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What Does Your Swimsuit Stand For?

What Does Your Swimsuit Stand For?

Stylist Rachael Wang’s new swimwear collaboration with OOKIOH is about more than good beach style.

Rachael Wang is a New York-based stylist and creative consultant. 

 

The Frontlash: Where did you grow up?

Rachael Wang: I grew up in Southern California in L.A.

 

When did you move to New York?

I went to university in Boston, and then stumbled upon an internship at W Magazine. I was looking for something to do in my last semester, so I decided to move to New York. I moved in with an aunt that was living in Connecticut at the time and was able to do this internship in New York in 2006. 

 

Did you always want to work in fashion?

No. I never even thought about it honestly. I always loved fashion and style, but I didn't think that fashion was a "real job." I think growing up in the 80s and 90s, the general public wasn't aware of the people who worked behind the scenes at magazines, behind the scenes of campaigns, and behind the scenes in fashion that were not models and photographers, and how they participated in creating those images. I didn't know much about the industry behind fashion outside of the images that I would see in magazines. 

 

What were you doing at W, and how did that come about?

It was so random. I was going to school with someone who was from New York who had done an internship at W. She was what I would consider a fashion person. She loved fashion, and she wanted to be a fashion journalist. She came back from her internship kind or raving about it, and then was like, "Oh. You have weird style. I heard they're looking for more interns for next semester. Maybe you should do that." I loved magazines and I loved fashion, I just didn't really think that it was a viable career choice. 

Sustainable swimwear
sustainable swimwear

How did you end up styling?

Entering into a high fashion space like that for the first time really rocked my world. For the first time ever in my life, I felt like what made me weird was normalized. I always was the kid that was dressed funny, had a weird hairstyle, and was just expressing myself through my appearance. For the first time, everyone around me was also doing that. I had never felt like I fit in. In that kind of high fashion space, it was normal to be weird. I finally didn't have to explain why I was wearing what I was wearing. I can't really explain the feeling, but it just felt like, "Oh. These are my people. I'm home. I can just be myself." It was a relief in a way.

Then, on top of that just energetic feeling, I always loved fashion from a fan side as an admirer, but being up close and personal with the level of craftsmanship and the designers of the clothes that would come in and out of that space was just awe-inspiring to me. I was so excited to just be around the clothes and to be around the people that I was like, "Oh. How can I figure out how to keep doing this? How can I stay here?" I worked really hard as an intern. My boss, who was the fashion assistant, heard about a fashion assistant job at Self Magazine. I applied for that, and I don't know how I got that job, but the style director at the time took a chance on me.

I had traveled extensively with my family growing up, and then also did a study abroad program in London at Goldsmiths College. Then, that summer I backpacked around Europe by myself. I think that really impressed her. All I had was my life experience to get that job. I didn't really have any fashion experience other than my internship, and because the job actually entailed a lot of travel and lugging a lot of stuff to different countries to different beaches to shoot, fitness and swim in different locales around the world. Gosh, what a different time, right? I think she was impressed by that and impressed by my eagerness, so she just took a chance on me. I just didn't want to fail, so I worked really hard to kind of just prove myself.

From there, it was just incremental. I really loved the styling side of it. I liked being out in the field and working with my hands as opposed to being in the office. I liked the whole process of ideation of a concept to then executing, finding the things to support a concept, and then actually physically putting it on the models—how they stand, how they interact with the space, how they interact with each other—the entire creative process, to create an image that could move someone was something that I just was profoundly excited about. I just continued to work towards that. 

I became the first assistant to Edward Enninful at the time he was the fashion director at i-D magazine and a contributing editor at U.S. Vogue. He had a London-based team, but he was replacing a New York-based assistant, so I then became his assistant that worked on all the U.S. Vogue stories, and then any advertising campaigns that he worked on in the States. That's when I really got a first-hand experience of what a dynamic life of a professional freelance stylist could be like. I got the magazine experience, the advertising experience, and I really saw how he ran his business, which was very helpful for me to then put that in my back pocket. That would ultimately come in handy for me to be able to structure my own business because I had seen it done. 

