Girl About Town

Designer Sarah Staudinger Discusses L.A.’s “Micro-Renaissance” and the State of E-Commerce in the Post-Trump Era

Interview: Zoma Crum-Tesfa
Photography: Sarah Staudinger

“I think it’s a good time to be in Los Angeles,” designer Sarah Staudinger says, both in reference to the slow transformation of the West Coast into a fashion capital and to the anti-Trump protests that have been roaring through the city. Staudinger is an early adopter in many respects. She has switched coasts twice, and has switched careers from starting a fashion tech platform to a design post at Reformation to starting Staud, her own label. “It was an easy pivot,” she says, “It was already there. We live in a time of mega-brands, but listening to your customer and releasing what is in your head at the moment seemed more real to me.” In a selfie story for SSENSE, Staudinger photographed herself in looks by Saint Laurent, Courrèges, and Lemaire and video conferenced with Zoma Crum-Tesfa about the state of the world and fashion in the post-tech, post-Trump, post-West Coast-visibility age. 

Zoma Crum-Tesfa: I had no idea you were in New York this week! What are you doing?

Sarah Staudinger: I know! I’m working on some stuff for the resort collection and a collaboration that launches in April. Although today I’m a bit tired, actually. I feel like being in NYC and not in my normal home routine throws me off a bit. I think I need to go sweat it out somewhere.

Aren’t there Korean spas in New York? I’ve never been to a good one, but I’ve heard some things.

There’s this place in the East Village called Higher Dose. Have you heard of it? It’s not Korean, but I’m probably going to try to go there. Oh, so, yesterday, I had to do this photoshoot for a magazine. It was about the election actually—

OMG, the election. Pretty, uh—pretty wild.

Definitely wild. Kind of totally insane, actually.

What’s the vibe in NYC?

It crazy. Like, all of the conversations you pick up on the street are about the election, and definitely a lot of people are totally despondent. At this point though it seems the protests and riots—or whatever’s going on—in L.A. are way more intense. It’s just mind blowing! I still think there were some higher powers at play. I would like to think it’s just Americans voting… Well, actually, it’s way more sad to think Americans could be so close-minded. 

People tell me the same. It’s too hard for me to accept Americans could vote and endorse such darkness, so I project that forces conspired to get the result we have. But, you know, in a post-Snowden era I do think that type of collusion is possible!

Oh, I think there is a definite possibility of something happening behind the scenes, for sure. Did you see the 60 Minutes interview?

I’m still in a period of news blackout. Or, wait. Did Hillary give an interview?

No, Trump did. But honestly, maybe you shouldn’t watch this interview, then.

[Laughs]

Like, you’ll just hate him so much more. First of all, he doesn’t speak English. Secondly, she asks him what he’s going to do, and he’s like, “I’m going to win. I’m going to just keep winning.” It’s like, “What, dude? How are you that—how is that your response?”

That’s the kind of situation that keeps me from being able to read or speak his name. Like, whenever I refer to him, I just use the orange baby emoji.

I just think we are where we’re at, and it’s a time where we all need to start taking care of each other.

It does make me excited though to hear news from L.A. these days. The representation of the city is much more dynamic than it was when you and I were growing up.

Right? There is a definite shift happening with Los Angeles. You used to say you were from L.A., and everyone would tell you something they hated about it, and how uncultured everyone there was.

Totally!

The city is having a micro-renaissance and, to me, it makes so much sense for right now. L.A. has always been this incredible blank canvas for everybody to create their own jobs and lives, and to live in a creative way. There’s so many amazing people there that are kind of untapped—that, for a while, went unrecognized. New York is obviously still the best ever, but I don’t know. The way people talk about it now, you can just tell people are not stoked. 

“It’s a time where we all need to start taking care of each other."

You were an early adopter to this trend of moving west.

I’ve always found the city so inspiring—the climate, the willingness to experiment and collaborate. But it was also important for me to sort of separate myself from what was happening in New York. It’s easier to build a sort of an umbrella for yourself here. And when you are just starting out and trying to do something new, you really need that element.

