Rachel Mara – Fashion Designer

Two-Timing: Portland local Rachel Gorenstein does double-duty as Creative Director of Moulé and Designer of Rachel Mara.

When interviewing a fashion designer, particularly one whose style you admire to an embarrassing degree, the questions are the easy part. The real challenge is figuring out what to wear.

And so, on the day I met with Rachel Gorenstein, who is both the chic and impossibly savvy brain behind Rachel Mara, and the creative director of Moulé, I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit to going through several wardrobe changes in preparation. In the end, I settled on one of two Rachel Mara pieces I own, and it worked out well: Rachel showed up wearing the other piece. Fashion kismet? I like to think so.

But then, Gorenstein is used to that sort of thing. She’s led something of a charmed life when it comes to fashion. Her mother, Beverley Gorenstein, is a consummate collector of vintage fashion and objéts, who started Moulé back in the late 1980s as a way to showcase some of her eclectic finds from travels to Morocco. After years of marinating in her mom’s inimitable style and watching Moulé take shape, Gorenstein was invited along on a trip to her mom’s beloved Morocco to lend her critical eye to a collection on which her mom and brother were collaborating. The trip proved to be transformative. Gorenstein joined Moulé, turning it into a true family business, and began work on a clothing line of her own. In spring 2001, she showed her first Rachel Mara collection during Fashion Week in Los Angeles, where it was promptly snatched up by the likes of Fred Segal, Saks, and a bevy of other high-end boutiques. Clearly, Gorenstein was onto something.

Now, she does double duty, designing each and every piece that comes out of her increasingly successful atelier, but also managing all of the buying, marketing and every creative endeavor for Moulé, ensuring everything that comes in or goes out has that unique, eclectic, and infinitely stylish vibe on which we’ve come to rely. And somehow, she does it all with style, grace and just the right amount of edge…which, after all, seems to run in the family.

So, Rachel, you essentially have two different jobs, with both Moulé and Rachel Mara. Can you give us more detail on your roles?

Sure. With Moulé, I’m the Buyer of men’s and women’s clothing and accessories. And Creative Director of the brand, which encompasses everything from visual merchandising to window displays to brand campaigns, holiday campaigns, internet growth.

So you get all the fun jobs.

It’s quite fun, yes. That’s what happens when you design your own job.
And what about with Rachel Mara? You run everything, right?

I design everything. I’m a bit of a one-woman show, but I do get help. I have a production manager and a sample and pattern maker and periodically assistants and interns.

Those are both huge jobs. I can’t imagine being able to do one of them let alone two. Can you tell us a little about a typical day for you?

I think I kind of thrive on the creative chaos. I find that I do bounce around during my day, from solving a store problem to thinking about, perhaps, the website to working on a blouse design for Rachel Mara. I feel that it all triggers something else. I like being involved in all these different things at the same time.

I’m assuming there are times of the year that you have to focus more on Rachel Mara, or focus more on Moulé…?

Well, it is always kind of double duty. I’m going to New York and Vegas and LA for the shows coming up to do buying for Moulé, and at the same time I’ve been designing my line and preparing to show that at Fashion Week. I find myself wearing two hats a lot.

We’ve talked a lot before, but I don’t actually know that much about how you got started in fashion. I know Moulé is a family business, so I’m sure that was a strong influence for you. Is fashion something you always wanted to do, or did you sort of fall into it, because of the family connection?

I kind of fell into it. I actually wasn’t that into fashion growing up. I always loved clothes, but I was into other creative endeavors. I studied fine arts and got into design and advertising, and that’s what I did for a long time. I think I sort of repressed the fashion side as I grew up, because I was the only girl growing up in a house with four boys. So, I was a serious tomboy, and the idea of wanting to be a fashion designer and make pretty clothes just didn’t fit into the “girls’ lib”
environment that I was in.

Tell me a little bit about the store. I’d love to know more about how Moulé came to be.