After I assisted, I started working in magazines. I worked at Condé Nast. I worked at Glamour, and then at Style.com when Style.com was a thing. Then, I became the fashion director of Allure, where I was able to finally kind of live the dream that I had fantasized about as an intern. Ultimately, I just wanted to keep growing. I wanted to keep pushing myself. I wanted to find a better way to integrate my values into my work and thought that the way that I could do that best would be to go out on my own to start my own consultancy and to be a freelance stylist. 

 

I'm assuming it's not a stretch for me to say that you weren't exposed to sustainable fashion or the idea of sustainability in fashion in that mainstream fashion space. I know it's central to your work ethic now, so I'm curious to know how you came to understand what sustainable fashion is and why it matters.

I don't think I ever learned about sustainable fashion. I think that's inherently the problem, that it's not something that's built into the education system or even the kind of apprenticeship system that happens in fashion. I have been learning about the climate crisis since Al Gore's 2006 documentary, 'An Inconvenient Truth'. Like everyone else, I continued to be bombarded with documentaries and articles for several more years until I just kind of couldn't ignore it anymore. Then, in 2014, I changed my diet to a plant-based one to reduce my carbon footprint. In 2016, I traveled to North Dakota to stand in solidarity with the water protectors of Standing Rock against the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline on sacred Native land. That experience, learning about the intimate connection between humans and the planet from Indigenous youth whose cultures were built on inherent sustainability, was really profound in ways that I can never really express. 

That experience also allowed me to better understand that the same systems that exploit the planet also exploit people and that the result of injustices done to the planet directly harm those same people, disproportionately Black and Indigenous people of color who are already being exploited and oppressed by the system. It's like a multilayered, multipronged, cyclical, and systematic attack. Once you're exposed to this kind of education, or rather, an unlearning, you can't really go back. Once I saw this in the flesh, that inherent connection between people and the planet, and then obviously I see everything through the lens of fashion because that's my job and what I've spent the past decade-and-a-half working on, that's when I kind of connected all of those things together to better understand what sustainable fashion means. 

 

This collaboration we're talking about today is obviously one manifestation of taking that understanding and making changes accordingly. I'm curious, generally speaking, what are some of the ways that you've incorporated sustainability in your work as a creative since that kind of profound experience?

I think it's important to define what sustainability means because I think that expresses my perception of it. I think there are lots of trendy words, but it actually means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. There are three pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social. It's very trendy right now for the fashion industry to be talking about the environmental element of sustainability, but what's left out of the conversation a lot is the human element as well, the importance of fair wages, safe working conditions, reliable jobs, and empowering workers. The way that I incorporate "sustainability" into my work is that kind of top-down, human, and planet-centric view. I don't just focus on carbon footprint. I look at the big picture.

I pay people fair wages. I hire women of color. I reduce excess and waste as much as possible. I choose to work with brands that are responsible and organizations like Fairtrade that empower garment workers. I am not perfect. I don't call myself a sustainable stylist. I don't even know what that means. I'm not sure that is a real thing to be able to do, within the system of fashion that is inherently unsustainable. I'm not sure that a soldier of that industry can be sustainable within an unsustainable industry. I do my best to incorporate these values in every decision I make as a business owner. It's just about being inherently mindful about what is the end result of decisions that I make. It's more of a big picture approach as opposed to, "I only work with sustainable brands," or "I only use second hand."

What I really aspire to is to bring the message of holistic sustainability to a bigger audience and not a green, small, crunchy audience. I want to bring it to the high fashion space. If I want to play in the big leagues of a high fashion space, the images that I work on, and the brands that I work with have to be at that level. I think if I limit myself by only working with second-hand clothing, for example, I limit my audience, I limit the industry taking me seriously, and I limit the people and photographers that I can collaborate with. All these people are part of the same system that judges each other based on their resume, their network, who they work with, and what they look like. In order to spread the message at the highest and biggest platform, I have to play the game a bit in order to have that audience.

Let's talk about your collaboration with OOKIOH. What inspired the collaboration? How did this start?

