Designer Hillary Taymour talks about the freedom and challenges of building her own independent brand.
Though it may not have been obvious at the time, the temper tantrums designer Hillary Taymour threw as a child were very telling of where life would eventually lead her. “I’ve always been clothes obsessed,” she says. “I used to throw tantrums when I was little because my dolls didn’t have the right clothes to go where I was going. I always wanted clothes to be different.”
It’s that same resolve and perfectionism that has led the L.A. native to where she is today—at the helm of NYC-based ready-to-wear brand Collina Strada, which doubles as a platform for social issues, sustainability efforts, and transparency with it’s community of fans and customers. Via Google Meet from her Chinatown studio, Taymour is sitting at a work table and dressed in a Collina Strada patchwork jacket as she recounts her path from college dropout to fashion school student, to founder and designer of one of today’s most interesting and talked about labels.
“In my family [pursuing fashion] wasn’t something that was an option,” she says, adding that though her interest in fashion had been solidified in elementary school, her parents wanted her to pursue something more traditional, like finance. That familial stance, which isn’t uncommon, prompted Taymour to enroll at Loyola Marymount — an experience that only confirmed the traditional school route wasn’t for her.
“I paid for a Harvard student to write an English paper for me — I paid this kid like $200 — and then my professor gave me a C,” she says. “I got really upset and [the professor] was like, ‘Do you want to go talk to the dean about it?’ and I was like, ‘No, I’m just going to drop out, this is stupid.” With the alternative being no school at all, her family budged and Taymour transferred to FIDM where, she says flatly “it was the time when they were filming The Hills.” Though she still wasn’t a fan of the confines of academia — even in a fashion school setting — it was there that she started concepting Collina Strada in 2008 and making plans to move to NYC. Collina, which is Italian for “hill,” has long been a nickname that some of Taymour’s friends call her, and she liked the way it sounded with Strada, the Italian word for “road.”
“I wanted to do ready-to-wear and at the time, in 2010, you couldn’t really have a successful ready-to-wear label in L.A.,” she says. “And I hate L.A. I don’t fit in there. I don’t know how to not work constantly and I think L.A. is where you go to chill. People work hard there, but I really like to work. So I came here, where everyone works all the time.”
For Taymour, That work has resulted in a label now lauded for a fun, inclusive, and distinctly off-kilter approach to fashion. Taymour and her longtime collaborator, photographer Charlie Engmanhave produced collections marked by oversized silhouettes, cutouts, spandex, and bold, out-of-the box prints. Ranging from florals to tie-dyes to scribbles, the patterns are a mix of ‘90s deadstock and designs that Taymour and Engmancome up with themselves, often derived from photographs.
“The best part about Collina is the freedom,” Taymour says. “We aren’t locked into a certain idea of how anything has to be; I don’t have a CEO telling me no. I can say, ‘I’m going to make this orange,’ and if it doesn’t sell it doesn’t offend me at all. [But] usually the things that you put more creativity into are the things that sell more. The more you go off the deep end the better.” It’s rare for designers at larger houses to have this level of autonomy, where the pressure to reach revenue goals and maintain a decades-old aesthetic identity often override creativity. For a woman who has always shuddered at the thought of conformity and sought to do her own thing, it’s fitting that building Collina Strada has been her only job as an adult.
Taymour’s approach to business and design is rooted in her vision for “a sustainable brand that’s not super plain and granola.” Collina Strada, which is carried by Forty Five Ten and Assembly in the U.S. and Browns and Ssense internationally, among numerous other boutiques, is the antithesis of plain. In terms of sustainability, it’s something the brand has been working towards since inception. Past collections have included deadstock sourced from Accra — where secondhand clothing from around the world is routinely discarded as waste — as well as sustainable fabrics such as wood pulp-derived TENCEL and “sylk” made from roses. Once fabrics are sourced, every piece is made locally in NYC, and no more than 500 units of a given style are produced. All of the garment workers that brand commissions are compensated at rates commensurate with a living wage.