Well, it started with my mom. She started designing a line of clothes that grew from her travels to Morocco, back in the late 1980s. And then after a few years she brought the line back to Canada and placed it in several top stores across the country. A few years later, she decided to open her own store. She is quite an eclectic collector and she was an antique dealer for a while. So the store just became this outpouring of all her tastes -she’d travel the world and find interesting things from all over the place and combine them in this really interesting shop.

I love seeing pictures of your mom around the shop and on the website. She has a great sense of style. I’m assuming that has influenced you quite a bit?

For sure. I just grew up around style. My mom has really great taste and was always original. She really did her own thing and had her own sense of style and aesthetic. I didn’t always get it and sometimes just wished she would dress like the other moms. But it opened the door to making up my own rules. She collects textiles and our house was full of beautiful antique embroideries and laces, we were surrounded by different ideas of beauty.

So, talking about Rachel Mara for a minute, I’d love to know the story of how the line began and the early days of getting it started?

Well, I was actually working in advertising, and my mother and my brother were spending time in Morocco during the initial stages of Moulé, and they invited me to come on a trip and help consult on a collection. It was hard to turn down a great exotic trip, and the chance to go and give my creative input. So I went on the trip, and I got pretty involved in that collection – it was a spring collection – and I helped them create this initial line for my mother’s collection. We showed it in Canada, during fashion week, and I actually won an award, and so that made me think “oh, okay this is could be interesting.”

Might be on to something here?

Right. So I continued on that path for three or four years, doing a portion of my mom’s line, bringing a more youthful take to it. I then decided that I wanted to do my own collection, so I started creating a line. I had gotten some experience in the past few years and continued to just learn as I went – by trial and error. And after my first show in Los Angeles, my first season landed in Fred Segal, and Saks, and a lot of top boutiques…

That’s a good first show!

It was a good first show. It was great.

Having started out the collection and having such a successful response, has everything with Rachel Mara turned out the way you expected that it would?

I think, no, but nothing in life ever does. I’ve learned you have to really be organic about it, and go with it and adapt.

Are you happy with where it is now?

Absolutely. Yes.

So I am guessing that you probably have a really interesting perspective on design since you are also a buyer for a successful retail store. I would love to know how Moulé influences Rachel Mara
and vice versa?

They both teach me a lot. I’ve learned a lot from seeing my collection on the floor, having the
staff react to it, and customers try it on. I get this great insight into the fit and feedback about
how to make it better every season, which is just invaluable information. And, I also think it helps me be a better buyer, because I do get to take all these things into account and think about what our customer is looking for, what she really wants and needs and what she’s drawn to. We’re all looking for those things that just jump out at us.

What has been the best moment so far in your career?

I think it’s a recurring thing – anytime I meet somebody that is wearing something of mine, or stops me to say they love what I do, that’s pretty amazing. That’s what makes it worthwhile.

Do you walk up to people when you notice them in your designs?

There was a woman wearing my coat in Whole Foods the other day, and I was just staring at her, because her coat just looked so nice, and it was tailored beautifully, and I suddenly realized “Oh! That’s my coat!”. I was just proud of how great it looked on her. I didn’t say anything, though. I never know if people want to be approached or not.

Personally, I would be thrilled if a designer came up to compliment me on how I was wearing their clothes.

Really? Okay, I’ll keep that in mind.

Speaking of, let’s talk a little about style. What do you think your personal style is?

I think I’m kind of classic chic with a bit of a twist. I’m quite a collector. When I buy something, I plan on having it for a really long time. I don’t buy a lot of throwaway clothes. My favorite shoes get resoled every year, there are some that I just adore, that I’ve had for ten years. So, I’m into more timeless, really interesting pieces.

What about your style when you are designing? Do you take the same approach?

I try to, absolutely. I have to take more people into account when I’m designing than just myself. But again, I try to create special pieces that I think people will hang on to for a long time.

Who do you imagine you’re designing for when you are designing for Rachel Mara?

