IN Interviews : Adam Arnold

Adam Arnold in his studio space.

Who is Adam Arnold?
Adam Arnold as a brand is beautiful fabric and construction, inventive design, but classic. It’s known for its fit and timeless quality — there’s a timelessness, a familiarity, yet something new to it and an interest. Kind of like having a dream where you look into a closet, where all the clothes are familiar, but there’s something unfamiliar and interesting about it; clients have also described my work as thoughtful in design. And then, it’s always been me! I’m like a one-man brand and it’s about making clothing for people. So the people I make clothing for, it’s always been about them, too. And they are probably where I find much of my inspiration. I have also built a clientele so it’s really a clientele-based company and brand. And it fits well into my personality because I’m a person who likes structure, like building something and starting with a very strong foundation and then doing all the crazy things away from that foundation.

When I first started considering myself a designer, I felt like to even call myself a designer, I also had to consider all the rules I already had for myself and my life and what it should look like. And structure and discipline are very important to me. But when I called myself a designer, I didn’t do that until I felt I could problem solve and make or design pretty much everything in the realm of clothing. So there was a lot of work that had to happen before that — but what I found in that was a great amount of security and strength, because I had this foundation of fabric, and fiber, and construction and I’m able to touch something and probably know all the different uses and applications for it. Just learning, drafting a pattern, and designing — it’s all related to me, they all feed off of each other.

I design something from a fabric and then the way I’m thinking about the way in which it’s constructed effects the design, it also effects the pattern. Pattern effects what it’s being cut out of or what its final use is. I couldn’t be a good designer, and I couldn’t even ask for the kind of respect I wanted as a designer until I could actually make anything I could possibly design. That was just the kind of designer that I had to live up to, and in the last few years, I’ve kind of given myself some slack. I believe it’s all very related, and I take that very seriously so that I can do things that are crazy and fun, but will always be rooted in the balance between fabric, fit, and construction. It’s kind of like getting a graduate degree, spending the time, and investing in education, and experience … it makes whatever you say have weight to it. And the only way I know how to do that is to put that time in. It transforms you.

Catalogue of muslins lining the entire length of one side of the Adam Arnold’s studio.

And what did you call yourself before you granted yourself the title of designer?
A student! I’ve always been interested in art. I went to art school out of high school, I went to Pacific Northwest College of Art out of Portland, and I’ve been making clothes since I was three or four, but I never thought of it as a career. Yet, through art school, I realized that I approach this all as sculpture and as form. I was always told by my sculpture professors that I was too tight and I need to loosen up and let the material I’m working with flow, like with clay or the wood, or whatever, and I realized that I am a tight sculptor! And it’s perfectly suited for making clothing, and there’s a general sweep like, “Oh. It’s a blouse, but it’s actually made up of the tightest, most meticulous little details, that are just taken for granted.”

Studio chalkboard capturing past notes and measurements.

I am curious about how that “tightness” in your student work translates into your tailoring? Because your work is impeccable and super clean.
Well, my goal is to create the most simple appearing garments, where so many elements that you take into consideration, should also be taken for granted by the wearer. I mean those things should always be taken for granted. But I have to take into consideration the gravity: everything is effected by gravity, and fabric is all effected by gravity, so the way that something is cut, is all how gravity effects the threads that are interacting in a garment. For a garment to hang properly, if you’re going to cut something out, and plan to spend all this time on a pattern, it should be cut in a way that the fabric is allowed to hang straight to the ground, and all of these, the weft or the cross threads, should be allowed to hang parallel to the floor, just about as tight as you can get — you don’t even see those threads! But they are all individually effected by gravity. So then there’s this gravity, then you think about what points a garment relies on a body underneath to create its shape, and you think about all of that when you’re designing.