"Usually the things that you put more creativity into are the things that sell more. The more you go off the deep end the better.”
“When you wear one of my pieces,” Taymour says, “hopefully you feel good about yourself in that you’re supporting a small brand and you’re supporting someone who pays fair wages to their factories and workers. It’s important to wear clothes that you know the ethics behind [and] I think most of [our] customers are people who have strong ethics about what they want to see happen in the world.”
When she’s not designing upcoming collections or fitting models, Taymour has what she calls “number days,” dedicated to business obligations. “I can do business,” she says. “I can make deals and have talks, but I’m really bad at selling myself. You either get it or you don’t [and] I don’t like to sell stuff to people that don’t want it.” She adds that like many young female entrepreneurs, she’s been met with condescension and dismissiveness from men, some which have gone as far — or as low, rather — as to call her “sweetie” in meetings. “People never take women seriously unless you’re of a certain age, and that’s always how it’s been,” she says. “That’s still the way it is, if they take you seriously at all.” None of this hasn’t derailed her though, and Taymour has grown increasingly empowered to build Collina Strada on her own terms.
“Over the years I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin… more comfortable with the idea that I don’t have to be like everyone else,” she says. “That’s something you learn as you mature.” One of the most obvious and refreshing reflections of that nonconformist attitude is in Collina Strada’s casting and shows. Transgender and nonbinary models regualry appear on the label’s runways and in its campaigns, alongside a diverse group of Taymour’s friends. Kids, people with disabilities, and pregnant models are often casted as well. Collina Strada’s Spring 2019 show started with a sound bath courtesy of young children playing chimes; the soundtrack to Fall 2019 was a live talk on the importance of protecting the earth from environmental activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez; and Fall 2020 was both a concert and a show, with a performance by Hayley Williams. The shows are fun and nontraditional, just like Taymour’s designs.
For all the positive attention Collina has gotten, though, there’s been negative attention, too. “I’ve gotten a lot of bad reviews,” Taymour says, noting that while she doesn’t harp on all of them, glaring factual errors about her and the brand are upsetting. “[People] will call me Strada and I’m like, ‘you wrote a review about me but you don’t even know my name.’ But you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, because it’s not all real.
If ever there was a time to tune all negative attention out, it’s been the past year as Taymour like all of us, has been navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, both personally and professionally. “It was scary at first,” she says of the early days of the pandemic. In the mornings, she’d walk from her apartment in Williamsburg to her Chinatown studio, where she’d been making masks since March, weeks before they were recommended by the CDC. When demand grew for the masks, which gained popularity for both their function and the stylish touch Taymour gave them with tie-dye and the mixing and matching printed deadstock fabrics, she shared a tutorial so people could make them at home. After making as many masks as she could in the morning, Charlie would join her later in the afternoon, and the two worked on a quarantine collection for charity. “It’s been a time to think and reflect for sure, but I’ve been so busy.”
In addition to designing the quarantine collection, over the last year Taymour and Engman were tapped by Gucci’s Alessandro Michele to create a fashion film for the virtual GucciFest. Their contribution was a video game dubbed “Collinaland” that highlighted the brand’s pre-fall collection—a cache of pieces in bright pinks, blues, and psychedelic prints, with intricate ruffled and pleated details.
“I like the fact that we can be really weird and people still gravitate towards it,” Taymour says, noting that the embrace of her recent collections could be indicative of the industry’s openness to change. Her hope is for that openness to expand beyond an appreciation of unconventional design, towards a willingness to right many of the industry’s wrongs — a lack of fair pay, sustainability, and inclusivity, among them.
“I think fashion is trying to accept the challenges it’s been facing this past summer,” she says, “but there’s always more room to improve as an industry and as a community and as a world. I’m not one of those people who pats people on the back for doing one thing right. We all need to always work harder to do better, period.”
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