meet paris99, the nostalgic brand that's not afraid of kitsch
Designer Paris Starn tells i-D about launching her eponymous line as a grad student and throwing a picnic for her nyfw debut.
Photos by Anna Harty.
On a late summer’s day at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, picnic blankets were spread across the lawn and topped with woven baskets, board games, and baked treats. This, however, was not your typical picnic. It was the set for designer Paris Starn’s debut Paris99 collection for spring/summer 20, inspired by Edouard Manet’s painting “Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe,” along with the ever-romanticized idea of a picnic, vintage Americana fashions, and kitsch.
It’s no surprise that 19th century artworks have inspired Starn, who grew up in the East Village attending gallery openings with her parents, but she’s managed to put her own spin on things —recreating the American picnic in the most fitting of fabrics. For this collection, the 25-year-old designer moved beyond her signature rickrack trimmed styles to create a number of gingham dresses and playful sets. Alongside the looks, she sold frosted cookies and cakes (which she baked herself!) to benefit the Lower Eastside Girls Club and the community that raised her.
While Starn only started designing clothes about two years ago, out of a desire to create the “cheeky” garments she couldn’t find in stores, and in the midst of pursuing an art history degree at Hunter College, her brand quickly gained popularity on Instagram and has since landed in department stores around the world. i-D caught up with the young designer to find out the secret to her success and the inspiration behind Paris99.
Paris, tell us how you got here. What's your story?
My story is actually kind of crazy. I was at Bard College and I would hand sew a lot of clothes because I had all of this free time and I’d upload photos of myself in them on Instagram. I'd get stopped on the street by stylists or [get] DMs from people on fashion media websites. They'd be like ‘where did you get this’ and I'd be like, ‘oh I made it myself’ and ask to borrow it for a shoot.
When I got out of college I had a job for a year and then I decided to go to grad school for art history. I thought to myself ‘Oh if I was able to do this at home, why not just start it at as a business?’ And it ended up suddenly becoming something much more than I had ever dreamed of it becoming. It’s certainly been a learning process over time, to try and get to a place I need to be and have growth in the brand while in grad school. But I really like doing both at the same time. [I’m] forced to set aside time to read and grow intellectually within school and then I’m forced to make adult decisions and grow as a business woman in my company. That's been really exciting, kind activating both parts of my brain at the same time.
So, it was about two years ago when you first started Paris99?
Yeah, two years ago this summer. I quit my job and I had two months off between quitting my job and starting school. I kind of sequestered myself upstate and just started designing and creating. That's where I make all the patterns, all of that. It's a really wonderful way for me to get away from my thoughts and everything and just be at peace with myself and find my inspiration.
My parents have a place in upstate New York where I spent a lot of time as a child. It’s a really small cottage where the last e-commerce shoot for spring/summer 19 was shot, in the lake right there. For the collection that just showed, I have been looking at all these photographs from the 20s on the lake for inspiration. It's so wonderful. it was really cool seeing women wearing these big fluffy dresses, sitting on rocks in the middle of the lake and on row boats.
When you first started conceptualizing the brand, what were you thinking in terms of aesthetic and what you wanted your pieces to look like?
Well, I have always been obsessed with kitsch. One of my favorite t-shirts growing up was made by artist Cary Leibowitz and it said, ‘don't hate me because I like kitsch’ and it’s this hot pink t-shirt with pink lettering. I would wear it all the time, and so certainly kitsch is something that's inspiring to me. I've always wanted to make clothes that make people happy. For me envisioning simpler, easier times especially when things are so rough right now all across the board... while I'm not trying to glorify America’s past, you see all these vintage photos of women outdoors, with a sun umbrella and their arms are swept back and everything looks really happy. That's what I wanted to put forward in a garment. That's why I was originally doing gingham, rickrack, and super enlarged rickrack kind of making fun of that as a trim itself. I think it’s the most ridiculous trim on the planet.
So make it bigger!
Exactly! Let's make everything crazier. Let’s keep these vibes and aesthetics, but let’s make it more wearable for more people. So, in this new collection I got rid of the rickrack [and] there are a lot more styles that are much more accessible to more people. Things fit looser, there’s sleeves on things. I started designing when I was 22 and I never thought I’d want to wear a sleeve in my life. Little things like that that I've taken into account making sure that more people have access to the clothes compared to my first collection where everything was skin tight and maybe went an inch below your butt.
Tell me about your inspiration for the collection and the picnic at St. Mark's.
Last semester, I was in a class called global 19th century and the professor put up an image on the board that reminded me of Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe.” I kept referencing that image because the lighting in it is totally wild. And quite frankly, I have no idea what inspired that painting. I mean, why are the women naked and the men clothed? But then I went to the Brooklyn Museum and there is a Sargent painting in the American wing that also has a picnic scene with people playing games. I started art storing paintings of picnics and I realized that in all these paintings except for “Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe,” all the women are wearing these big flowing dresses and they blend right into the picnic blankets they’re eating on. It really added to the dreamy feeling of the picnic, the romantic vibe that everyone associates with a picnic, and the joy that’s there. And I was like this makes sense for me. I'm going to blend the clothing into the American picnic blanket — gingham. To keep with the tradition of having sheer aspects or cut outs, I kept those in some garments. I have these little pearlescent ladybug buttons.
I grew up on 10th street and I’d pass St. Marks Church everyday. It's a real pillar within the East Village community, which is the community that raised me. I just felt like it was a real grounding place for me as a designer.
At the presentation you had a bake sale to support the Lower Eastside Girls Club and baked goods have always played into your imagery. Did you make all of those things?
Yeah, the night before the show. Baking is a huge part of my life. When I was 15, I had interned for Opening Ceremony’s blog and I would bring in baked goods everyday. They would all be kind of upset that I was bringing in all this food and so they put a baking column on the blog called Paris the Intern: Mini Martha. I did this for like four years! My number one refuge or way for me to relax is to bake. And so I do that every weekend. I like including that in the presentation and I think it's a way of me bringing myself even more into the brand.
When you were young, did you ever think you would go into fashion?
When I was like five I would sketch things. I was really inspired by the outfits of Destiny's Child. And so I’d sketch them, but I always felt like they were so provocative that I'd hide them underneath my bed. I was kind of a weird kid in school, like I wore an AC/DC t-shirt when I was seven. So, I thought I was really unstylish and kind of went far away from that for awhile. Before I actually decided to start the company I never thought this was anything that I’d have the opportunity to do. So, it's been very, very exciting for me.