And then constructing. There’s a direction to sew. You sew with the grain of a fabric. I mean it seems like a lot of details that may or may not be seen in the final garment, but when you put all of those details together, and you make them just kind of a habit, and part of the process, it doesn’t seem like a lot. It’s just what it is to create and design a garment. It’s all just totally related to me — the construction and design are so together. I can’t imagine designing a garment that I wouldn’t even at least want to try to figure out how to make. It just feeds off of itself. And in terms of, “tight,” you are creating a three-dimensional object that’s made up of all these small little details. But this isn’t to say that every single garment that’s being made have all of these things being taken into consideration. Because there are actually a lot of poorly made garments where decisions are being made because of commerce, and less about the beauty, or the balance, or gravity. What I think is the difference between purchasing a garment from me, or purchasing a garment on a rack in a store — and even the garments on the rack here that are RTW are all made in that same kind of way. I very rarely look at what something is going to cost to make. I don’t make decisions based on that. It of course is a limitation, and I accept it as a limitation, and I actually like limitations because then you have something to work from. But I don’t use cost as a design influence. It’s more like … this garment is going to cost this and so some garments are more work and effort than you get out of it. And then people expect too, and pricing is a lot about what people expect than what the actual work is, and then finding a balance between that. It’s like alchemy! Like a chemical process of determined value.

Arnold notch punching.

But it’s value right? And that’s something that you can’t really quantify very easily, because people have their own ideas regarding what value means and the topic itself is so subjective.
Right! And value can change based on education, and that becomes part of the whole discussion. For example, when I was working for a larger company, there was an element to design called, “visual value,” so it was about what you would add to a garment like an embellishment, or some kind of kooky button, or top stitching in a different color, and this was called, “visual value.” I find that the value of my garments, like yes, you can see the fabric, you can see the beautiful construction, but a lot of it you don’t see, and it’s suppose to be that way. And it does require a certain amount of education or educating people. And just like anything, to be able to appreciate something, it’s also my goal for whatever I make to be appreciated by a wide range of people, no matter what background they come from. They should find something to appreciate, but as you learn more, then you find it’s more and more and more and more … but that should also be the person’s own goal. I mean, I have to make all the clothes, right? But I have to hand it off at some point! This is why it’s been by-appointment forever.

Yes! You would be answering questions all day if your space wasn’t by appointment! However, now I’m curious about your work and how your clients fit into the equation. Is it a mix of your own collections and garments for your clientele? Or is it all commissioned?
So I have an established aesthetic, but a little more so, there’s a clean, classic, unique, inventive, thoughtful quality to my design. And then I meet people in my career — I mean, I would make things wholesale, and then sell to different stores, and I did that for five or six years (maybe seven years), as well as my own work — but what I meant by that is that I meet a lot of people, in this controlled environment, which is very intimate, yet structured relationship between a designer and a client, and these clients come to me. For the ones that stick, we share certain ideas about aesthetic, value, or one/several aspects of that. When clients come in, we hardly ever talk about clothing! So, they maybe come in here to order a dress, but they talk about anything but dresses, and then eventually we get down to looking at fabric and I start getting all these ideas. So a lot of my established clients would just say, “I need a coat, and a dress, and a blouse for this coming fall, so should I come in and give you a deposit?” And then they come in, and I show them what I’m going to do for them, and then it goes from there. Some people don’t even want to know what I’m making until they just come to pick it up! And I have all of their patterns on file.

Drafting table, irons, machines, and miscellaneous tailoring tools.

And that’s an established trust from years and years, right?
Yeah. But then there’s the majority of people that will see something that I’ve made, either on the rack or part of the catalogue of muslins hanging in the shop — or actually I have everything archived in binders, including every design ever made, which is kind of my process to go in an see which one of these are worthy of being fleshed out on that rack.

So there’s that element, and then there is a RTW element. I make a lot of jeans for both men and women and I feel like, because I’ve been developing the fit with so many different bodies, and so many different people, I feel like I’m able to grade, and create a line of jeans that people can come in and they will most likely fit. That and people come in and they talk about all kinds of things. Like someone came in and talked about, “Octonauts,” and I don’t even know what the hell those things are.

What’s an Octonaut?!
I don’t know! I just write stuff down, and look stuff up, and then something will inspire. I feel like it’s never, “This drawing inspired this,” it’s all in there, and the medium that comes out of me is through the clothing — and yeah, you should be careful of how you’re being influenced, but all of that is going into a pot and then it comes out. A lot of what I consider classic Adam Arnold pieces would be included in this catalogue. And some of those really classic garments were designed for a specific person, but the design I feel is really inspired by this person, but it is like a collaboration. So it’s part of my work. And there a lot of things on the rack that were made as RTW, and are part of that collection. I mean, it’s an ever-growing, totally living, tool.