I think it’s me, and women like me. When you have friends around you and they’re telling you what they need, or what they love to wear when they are going out, that’s such great input and feedback about what people are looking for. I think there is a disconnect sometimes in the industry as to what everybody should be wearing versus what you need to be able to reach for and put on every day – the
pieces your real wardrobe calls for.

That brings up an interesting question. I would love to know how you approach trends in
fashion. I mean, when skinny, very fitted pants are “in”, for example, how do you balance keeping your collection on trend versus the reality that a style won’t necessarily work for a lot of the population.

As a buyer, to some degree, the industry dictates, because you can only really bring in what is out there and our customer does want contemporary current lines. So, if you go to buy a line, and all they’re showing is skinny pants that season, and you’ve got all these customers that don’t look good in them, you’re left searching for another line, that may be not as current or contemporary. I think we have a really good sense of who our customer is, and we really try to buy for them and have a good balance.

What about from the design side?

I try to be aware of everything that’s going on. I’m a bit of a sponge. I love looking at magazines and blogs and keep trends of what’s happening in my vernacular and then try to edit it.

Where do you look for inspiration?

Everywhere. People that I see on the street. If somebody puts something together in a creative way, I’m always really inspired by that. I think it’s fantastic, that somebody made that effort. I do like designers like Prada and Marni and Dries van Noten – people that are kind of pushing it, doing
things that aren’t always necessarily just on trend, but really creating their own point of view. I think that’s hard to do.

I always imagine a fashion designer’s closet must be a treasure trove. I’d love to know about some of the really special pieces in your closet.

A lot of them are hand-me-downs from my mom. She has a fantastic closet – every time I go back to see her in Winnipeg, I go through and find something else that relates to where I am at in my life now. When I was in my early 20s, I would find, maybe a vintage denim piece, and now, I just discovered a beautiful vintage lace piece and a few sequined pieces that I love– just beautiful,
one-of-a-kind pieces.

What about closet staples? What would you say are three pieces in your wardrobe that you can’t imagine your closet without?

Right now, I would say I’ve been wearing my Leigh and Luca scarves, because they just completely brighten my gray and black wardrobe. And I live in my NDC cropped suede moto boots, and probably anything cashmere right now. With those, I can build around just about anything.

This is why we get along so well…we have almost the same closet! So, I think women that are really serious about fashion always tend to have sort of fun early memories of style. I’m wondering what your first memory of fashion is?

I think it’s a tie between getting my pink corduroy Gloria Vanderbilt pants, or my first pair of Jordache jeans. Those were definitely my “I’m in fashion now” moments!

So I want to talk a bit about the nitty-gritty of when you design a collection. How do you get started and where do you find inspiration?

It happens differently each time, but generally I try to find something of interest to me that aesthetically motivates me and is going to keep my interest for a few months, while I’m living in that world. I create mood boards and surround myself with my inspiration. My spring collection was titled Stolen and was inspired by retro films about bank and jewel heists; Faye Dunaway and Ali McGraw, in Bonnie and Clyde and The Getaway. These heroines were intriguing, mysterious, risk takers that were always beautiful and stylish. It was inspiring to translate their lives and wardrobes into modern day.

My problem, I think, if I were going to be a designer, is that I would be too selfish. I’d always be going through my mental checklist of what’s missing from my own closet, and filling those holes by designing pieces for myself.

I do that too, especially if I’m looking for something and can’t find it. I feel this need and nobody’s making it or they haven’t made it perfectly, so I decide to do my version of it.

My spring collection was titled “Stolen” inspired by retro films about bank heists”

In addition to your mood boards and that general aesthetic you’re keeping to each season, is there anything else that you really like to have around you when you first sit down to design a collection?

I like classical music; it helps me with my chaotic creativity. When I need to really focus, I get the classical playing and that gets me into my zone.

When I think about Rachel Mara, there are a couple of things that really stand out for me in your designs. The first is your prints. I think you create and use prints in your clothing better than almost any other designer out there.

