Strength, Courage, and Bravery -
Yes, We’re Talking About Design
By Bridget Brady
Well-spoken and passionate, with a hearty laugh that I found quite contagious, I spent some time laughing and chatting with Aerin O’Connell about design, the current conditions in third-world countries, and creating freedom in our lives. A believer in shopping and exercising to get past “designer’s block,” she finds inspiration in everything; and lives the “Intrepid Woman” code of strength, courage, and bravery. O’Connell has a documentary coming out next year, and a new clothing line, The Intrepid Man, on the horizon. Steeped in single focused commitment, Aerin shares with us her take on the design world today.
What's your design process? What are the steps from genius in your brain, to an actual garment?
You just referred to my thinking as genius; you gave me the chills, Let me start with that. I strive in development; I have a lot of ideas and concepts. Sometimes I have to walk away before I'm able to articulate those. I've been fortunate enough to find a sketch artist who works with me in concepts and design so I can translate these ideas to paper. Then you have to break it down, and that I learned a lot from my film background. You're going to want to do a spec. There’s a lot of measuring involved: You want to "paint by numbers" the look of the ensemble and explain head to toe what's going on.
I read that you studied at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
I grew up on Long Island; I'm from Garden City. There are a lot of people who came from Garden City who ended up in entertainment, like Laura Spencer, Susan Lucci, John Tesh. Not to name drop, but I'm very proud of the town I grew up in.
Other than FIT, have you done any other formal training?
Yes! I think I'm in formal training every day. I learn something new every day. School is not for everyone, but I went to FIT, I went to the Los Angeles School of Style, I also went out into the field and did my research and homework on movie sets. I was totally interested in costume and wardrobe design. I did that for feature films and short films―anything I could do to learn. I was a stylist for a minute; I was so thirsty for knowledge. I'm a go-getter. I went after it because I knew that was what I wanted to do.
Are you ever going to design a male line?
That is on the horizon. That is one of my projects in development. The Intrepid Man is definitely happening. I got very lucky, and someone approached me about partnering up to do that. It's happening, but baby steps.
What are your feelings about fashion today?
My feelings? We’re going to talk about feelings now? (Laughs.) Well, my thought on fashion is that it's an extension of your personality. I used to be really shy. At the end of the day, I'm just like you and everybody else: I have moments where I can't express myself or I don't know how to get a point or message across. So for me, every morning when I get myself dressed, or I'm going somewhere special, I put some effort into what I'm wearing and how I look. I don't want that to sound shallow, but it helps me feel good about who I am, and it definitely is an extension of my personality. That sort of freedom and expression across the board is something I fully believe in. I think for kids, men, women, whoever, wherever, to feel comfortable in who you are and what you're doing is such a mainstay. It's something I struggled with my whole life, but finally I'm in a better place, and fashion has a lot to do with that.
Do you have any intentions to design clothes for the average-sized woman, someone who's not a size 6?
Never say never. I take on projects that speak to me because I feel there's aneed, want, and desire. As long as the timing is right, I would do that in a heartbeat. Why not? I would love to do a line like that, as well as many other lines. There is a lot of pride in this country, and knowing that the majority is not a size 00, I'm sensitive to that. I tend to relate to women who are frustrated with what's going on in the fashion world right now, and society’s perceptions of what the ideal is, or what's attractive. I think about these things all day long.
It is harder for the average woman to find high fashion that will fit our curves. What do we do about that?
Great question! I definitely want to take them into consideration. I really value people's opinions, and what our society needs or wants. I want to appeal to the everyday gal and know what's missing from this industry. If that's something that I can help with, I'd love to.
We've all heard about the horrible sweatshops, child-labor violations, and inhumane conditions. How do you navigate that reality?
I want to know what's going on in every aspect of my business. I'm the one out in the field, and I'm the one meeting with the manufacturers, and visiting the warehouse, or traveling to Liberia. I want to meet the people who are involved in my projects because I care about every aspect. At the end of the day, every person that's involved in the process for me, I just want to know what's going on. The idea of a sweat-shop, obviously I would want something like that to happen. At the end of the day, you're only as good as the people who surround you, right? If we wanted to get a lease and rent warehouse space, we could honestly hire the women ourselves from the More Than Me academy that was started by Katie Meyler. They get girls off the street, out of the slums, and into school. So, I said, "They get off the streets, then what? Can we do some sort of a job-placement program?” There's an idea that ensures these girls will get out of school and they'll have a job, because creating jobs is one thing, and getting people into school is another, but you've got to make sure that it's all lined up. So the quality of life can really be better. On that front, if I was going to go overseas to do manufacturing, maybe I would have to go visit the warehouse and make sure everything was legit, and the conditions were good, and people were being respected, and that things weren't slipping through the cracks, because that just isn't right. Work conditions are so important. Work conditions in my office are important. If there's a bad energy or a bad vibe in my office, everybody's affected, so I can see how that can affect an entire community or country on larger scales.
Do you support any social or philanthropic causes?
The More Than Me organization. I've done volunteer work my whole life―that was part of my upbringing. My parents were very enthusiastic and encouraging about me seeing how other people lived, diverse socio/economic backgrounds, and opening my mind up to the reality of this world. I did a lot of volunteer work with Global Volunteers. That got me on the track of wanting to do my documentary. My sister-in-law invited me on a trip to Liberia. Immediately I said, "I have to see what's going on in this country." It's a post civil-war-torn nation. I had never seen this kind of devastation, and it tears at your heartstrings. The first time I went, I saw what was happening there, and thought, “I can really make a difference over here, and I really want to. I just have to go home, and tell my story, and hopefully get a few people interested in filming this whole process of the More Than Me message and abilities.” Adam Preskill and I are still working on that documentary. We have one final segment to shoot, but we're almost on post-production, so that should be coming out next year. It's a beautiful thing when you can get someone's story out there, and you can help make a difference in their life and change their future. We can change the world; we just have to get together, have these meetings of the mind, stop talking about it, and actually do it. That's part of my mantra these days: less talk, more do. A lot of people, especially in Los Angeles—as much as I love L.A.—a lot of people love to talk about doing things, but they don't actually commit and do them. I'm just not like that; it's not the kind of person I am. If I've said something, or if I have an idea, or if I want something to happen, it's going to. I'm not just somebody who talks about issues. I've been there. I've talked to these girls, I know what their life is like, and I know what their life is going to be like, and I think everyone should have a choice. If you want to live a certain way, it's your life. But if people want education, I think it's a great thing to be able to offer that, and we can, so why not?
