Kelsey Van Patten is a fashion designer from Portland, Oregon who has been interested in fashion since she was 12 years old. Scouring vintage stores in her hometown of Vermont, she would try to recreate her favorite outfits from 80’s music artists like Paula Abdul and Madonna.
When she made the jump from a full-time designer to freelance three years ago, her career really began to pick up.
Between working for brands like Roamers, Vindur Hao and Wild Rye, she stays busy taking on smaller scale projects. Although like any of us, she has days where the stress gets to her, or she’s less stoked on the busy work, but she loves what she does and has even had the opportunity to travel and work from Mexico, Peru, and Europe, just to name a few. I got the chance to catch up with Kelsey and chat with her about her experiences in the industry, her favorite parts of the job and tips for others looking to begin their design career.
What got you interested in fashion?
I was about 12 years old when I started becoming more interested in fashion. I was really into 80s music growing up, and would admire the outfits on my CD covers. Prince, Paula Abdul, Madonna, and Michael Jackson were the artists I’d play on my walkman or CD player on a daily basis. I wanted to dress like them, but couldn’t find anything that fit the bill. I had a couple go-to vintage shops I frequented, but they didn’t always have what I wanted. Vermont, where I was raised, has a tiny shopping scene, and vintage clothing wasn’t as popular then as it is now. Anyway, this was also during the era of Abercrombie and American Eagle, where preppy style was rampant amongst adolescents and teens, so my options truly were limited. Luckily, a friends mom gifted my mom an old Singer sewing machine, so I bought some fabric and started messing around. I used to stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, which I think is pretty late for a middle/high school student, sewing and making patterns. They were far from beautiful- but I was really passionate about it.
What did you go to school for? What did your studies entail?
I went to FIDM in LA for Fashion Design. Studies entailed everything from pattern making, sample making, to fashion business development. We also had fashion history classes, and CAD classes to learn how to sketch fashion flats in Illustrator. It’s only a two-year program, so they cram a ton of information into it. I definitely felt it gave me the proper background to be able to design and communicate across departments effectively at my job. The emphasis on pattern and sample making was incredibly helpful, I still use those skills on a daily basis to communicate with factories about fit and construction.
What did you love about studying fashion? What did you dislike?
I loved learning how much work goes into one garment. I’m pretty sure the majority of people I know think that clothing is made by robots- and while it may be someday- that is definitely not the case now. There are so many processes a garment has to go through before it reaches consumers hands, the supply chain from development to production is insane. There’s a reason quality garments cost so much, and I learned that in design school. I love every part of the development process, and fine-tuning it with industry professionals was awesome.
I disliked that the school didn’t emphasize internships. When I attended, you weren’t allowed to have one until your second to last quarter. I understand why they did it- they didn’t want to send inexperienced students out into the professional world. There were definitely some students who were more capable than others in this respect, but they have to keep an even playing field. However, I felt the only reason I was successful after school was because of the internships I had starting in my first quarter. I had to seek those out on my own, and I got really lucky in finding them. I had amazing mentors at my internships who guided me through the professional realm, and helped me get to where I am today. I wouldn’t be as far along as I am now without the guidance of my first boss, Charlotte. She helped me navigate through the difficulties of the fashion industry in the early stages of my career.
What’s the best advice you could give to your 15 year old self?
Don’t get caught up in making life plans and deadlines based on your age. It will only deter you from doing things you want to do based on some arbitrary number. You might think you’re doing yourself a favor by setting a goal based on how old you want to be when that something is achieved… but life doesn’t give a damn how old you are. It’s how what you’re doing makes you feel at that moment that matters.
If you’re 50 doing backflips on your skis, 25 and quitting your career to travel, or 30 and going back to school to finish your degree, it doesn’t matter. Just don’t let time pass by doing something that doesn’t bring joy to your life or isn’t building on a foundation that will eventually bring joy to your life because you won’t ever get that time back…so honor yourself by respecting time.
What do you do now? What’s been the funnest experience of your journey so far?
I am currently working as a freelance fashion designer. So, in a nutshell, I come up with creative concepts for apparel, execute those concepts, and do all the technical work and communication to get it to market. I’m involved in the process from initial ideation through production, when it is ready to reach consumers. Daily tasks include factory communication, fittings, tech packs, sketching, textile print design, and design research, among other things.
