was the summer before I started high school. She showed me how to use a machine and follow a pattern, and I made an A-line dress out of some of her fabric from the 1960s. The second thing I made was also out of vintage fabric from my mom, but I didn't use a pattern. That was a top and a scarf. It didn't turn out too great, but I wore it for awhile, and I still have the scarf! So that gave me a lot of confidence to continue making clothes. I think before then, maybe around 11 or 12, I did some sketches for a fashion design contest that was probably my first thought of being in fashion, although I always had a very distinct style. So during high school, I continued sewing and finally decided that I wanted to focus on that as a career. Then, in college, it was costuming, fashion shows, a little online sales, and trying to get my clothes in stores. In my twenties, I helped start a sock company and was the chief designer (Condom Socks), and then ran a boutique in Santa Monica, followed by my current shop which opened in 2013. In ways, I feel like I've only been a designer since 2013 in earnest, but really, it's been over 20 years.
Q2: What made you want to be a designer?
A2: I like solving problems. I've never been into fashion magazines or celebrity style. To me, finding elegant solutions to problems and improving the material and experiential world around us is what I do best.
Q3: It sounds like you have a design philosophy - could you share?
A3: Sure! I'll give you the high level rundown. As far as we know, humans are the only creatures who wear clothing in the same capacity as we do, although other creatures don items on their bodies for protection or comfort. For us, apparel is more than just a cover-up. Clothing has many forms and many functions. To simplify all the aspects that clothing can occupy, I segment it into four quadrants:
- Personal Function (comfort, protection from the elements, etc.)
- Social Function (work uniform, cultural requirements, etc.)
- Social Form (attraction, conspicuous consumption, etc.
- Personal Form (self expression, individuality, etc.)
When a designer is solving a problem, it is important to optimize as many quadrants as appropriate for the client. When someone comes in and says, "I'm looking for a black skirt," it's my job to find out what quadrants need to be fulfilled. Are you uncomfortable in your business attire because they are too snug or is it that you are trying to get the attention of a guy in the finance department? You're trying to fill in a deficit. If the clothing is more about you as the designer than the client as the end user, you are no longer a designer. You're a textile stylist or garment manufacturer or graphic artist, but you're not a designer. The designer is here to optimize form and function for the end user.
A good designer doesn't just make cool-looking things. They answer the three questions: does this cool-looking thing do something useful, does looking cool make this thing more useful, and would a problem exist in the absence of this cool-looking thing? I should point out that I think that I'm far from being a good designer.
Q4: That's a lot of thought behind your work! Did you go to school for fashion?
A4: I briefly considered it, but no, I went to Harvard. So Harvard has a Graduate School of Design that's on the grounds of the undergraduate campus. However, there is no undergraduate track devoted to design. I originally was working on creating my own concentration (that's what we call majors at Harvard), but I decided to go on leave of absence and pursue my goals in the real world rather than pay tuition for a degree that wouldn't do much for me.
Q5: Who is your favorite designer?
A5: I'm a big fan of Erte - Romain Tirtoff. I wasn't that familiar with him until my twenties, so I wasn't directly influenced by him before becoming a designer. But I love his work because we have a lot in common. He was a major designer who influenced the Art Deco movement and was known for his opulence in costuming and fashion, but the thing that drew me to him was our similarity in approach. We both realize that the human body is innately beautiful to our own species, so no need to detract from our already attractive features. So you don't really need to do much to take a roughly two-dimensional material like fabric and have it accentuate a three-dimensional person. Nature's done that work for us. But, as I mentioned, we wear clothes for more than just covering. We wear them as an extension of ourselves, to project our personality, to portray the character we want the world to see us as. So color, material selection, silhouette is taken into account, but not to the extent that clothing should be excessive. There should be efficiency in the construction and elegance in the wearing so that the fabric works with the body as it moves through space. From there, the designer becomes innovative in the seemingly infinite ways that one can take fabric and wrap it around the human figure so as to enhance its grace. To often, I see fashion designers think like architects or structural engineers. I feel that we should think more like geomorphologist or astrophysicists. Not build clothes around a man but let man exist in concert with his environment, with fabric between the two - as permeable or impermeable as necessary. So Erte was far more extravagant than I prefer, but his genius in simplicification and functionality is something that I subscribe to.
Q6: You do most of the manufacturing of your clothes here at your LA area shop. That's pretty rare! What made you want to do that?
A6: I want to keep costs low for my clients! I like to solve problems. Wholesale is great from an accounting perspective, but I'm much more satisfied when I can interact directly with my clientele. So when I opened my current shop in 2013, I wanted to focus on solving the wardrobe issues of the individual who might walk into my shop, not a mass market trend. I was already making clothes on a small scale before for my previous location and occasional clientele outside of that, so I was set up for production. The reality is that start-up designers have to charge in the $100 - $250 range for externally produced items because of economies of scale.
