INTERVIEW: RACHEL ROY, DESIGNER, FOUNDER & UN WOMEN AMBASSADOR
words by DANIELLE RANSOM • Fashion
Since founding her own designer collection in 2004, Rachel Roy has proved her vision is one to be reckoned with. Between her philanthropy work with the United Nations and championing sustainability, Rachel found time to even write a book with her daughter.
Whether it's our shared familiarity with the growing pains of being an immigrant or our passion for style – it often feels like we’re operating on the same wavelength.
JVB: How and when did you realize that you wanted to be a designer and what was your journey to get there?
Rachel Roy: I grew up in California in a very small town. I wanted a much bigger life than I had. In our house, we were only allowed to watch black and white movies or National Geographic, so I started to dream about this life I saw in film. My dad is an immigrant from India [and was] very strict. Beautiful but complicated man.
When I was 14, my dad dropped me off in front of McDonald's and told me ‘Don’t come home until you have a job and can start paying rent.’
So, I took the bus to the mall, because I didn’t want to work at McDonald's, and I begged for a job at Contemporary Casuals, which at the time was where all the real fashionable girls worked. They were the height of fashion. I started there unpacking boxes and by the time I was 16, I was assistant manager. When I went to college in Washington, DC, they transferred me. So I’ve never known anything [other] than helping women get dressed.
JVB: How did that help lay the foundation for your career?
RR: Contemporary Casual was not an expensive store so you got very real women. I think that process of being in a dressing room with a very real woman was a training ground for [understanding] what made women feel good.
After college, I moved to New York and I started again back in the mall. I couldn’t find a good job that I wanted. I thought I was going to find a great job after college, but I didn't. So on the side, I started styling for a startup magazine - which was great, because you got to do everything.
From there, I began styling music videos and that’s how I got to work at an urban clothing company for 10 years. This is where I really learned the business [behind] starting a clothing line from the ground up and how to make it work with licensing (which is when you don’t make the product in-house). It can be a very tumultuous type of business if you don’t manage it well. I did that for about 7 years [until I was] tired of creating a product that wasn’t my own voice. So I started my own collection.
JVB: You must have had balls to do that though…
RR: When I started my collection, I was still working in a job where I was making a salary, so I didn’t view it as a risk. I viewed it as saving my voice and soul. When you design and work on clothing that you don’t care for personally, it does take a [toll on] you.
I started [my collection] for myself. [It was] literally what I would want to wear from 7 in the morning to 7 at night. I just went through my Rolodex of licensing partners and I asked them if any one of them would like to start this small venture with me. Sure enough, one of them did and that’s how I got my first investment.
JVB: Doesn’t that feel scary when people invest money in you?
RR: I was starting from ground zero...I did not know what it would be like to get partners. I just had no point of reference and went in blindly. I learned quickly it is like giving up your soul. It is not something I recommend to anyone starting a business, especially an artist, because it can really wear on your spirit.
Thank goodness I had enough knowledge working with licensing groups to know if you don’t have 100 percent creative control, you’re valued less to them. Even if you’re the founder [or] the one with all of the design ideas, those type of business people just don’t see value in you. The only value that I had in their eyes was that I had 100 percent creative control of design and marketing.
I tell young people, or anyone that wants to start their own business, [that] if you do want partners, please maintain 100 percent creative control because there will come a day when it is your only power.
JVB: Exactly! That’s where all the power comes from in a way.
RR: If I could do it all over again, I would do it without partners. It might be a much slower ride [or] a struggle but to like who you see in the mirror at the age of 45, that is so much more important to me than being a worldwide business.
JVB: I hear you.
RR: Many women in fashion don’t get the credit that they deserve. They just don’t.
JVB: Being half Indian, how often do you get to connect with your heritage? Do you travel to India often? Is that a source of inspiration for your creativity?
RR: When you're born to an immigrant from anywhere, there’s a sense that life was hard and [your family must have] struggled or they probably wouldn’t have left. So when they get to America, they very much want you to be an American and live the American dream. My dad did not teach us a lot about our culture other than simply being Indian himself.
I had to go back as an adult and really teach myself. I don’t think it’s any accident that Deepak Chopra is my main source of learning. I don’t think it’s an accident he is an Indian man with very similar philosophies and thoughts to my father, who was a professor of sociology.
I don’t think there’s an accident in the fact that when I go to India, it is equal parts exquisite and painful; in how poor people are, how people are living, the rules of society, and how women are viewed. It can be quite dangerous for women.
And yet, here is this magical country where not once in its history has India attacked another country. And that’s something that I’m proud to be a part of. That peaceful mentality...I would say even though I’m half Dutch, you end up relating more to what you look like and since I look more Indian, I do very much relate to that culture.
