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A designer in becoming: Liv Ryan

Aug. 8, 2018
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I met Liv in her last year at Pratt Institute while she was working on her senior show, and I was struck by the number of pieces and new ideas Liv had come up with. Liv’s creative spirit is ever-expanding, as is her and hard-working ethos. While a lot of the people I talked to in their last year of art school seemed to be quite stressed regarding the post-grad jump, Liv was always calm and collected.

When we met on the stoop of her family’s home in Windsor Terrace a couple months after her graduation, Liv was brimming with ideas and described to me her intent to transition from womenswear to menswear. She also emphasized her desire to build an intersectional practice, welcoming collaboration with furniture designers, ceramicists, and other craftsmanships. 

This is the transcription of a conversation with my dear friend whose creativity and strong sense of style I admire, and whose words I hope will inspire you.

Philo Cohen: How do you think being in the same environment throughout your whole life affects what you make?

Liv Ryan: Both my parents are artists, so I’ve been around artists my whole life. Also, my best friend’s parents are artists, so as children we’d make sculptures and paintings for fun, and go to museums, but it wasn’t until later in high school that I really started feeling like a creative person. I was doing costuming at LaGuardia and I hated theatre, but I really liked making clothes. I decided I wanted to go to fashion school, and I didn’t even know what I was doing, but we were right by Lincoln Center, so every season we would see all the fashion people walking around, and I thought it was a really cool industry to be a part of… When I got into college, I really started getting into design and learning about design philosophy. I don’t think I would have gotten to that place if I wasn’t in New York. Now I think I could go any place and find inspiration to work off of, but I think growing up as an artist—figuring out what medium you [prefer] and how you like to work and express yourself—environment really influences your ideas. Sometimes you don’t even realize it because you’re so immersed in it; it’s everyday life, [so] you don’t take a step back [to] think [about] how grateful you are for everything that happens in the city. But I don’t think I fully realized that until college. Everyone was leaving for school, but I didn’t leave, so it was the same, but it was also very different. I remember taking art history and talking to my parents in a different way than I had before, because I had so much art knowledge and lingo. Before, I was kind of like, “Oh, this is cool,” but I got so into it that I had more in-depth conversations with my parents about art, and they helped guide me as a designer as well. My mom loves textiles too, so it was nice having her there to help figure out my design identity. I think I took a lot from my parents, even though we are very different. 

Philo Cohen: What do you plan on doing now that you’ve graduated?

Liv: Right now, I’m just taking it day by day. I turned down a bunch of jobs, because I initially I thought I wanted to jump into employment in the fashion industry, and I was offered a full-time position, but I realized I couldn’t do that; it’s been a crazy four years, and I need to breathe and figure out what I want and who I am as a designer and if I can do it myself. Both of my parents are [freelancers], and they said I should just start doing my own thing. So I am working on that and business plans for investments, because it’s so expensive doing factory work. My earring designs [have] taken off, which is crazy. I just made them with my collection, and people wanted to buy them and now it is my side hustle. I deliver them. It’s awesome how many people want to support [me], and I am just hoping this little trend takes off, but I don’t want people to forget who I am, so I want to keep designing and building my presence. The earrings are so easy for me to make; I can just do it on my own. Also, I will start designing samples for menswear soon. That’s my next step: to take a break from women’s [clothing]... I didn’t want to be limited to women’s [clothing], and I love men’s clothing too although I have never designed it before, so I thought it could be really interesting. I take a lot of inspiration from men’s workwear and such, so I want to push that and see where it goes. Menswear can be unisex, because a woman could wear it too. It’s stupid because it doesn’t have to be men’s or women’s. I think eventually I only want [my designs] to be unisex and have all the styles in flexible sizes, but I would love to do a small men’s summer capsule collection. I want to do more women’s this summer, too. I may shoot them together. I am still in the design phase. School confines you in a way. Sometimes the professors have strict guidelines, and now I am doing whatever I want and I can take techniques that I learned in school and set my own boundaries. For the most part I want it to be minimalist and clean cut, with maybe some interesting textiles. White denim, and a lot of linen for the summer, light knits. 

Philo: How do you promote your designs?

Liv: I just put my designs on Etsy recently, but it is mostly all through Instagram, which is crazy because it seems to be something so important these days; you have to curate your whole page, and be posting once a day, [adding to your story] all the time. You really have to do that or else people won’t be looking at you. I don’t know how some people have so many followers. That is something I definitely have to figure out, which is weird, but it’s been working through connections. I’ve had friends posting pictures of themselves wearing my things, and then their friends will contact me… Soon, I’d like to develop a website. I would love to do a joint collection with another artist so it’s not just me. I also like the idea of a website like M.Crow, which has a range of clothing items and household items.

Philo: Do you only use fashion-related materials?