Did you worry about being too early? L.A. has had so many false starts on the road to becoming a fashion capital.

No, and there weren’t that many cool brands in L.A. at the time. But there were some, and I wanted to be one of them. Although now things are definitely changing. Hauser & Wirth, this incredible blue chip gallery, opened right across the street from my studio. I mean, that’s crazy!

Your showroom is in the Arts District of Downtown L.A., right?

Yeah, First and Santa Fe.

You never thought to open your showroom in Venice?

Dude, I just moved my home out of Venice. I moved to the Hollywood Dell. It’s a totally different vibe. I was paying double the amount for a bungalow in Venice, for this tiny place that was right off Abbott Kinney. I thought I would miss the walking aspect of New York, but then with what happened over the last three years in Venice, it’s just become like Rag and Bone, and so corporate. It’s lost a lot of its charm. There’s not even The Roosterfish anymore.

No!

That was, like, my final straw…

I always think of brands based in L.A. as more retro.

Aesthetically, I think it’s innately more retro here. And there are certain elements that surprise me, jumpsuits being one of them. That’s such a retro thing, and it’s something that I am so passionate about.

LOL. Why?

I think having a jumpsuit that you can wear all the time is such a key thing! It’s a full outfit, and there are so many things you can do with it. Between accessories, outerwear, your bag or your car if you are in L.A. Jumpsuits are a shapeshifter.

"There’s a beauty in staying flexible."

How did Staud get started?

My interest in design has always been kind of tentative. I wanted to be a part of this industry, but when I graduated everything was folding—magazines, labels… like, everything. At the same time, I was very passionate about media and tech, and I saw this gap in the market. In the semi-early 2000s, it was all e-comm and these fast fashion houses that were dominating the Internet. There were a million different weird sites to buy things on. I mean, I’m not going to name names, but it got really random! There was just a lot of this confusion that I saw with this whole tech versus e-comm thing, like, “Where’s the fashion?” You can still be direct-to-consumer and be a real fashion brand and experience. The idea of choice or even differentiating themselves from one another was really lost.

It seems sort of paradoxical then that you would still be attracted by this nexus of tech and fashion, no?

No! That nexus makes so much sense. When you’re in a city like New York—where you don’t feel like going out and shopping always—it’s important that women should have more variety in the online space. Also innovation in the industry was necessary. Fashion was on this outdated model of speculative production that was so wasteful. We needed to create more participation to bring back some of the more niche elements of fashion that made it so charming. And look at where we are now, so many great examples—SSENSE being one of them—where so much diversity has re-infused the industry. I mean, my company wouldn’t have made it without this social tech element. 

How so?

It’s this outdated fashion calendar. I get all these wholesale requests and it’s a real shame, because I can’t accommodate them because I don’t design on this calendar. Meanwhile, like last winter, it didn’t get cold for so long, and all the clothes had to be marked down. A lot of it was trashed. Rolling the dice on these big bunches feels out-dated to me.

Early Staud also featured prominently this customizable element.

In a perfect world, you have clothing you will love forever arrive at your door and fit you perfectly. Right? And I felt really passionately that Staud should do all of these things. But immediately after launch our customers were very clear about not being interested in the customization aspects. [Laughs]

Did that feel like a failure?

No. I mean, I never look at things that way anyway. It’s more like something has now moved out of the equation, but is still part of the story. You know what I mean? I’m much more interested in creating something that’s long-lived.

Flexibility and fecundity seem to be inextricably linked for you.

There’s a beauty in staying flexible. Being able to react to your customers. And, I think my Attention Deficit Disorder approach actually resonates with customers. For better or worse, that’s just how I operate mentally. Everyone told me to start small and just sell yourself, and one thing at a time… or whatever. But that version of my story just never really happened. It’s always been go big or go home. 

Interview: Zoma Crum-Tesfa
Photography: Sarah Staudinger