Throughout my time at The Art Institute of Portland,  I’ve been so fortunate to have creative minds like Caroline Onzik to inspire me. With graduation upon her, she made time to meet with me to discuss where she has been, where she is, and where she is going.

I went with a team to Sauvie Island, Oregon to showcase and style her latest collection, Homestead.

Read the interview below.

With Midwestern roots, she moved to Boulder, CO to attend the University of Colorado. She spent a few years there and became aware that snowboarding was her true passion. Choosing a life path at that age was crazy a crazy concept to her. She moved to Breckenridge, CO and later found a way to snowboard all year though working at High Cascade snowboard camp on Mt. Hood in Oregon. After years of pushing herself in snowboarding, traveling, and making her dreams come true, she needed a change of pace. It was hard for her to make the decision. Injuries became harder and harder to bounce back from and she truly loved what she was doing. With a convenient proximity to Mt. Hood, Portland seemed like a fitting move. Knowing that she could tackle another dream, she decided to pursue apparel design.

 Who or what inspired you to get into apparell design?
My mom is an artist, and she has a degree in interior design. She planted the design seed in my brain very early on. Our toys were art supplies and we were constantly encouraged to be creative. She would see me drawing and say, “you should be a textile designer”, because I’ve kind of always drawn that way-in motifs and patterns instead of fully-realized scenes. She would see me playing with my Barbies and notice how I would layer clothes, put them on backwards, put Ken’s clothes on Barbie, tie clothes around their bodies instead of just putting them on the regular way. So, either my mom completely shaped me into what she wanted me to become or she was very intuitive about these weird tendencies.

You have always been drawn to the methods and ideals of past generations when designing. Tell me about where the inpiration for your senior collection, Homestead, came from.
It was inspired by so many things but if you had to put an umbrella over it all, it would simply be the country. I was inspired by two time periods especially; the great depression and turn of the century pioneer life. I looked at pictures from the Farm Security Administration which is what Dorothy Lange’s famous great depression photos were part of. I studied pictures of homesteaders and pioneers and read their diary entries. Both of these time periods and lifestyles called for rugged work wear and frugality. There wasn’t money to buy new clothes and for many pioneers there wasn’t anywhere to buy new clothes. Everything was repaired over and over again.  There is something so exquisitely beautiful in that, the mark of the human touch on well-loved garments. To me, those garments have a soul that I can feel.

When it came time to start sketching, I had piles of books and images and I combined that inspiration with elements of modern day garments that I love or that I wanted to own. I always think menswear is cooler and better made than womens wear, so mostly subconsciously, I am always designing menswear for women. I wanted to combine the ruggedness and classic lines of work wear with that soul feeling of antique patched up treasures. It is important to me to consider the whole life cycle of a garment when designing: where the fibers come from, where they were woven into textiles, who the garment will be worn by and what the person will need. If it eventually falls apart, are the separate components quality enough to be used again elsewhere? Will it biodegradable safely at the ultimate endpoint of it’s life? It’s disheartening to know that any type of production and consumption will leave some kind of footprint. There is no perfect way.  But I won’t be happy unless I’m doing it the best way I can.

For this collection that meant using a lot of up cycled materials. I went to the bins and bought 25 pounds of denim for $20. I also bought an antique quilt that was in need of repair and antique table cloths at various garage sales and thrift stores. For me, there was no other way! I love the character that old denim has: the way the dye changes over the years, the paint splatters, stains, and tears. Sourcing this way felt like every inch of fabric was a treasure. Thats definitely not a feeling I get from buying things new. Of course not everything in my collection was up cycled, but I tried to source in ways I could feel good about as well. The canvas is U.S. made and the leather came from Oregon Leather. I’d be lying if I said that the leather didn’t make me feel uncomfortable. I connect with animals on a deep level and its hard for me to think about the processes. On the other hand, leather is at least natural and not manufactured from petroleum.

What was the hardest and most satisfying part of the collection?
I think the hardest parts of anything are often the most satisfying parts, so I’ll go ahead and lump those together. I had never made jeans before, or anything denim for that matter. The really frustrating part was that no one could really tell me how to do it. Not that our teachers aren’t highly qualified and knowledgeable, they are; but it’s just that people really don’t make homemade jeans the way I wanted to make homemade jeans.

One of the beauties as well as the burdens of up cycling is it is labor intensive. In painstakingly removing the seams of all these jeans I found at the bins, I learned so much about denim. I was a nut about fit.  Up cycling in general is one of the hardest and most satisfying aspects of it. You have to spend endless hours taking out stitches because if you just cut open jeans, you lose fabric and the color variations that are hiding in the seam allowances. It’s so satisfying because the fabric sort of chooses you and you feel like you are part of something bigger. Every time you are successful, you feel like you have solved a puzzle.

You recently showed at Portland Fashion Week. What was it like seeing your designs come to life?
CO: It really was gratifying. Seeing things that I made, that I drew, patterned and sewed, come to life on a human body is pretty incredible. What was more moving than seeing models wear my designs, was the audience response to my collection. I was backstage so I had no idea what the audience looked or sounded like when they were watching my designs. So who knows? Maybe most people hated it, but the few people that wrote about it were so supportive and appreciative. I am really so thankful for that.

If you were to design another collection, what would it be like?
I’m always designing collections in my head! I tend to swing like a pendulum and this last collection had a very minimal color story, so I’ve been dreaming up things with some color! I’d love to elaborate on Homestead now that I’ve learned so much. If I had to start another collection right now, it would either be Homestead-part two, or something inspired by 70’s skateboarding and Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Ideally, where would you like to go in this industry?
That is such a hard question for me. The more I look at job postings, the more I wonder where I would fit in. The main problem is that I don’t believe in the rampant consumption that is the driving factor behind most apparel businesses. I don’t believe in fast fashion and I don’t believe in unconscious production so I am constantly twisted up in my head about the career path I seemed to have been prepared for since I was a toddler. Who knows?

Whats next for you?
I am going to continue doing work for Mamafrica, which is a beautiful nonprofit that I am so honored to be a part of. By designing clothes I get to help women in the Democratic Republic of Congo become empowered and self-sufficient- a fact that blows my mind every time I think about it. I feel so damn lucky to have an opportunity like that. Also, I am going to help a friend of mine launch an apparel line for women battling breast cancer. My friend is a breast cancer survivor and found a major hole in what is available to women who are undergoing chemo and radiation treatments and who have had mastectomies. These women have very specific needs that aren’t being met and the craziest part is that breast cancer affects 1 in 8 women....that is an enormous amount of the population who’s needs aren’t being met.

Caroline will be graduating with a BFA in Apparel Design this spring.

I can’t wait to watch her create and grow as a designer, an inspiration and a friend.