Liv: I think I can get a little avant-garde if I’m using other materials. For some of the prints I used paint, spray paint, things like that, but besides that, I haven’t been using a lot of found materials. I’m trying [to] create sustainably, so I avoid harsh chemicals. I’m also not as interested in textile manipulation as others are. There are a lot of people that do some really cool stuff like that, and I think it does move it in a more avant-garde direction, and that’s the reason I was more hesitant about it. Sometimes I just want to use plain fabric. I don’t want to have to manipulate the fabric, I just want it to be what it is. If the fabric is beautiful, why change it? I think in the fashion industry, especially in school, they push you hard. If you don’t manipulate the fabric, your work doesn’t matter. They really want you to develop your own textiles, and at first I remember hating it because I just wanted to make very minimal, sleek, clean-cut pieces. However, it does push you out of your comfort zone and force you to try different techniques.

Philo: What are your takeaways from school?

Liv: I had a really good experience at school. I think it was the best experience I could have received, and I don’t think I would have wanted to be anywhere else. Pratt was very cool, and super hard. All my friends who went to LaGuardia basically told me they had half the work I was doing. Some of their work was writing long papers, which I didn’t have to do, but I still had a lot of work I had to manage effectively. Everybody in my program was very close, talented, and inspired by one another. I had some really great professors, too; everyone who spoke there was from the industry, so it was nice to have their input and hear their stories. I also loved being in New York and having the [ability] to go to different shows.

Philo: Are the clothes handmade? 

Liv: It depends. I like doing a lot of handwork. For my junior thesis, I did a lot of handwork with large, imperfect stitchin. It really depends on what you’re trying to do with it. For my recent collection, [I wanted] a lot of the denim pieces… to be clean [and] very sturdy, because it was supposed to mimic workwear, so that was more machine-made. I really like doing handwork, though. I do a lot of hand knitting too.

Philo: Where do you get your materials?

Liv: The clay I buy in bulk on Amazon. I also go to the art store to buy garnishes and different glazes for it, and the glaze is great because it makes the work look so much more high-end. Eventually I want to use porcelain, but that’s hard for both the artist and the buyer. The clay earrings are delicate but not too fragile. I go into the [Garment District] for my fabric, which is on the blocks from 34th to 42nd on 7th, 8th, and 9th Avenue. It can be overwhelming with people and fabrics, but if you really like fabric, it’s perfect. I’ve also been trying to find sustainable, secondhand materials. I don’t really want to be contributing to a landfill, so I try to buy more organic or biodegradable fabrics, or make something that will last a long period of time. There are different ways to go about being sustainable, but I think for me the biggest thing would be to make sure that my fabrics are well-sourced, with good factory rights—to really know where the fabric is coming from. Especially denim. I don’t buy anything with specific washes on them, because those are very hard to make, are very strenuous on the workers, [and] the dyes are harmful. [In] the future, I would love to dye 100% cotton clothes naturally, for example with avocado dye. 

Philo: How do you hand-dye without a studio?

Liv: I had studio access at my school, but I barely worked there. I just had a big pot and put all my fabric in there. I would store half my stuff at school, but now… my space is just full of all my work, my fabrics, all these samples I made. I have bins of samples and such that I need to go through—things that I never finished. I’m looking for a studio, but that’s tough. I’m interested in using a collective studio, gathering a bunch of artists to share the space with. I think I get very distracted seeing people using the same medium as me; in school, people became competitive very quickly, but if I am around people making furniture, painting, those things can really inspire me. If I see a painting that inspires me, I think of how I can apply that to my medium. You have to constantly be capturing things that inspire you. I started looking at buildings and grids that I saw, and then I transferred that to my work. 

Philo: How has your experience as a woman shaped your work, if at all?

Liv: [I don’t think about this often], but I feel growing up in the city around men and catcalling, there was a certain point for me when I realized I couldn’t wear exposing things, sheer shirts, without men on the subway talking to me. I don’t know if this is inspiration for me, but more of an underlying mindset, where I started making more boxy, oversized clothing, with lots of layers and coverage. I remember even this year I would style a hoodie under a jacket, cover up the body, but my teacher would guide me away from that, reminding me that you don’t want to cover the body too much. That may be because of something that is preexisting in my head—that fear of drawing attention to myself—but I may also simply be drawn to boxy, rectangular shapes. Now, especially in the fashion industry, which is such a woman-dominated field, there isn’t a lot of intense male energy, and the people who I look up to are all very strong women working very hard… In many of the large fashion brands with male leaders, [the men] tend to not acknowledge the women who are really behind the designing, the sewing. They take the credit, yet they do very little and people respect them. I am so appreciative of female leaders in the fashion industry, whose friends are all powerful female artists. It’s just such a squad! 

This was published under Adolescent's collaboration with Speciwomen. You can check them out here.