Taking into consideration everything we've just said, where is design sexuality? Where is design a creative expression of your personality? Where is design a political statement? How does it all come together?
For me, a lot of it's subconscious. It's not that calculated. It just happens, then hindsight is 20/20. I look back and say, "I totally knew what I was doing there, because look at all these parallels." Then I re-visit the idea of where that's all coming from. I don't seek out messages, but if it’s something that I feel good about or that I encourage, if it turns out that it's a political statement, then so be it. I'm not out to stir the pot. I'm not very political, but that doesn't mean that somebody isn't going to have something to say about what I'm doing. I'm sure people have a lot to say about what I'm doing because it's thought-provoking stuff. That’s what makes me tick. I want to keep pushing boundaries, and seeing what's out there, and how relevant it is to me and my industry.
What's your big dream?
I have so many dreams. I'm a lot simpler than people think I am. I'm not complicated. At the end of the day, I want to be able to rest my head on the pillow, and know that I did something to make this world a better place.
When someone wears your clothing, what do you want them to feel?
Where do you source your materials for your designs?
Right now, in Los Angeles. We've stayed local. I still have to do my research, I have to educate myself and do my homework before I can make decisions about other countries.
Who are the key players on your team that you depend on?
On Team Intrepid? My bestie, Ashanti Mozelle. I couldn't go a day without him.
Do your family and friends support your ambitions?
You know, they do. I'm sure they would prefer it if I was around more, because I'm from New York, and I live in Los Angeles, and they don't see me very often. I work almost around the clock, so at times, they have to try really hard to be more understanding because I have such a crazy, regimented, wacky schedule. I'm actually going home for Thanksgiving. I'll be there for 10 days. I miss them terribly. They’re my biggest supporters.
For our up-and-coming, aspiring designers, I have two questions. How important is going to the "right" school, and having the "right" connections? And, what is one stellar piece of advice?
I encourage school. I think everyone should be educated, but at the same time there are certain people whose personalities aren't cut out for school. I can relate to that because I had a difficult time taking the SATs. Sitting down for a long period of time is challenging for me. I realized when I was 18, when I went to Marymount Manhattan College for Art History. I would sit there in three-hour lectures, watching slide shows; I was so interested and excited about what I was learning that it didn't matter. You need to live, go, and experience things every day. Find what you love, and you'll never have to work a day in your life. And don't give up ever. Don't take no for an answer.
What are your passions outside of fashion?
My dog. I love my dog, Miles. He's been with me for almost 10 years, and he's been right by my side for this whole L.A. experience.
What are your creative inspirations, and how do you find them?
Inspiration is everywhere; you just have to be willing to receive it. I'll be walking down the street, and like lightning, something strikes me. People that you cross paths with, every conversation you have, every place you go to, things that you see, music that you hear—anything and everything. The ideas are there, you just have to connect the dots.
What do you do for creative inspiration when you get stuck?
My father calls it "designer's block." I've been pretty lucky this last year; the inspiration just keeps coming to me. I have had a few moments that stand out in my memory where I'm like, "What am I going to do??" So I go shopping! Even if it's just window shopping, just something. Or I go to the gym. I'm a huge believer in exercise; it gets my wheels turning. Hanging out with people that mean a lot to me. You have to step away from your work once in a while. You can't force the idea. Take a break, step away, [and] it will come to you. I'm finally confident in that statement. I used to worry, and stay up at night thinking about things, and now I'm more laid back about it, and I know that the ideas will come to me. That inspiration is there; sometimes you just have to be patient.
If you could be any designer in history, who would like to have been?
I would like to know what it feels like to be Diane Von Furstenberg. I remember being a little girl, admiring her designs, thinking, "She knows what's going on." She just gets it.
What celebrity is the perfect match for your clothing?
Angelina Jolie. She embodies a lot of the things that Intrepid stands for. It's a good fit.
So that begs the question, what are the core values that Intrepid stands for?
The facets within The Intrepid Woman are strength, courage, and bravery. That's what “intrepid” by definition means, so those are the attributes that The Intrepid Woman possesses.
What else is on the horizon? What can we be looking for?
The Tunic for Change is going to be live on our website between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We're doing an eco-friendly hemp tunic that can directly benefit the girls in the academy in Liberia. IntrepidByAOC.com
What interesting tidbit can you share with us that you've never shared in an interview before?
Something that no one has really touched on is the symbolism behind the caged dress, and the release of the doves at Sky-Walk, the last show I did in the Grand Canyon. Four-thousand feet up, mind-blowing scenery, my dad sitting there next to me—it was one of the coolest things I've ever done, the symbolic gesture of releasing the dove, that I'm on a mission. I'm embarking on this journey that is all about freedom. People get stuck in cages. Sometimes we do it to ourselves, sometimes due to the socio-economic background of our families, or whatever hand we were dealt. People can be held back by fear. I went through that. I can relate. These challenges and stumbling blocks can prohibit that freedom. I think that within ourselves we find our own freedom, and that's something I have finally found.