“IT’S ALSO MY GOAL FOR WHATEVER I MAKE TO BE APPRECIATED BY A WIDE RANGE OF PEOPLE, NO MATTER WHAT BACKGROUND THEY COME FROM.”

Rolls, and rolls, and rolls of muslin and fabrics.

That’s interesting that you said ‘collaboration.’ Do you think your clients would consider it a collaboration? Are they in on the secret?
Some of them feel more like, “It’s mostly me,” and then some are like, “No, it’s totally not … I just like hanging out!”

I get it! The modest types.
And there are both of those kinds of people. I mean, then there are people who actually ask, “Who’s your customer?” Which is why I’m really appreciating your question, because you can tell a lot about a blog or a publication by the kinds of questions they ask. And for the people who ask about who my customers are, they are just people. They’re people that live in Portland, or have been in Portland, unless they’ve moved away and they’re still my client, but they typically have unusual names.

Really?
Yeah, it’s been the one thing, that I can honestly say, every single client of mine has a pretty unusual name.

Surname or first name?
Both! At least the surname. Tripp. Chamberland. Atar. Patch. Buck. Daisy. Amato. I kind of feel like that is the one consistent thing. I can kind of tell, if I meet someone, and they tell me their name, I can tell if they’re gonna stick, if they’re gonna be a client. By their name. I already know. It’s very strange.

It’s so weird that it’s so consistent and that it’s been happening for awhile!
I already know. It’s very strange.

Adam Arnold denim collection at studio entrance.

So I kind of liken this space and what you do to Savile Row. But it’s like a one-man show Savile Row. I’m curious about how that feels to be the one and only in an entire city. Is there anyone else?
No, I am the only one [in Portland]. I don’t even know how common it is to have a running business where you are the only person of men’s and women’s garments. I think it’s even only a handful internationally. I don’t even know these people. It would be so amazing to meet other designers who do this. I mean there are pros and cons and you asked how I felt about it. And I personally have a sense of pride that I make everything myself —

Can I interrupt you for a second? I want you to answer that question, but I also want to hear what your thoughts are about working solo without having another designer to bounce your ideas off of.
Which actually, that other designer to bounce ideas off of is actually the client or friends that come by. So I do have a sense of pride from building all of this myself, and knowing that every single garment — knowing that there are thousands and thousands and thousands of them with my label on them — were actually sewn with these hands. But I can’t actually say I’ve cut all of them out, because I have had friends come over help me cut, and interns — those sort of things, but I have actually sewn every garment. So that feels good to me. That feels solid to me.

The cons of this is that because I feel this is a unique situation, people don’t want to believe it. Or they want to group you with other people in terms of, “Independent Designers, Portland Designers, NW Designers,” that are doing this. Because I do everything in this space, they’ll pick what part that suits that, and that’s how I’m represented. So I’m never honestly represented as what it all is, so … whatever. But you know what I mean? That’s why there are people that have just moved here, and there are people who have lived here forever, and they’ll say, “We’ve never heard of this person,” or “We heard that there was somebody, but we don’t want to believe it.” But then there are these groups of clients that have been with me for 14 years, and I’ve been making clothes for them for 14 years, and now their kids are going to college. And then they’ll tell people — it’s word of mouth. It’s pretty much word of mouth. I was producing my own fashion shows twice a year, for ten years, in my studio, or at the Art Museum. I had a friend who was the manager at Design Within Reach, and he was like, “Why don’t you do your fashion show here?” So I did my spring show there three years in a row until they were like, “There are too many people attending your show, we can’t even have that many people in here!”

Color: original designs from past collections.

But it’s a great thing!
Yeah! Which is a great thing! But then it’s like, “Oh look! I’ve done all of this!” But I’m just right under the skin, there is a barrier between — which is part of being pulled away from … I’m in here. By myself, which is why this is going to be interesting, this front area being open. A little interface will be nice.