OOKIOH approached me about designing a collection for them. I admire that OOKIOH swimsuits are made from 100 percent regenerated materials, and their commitment to actively becoming a sustainable brand by reducing their carbon footprint and eliminating plastics completely by 2022. That was kind of the framing of why I accepted a collaboration with them. We are aligned on our values in the fashion industry. In order to design in a more mindful way, I really considered the end of the process by asking myself, "What is the outcome of this collection on people and on the planet?" 80 percent of garment workers around the world are women, and that those women are paid fair wages and work in safe environments is non negotiable to me, so those considerations were at the forefront of the design process.

It was a given that I would be designing with a re-generated nylon fabric. We wanted to keep production local to invest in local woman-owned businesses and cut down on transportation related carbon emissions. I wanted to be sure that the poly mailer would be compostable and to use forest stewardship council certified paper for packaging. That certification basically guarantees the most responsibly managed, socially beneficial, environmentally conscious wood from forests. These were the parameters that basically created the foundation of the design process. 

Then, after I kind of established that foundation, aesthetically I was able to think about the design. I wanted to create something timeless and sensual that would celebrate the body and leave good tan lines if you're into that kind of thing. I wanted to design something that could be kept for a long time and that would be chic at any age on everybody.

 

To that point, I'm sure you experience this, I experience this, buying and wearing swimwear can be stressful for women, especially thanks to language that comes from the magazines that we have worked for, with things like, "Getting beach body ready", and so on. I've received stressed out texts from friends in fitting rooms being like, "Can I wear this? Is this okay?" As a stylist, do you have any advice to give to women in just finding the right swimsuit?

Yeah. If you have a body and you have access to the beach, then you have a beach body. I don't subscribe to right and wrong in fashion, because to me fashion is inherently about expression rather than rules. I don't believe that the media should be telling people what they should and shouldn't wear. Style, to me, is about expressing who we are on the inside to the rest of the world. The best person to dictate those decisions is us, individually. Buying and wearing swimsuits is stressful because we live in a society that is fatphobic, racist, and sexist. As individuals, all we can do is work to become anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-fatphobic to essentially liberate ourselves from the implicit bias and the colonizing mentality that society has taught us.

 

In addition to all of the parameters, design choices that were made, and the timelessness of the design, 10 percent of proceeds are going to the organization, Intersectional Environmentalist. Can you tell me just a little bit about the organization and why it was important for you to support their work?

Intersectional Environmentalist was founded by Leah Thomas. They seek to dismantle systems of oppression in the environmental movement. The organization identifies the ways in which injustices are happening to marginalized communities, the earth, how they're connected, and advocate for justice for people and the planet.

 

We've traced your journey, so I feel like the answer to this is sort of implicit, but I wonder if there's any explicit advice you would give for other stylists, stylist assistants, or other folks who work in fashion who are inspired by your story and by the way you've been able to incorporate your values into the work that you do. 

I think that it is an individual journey, and the more we educate ourselves about the way that systems work, the more information we have to adjust our own practices Everyone has a different life, a different way that they work, a different budget, or a different job. It's so hard for me to tell people what they should do, but why I explained how my entire life journey led up to why I care about sustainable fashion is because it's a very personal journey. It's a journey of educating myself on things that I didn't know and learning about perspectives that were not mine that I needed to see through other eyes and lenses. I think for people to be able to holistically audit themselves and their own lives, they need to educate themselves about the way that the fashion industry works, the way our society works, and then look at how they live their life. Then, make adjustments according to what is realistic and reasonable for them and what is sustainable for them for the long term as well.

General things, like reducing consumption of animal products, is the most meaningful way an individual can reduce their carbon footprint—buying second hand, locally from small Indigenous people of color-owned businesses, supporting fair trade, keeping things a long time, finding ways to reuse, repair, or repurpose things. I think it's important to start to incorporate these values into our personal lives and then find how that spreads out into our careers as well. I think trying to start a career based on sustainability when you haven't looked at your own life is preachy and presumptuous. I think it's important for us to start to adjust our life as we also adjust our career path kind of simultaneously. You can't just focus on, "I want to have a sustainable fashion career." Think about how you're living and then how you can apply those ways that you're living on a bigger scale to how you approach your job and your career.

