April 28, 2014

Fashion Design for Modern Badass Women: Jessica Caldwell of Machine Apparel

Jessica Caldwell’s ambition to design bold clothing, including fondness for motorcycle trips, drove me to contact her about participating in an interview. She is the founder of independent apparel company Machine in Portland, Oregon. Here, she shares aspects of her personal style-making process, and having a fearless attitude to keep moving forward as an independent creator of clothes:

On being an apparel business founder:

How did you arrive at being a fashion designer? Was there an initial encounter of design-related work that played a role in your professional path?

My path into fashion design is actually a branch off my first career as a front-end web developer. For several years, I worked at design agencies and as a freelancer, which gave me a chance to work with some amazing designers and develop my personal design taste.

Over time, working on a computer all day was creatively draining. My entire body of work existed in a digital world, and I was searching for a new outlet to be creative. I took a sewing class here in Portland a few years ago and was hooked instantly. The transition into fashion design came pretty naturally once I developed my sewing skills. I finally found that new creative path I’d been searching for.

In making a Collection, how do you start? What do you do, and how much time does it take to realize a Collection?

Collecting inspiration is a never-ending process. I’m always on the look out for people, photos, songs, movies, or moments in my day that may spark a new idea. Honestly, it’s probably my favorite part of the process, because you can dream big, and everything feels fresh.

Once I’ve narrowed in on my concept, I’ll put together a mood board to solidify the direction. Then it’s on to sketches. I like to work in Illustrator and make technical flats to figure out shapes and details of the garments. At the same time, I’m sourcing fabrics and trim that fit with my color story, concept, and aesthetic.

After I’ve finalized the looks, it’s time to start pattern-making and sewing prototypes. I’ll work with a fit model, get patterns dialed in, and then sew up samples in the final fabrics. It’s not until the very end that the collection comes full circle and really feels alive. The process overall takes a few months, and just when you think you’re finished, it’s time to start working on the next season.

From watching episodes of “Project Runway” to passing by a bespoke tailor’s workshop in the neighborhood, I admire people who can make clothes from scratch. What skills are required to be a fashion designer?

I’m so new in my journey as a fashion designer that I’m still figuring a lot of it out for myself! Design and sewing skills are obviously important. But if you want to get real, you need to be tenacious and have a ton of courage. It’s not all pretty dresses and photoshoots. Fashion is hard work, and you have to be ready to push through on those days when nothing is going right. You have to take huge risks and put yourself out there in ways you never would have expected.

In your fashion-design toolkit, what is your frequently-used tool? Also, I assume you own a sewing machine. What does it look like and what’s the brand? Does it have a nickname?

The one tool I can’t live without is my 2” x 18” clear ruler. This little guy comes in handy from pattern-making to alterations. My sewing machine right now is a little home sewer. It runs like a champ, but I’m definitely looking forward to upgrading. My machine doesn’t have a nickname, but I do talk to it when I sew which is kind of funny. I also have serger, which really comes in handy for sewing knit fabrics and for giving seams a clean finished look.

What was the first thing you did when you embarked on getting your independent apparel company Machine real?

For the past few years, I’ve been taking classes at an apparel trade school called Portland Sewing. They have an accelerated development program called Fashion Forward, which prepares you to launch your brand and your first collection. In the program, I worked to develop my point of view as a designer and my business plan. At the same time, I was designing and sewing my collection. Fashion Forward culminates with a runway show to officially launch our new lines to the Portland community, including local boutiques and buyers.

When did Machine officially launch and became available? Tremendous journey since then. What were essential activities/steps taken to start and establish Machine? And why were these activities/steps important?

Machine officially launched on April 12th, 2014 at the Fashion Forward runway show. The focus of the brand is to create garments with clean lines and a hard edge. Select items from my Fall/Winter 2014 collection will be available for pre-order on my website in the coming months.

One of the most essential steps toward launching my brand was doing market research. I needed to get to the heart of what my brand stands for, research competitors, and determine my target market. I quickly realized I was becoming an entrepreneur, not just a designer.

Who and/or what keep(s) you going to keep Machine going?

One thing I’ve learned from my experience so far is that fashion is a team sport. You can’t do it alone. There are so many people involved to bring a collection to life—from the photographers and makeup artists, to the models and event producers. When you get some really talented, creative people in a room together the results can be pretty amazing. The opportunity for creative collaboration keeps me inspired and pushes me forward.

Personally, my family and friends have been tremendously supportive through this process, and I couldn’t have launched Machine without them. It helps to have a support team in place to keep you going when you want to throw in the towel—and trust me, there were days when I was ready to call it quits! They helped me push through, and it was worth it to see my first collection walking down the runway.

Who and/or what are your design and/or business-related influences?

My influences range from modern architecture and technology, to motorcycles and science fiction movies. I love Japanese fashion designers like Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, and am in constant awe of their creations.

How does your workspace contribute to doing the quality of work you want to do?

My workspace is definitely in a “make it work” state of mind right now. I have a desk in our apartment where I do my sewing, and then I do most of my pattern-making and cutting on the floor, because I don’t have a big enough table! I’m looking forward to finding a small studio space one day where I can have a cutting table, a few sewing machines, and a lot of natural light.

What is the size of your team? Do you have remote team members? And what size of company do you prefer?

Machine is a one-woman shop. I envision having a small team one day, but for now it’s just me!

What is your definition of growth, as it relates to business?

