By Marcia Bosscher

An Interview with Liesl Gibson

Clothing is a topic we haven’t addressed at The Well, although others in academia have. Natasch Chtena writes Appearances Matter (“Sorry guys,” she says, "I have to say upfront that this post was written with female readers in mind!”) for Inside Higher Ed, and refers to the study, “Effects of Graduate Teaching Assistant Attire on Student Learning, Misbehaviors, and Ratings of Instruction.” And in light of the Bangladesh factory disasters of 2012-2013, we were made more aware of the tragic working conditions for many of the men, women, and children in the garment industry, particularly required for fast fashion (“fast fashion” is the term used in the industry for the practice of translating runway designs quickly and cheaply into trendy clothing consumers can buy at low cost — clothing meant to be worn for a season or two and then discarded).  How do we respond as Christians and as women concerned for others in this world?

Although she is not in academia, I decided to ask the person I know closest to the fashion industry, Liesl Gibson, founder of Liesl + Co., if she would comment on some sartorial matters for our audience at The Well. Liesl did her undergraduate degree in graphics design and early work in publishing and finance. Returning to school, she earned a degree in fashion design from New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. Before having a child in 2005, she worked as a designer for Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. Liesl lives in Manhattan with her husband Todd and daughter and commutes daily to her studio in Brooklyn.

Welcome to The Well, Liesl.  I thought clothing was a topic that would be of interest to our audience and I know it is a subject you have worked with most of your life.

Thanks so much! And yes, we all have to get dressed and we all need to think about how we present ourselves to the world. I think it's an important topic.

And we’ve become more aware that how we buy our clothes affects not just ourselves, but people around the world. We’d love to hear some of your thoughts on clothing and particularly on the current “fast fashion.”

I'm so passionate about this topic — how fast fashion affects our world today. I listened to Elizabeth Cline's [author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion] interview on Fresh Air and wrote a blog post about it. As an apparel designer, this is something I struggle with all the time, so it's especially close to my heart.

How do you describe your own position in the fashion world?

Well, I consider myself now to be a bit outside of the fashion world. I read Women's Wear Daily every day, but I'm working more in the home-sewing world, so I'm walking a fine line between the two industries, and they are very different.  Before my daughter was born, I was definitely in the fashion world.  I worked as an apparel designer — a fashion designer — for a number of large companies (Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger), and several smaller companies as well.

And then you had your daughter.

Yes!

Did that change things for you?

It did! You know, I probably would have kept on with my work as it was but for the fact that Todd was traveling four to five days a week, and it just didn't seem feasible to us.  So often he wasn't home. It really was like single parenting five days a week. There was just no way that I could be a mother and continue doing what I was doing. I didn't feel good about the amount of time that I would be away from her and the amount of time that someone else would have to be watching her. It was far beyond forty hours — more like sixty hours a week. It just didn't feel right to me, so yes, at that point I left and thought I would just be staying home with S [Liesl uses only the initial in print to protect her daughter’s privacy].

I thought I would take a few years off, and then reevaluate. And my current work designing sewing patterns and printed fabrics came out of that. I was really missing the camaraderie of the creative team that I used to work with, and I really wanted that back. So I was blogging to at least be in touch with other creative types at the time. And I was sewing but was disappointed with the sewing patterns that were available because the sizing was terrible and the styles were out of date and lacked any sort of interesting details, so I started designing clothing and making the patterns for those designs.

We would be walking down the sidewalk here in New York and  people would stop me in the street to ask where I had purchased my daughter’s dresses. I got a lot of requests for the clothing, and manufacturing an apparel line was just not on the radar for me at that point. But making sewing patterns made sense because it was something that it seemed like I could manage during that time, and I could see that many people were developing an interest in learning to sew. So that's how the whole thing came about.

It started out as a part-time work idea — something to do during nap time — but I quickly realized that it would take much more time than I anticipated. After about a year on my own my husband recognized that I was really onto something, and he quit his job to run my business for me. We’ve been working together for over four years now, and in that time we’ve launched three additional sewing pattern brands, two different fabric lines (each with multiple deliveries and seasons), a book, and quite a few other projects, so it’s been a very productive time for us.

It must be a real art, drawing, designing a pattern. Is that something you had experience with?

I had classes in pattern-making when I was in school for fashion design. Of all the classes that I took, that was the class that most opened my eyes to the whole apparel process. There are two primary methods of making apparel. One is draping, where you take fabric and manipulate it on a dress form then make a pattern out of your draping, and the other is flat pattern making, where you develop a three-dimensional pattern on paper. I really enjoyed the draping classes, but it was that first pattern-making class when the teacher started showing some of the things you could do with a flat pattern that opened my eyes and was just such a revelation to me.

It was just such an amazing concept that you could do all these amazing things with one basic pattern. That really intrigued me.  But I wasn’t a professional pattern maker. You can go to school for pattern making. That's a very different skill set than being a designer. So when I was in school, I was taking pattern making for designers to give me a basic overview of what pattern making is so that I could communicate with a technical designer. But when I started Oliver + S there was still a lot to be learned on my side.

