Designer Lindsay Degen’s Fall/Winter 2014 presentation helped kick off New York Fashion Week Feb. 7 with plenty of quirk and LED-platform Crocs. Models for Degen appeared in strange, whimsical garb: clashy crop-top hoodies, holey sweaters, and a dickey-vest hybrid studded with fronds, like a cactus.
“… Weird knitwear for the goofy at heart — and I mean that in a good way,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Christina Binkley. Style.com categorized the collection as “The Next Big Thing.”
While her surreal-hipster designs are not for everyone, Degen’s skill and creativity have made her a rising star in a category that doesn’t always get attention: knitwear. These days, other designers are jumping in, too. In New York, the Fashion Week runways were a knitter’s dream with models cocooned in chunky, nubby knits — sweaters, scarves, even the occasional pair of pants.
Degen, a 2014 winner of the Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation award, studied at Central Saint Martins in London and at the Rhode Island School of Design before breaking into the textile and knitwear world. (Previous Ecco Domani winners include Zac Posen, Rodarte, and Alexander Wang.) She first grabbed the spotlight in late 2013 by lending her talents to the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, outfitting the “Angels” and their posse in custom emoji and net-speak-themed knitwear during the PINK portion of the show.
Degen talked about her work and her designs on the phone from New York.
Q. How did you approach this season’s collection and Fashion Week presentation?
A. For me, this collection really started as kind of a materials study. I never worked with this fishing line as yarn and glow-in-the-dark and reflective yarns and foam. If yarns are not a wool material, they react to being knitted in really bizarre, really strange ways, so while I was creating the collection, I was making all of these crazy discoveries. The basic idea of the collection was to kind of relate how I was feeling as I was making it, like the “wow” factor, and then translate that to the viewer. My question was, how can I make the viewer go “Whoa, this is like magic”?
Q. And you worked with fishing line as a material for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show as well, correct?
A. I did, and that was the first time I ever used it. I was using it for that very specific look and had a lot of trouble because I didn’t know what I was doing and the material was really difficult to work with and I didn’t really have enough time to get into a groove with it. I just made that one piece to the best of my abilities but then it kind of opened my eyes to the possibility of doing other, more insane stuff with it.
Q. Almost like doing a science experiment?
A. Totally, but I kind of think of it more like an engineering adventure.
Q. Was there anything about working with these new materials that surprised you?
A. Well, yeah. Normally if you knit something it coils up a little bit but if you put it all together, it looks like a sweater. Everything that I made this season looks like a blob until it’s put on the body, which made it really challenging, because some worked or some didn’t. They often didn’t, but I learned things each time I knitted something.
Q. As a designer, you also need to think about the retail and consumer perspective of things. Were you worried about making pieces that look awesome on a body, but on a rack they might look a little questionable?
A. Not really, because I made some pieces that I think are a little more hardball, and those are not the fashion line pieces. Most of the other pieces are really not something that I would be willing to make more than three of. I have almost no interest in selling to retail. However, I do have a baby line.
Q. It’s really cute. And that started as a Kickstarter project?
A. Yep, I love the collection in a DIY way, where I just made it and then hoped for the best. My mom had been telling me the whole time that I should be doing baby stuff. And then one day I was like, “You know what, I could do baby stuff.” Then I felt like it was my own idea and I was actually willing to do it. Then I had a Kickstarter, which went well, and people really responded to it, so now I’m all about it. I love doing baby stuff.
Q. Are you working with any other designers on their knitwear this season?
A. Yeah, I work with a bunch of designers in different capacities. Sometimes it’s no design and only just knitting it for them. Sometimes it’s making sure the textile looks good before it goes to the factory. Sometimes it’s communicating with the factory on their behalf because they don’t know anything technically. It’s just a range of different things. That list of people is constantly evolving.
Q. Have you been able to do any cool collaborative projects?
A. My favorite this season — because I love menswear — is a line called Highland. We did some really cool, complex, beautiful sweaters.
Q. How many looks are you showing in this collection?
A. I’m showing twelve looks, five of them are styled as men’s looks but I really see the collection as unisex. They mostly use really crazy material and textiles.
Q. What inspires you season to season?
A. Well, I don’t look at other fashion designers’ work for inspiration. I’m as informed as I need to be about what’s going on in the fashion world. The biggest influence to me is drawings or colors that just happen to naturally be together in a way that I really responded to. All of the textiles come from just experimenting, so usually I don’t really draw all of the looks out in the beginning of the season. I just experiment with some textiles and combine them into different ways. That’s my basic style.
Q. How do you know when a collection is completed?
A. It’s never fully done. It’s only done when Fashion Week rolls around, I guess. In terms of reality, I try to use each textile at least three different times, and I like to try to keep the quantity of the different textiles kind of balanced.
Q. Going into textiles and knitwear feels like such a niche for fashion students, do you think it’s a risk to specialize?
A. I don’t think it’s riskier because not many other people are doing your skill. I mainly think it takes a lot more time and a lot more technical knowledge to master. But when you get to that level, a lot of people will be calling you for jobs.
Q. Sounds like a smart move.
A. I think so. At least for me in knitwear, it’s really exciting because in knitting there are really only two stitches, knit and purl. Really that’s just one stitch, because a knit stitch has a front and a back, and the back is what’s called a purl, so just one stitch with a different front and a back. From there on out, whatever you can figure out to do with that. I find the limitations really liberating.
Rachel Raczka can be reached at email@example.com.