JVB: I didn’t know you had a Dutch side! We’re like neighbors. Is there anything else that comes from the Dutch side?
RR: I was raised every summer by the Dutch side of my family, in Washington, DC. They were such good people. They’re such loyal, kind, and unassuming people. I would like to think if I am at all kind, that aspect of my personality comes from the Dutch side.
JVB: I went and saw The Price of Free, a wonderful movie you hosted a screening for. It was really shocking. I mean, incredibly. It was eye-opening - to me - because we don’t even know what [sustainability] actually means.
RR: [Sustainability] is definitely my life’s passion and it’s what gives me the strength to keep going; when I get to the point where it feels like I can’t take the fashion business anymore.
My goal, and it's moving a lot slower than I would like, is to create a universal hang tag for all products, to let consumers know whether or not [that product] was created in a child-free factory - the same way you go into a grocery store and you know what product is organic or not. But it’s so difficult. You get so many ‘Nos’ than you do ‘Yes’’.
People are fearful of getting sued. Companies don’t want to put that label on their product because - God forbid - there is some sort of reporter or agent overseas and there is a child in the factory and here is a company putting these hang tags on. They don’t want the liability so owners and lawyers are not allowing their clients to utilize it. I figure the food industry must have heard the same thing at one point, so I have to just keep trying.
JVB: I agree and things are changing a little bit.
RR: I watch Ava, my 19-year-old, as a consumer and she wants things at a really good price because she doesn’t have a lot of money. She wants her leggings to cost $12. But we have to figure out - and I present this to her - who is sewing this, for it to cost $12? It was still her choice [to buy it] and her choice was no.
I think this is a modern way of consumer shopping. I really do think that if [consumers] know [their product] was made safely, it will be their first choice. It’s starting to happen. I can feel it and that’s part of the gift we have in fashion. We can feel things bubbling up in society.
JVB: Totally, society reflects in fashion so very much.
RR: Yes, 100 percent. But because it’s called, the ‘fashion business’, we are not given any respect. If it was called ‘social economics’, then you would be looked at with the respect of a professor.
If you look at [society] from where we do it, where we can literally feel in our bones what will be next, that’s just looked at as fluff or emotional women - and that’s another conversation I would love to change. I think what we do is social economics.
JVB: That ties directly into your work with the United Nations, no?
RR: I have been going to events with the UN ever since I started living in New York and have been involved in fashion. I [have always] been getting invites, as you do when you’re a designer, but what I learned was that I was one of the few who actually attended.
There are about 8 UN organizations and the one I work with is UN Women. I signed a two year contract with them and this is the second year.
I’ve always had a platform called Kindness is Always Fashionable, where I employ artisans from third world countries to make my products, instead of factories in China (or anywhere else you can make things cheap).
Now, I’ve been charged with [finding out] how to get innovation to young girls; how to help them innovate in the countries or cities they are living in, or how to teach them entrepreneurship.
JVB: Speaking of empowering the youth, I had no idea about the novel, 96 Words For Love, you wrote with your daughter!
RR: Yes! Ava and I were working on her homework when she was a junior in high school. She is now a freshman in college. She was working on Greek mythology and I said ‘Do you know any Indian mythology’ and she said ‘No, they don’t teach that and I haven’t learned any from you.’ So that’s when I quickly thought ‘Okay, what are you doing Rachel? Start to really ingrain Ava with what makes her beautiful on the inside and outside’.
At the same time, I was talking to my literary agent about new book ideas and was telling her about some of the stories I was teaching Ava. She was like ‘Why don’t you and Ava re-do an Indian myth and tell it through Ava’s eyes, a 17-year-old?’
The book came out two years later and Ava was so grateful - she worked so hard. It was so lovely to hear her thank you’s. [Also], having that journey with someone [after working] on my brand by myself for so long, I really forgot what it was like to have a partner.
Even when you’re disagreeing, there’s someone [that] cares about it as much as you. That was really nice; to have someone in that struggle with me, and for that to be my daughter. It started as a love story from myself to my daughter and it ended up being a love story that we gave the world.
JVB: What an opportunity and she’s only 19. Did Ava learn anything from that process?
RR: One of [Ava’s] questions on the book tour was ‘what did you learn from this process?’. She thought about it [and] said: ‘I thought about all of the times my mom wanted me to finish writing. I should have done it without giving her such a hard time because the end result is something I never thought would be possible.’
Proceeds of the book, 96 Words For Love, are also going to children in India that have been rescued from trafficking through World of Children.