Did your mother sew for you when you were growing up?

Yes! She’s an amazing seamstress. I had an interest in clothing at a fairly early age and my mom was great because she was so patient and willing to work with me. If I saw a pattern that I liked but wanted a different sleeve or a collar added, she would figure out how to make those changes. She really nurtured that interest and made this all possible for me. And my Grandma worked in the fashion industry and has been a big source of inspiration for me as well.

As Christians, we can have a really conflicted sense of how we should clothe ourselves.  I know I go between really appreciating nice clothing, especially well-made clothing, and also thinking, Oh, this is something that I shouldn't spend time or money on, it’s not important.

Yes. It seems superficial, especially in light of larger issues, I know. I’ve struggled with that a lot.  Where I've landed on that topic is that we all present ourselves to the world. How you dress has so much to do with first impressions and with what you're saying about yourself to other people. You know, I think especially as teenagers, we try on a lot of different personas to sort of figure out who we are and how we want to present ourselves. And I think that's very important as Christians, too, that we're presenting ourselves as people who are engaged with the world, and people who are interested in what's going on. It has to do with how people are going to perceive us. And so it's not simply a superficial thing. It truly does have to do with how people are going to accept a message that we're bringing them as well. So there's a lot that comes into play.

I think you’re right. I have heard young women in faculty positions talk about the difference their dress has made. Not in all departments, interestingly. But some have had to learn to change from dressing like a student to dressing like a professional for their lectures to be heard and for them to be respected.

Absolutely.

Another trend I see in myself and in other Christian women is the desire to pay the least we can for clothing — whether that is the love of the good deal or truly good stewardship of our resources.  Has cheap clothing always been so available?

No, I think that’s changed a lot over the last twenty or thirty years. When I was growing up and my mom did a lot of sewing for me and my four younger sisters, she sewed largely to save money, because clothing was expensive. And I remember that change — I think I was in high school — she and I were shopping one day in a department store. And I fell in love with a dress. I think it was an Esprit dress. Esprit was all the rage back then. And my mom looked at it, and she said, "You know, I can't make it for this price. We might as well buy it instead of making it." And to me, that was the time when everything changed in the fashion industry.

And I think it's just gone down from there. As a society, we tend to be so price-conscious. And I can understand that; we want to be saving money and we want our hard-earned dollar to go as far as it can. But it's come to the point where I don't see buying cheap clothing as saving money. So often we’re chasing trends that are not going to last very long. We're looking at so much apparel as being disposable. We say, "At this price I don't even need to wear it that many times before I can get rid of it because it's so inexpensive." And in the end we actually end up spending more money on bad clothing than if we were buying good quality clothing and buying less of it and holding onto it. We’re wasting resources when we accumulate or churn through a lot of clothing.

I think there's a contingent of people who get that. You always hear about how French women are such beautiful dressers, and how they have such a sense of style. They don't tend to buy cheap. The chic French woman tends to spend a lot on a piece of clothing. But she doesn't buy a lot, and she might still buy it on sale to save money. But she holds onto it and she wears it, and she wears it in a lot of different, creative ways. And that is really the key. It’s not about buying a lot and buying it cheaply. It's buying what you love and buying what's going to last. If we're not all just buying and disposing, that's going to change everything.


Photo by Linda Winski.

I noticed in your blog post about this, you compare it to the slow food movement.

That's actually not my idea. I know a number of people who say that. Over the last five, ten years, we've started to become more aware of where our food is coming from, and what's in our food. And I think it's very similar here. The Bangladesh factory collapse — and I think Elizabeth Cline says this too —  really felt like the breaking point. You can almost compare it to Sandy Hook and the whole gun situation, where a lot of people have said, "Okay, enough already. We need to do something about this." With Bangladesh and the factory collapse, people are saying the same thing, "This is terrible. I don't know where my clothes are coming from. I don't know who's making my clothes and what they're getting paid for it, and I need to know more about it."

The consumer is starting to say, "I want to have more control over how my clothes are made."  I don't think the answer is necessarily taking all production away from other countries. There are people there who need to make a living. But I feel it's the first step when people are saying, "You know what? I really do need to know more about this topic. And I'm going to start with what feels easy, by buying something that I know is made in the US."

There has been such a change, hasn’t there — from almost all of our clothing being made in the US a generation or two ago, to now, almost none.

Yes! It's amazing. When Todd and I moved to New York twenty-two years ago, I still remember the Garment District and walking around and seeing — you still sometimes see the photos — the guys pushing the great big racks full of clothing. That was still happening in the 90’s, to some degree. And now you never see that anymore. Never, never, never. There is so little production happening in New York now.

Okay, so I want to be responsible and just buy a few things, well made, responsibly made. How do I tell? My understanding is it's not a guarantee just to pay more for clothing.

There is not an easy answer. That has to be a much bigger conversation. Elizabeth Clene, on her website, has a list of companies who are meeting some of the criteria for responsible manufacturing. I think that's a great place to start. Beyond that, I think there are some things that we can do as consumers. We can contact those companies we shop with and ask for more transparency. I buy a lot of my basics — unfortunately I don't have a lot of time to sew for myself — at J. Crew. And I recently went looking and saw that J. Crew has posted a social responsibility statement on their website. It certainly doesn’t answer all my questions, but it’s a good start.