Q7: I noticed that you use a lot of high-end materials from natural fibers. Do you do that for the environment?
A7: I'd love to say "yes" but really only the organic fabrics that I use I can claim that. I opt for comfort. I believe that there is sustainability in efficiency and waste reduction. If I make something superior to the poor quality items that you find at major retailers, then you'll care for it better, keep it longer, and not want to buy those other clothes that are trash after two washings. Related to that, natural fibers like silk, wool, cotton, bamboo, and linen breathe better and moderate body temperature. So you don't have to wear as much clothing to stay warm or change clothes to keep cool.
I do other things to help the environment. I design with waste minimization in mind, such that the only waste I have is food that I eat during the day and minor packaging waste from incoming supplies. I use virtually all scrap fabric. I stock 100% recycled paper products and natural cleaners in the wash room. And we provide cloth bags to clients that they get a discount for reusing.
Q8: Since you do both, which do you prefer - men's wear or women's wear?
A8: I prefer making women's clothes but prefer male customers! You could argue that's because I'm straight single woman, but it's more than that. Men's wear is precision sewing, and I'm really not a seamstress. Nothing wrong with being a seamstress, but my skill is in design, not sewing. Women's clothing is far less demanding, and women are far less demanding in terms of craftsmanship. Yet, men are more loyal customers.
The joke I always tell is that women are to clothing stores the way men are to women. They'll come in, love what they see, say that you're the best thing they've ever known, and maybe even buy a few things, but next week, you'll see them shopping somewhere else. Men will wait for months for a bespoke suit and not complain when you're late and not shop around if you don't call them back for a long while.
Q9: What is your favorite item in your closet not designed by you?
A9: I have a lot of vintage clothes and stuff from other designers, but probably my favorites are things Mom made or wore back in the day. She gave me a shirt in black with bell sleeves and gold dots from the 1970s that I love. I only have stuff in my closet that I love to wear, as there's no point to holding onto what you don't care about.
Q10: If you had to pick one thing, what is your favorite part of being a designer?
A10: Photoshoots. I have a wonderful team for photography, makeup, and talent, which is great because we all work well together. But the best part is that unlike sales that go out the door, I can actually pull up my photos and say "oh, yeah! I designed that!"
Q11: What's the worst part?
A11: Alterations! There's nothing worse than working all night to finish something and then the next day having the client try it on and not fit quite right. You have to rip all that you worked on and do it over!
Q12: What would you say you're the most proud of in your professional life?
A12: My ability to balance so much. Being an independent designer is hard, but to do it without business loans or borrowing from anyone and manage to stay open during a rough economy has been quite a challenge. It feels good every time I open my doors for business to know that I've bucked the trends.
Q13: Where do you get most of your inspiration?
A13: Well, I enjoy sourcing fabric, so the fabric itself is normally my inspiration for my ready-to-wear collections. Obviously, my bespoke clients give me enough to work from just by talking to them.
Q14: Each of your collections is tied to a poem. Is that part of the inspiration, too?
A14: The poems normally come to me after the shoot. I have a clear concept for a collection, but I want something to tie it up in a nice bow. Rather than describing what I've designed narratively, I try to find the most appropriate poem to represent the idea behind the collection. I'm a writer (although not much of a poet), so I'll write in a pinch.
Q15: You use very strong palettes in your collections. What are some of your favorite colors?
A15: When I was little, I decided that I wouldn't declare a favorite color because all colors are beautiful. It's really about color combinations. Any two colors can go together, but a third color can change that. Often, people will say "I don't look good in such-and-such color," but that is completely dependent on not just their skin color but also their undertones, eye color, and hair color. I have dark skin and look washed out in black, but I work with models with nearly the same skin color who look stunning in black.
Q16: Okay, now for some fun! What's your biggest guilty pleasure?
A16: I have two big ones. I'm a sucker for Jaguars, and I'm a sweet tooth.
Q17: What do you think is the worst fashion faux pas?
A17: Not being yourself. I see too many people with the same handbag, too many people wearing black, too many people afraid to dress up or dress differently or dress comfortably. At the end of the day, clothing is personal. You have to wear what's right for you. It's a form of silent communication as well as a form of protection. So why wear platform heels that you'll twist your ankle in or a shirt that makes you look like someone else?
Q18: If you weren't a designer, what would you be doing?
A18: All the other things I'm already doing! I write books and screenplays and play music and get involved in community activism. I'm doing an official launch of my chocolate company in 2015. So I'd be slightly less busy if I weren't a designer!
Q19: Wow! So, next question - how do you let loose?
A19: I live by the beach, so that's option A. Option B is dancing. But picking up an instrument or writing or, you know, chocolate are all up there!
Q20: What is the biggest business secret for new designers that you're willing to share?
A20: Realize that everyone started small, so define your success when you start so that you know when you've reached it. That's the way with all businesses. When you wake up every morning and realize that you're doing what you love, that should be a part of what you deem success.
2010 - present
2010 - present