Interview: Cat Swanson

Written By , on December 1, 2005

Couldn’t get into Catherine Swanson’s show at Spring Fashion Week in New York City this past September. Someone forgot to mail an invite. It could have been intentional. We’ll never know. It took some backbone to even ask for an interview with a designer who’s line we couldn’t see. If we couldn’t get into the show, why would she even talk(in a 45 minute interview no less). Come to find out that Cat Swanson is not only down to earth, but she knows a thing or two about design. She also knows adversity. She survived a plane crash in 2004 that saw the loss of her father. She’s had a war of words with The New York Times. Swanson even had some in the media challenge her ascent to the tents in Bryant Park. Through it all she has persevered and plans on being there again, with our special invite in the mail … we hope.

PD: What are you doing right now?

CS: I am in the middle of a transition. I am in the process of moving to New York. November I am finalizing the sale.

PD: So you’re moving from Texas to Brooklyn? That is a trip.

CS: Yeah I am excited about it though. I am really ready for a change.

PD: Where were you born?

CS: I was born in Agana, Guam. My father was in the Navy, my mother taught English at the University of Guam.

PD: What was it like growing up there?

CS:I had the most amazing childhood as a girl or any child for that matter. I had a wonderful family. I am the eldest of 4 children, two sisters and two brothers. My family loved to travel. They were very adventurous. I had a really rich childhood. Growing up in southeast Texas, the only thing difficult about that was that I wasn’t surrounded by big things or anything inspiring. It is kind of dull growing up in a small town so it kind of forces you to be creative.

PD: So when did you move from Guam to Texas?

CS: When I was four years old. Early childhood was me on the beach. (she laughs)

PD: You go to Texas, what got you into designing?

CS:I was first really interested in fashion photography and the whole fantasy aspect. I was interested in the fantastic and larger than life. My parents were plain people. They didn’t focus at all on fashion. You always are interested in things you don’t see and that you are not around. Although my father was a physician, he never put an emphasis on appearance.

My parents would shop at Wal-Mart. Fashion in general was so foreign to me.

PD: You get into designing and then you move to London. Why?

It was so inspirational and one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. I never took fashion seriously. Didn’t have art schools in my area where I was growing up. I learned how to sew and that was about it. When I got to college I was pre-med and also took English, but then decided it was not for me. So I decided to get into fashion. When I finally decided that’s what I wanted to do, I jumped in feet first. I accelerated my graduation at the University of Texas, then went to London. I took some courses at Central Saint Martin, then apprenticed under Arcadius who was fantastic.

PD:What was it like working for him?

CS:It was just really fun. For me it was the first time I really got to work with in a group atmosphere with designers from all over the world. My Personal experience at the University of Texas was that we never got a chance to work as a group it was mostly one-on-one. I got a chance to work with people from Denmark and Italy and basically all over. I mean it was fantastic. I got the opportunity to go to Poland because he was working on an Opera. He did Don Giovanni and it was just an amazing experience really altogether. It was my first experience at fashion week in London and it was a chance to see things behind the scenes.

PD: Do you see a difference in the design approach between Americans, English, French and Italians?

CS:Definitely. Definitely. Well I think it depends also I’m sure with the design studio your with. I mean Arcadius was so out there and focuses on art and on creating something that is artistic and raw and inside from a concept.

I think a lot of American designers are more commercial. But I think the market reflects that as well. The American market is a lot more commercial. Not to say that there is no creativity or artistry in American fashions.

PD:Other than your line, what lines did you love seeing at this past fashion week in New York, Paris, Milan and London?

CS: I loved Chloe, Viktor and Rolf, I absolutely loved Nicolas Ghesquière of Balenciaga, that was my absolute favorite. I loved McQueen and Gaultier, I can go on.

PD: What was the hardest thing about launching your line?

CS: It would probably be, besides financial, which is something that every designer goes through, realizing that you have to run a business. It was not all about design. I was desiging a lot more when I was at Arcadius than working for my own line. I have to wear so many hats and do so many different things. You don’t have time to design that’s probably the most difficult thing.

PD:Do you think that your design suffers as a result?

I think if I had more time, if I had months to design lines I would hope it would be better. I think for most designers that would be the case.

PD: What were some of the mistakes you made on the way to your success?

CS: There are a lot of things that I would do differently but I am a strong believer in fate. But as far as mistakes, it would probably be focusing too much on press as opposed to sales. But everything that I’ve done has been a pretty natural progression. I always listen to my heart when it comes to things like that. Most often that not it works.

PD: Your first line was called Tiger Lily. Where dd you get the name from?

CS: The whole concept of my collection was the femme fatale. The contradiction of woman, of strength and feminitity. Tiger lily is a contradiction in itself you have lily soft and beautiful, and a tiger that’s fierce and ferocious. It encompasses the whole thing.

PD: As a young designer, what do you think of shows like Project Runway and Tommy Hilfiger’s show?

CS: I haven’t really seen Tommy Hilfiger’s show. Project Runway I think it’s entertaining to watch it. You can see that people on the show have talent I don’t think it’s the correct way to go about breaking into the fashion industry.

PD: Why not?

CS: Because I don’t know if people tend to take them as seriously. But I don’t know. What might work for somebody might not work for somebody else. I don’t really have an opinion on that. If they can make it that way from doing something like that, then way to go! (laughs) It doesn’t seem like the real world to me. Maybe that’s what I mean when I say people don’t take them seriously. Because I watch the show, then I go to my office, I work then go to my office and actually work.