I think we, as consumers, need to make it clear to these companies that transparency is important to us, and we really care about where our clothing comes from and who made it. I would feel more comfortable buying clothing if I knew where it was being made and who was making it, and how the workers are being treated.

I worked for Phillips-Van Heusen for a number of years, and there was a man there who worked on our floor, just one guy in a little closet of an office who was in charge of all of their factory compliance. He would travel all over the world to look at their factories and make sure that they were meeting human rights regulations. That was about ten years ago. At the time, I remember being quite impressed that the company was taking that responsibility but also wondering how effective one person could be. I also don't know that a lot of companies did that. But, one guy, how many factories are they using? He can't be there all the time. You know, asking a company to be as transparent and responsible as possible is a good first step. It’s going to be a long process, and we all need to play a role in making changes to the whole system.

I think one of the things that we can do is just start by buying less and to hold onto what we're buying, even if we’re unable to determine the specifics of its origins and background. If we're just not part of the cycle of throw-away clothing, we're at least starting a better practice. It shouldn't feel so overwhelming that you don't know where to begin. We can at least stop buying so much and see what develops from there. And let's put some pressure on our government, on the stores where we're shopping, and on each other to become part of this discussion. As a group, I think we can make those necessary changes. I’m already seeing many companies starting to really focus on these issues, and it’s really encouraging.

Another clothing concern for many has been in terms of modesty. Your clothes for children are lovely. They're not trendy, and yet they're just whimsical, cute... Do you have sort of a philosophy in mind as you design children's clothing? Does age-appropriate enter in? What do you look for?

I don't think there's such a thing, really, as timeless fashion, but I try to make our fashions as timeless as possible. I have clothing that my mom sewed for me and my sisters that my daughter wears. There's something about that that just means so much to me. When I'm designing, I want it to be contemporary. I want it to feel like it's now. But I'd love for it to last. I'm not thinking in terms of heirloom sewing, I'm not thinking in terms of the item being handed down through the generations. But good design isn’t necessarily trendy; it can have staying power.

I suppose I'm thinking more in terms of, isn't it fun to let your daughter wear the same dress that you wore? But I also really want kids to be able to move in the clothes, and I want them to be able to be kids. I feel like so much of the clothing that I see in stores that is for my daughter's age group — she’s eight now — just doesn't feel age-appropriate. It's like the stores, the designers, are trying to push her to grow up faster than she should. Why do we need to do that? She's eight! Let's dress her like an eight-year-old. Let's let her be an eight-year-old. So I guess that's kind of where I coming from with it.

Are you still doing adult patterns?

We are! We just released our first Liesl + Co. women's sewing patterns. We’ve been doing the Lisette brand of sewing patterns with Simplicity patterns and Lisette fabrics with JoAnn Fabrics, and that's been doing great and is continuing, but the Lisette brand is geared more toward someone who already feels somewhat comfortable sewing and fitting herself, while these Liesl + Company patterns are really intended for a beginning sewist. They're less fit-specific. They're still very flattering styles, but they’re less intimidating and more approachable. And there is some fit assistance written right into the instructions in the pattern, so it's geared toward women who really want to start sewing for themselves but perhaps have felt intimidated by it.

Sewing skipped a generation when all the production moved overseas and clothes became so inexpensive to buy. The feminist movement was happening, too, and for a while it was really unfashionable to sew. During that time, a huge amount of common sewing knowledge was lost. And now when somebody's new to sewing, they don't know what it means when you say, "Finish the seam allowances," or "Here's the grain." And so these patterns are really written specifically for that person to help her find her way through and feel more confident about sewing.

Do you have any advice for our readers who have limited time, and many who are  grad students getting by on a limited budget, about how to develop their own wardrobe?

I always advise women to develop a core wardrobe of separates that coordinate. Start with two colors that you love, and build your closet around those colors. Select styles that look good on you, all within that color palette. Start with one jacket, three or four blouses or tops, one or two pants, one or two skirts, a dress, and at least one ­­­­­pair of really good quality shoes. If you focus on a group of items that play well with each other, you’ll find you have a lot of options for coordinating within that basic wardrobe. And you can continue to build your wardrobe from there, as time and budget allows. You might add a bright, contrasting-colored sweater or scarf and you’ll have a pop of color for a little variety. But as long as those core items work together, you’ll never run out of options and stand in front of your closet thinking, “I have nothing to wear.” This strategy also makes it really easy to pack for a trip, by the way.

Thanks so much for asking about this topic! I think it’s an important issue, no matter what your profession. 

About the Interviewer

Marcia Bosscher is the former editor of The Well and now an associate with InterVarsity's Faculty Ministry. Having been married to a professor and sharing life with grad students and faculty in a campus church, she has a deep interest and care for those in the academy. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with a golden-retriever mix and a diverse array of lodgers and travelers.

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