The Fashions of Emma Altman
By Holly J. Coley
Cover Photo by Glasirphoto.com
However, this meant little to her. When she returned home to her small studio space in the West Village on New Year’s Day, she began cleaning house. She cleared off the walls, hung up hooks, began sketching. To the passive onlooker, it may have seemed like a typical day in the life of a fashion designer; but anyone with glitter in their veins—who knows the pull of that intoxicating white magic otherwise known as creative energy—could see that this was different. Something was about to happen.
That something was a call that came shortly after: she had been accepted into New York’s Fashion Week. True, she had applied months before, but in the world of fashion, that’s no guarantee of anything. There are thousands of designers around the world, and few see their work make it down a runway at one of the most revered events in the industry. It’s particularly hard for new or lesser-known designers to get in the door, especially when many of the slots are already taken by industry veterans.
Most designers spend six months planning and executing their 20-piece collections for Fashion Week. Emma had a month. “Once I found out that I was doing it, I started making outfits almost every single day,” she says. “I was sewing nonstop with all the free time that I had.”
One glance at Emma’s work, and you’ll know she’s a risk taker. From her first collection in 2013, she hasn’t been shy about using patterns, shapes or textures that dare you to take notice.
Showstopper clothes aside, she herself is quite striking, with large eyes worthy of an anime character and waist-length hair that goes from sultry brown to buttery blonde. Like her designs, she’s a blending of two archetypes: the candy-sweet girl next door and the bad-ass down the street who won’t hesitate to kick your butt if you step out of line. “My brand is all about female empowerment and confidence,” she explains.
As a young girl growing up in Hastings-on-Hudson, Emma found herself drawn to strong women, though she didn’t always see herself as one of them. She was introverted and a self-described nerd who was still trying to find her voice and purpose. During junior high, she realized that clothes could be a means to express herself.
While sitting in a doctor’s office, she encountered a girl who was dressed in a pair of jeans that clearly weren’t store bought. Hand-torn and safety-pinned together, they were customized. They were cool. The look triggered an epiphany in Emma. “I realized people designed clothing and that it was an artform,” she recalls. “That’s when I realized I could customize clothes or even make them from scratch…that’s really how I started designing.”
Like many artists, her life and interests began to inform what she created. When she traveled to Japan for a summer during high school, her creative vision widened as she familiarized herself with Tokyo street fashion, which, like her own work, is a harmonious mashup of style genres. The country made such an impression on her that she would return while studying fashion apparel at the Rhode Island School of Design. That time remains a source of inspiration, as seen by her use of pastels, sequins and whimsical prints that she collages digitally before sewing into the final garments.
Her love of music is also clear in her work. “I draw a lot of inspiration from the seventies, like from the punk scene—specifically, female musicians who had very big personalities back then.” She cites Debbie Harry of Blondie and Joan Jett as style inspirations, two women who, while feminine, are undeniably tough. These ideas are not mutually exclusive to Emma. Women can be whomever they want and dress however they want. Helping young girls discover this and create their most powerful self is part of the designer’s mission. “For me, I didn’t come out of my shell until I started wearing clothing that made me feel confident and empowered,” she says thoughtfully. “A lot of people don’t know that the clothing helps to bring out their big personalities.”
Another part of Emma’s personal mission is to show the world that style doesn’t have to come at the cost of other living things. All the fur in her collection is faux. Her clothing has been 100 percent vegan and cruelty-free since 2014. “I’ve always really cared about animals,” she says. She’d grown up around them, mostly older rescues that were less likely to be adopted because of their age. It felt wrong to use them for personal gain, especially when there were better options. “People don’t realize how easy it is to be cruelty-free. It’s also more affordable.”
If fashion has been Emma’s vehicle to promote self-esteem in the upcoming generation, her customer base may benefit from not only adopting her manifesto of strength through style but taking a few notes from how she’s handled the obstacles she’s encountered in her career. She’s had enviable experiences, but they’ve all come hard-earned and, mostly, because she’s been open to them. Whether it’s been a month’s time of preparation for Fashion Week or working year-round, as she did when she was a student, you commit and learn how to roll with the punches life throws.
During her second year at RISD, she landed a job as an intern for Betsey Johnson and stayed on until she graduated. Instead of taking summer vacations, she’d spend her days fitting models and assisting. The day after the September shows, she’d drive back to school, only to return to the city again come winter break. When she returned to New York for good, people began to reach out to her about her work, but she found that building a business was more than creating a must-have garment. Beyond the hardship of obtaining funding as an independent designer, the phenomenon of social media was gaining momentum. The designer quickly realized that she would have to expand her skill set to be successful. “I didn’t really think [technology] would be something I would need to focus so much on,” she says. “People don’t really realize that you need so much social media content, you have to make sure your clothes are on people who are influencers. Getting your work out to the billions of people in the world is definitely a challenge.”
To drive her brand, she’s pushed herself to become more extroverted or, as she jokingly puts it, “an extroverted introvert,” appearing in her own lookbooks and Instagram feed. Having a brand centered around empowerment involves a level of fearlessness, and if the designer has ever experienced anxiety over obstacles, she hasn’t let it show. She focuses more on the excitement of opportunities rather than nerves. The month leading up to Fashion Week, she dedicated her energies to materializing her artistic vision.
Part of this included creating a show that broke away from conventual beauty standards and the traditional fashion-show prototype, which veers on the serious side. On February 9, her collection, Fire and Ice, made its official debut. It was bold, irreverently fun and included a diverse cast of models ranging in ethnicity, body size and height (one was even 5’3″). They made their way down the catwalk to an eclectic soundtrack that included Porcelain Black, Britney Spears and Japanese singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, showcasing looks that transitioned from edgy and sexy to flirty and playful.
With the success of Fire and Ice, one would think that next on Emma’s agenda would be planning a holiday. But she’s already back in her studio, working on new concepts. Along with clothing, outerwear and swimwear, she also makes accessories, and none of these will design themselves. While she’s keeping the theme of her next collection on the hush, she was able to discuss her involvement in this summer’s Warped Tour. She participated in it last year and will be returning for the final year of the music festival. In many ways, it’s another dream come true. “It was a full-circle moment for me,” she says. “When I was sixteen, I wanted to be one of the clothing brands selling [there], and now I am one of those people.”
For custom design inquiries and to shop Emma Altman, visit her website at www.emmaaltman.com. █