PD:Charlize Theron calls you and says “I need a fabulous piece for the Oscars two weeks from now”, what do you do and how do you put it together?

CS: I would probably … I’d go to the library or a good archive and probably look up glamorous stars from the ’30s and ’40s because of the type of glamour that she has. The modern starlet. I would look at what she’s worn in the past, things that look beautiful on her, kind of get the feel of her and go from there.

PD: Walk me through a day with Cat Swanson.

CS: Wake up. Eat a littl
e breakfast. I usually go to work with my fiance, he’s a menswear designer, follow-up with my salesperson. Right now we’re working on fabrics for the fall, delivery dates, check-in with current retailers, how they are doing with the line. There are always things that pop up. The day just gets taken up. I go through color choices or inspirations that I am feeling at the moment. Right now we are busy with holiday and accessories. So a little bit of everything.

PD: Other than you, who would you say has been your harshest critic?

CS: The infamous New York Times article. That was probably the funniest thing. I have never talked to anyone ever, I mean any press; so having them call me up I was like WHOA. It was an article that got a lot of attention and it benefitted me but I had a tough time with the article because a lot of the things in the article wasn’t entirely true and it definitely wasn’t a positive.

PD: What was that whole thing about? Don’t mean to open old wounds, but we never got our hands on the article so what was it about?

CS: The point of the article was to say that the tents are now opening up for anyone who can afford to make a show in the tents and that season. Jennifer Nicholson (Jack Nicholson’s daughter) was having her first show in the tents, I was showing at the tents and all of a sudden it was a big thing to have a bunch of new designers at the tents. And I really got criticized for stepping into the tents for my first season. But looking back at it, it really wasn’t a bad thing. It got me a lot of publicity and being in the tents, it’s in the center of everything. And if you are going to do something, you want to get your name out there and have people recognize who you are. And you know it was my first season, so if you’re going to be criticized for any season it should definitely be your first season. It was just kind of a shock to me to see a negative article before anyone had even seen my collection. Including Vanessa Gugliotta who wrote the article.

PD:You remember her name?

CS: Yeah, I do. She was actually kind of, I wouldn’t say a friend, but kind of knew my cousin and works for New York Magazine now. So I called her up and told her someone from the New York Times called, can you give me some tips? She was like tell her everything. I was naive. There were certain things you don’t talk about, people can twist what you say. So basically I was just very naive.

PD: Would you say you are guarded now?

CS: I wouldn’t say guarded but I am definitely more careful.

PD: Do you think you had an unfair advantage getting into the tents the way the New York Times article portrayed it, as opposed to other young struggling designers who may not have had the opportunity you did?

CS: That’s what was kind of funny. Because the reason I got into the tents was that I had already sent the 7th on sixth people my sketches, samples and had a great press company behind me. I had all the things in a row that you need to get into the tents. So as far as it being an unfair advantage, I don’t know. You can also say is it an unfair advantage for people who are friends with all the buyers at Sak’s, Bergdorf’s and Barney’s who all of a sudden start appear in these boutiques? What about a designer in Chicago for example who is outside the industry but who might be very talented but doesn’t have the contacts to get where he needs to get? That’s why you have to put yourself in places like the tent. You do what you have to do. Life isn’t fair and this industry definitely isn’t fair.

PD: When you are not wearing your own designs what are you wearing?

CS: I am probably wearing vintage or stuff from a thrift store because I can’t really afford the stuff that I really would want to wear.

PD:Are you serious? Even now as a designer you can’t afford the things that you want to get?

CS: No of course not. All the money I have I just put back into my company. I think that I could get this great thing or I could put the money right back into my company. Like right now I am wearing a vintage sweater and a top from H&M.

PD: What fashion trend do you absolutely abhor?

CS: Uggs. Never liked uggs. And Bling. Just keep the bling to a minimum.

PD: Where did you get the strength to press on after the plane crash?

CS: Strength comes from within, strength comes from the love you’re surrounded by, by your family. This is my dream. This is what I always wanted to do. Even when I was in middle school I designed things. To have people like my father who put a lot of effort, time and energy into helping me get to where I was for my first season and all the time I put into it, so I wasn’t about to just let it disappear. The strength came from the love around me and the presence of my father’s spirit. My fiance and family also helped.

PD: Your spring 2006 collection features a lot of metallic colors flowing pieces, asymmetrical skirts, what was the throught process behind the design?

CS: I wanted the silouette to be loose and flowing. I was thinking along the lines of Greece and Turkey. I wanted a resort-like quality. A sort of sophisticated elegance.

PD: Do you take time off from designing?

CS:(she laughs) I wish!! I feel like I don’t get enough time to design. But I try to get away. It’s like a 10-piece band, you have one guy playing every instrument. That’s how I’ve been the last few years. I am getting married in May. I’m planning for my honeymoon and that will be my first vacation in awhile.

PD: Are you nervous about getting married?

CS: No. The only thing I am nervous about is the dress because I am designing it myself and I am doing this thing where I make it, then I think gross and move on to the next thing. And I just keep doing that.

PD: What’s in your CD player right now?

CS: Depends on the mood I’m in. I like classical stuff. I like fun stuff, I listen to Weezer the Puretones.

PD: Do you get fan mail?

CS: I get e-mails from time to time from students.

PD: Is there any such thing as a secret to a designer’s success?

CS: If there is any secret it would probably be, to be true to yourself.

PD: If you stopped designing tomorrow what would be doing?

CS: I would maybe pick up a camera and become a photographer.