Rachel Comey is dressed like her idea of vacation — clad in a chambray henley T-shirt, pink and green trousers with a snakeskin print, and her cult Mars mules in burnt orange. She's not really going to some tropical paradise. But today's hectic schedule at her Noho design studio warrants at least the smallest mental breather. It's two weeks before she will debut her spring-2018 collection, and Comey and her design team are in back-to-back fittings, finalizing the looks. "I thought, This will help me relax," says Comey of her breezy look as we wait for the model to arrive for the fitting.
The 44-year-old fashion designer's mood-induced approach to getting dressed is a core concept rooted in her eponymous womenswear label. With every collection, she's considering where the Rachel Comey woman might be going and how she wants to feel when she gets there. For insight, she's talking to women around her: her friends, her employees, the customers who shop in her Soho store. "If you think about a certain woman, then that woman has other representatives that are also having those same life experiences," she says.
For spring 2018, Comey plays with her idea of a boss woman. When she wants to feel authoritative? A slouchy, tailored black suit. ("I tried to think of what you want to wear when you need your clothes to be doing some work for you.") When she wants to feel a little more off-duty? A Canadian tuxedo, and straw hats that make a statement anywhere. ("For every day, when you're not necessarily having to kick some ass but you want to dress playfully and with some spontaneity.") When she wants to get dressed up, the Rachel Comey way? An organza caftan. And it wouldn't be true to Comey's brand if any of these looks weren't interchangeable for any scenario and idiosyncratically feminine.
The New York fashion designer has gained a cult following that includes Cindy Sherman, Zadie Smith, Miranda July, Rashida Jones, and Greta Gerwig for her off-brand approach to muliebrity. For over a decade, her clothing has become a mainstay in the wardrobes of women who would unimaginatively be labeled as "quirky." But a better descriptor would be "creative women who have things to do, places to go, and can probably recommend you a good book." The Rachel Comey woman opts for clogs over stilettos, wedding jumpsuits over frilly dresses, and knows a good pair of jeans can be worn for any occasion.
Comey has the advantage of creating from a woman's point of view, surprisingly a rarity within the fashion industry, where the top womenswear designers are mostly men. She not only listens to her customers' needs but understands them — as a mother, as a career woman, and as a creative. Her sixteen-year, 100 percent independent streak has been sustained by the power of word of mouth. And Comey isn't afraid to use hers. So it was no surprise when she rallied other designers together and penned a letter to the CFDA in support of the Women's March in January.
Her brand is rooted in a feminism that doesn't need applause or a branded T-shirt but engaging self-aware dialogue. It's why Comey is the fashion designer women need right now.
Rachel Comey grew up outside of Hartford, Connecticut, with an affinity for art and the five cool teenagers who lived next door ("They were the epitome of freedom and teenager life. It was the '70s, so they wore clogs, gold chains, denim, and feathered hair, and they really influenced my nostalgia"). Comey understood from an early age that for her, style was about communication; she wasn't interested in the glamour of the garment but what it said about the person wearing it. She recalls being influenced by women like Gloria Steinem and the gymnast Nadia Comăneci ("She was so strong and resilient").