 

What was the most surprising thing you learned from working on this project?

I was really surprised by how many barriers there are, how rigid the manufacturing system is, and how difficult it is to have things done with specificity. I had to learn to compromise in ways that I really didn't want to. One of the things about being a stylist, being a freelance stylist, and owning my own business is I do have a lot of power and control over what I work on, who I work with, and what are the boundaries and limitations for how I work. When you're working and designing a collection, inherently it's a much bigger team that goes into making something. There are many systems that I have no control over, like how the factory operates or how sizing works.

I knew nothing about creating an extended size range. I wanted this collection to be even more size-inclusive, but there were so many limitations. OOKIOH is not inherently a size-inclusive brand. Their suits only went up to a size extra large. In order to really extend the sizing to be much more inclusive, we would have to find a different factory. We would have to hire multiple fit models at different sizes in order to make sure the pattern worked at a much wider diversity of size ranges. Usually, traditional smaller size runs that kind of exist in the fashion industry, they take a size eight or the midpoint, and they make a pattern from the midpoint. That's what the fit model is, and then they grade the sizing up and down from there.

When you're going to do an extended sizing run, you need to grade from more than one fit point. The more you grade for different sizes, the more opportunities there are for adjustments to be made. You need to see the pattern on different bodies in order to see how the pattern needs to change according to whether a size goes up or down. It costs more money to hire a second or a third fit model that's a different body size. You have to make a new pattern for that body size. There are all these financial barriers, structural barriers, and systemic barriers that I knew nothing about. I was stunned, and honestly disappointed, that I came in with all these ideas about how I wanted to make this size-inclusive swimsuit line and wasn't able to achieve that.

I think that the foundation of a business needs to start from that point, and you need to look into factories to do that, the right pattern maker, and et cetera. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to implement that with the limited time that I had working with this company. That's not to say that I'm not really proud of the collection. The collection is more size-inclusive than the traditional OOKIOH size run because we go up to a double XL now. We go into projects with all these amazing ideas, and we have to learn, I guess, to compromise or not. It's a good test of our values to really see what are the things that are non-negotiable, and what do we turn our back on? What do we accept as, "We're doing the best we can, and then hopefully we learn enough to do better next time."

 

Did that experience give you an appreciation of the difficulty that lies ahead as we look to curbing climate change and creating a society that is socially more just in the long term, when the systems aren't inherently built to support that at the moment and when there are a lot of stakeholders that need to be taken into consideration?

Absolutely. My singular, short-term experience is a microcosm for what's going on in the industry and what's going on within society at large. That's why change is so hard, because there is so much structure in place. It's hard to adjust those things, but I don't think that's an excuse to give up. Change has been made. Progress has been made. It's just a matter of not getting discouraged by the limitations and learning from those limitations. Then, choosing like, "Are we more nimble, powerful, and influential when we're alone or when we're in smaller groups as opposed to in a big group or working for a big corporation?” That's one of the reasons why I left working in corporate magazines, and I went on my own as a freelance stylist. I thought that I could be more nimble, more impactful, more influential, and have more say if I was just operating as a single body or with my small team.

I think that you can, in a way, push harder from the outside than you can from the inside. At least that's been my experience. You can build your own projects that are outside of the systems that are in place on a smaller scale, but those small scale creative ways to solve problems can hopefully inspire the bigger systems to make change. I think that, in a way, it's going to take multiple approaches. We need people on the inside. We need people on the outside. We need small change. We need big change. It's a full team effort, and whatever a unique individual has the stamina for or the personality type for, just find what the best place is for you to be able to work and make as big of an impact as you can. Just knowing that it's going to be inherently hard to make change, but it's worth it and the right thing to do.

 

What is giving you hope right now?

All of those who struggled before us. It's our turn to carry the baton, I think. We can't get tired. That's what I think about when I'm feeling hopeless—that there were many more people that were in more hopeless situations than me, and they found the strength, joy, and power to resist. I can find that too.

Photos: Courtesy OOKIOH

Words told to: Laura Jones

Edited by : Sonjia Hyon

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