For me, growth is all about moving forward into the unknown. Personally and professionally, you have to keep challenging yourself, taking chances, and pushing out of your comfort zone. By taking those risks, you expose yourself to new possibilities that you may have never imagined.

How do you get the word out about Machine? How do you attract customers?

These days, it’s impossible to launch a brand without a social media strategy. However, you have to produce content worthy of that attention. My focus is on creating an overall experience for my brand through photos, stories, and videos to really express what Machine is all about.

For example, I recently had the opportunity to collaborate with photographer, Julia Parris, and makeup artist, Heather Conlan, to put together a photo shoot in New York. We’ve posted a few teaser photos, but the big reveal is coming soon with a full lookbook and behind-the-scenes video. It’s going to be rad.

I like your company’s name. When and how did you arrive at this?

I decided on the name Machine after I’d narrowed in on my point of view as a designer and the type of brand I wanted to create. I knew I wanted something modern and edgy, and I think Machine captures that feeling really well. The names I was playing with sound so silly now! When I finally landed on Machine it was like a light bulb switched on and I knew I’d found the one.

On creativity, design, working:

Design writer Alissa Walker wrote an article called “Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?” Where are the Ladies in Design/Development/Strategy at?

There is still a long way to go as far as equal representation in our industries, but I think women are starting to gain some ground. Women are actively participating in conferences and other events, which makes them more visible in the design/tech industries. I feel like I have a strong network of women who are graphic designers, web developers, and industrial designers that are doing fantastic work in their fields. I recommend checking out the podcast Ladies in Tech, which is a network that supports and celebrates women speakers. I can’t wait to see what kind of traction they build moving forward.

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?

Creative differences are going to come up all the time. It’s the nature of the beast. I have a group of designers that I get feedback from when I’m working, and rather than taking their comments personally it really helps to step back and look at things from their perspective. Sometimes I agree with them, and other times I keep moving in my own direction. It helps to have an open mind and be receptive to new ideas.

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying—and how did you deal with it?

I think the hardest part about working on a collection is overcoming the challenges that seem to pop up every step of the way. Sometimes you can’t find the right fabric, or a prototype just doesn’t work like you thought it would. You have to be ready to change course, improvise, and sometimes let go of an idea you were really passionate about. You just have to keep moving forward and keep creating.

What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?

I think I’m more inclined to work digitally, so tools like Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign are my go-to programs. I’m hooked on Instagram and Pinterest, and find so much imagery to collect for inspiration. I love these sketchbooks by a company called Fashionary that have figure templates on each page, so you can do quick iterations on ideas. They are so handy for sketching whenever inspiration strikes.

How do you stay creative? What are some of your sources of motivation/inspiration?

I feel most inspired when I’m traveling. Exploring new places (even in my own neighborhood) spark new ideas more than anything else. I love reading books and magazines, looking at photography, and chatting with friends over coffee. Sometimes the best ideas come out of those conversations.

A new trick I’ve discovered is wandering around Powell’s, a massive bookstore here in Portland. I’ll go to a random section and start looking at book titles. Recently, I ended up in the Sociology section and found a bunch of books on urban studies. It was really fascinating! I think learning new things (not just design-related) keeps my mind fresh and active, which allows me to be more creative when I’m working.

How important is it for you to follow your instincts?

Following my instincts is important, but sometimes I feel like I have to push myself past those natural instincts too. If my first reaction is fear, I have to make myself stand up and face it. There’s usually a reason why I’m scared and rather than turn and run, it’s more beneficial to investigate what I’m actually fearful of and face it head on.

What is your definition of bad design?

Bad design is design without purpose.

If a person approached you and said, “I want to be a fashion designer. How do I become one?”, what’s your response?

Learn as much as you can about the industry. Designing clothes is such a small part of the overall process. Be as prepared as you possibly can with your foundation of skills (design, sewing, textiles, etc.). Finally, have a solid marketing and business plan in place before you launch. Then I’d point them to this series from the Business of Fashion.

Any other aspects of your company that would be interesting to creative practitioners and aspiring product/business makers?

I love the new model of retail started by companies like Everlane, or even Kickstarter with fashion projects like Carte Blanche. There is a new awareness and open dialog between consumers and clothing manufacturers, and I think it is so important to maintain this transparent relationship. I’m excited to see how the new model evolves as consumers become more aware of what they’re buying and whom they’re buying from. My hope is that we all make smarter choices as entrepreneurs and shoppers since we’re all in this together.

What is a must-experience place that must be on everyone’s bucket list?

In Portland? I’d have to say the waterfront in the spring when all the cherry blossoms are blooming. Tons of trees line the Willamette River, and are only in bloom for a few weeks. It’s an explosion of color and is the perfect way to kick off springtime.

How does the city of Portland, Oregon, contribute to your work? What makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large? Noticed your cool bike-helmet photograph, what bike do you drive? Do you take road trips? Badass indeed.

Portland is such a creative city. Everyone seems to be a maker/artist/designer/musician of some sort. The creative community is really supportive of each other. We celebrate local accomplishments, share ideas, and there are a lot of amazing collaborations that go on here.

As for my motorcycle, I ride a 1974 Honda 550 named Babe (as in Paul Bunyan’s blue ox). I have a few big rides planned around Oregon this summer and I’m ready to go exploring.

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All images courtesy of Jessica Caldwell.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews with people who love making things.

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