I can’t really narrow down one experience as the funnest, I love my job, so most of it is fun for me. Obviously there are days when I’m less stoked to get out of bed and do technical work, but most of it is great. I would say the best experience I’ve had so far has been my transition from full-time to freelance, which took place 3 1/2 years ago. It’s been the most difficult, yet rewarding endeavor not just in my career, but in my life so far. It’s given me so many opportunities to learn, grow, and work with amazing people. One of my favorite parts of the job, besides design, is working remotely. Sometimes I’m working more than 40 hours a week, but it’s all worth it when I can do it from anywhere.
In the past few years, I’ve been able to work from Mexico, Peru, all over Europe, the UK, Morocco, China and multiple places in the US. If there’s a wifi connection available, I can work. Traveling does complicate fittings, so I do have to be present for periods of time and hunker down in Portland. Long story short- traveling while being able to work has been the highlight of my journey.
Who are you currently designing for? How are they unique from the run of the mill kind of brands?
The main brands I’m currently working with are Roamers, Vindur Hao, and Wild Rye. I have other brands I work with on a smaller scale, and projects that come through the pipeline that are one-offs or project-based rather than ongoing.
Roamers is unique in that it is factory-owned, giving a ton of flexibility to create beautiful garments for a more affordable price. The brand creates contemporary garments for outdoor-minded people, and it seamlessly combines these two categories through fabric and silhouette. Starting with the coming Fall 18 season, when I joined, we’re using a lot of environmentally friendly fabrics, with plans to expand upon that in the future. In addition to the wholesale line, we have a direct-to-consumer platform coming Spring 18 that allows us to test the market with more innovative items, called the Threadroom.
Vindur Hao is an outdoor lifestyle brand, soft launching Feb 2018, with a hard launch coming this summer. The brand is 100% direct-to-consumer, allowing us to cut down on our development timelines, while offering a high quality, sustainable product, at a moderate price point. Some of the fabrics being used are quite innovative, with certain technologies only being utilized by the most elite outdoor brands. Vindur Hao is community-based, drawing feedback and inspiration from its followers, which gives it a more wholesome vibe than other brands. This close relationship with the VH community allows the brand to respond to the needs and wants of its consumers.
Wild Rye is a women’s mountain bike apparel and ski base layers company. They fill the void in two industries that were previously lacking a sense of refined femininity. The brand seeks to apply contemporary design elements to functional product, and they capture that through silhouette and fabric choice. While style has always been at the top of their priority, performance never takes a back seat as they choose fabrics from leaders in the outdoor industry.
How would explain your fashion style, sense or design?
Most of my hobbies require being outside, so I like to design functional pieces that you can wear season after season. I have a morning regime that takes less than 10 minutes, and I think about this when designing as well. I feel that getting dressed in the morning should be effortless, and pieces in your closet should pair together easily. I obviously have some outliers in my designs and closet, but I try to stick to this philosophy for the most part.
After living on the west coast for so many years, my personal style has gotten more and more casual. My move to Portland a few years ago sealed the deal, and I pretty much only wear jeans and a tee shirt. Blouses make their way into my outfits sometimes, and in the summer a timeless dress once in a while.
Any tips or tricks for any women that are interested in being designers?
Never stop hustling!! Seriously though, you have to be really passionate about what you’re doing to be in it for the long haul. Trust in your abilities and keep being inspired by your network of family, friends, and colleagues. For women who are just starting out in their careers- don’t be discouraged if it’s taking longer than you thought to pick up speed. It doesn’t happen overnight, and hard work does pay off. If you feel like something isn’t right with your work situation- change it. That’s not to say you shouldn’t stick it out at a tough job, be a sponge and absorb everything you can from that job. However, if you’re working in accounting, and you want to be a designer- go find an entry-level design job, internship, or take classes to master your skills. I don’t want to sound too cheesy here, but don’t let fear hold you back. Obviously we all have bills to pay, but there’s a way you can balance both if you’re willing to sacrifice your free time during the transition.
Also- practical advice- build yourself a great portfolio and website, and become a master email crafter. Well-written emails and a portfolio have gone a long way in my freelance endeavors.