In Conversation: Christopher Schreck and Collina Strada founder Hillary Taymour

Launched in 2008 by designer Hillary Taymour, Collina Strada’s “minimal tough” aesthetic comprises a series of balances: between vintage and modern style, familiar silhouettes and unexpected materials, embellishment and function. With its recent presentations, the brand’s also aggressively sought to offset expectations surrounding gender codes—most notably in their A/W ’16 presentation at New York’s Milk Studios, which featured “womenswear” shown exclusively on male models. Over the past four years, the brand’s output has grown to include a clothing line and accessories series to complement Taymour’s signature handbags, manually crafted with eco-conscious materials like organic canvas and veggie-tanned leather. Throughout, we find on display the designer’s particular talent for architectural line and strategic accent, the results at once provocative and approachable.

Though you’ve long presented your work as gender neutral, Collina Strada still officially identifies as womenswear. Why has it been important to retain that label?

Honestly, I don’t think retaining that label is very crucial to the business—it’s just a category that, unfortunately, the fashion industry imposes upon designers. I would love to show in both men’s and women’s markets, but we aren’t financially able to do that yet. I’ve had to choose which market week to show in, and at this time, the collection sits best as a women’s collection. So we’ve started as a womenswear label, and we’ll continue to show that way until the industry can start blurring these lines with us.

In designing womenswear, is it important that one have a clearly defined notion of what is “feminine”?

I have always had a skewed perspective of femininity. It really comes and goes by mood. Usually, I like to make a woman shine by dressing them in a totally “masculine” look. At the same time, though, the collection will sometimes boast super simple see-through dresses. I just think “feminine” is such a broad term. Personally, when I hear the word, I think of feeling sexy and empowered. It’s about being in control. Wearing something that you feel completely comfortable in, that makes you feel like yourself—that’s the ultimate "feminine” look.

Following up on dressing women in conventionally “masculine” looks—I wonder: in sketching a given piece, how specifically are you imagining the wearer, whether in terms of gender, body type, or whatever else?

While sketching, I’m focused entirely on the look. I try to bring in certain pieces that help evoke this specific feeling I want to create—it’s really never about which gender will wear it, which is why I say the pieces are essentially gender neutral. It’s more about the individual that’s wearing the look, how they feel in it and how they can hold it. In regards to body type, I try to make pieces for all figures, but during runway, it can be almost impossible to relay that with a sample size.

You mentioned "gender neutrality" - in describing your own approach, why does that term resonate more than, say, "gender fluid" or "androgynous"?

I think trying to label and stick to socially accepted terminologies is really straying from the point of it all. It’s a feeling, a way of life, a movement, openness and an understanding of each other. Let’s break through these labels and barriers and just accept one another for our true selves, ideas, and identities.

To that end: It seems that with recent presentations, you’ve started casting models of multiple sexes, both cis and trans. Has this shift changed the way your clothes have been received?

I hope so. I really wanted to blur the lines of gender categories with this latest collection; I wanted it to shine per the individual. Funnily enough, the clothes were received as a total menswear collection to some, and as unisex to others, but almost no one considered it womenswear. Most of my stores purchased it only because the previous season did so well—they were skeptical as to how their customers would look at it on the rack. But I feel like this is an important step for the industry. For instance, we were the only brand during NYFW to cast a model from Trans Models NY. If you aren’t familiar with this agency, start familiarizing yourself with them. They are making huge strides towards integrating trans models into fashion, and their board is full of beauties.

Obviously, we’ve heard a lot recently about the “obsolescence of gender” in fashion. Do you think gender’s in fact become a useless means of classifying garments? Can it, at this point, retain any useful function?

Unfortunately, we aren’t there yet. I would like it to be an obsolete form, but buyers and stores are still adamant about identifying for their consumer. So for now, I just want to make clothes that allow individuals show their own sense of style. With such a flooded marketplace, I’m grateful to have any consumer buy into that, regardless of gender.

Speaking more broadly, what makes fashion a viable platform for a meaningful discussion of gender? Do you think fashion can effect social change, or does it confirm/reflect it?

We aren’t changing the world here—at the end of the day, we’re still just making clothes. But if I can help make even one person think it’s acceptable or normal to come out in identifying with a different gender, that would be huge.

Originally published in Open Lab Magazine #13, published summer 2016