When you’re lost in an industrial building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, everything starts to look the same. We’re here to meet knitwear designer Lindsay Degen, a task that’s proving to be difficult in a maze of grey concrete. After a few wrong turns and a claustrophobic encounter with a freight elevator, we finally arrive to a room bursting with colour. Of course this is Degen’s studio. What else would you expect from a designer known for quirky rainbow knits?
The Ohio-born, Brooklyn-based designer has never been one to follow the crowd, which makes her such an anomaly in the New York fashion scene. Her decision to reject conventionality has led to glowing reviews, brand partnerships with Victoria’s Secret and Converse and Rihanna strutting down the street wearing her designs. For spring/summer 2016, she collaborated with My Little Pony for a collection about friendship.
“My whole success comes from being myself. And that’s kind of sad. Why wouldn’t anyone just be themselves?” she says. “Maybe there’s a lot of the same type of ‘self’ out there at the moment and I’m different. Being an art weirdo and doing your thing can be really well received.”
While studying textiles at the Rhode Island School of Design, Degen focused on garment-style wall pieces. She points to one hanging in her studio, a psychedelic fellow named ‘Cannabis Carl,’ complete with LED blinking eyes and yellow yarn fringe. After an art critic advised her to make her work wearable, Degen shifted her focus to apparel. Along the way, she dropped out of college twice, went back twice, moved to London to study at Central Saint Martins and eventually set up shop in Brooklyn.
“My soul focus is to make fabric interesting,” says Degen, who specializes in creating sculptural knit textures. “I think focusing on sales makes New York Fashion Week really boring in comparison to London Fashion Week for example, which is really fun.”
“I get feedback from buyers saying, ‘This is so cute! Does it come in black?’ No. If you want a black sweater, go to J. Crew,” says Degen.
Since launching her first ready-to-wear collection in February 2012, Degen has attracted acclaim for her conceptual shows that pull inspiration from a range of topics including DNA, global warming and LSD. For fall/winter 2015, she was influenced by artist Claes Oldenburg, whose 1961 project ‘The Store’ explored how everyday objects can become works of art. Similarly, Degen put her signature cheeky spin on wardrobe essentials like leggings, crop tops and shorts. Amongst the vibrant pieces was one all-black ensemble, a clever response to a common request from buyers.
“I get feedback from buyers saying, ‘This is so cute! Does it come in black?’ No. If you want a black sweater, go to J. Crew,” says Degen. “We made one entire look all black so if they asked me that, I could say, ‘This is for you. The rest is for me.’”
While Degen doesn’t make commerciality a focus, she’s found success in selling baby apparel with the same playful aesthetic. All pieces are knit in New York with most of the magic happening in her Brooklyn Navy Yard studio.
“If you know the personalities of my team, you’ll know who made what. It’s extremely different than sending it to Asia for a factory to make,” she says.
To celebrate all the people who helped her along the way, Degen made friendship the theme of her My Little Pony collection. The SS16 showcase was decked out with giant moving flowers by artist Chris Uphues and her boyfriend James DeVito, an electronics and lighting pro.
“In the beginning, I didn’t have any money. I just had the talent of my friends who were down to help. This season, we brought back past people but I could pay them this time,” she says.
Between teaching knitting classes at Parsons and working on her next collection, the designer plans to publish a coffee table book featuring knit swatches and her original drawings. Finding time to do it all, however, is the challenge.
As she walks us out of her studio, she opens the back door to an incredible view of the Manhattan skyline and East River.
“I don’t like living in the city that much,” she admits. “But the pace of New York definitely keeps me going. The fact that everyone is pushing forward and striving to be their best is very influential.”
Looking out at the cluster of skyscrapers, it’s the fragments of colour and texture that stand out. In a sea of grey concrete and black clothing, a rare rainbow can be the most inspiring thing of all. ■
*Originally seen in Here & There Magazine's NYC issue released in December 2015
Here & There Magazine is a digital publication covering art, design and fashion in cities around the world. Photographed and written through the eyes of two travellers with a passion for storytelling, Here & There features creative people, spaces and moments that reflect each destination’s distinctive aesthetic.