Will opening your space on certain days outside of appointment-only be short-term for now? Because this is different, right?
It’s only Thursdays and Fridays, 4p to 7p, and Saturdays noon to 3p, and it’s end of day for those people, not for me! But I’ll still do, by appointment, but it will be an opportunity for people to see or experience something, or visually learn for themselves, what happens here, because you can tell people, too. But then they’re like, “Yeah, so did my grandmother.” So you know, there is that kind of frustration, and feeling kind of lonesome, too. I don’t know. Who do I contact when I have this crazy pattern making question? I mean, I don’t know. I don’t have this network of designers in Portland. When I moved back here 15 years ago, people were like, “Oh my God. You know how to make a pattern?” So, bouncing fitting ideas off of someone, or pattern making ideas, it’s like a very difficult thing. I find myself, calling and emailing my pattern making instructor from 20 years ago who teaches at Pratt now, and then I just usually get more than what I bargained for.

Which is good! Because then you’re getting a wealth of knowledge with one call.
Right! “But, I don’t know, what about this? Have you tried this?” But okay dammit, I need to get these pants done by next week!

Monochrome: original designs from past collections.

And pushing through creative blocks. What do you do?
One of my favorite exercises is to obviously step away from the studio, [but then] draw something that you think is the ugliest thing you could possibly draw or do.

Whoa. Where did you get this idea from? It’s so random.
What I have learned is that from drawing something that you think is classically ugly, it actually shuts off all of the editing, and all of the blocks, and you’re allowed to spill out ugly. But in truth, nothing is ugly. So what you are left with, that your critical mind then sees as, “Well this could be something,” and you actually find a wealth of something that’s actually inside of you that isn’t able to come out. Because creative block, for me, is when you’re just editing yourself so hard that you can’t break the barrier. So the only way I’ve been able to get pass the barrier (editing) is to purposefully draw something that is ugly or purposely make something that is ugly because in the end, you will always find something that is beautiful about it, or what is valuable about it, because your critical mind is on overload.

I’m going to use that in my own work, I love that!
I figured this out because I once drew this sketch when I was like, “Fuck it! Why is everyone making all these like — everybody wants these ugly … fucking … clothes!”

Wait, when you say everyone, are people coming to you asking for designs based on fleeting trends?
No, I’m just seeing, all these ugly … fucking … clothes out! And I’m just like whatever. So I just start making fun of everything and drawing on the chalkboard all this ugly crap. And then I noticed that, as I was drawing all this, my mind was already trying to figure out what was beautiful about it, because that’s what it naturally does! So, then I thought, this is totally how you break through that!

What’s next for you?
This! I would say this is a big thing for me to have people in the space and have people try things on, and to have people ask questions of someone who isn’t me. I mean, I value, depth and intensity, and there’s a seriousness to creativity! I approach it with this seriousness, but then it could be something that’s taken as anything but serious. So, it will be really interesting to see how that affects me, how it effects my business — it might just be the whole front of this studio is just too scary for people to even come in, but I don’t know. I felt like, maybe it is about Instagram, and photographs, and you’re able to bring whatever you need into your space and not have to venture out. Having an actual storefront; is that what makes people actually come in? No. But, it’s an experiment. The next chapter, I guess. I’ve never, I’ve absolutely never had anything but by appointment ever. I broke off from my corporate design job with $100 in the bank 20 years ago, so it’s 20 years later. But it’s cool!

Right. And then there’s the physical space that we’re in, that everyone can experience/share, and then there’s the intangible creative head space, that can easily be distracted if in the wrong environment. Will you be working during these visits or hosting?
Hosting? Oh, hell no! I [previously] worked for a company where I sewed their private line in Seattle, and there, there was a storefront and there was a back area, so I’m thinking [my open studio hours] will be kind of like that. And I think it’s important that they see the big picture, to see where it’s all coming from.

Many thanks to Tsilli Pines of FINE Design Group for introducing me to the incredibly talented and inspiring Adam Arnold. And super special thanks to Adam Arnold for inviting us to his beautiful studio and sharing his amazing story with us. You can find more of Adam’s work on his website or visit his studio located at 338 SE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Portland, OR, on Thursdays and Fridays, 4p-7p, Saturdays, 12p-3p, or by appointment.

Alicia F. Buford

Alicia F. Buford is a writer, designer, and illustrator based in Portland, Oregon. You can follow more of her images and words on Instagram

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