Fashion designer Erin Fetherston seems to have walked straight out of a fairytale and onto the runway. To begin with, Fetherston’s piercing doll eyes, sharp platinum bangs, and skin as white as snow call to mind Lewis Carroll’s signature heroine Alice. And then there’s her designs—signature ruffled hems, flouncy organza frocks and sweet floral prints—which appeal to princesses of both the enchanted and Park Avenue varieties. Her ethereal aesthetic has earned Fetherston both an Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation Award and a CFDA nomination by the age of 25 and her whimsical collections conjure up memories of long lost girlhood fantasies. And while the angelic Fetherston may look like a naïve Alice, she is much more of an all-knowing Cheshire Cat.
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“For me, clothing was the most powerful vehicle for fantasy,” the 27-year-old says of her clothing-obsessed childhood. A style maven in the making, the young Fetherston says that she refused to leave the house without the perfect ensemble. She’d pile plastic beads atop layers of scarves, colorful sweaters and coats. Giant sunglasses were always a must and, if she was feeling especially fancy, a tutu would be thrown into the mix.
These avant-garde antics helped Fetherston to nurture her blossoming relationship with clothes, but her intense morning regiment often conflicted with the youngster’s scholarly pursuits: “When I went to kindergarten, there was a morning class and an afternoon class. I was enrolled in the morning class. After a couple of weeks, my mom had to beg the school to switch me to the afternoon class because it was such an ordeal to get dressed. I was late every day. It was pandemonium, apparently.”
The pandemonium (and her parents’ patience) paid off. Now, Fetherston is preparing to show her Spring 2010 collection, and just showed her wildly successful Fall 2009 line, which she says was (of course), inspired by a naughty little fairytale. “I made a story in my mind where the captain of the toy solders is in love with the music-box ballerina,” she says. “They wake up and night and have a little hanky panky and spawn a doll army. What would that look like?”
The designer’s posh doll army walked the runway in tailored crimson waistcoats, polka dot chiffon party dresses, black and white striped tights and structured satin “teacup skirts” that looked exactly as they sound. And while some critics chastised her fanciful, girlish tendencies, Fetherston’s pieces are actually some of the fashion world’s most functional. Not only does the designer think about the day-to-day wear of her clothes, she test-drives each and every sample before inducting it into an upcoming collection.
“I do design for myself. I’m always thinking: Can I get in and out of the taxi? Can I sit down at the dinner? Can I go from the office to the party?”
“I’m a female designer and I am my own first muse,” she says. “I do design for myself and I love the clothes, but I’m always thinking: Can I get in and out of the taxi? Can I sit down at the dinner? Can I go from the office to the party? I have a practical mind that I’m bringing into the design.”
Fetherston has an interesting path for a American designer—though she studied writing at UC Berkeley, she decamped to Paris to study fashion design. After only three semesters of training, Fetherston made her Parisian runway debut in 2005 with a 35-look couture collection, each piece of which she made with her own two hands—a rare accomplishment for any young designer.
In 2007, the designer was faced with an unexpected opportunity that drew her back to the states and to New York. America’s new-wave fashion trend-center, Target, adored her designs so much that they asked her to create a limited edition line (the collection went on to be one of the store’s most popular). “I loved living and designing in Paris and I miss it so much…” Fetherston says. “But the response to my collection was a lot stronger in New York and when I had my Target collection come out, it just felt silly to stay in France.”
Fetherston packed up her atelier and moved to her quaint New York studio, which is now marked by a distinctive fuchsia door. But the move stirred up anxieties in Fetherston, who was uncertain as to how her new environment would affect her design aesthetic. “I was so happy in Paris and I’m very sensitive to my surroundings. I felt like I was in a really good place there and I was wondering what was going to happen.”
Despite her concerns, Fetherston’s creativity was not hindered by Manhattan. In fact, the move inspired a sweetly sophisticated Spring 2009 collection, an ode to the city. Filled with shimmering sequins, fluttering chiffon and impeccably tailored trenches and trousers, the collection marked a point of maturity, but still maintained Fetherston’s knack for whimsy.
Fetherston’s storytelling skills aren’t limited to the runway. The designer has collaborated with the likes of photographer Ellen Von Unwerth, Zooey Deschanel and Kirsten Dunst on a series of surreal fashion films. “I love film because it can show you so much more” she says. “There’s the clothes you present each season but the world that I live in extends so far beyond that; it’s a whole universe and there’s a spirit and a girl and a story.”
“After a couple of weeks, my mom had to beg the school to switch me to the afternoon class because it was such an ordeal to get dressed.”
Her most recent project, a silent film directed by Marisa Crawford to showcase her Fall 2009/10 collection, is an “imaginative representation of the Fall collection.” Featuring Fetherston’s friends and muses, the film promises to give us a glimpse of how a collection is born out of the designer’s mind.
Erin Fetherston’s designs aren’t for everyone. They’re overtly feminine, often treacly in their cuteness, and come from a place of utter enchantment. And yet, as Fetherston assures, “it’s never too much. You’re not going to look ridiculous. It’s just enough where you feel you’ve got a little fairy dust on you.”
Katharine Zarrella is the associate online style editor of The Dossier Journal and a regular contributor to London’s Plastique magazine. Based in New York, Zarrella is especially fascinated by the ever-blurring line between art and fashion and lives a secret double life as a metal sculptor.