Thank you.

I would to love to know the process of developing a print and finding the inspiration for using them
so beautifully. It is a hunt to find those prints.

I go to small European mills, and try to find something in their collection, which I can recolor or alter to make it my own. I also use vintage prints an old silk scarf, or a vintage piece, and I’ll rework that. I think prints are very personal, so I’m glad you like them. I’m sure, as many people hate them. It’s a really tough thing to get right and make something special that you would wear over and over again.

The other thing I always notice about your collections is that your clothes are cut in a very unique way. When you cut a pant, for example, I find that it’s not just necessarily a typical, classic straight cut – it’ll be more unique, maybe with a slouchy waist and a fitted cut for the leg. Can you talk a little about that?

I’m a pant person, not a skirt or dress person. So, wearing pants every day, you try to think about how to make them more interesting and still flattering. And I think there should always be one main thing that makes your look special – you don’t want to have too many things happening in one look. So if you can make the pants have some interesting style, you can really pair that with a simple top. Flattering pants are very challenging for people, different body types need different cuts of pants, and I try to have a variety that is elegant, flattering and interesting.

How often do you repeat a cut or style from one season to the next?

Well, if they work, and if they fit? Potentially, forever. But it is amazing with pants because it changes so quickly from season to season, you go back and look at it six months later and the rise is just an inch too short, and – you can’t just bring up the rise, you need to rework the whole thing. You go to put on your denim from a couple of years ago, and somehow they don’t seem right at all.

I’m always sort of amazed when I look at runway shows, and suddenly a color palette, or a certain cut of pant is in every runway show. I imagine there’s a secret meeting happening at a coffee shop somewhere, where all of these designers are scheming together.

I wasn’t invited. (laughs)

Neither was I! But I’m wondering how that comes to be…it can’t just be coincidence.

No, there are trend forecasters, for one thing, so a lot of big companies use forecasting to be on trend. But then I also think there’s this thing called the “Collective Conscience”, and everybody decides at the same time that something is great, and somehow it just spreads and everybody feels it, and…wants it…

It gets out into the universe?

Yes. I think so, it is a small industry, so there is a lot of crossover with designers working with stylists or consultants or forecasters that will work for multiple companies, and that plays a role.

Being in Portland, instead of in New York or LA, are you able to participate in that collective conscience? Do you get the opportunity to work with a lot of other designers and get input from them, or does that even interest you?

I’m pretty isolated. But I think I would be isolated no matter where I was. That’s the kind of person I am. I like to get into my mode, in my work cave, and do my thing. I do like to collaborate with stylists and photographers and am very interested in what other artists and designers are doing, more than other clothing designers.

Portland definitely has a unique style all its own. How does this city and its fashion sense influence your designs?

It really does influence me, because I react to everything around me every day. I love the bike culture here –people riding their bikes in these great dresses and skirts, they look incredibly stylish and fashionable. I’m always doing a double take when somebody passes by in this great summer dress, on a bike. Style is very vintage-inspired here; people are incredibly creative with their fashion here. I have also found incredibly fashionable, stylish, well-traveled women in Portland. That’s the woman that walks into our store every day. It’s really encouraging to keep on doing what I do, to keep on buying for Moulé, knowing they are here and that we have the chance to meet their needs.

Has Portland been a good fit for Moulé, do you think, in terms of the style and the aesthetic?

It has, actually. I’m amazed by how many people thank us every day for being here and tell us how much they love it. We have great loyal support from our customers here it’s amazing.

Since I know Moulé is a family business, I have to ask about working with family. I worked with my mom for many years, so I know it can present some unique opportunities, but also some challenges. How does that work in your family? Does it all just come out seamlessly?

Oh yeah, seamless! (laughs) Every family is a little dysfunctional…so most family businesses can’t help but being a little dysfunctional. What’s hard is when you bring your family dynamics from growing up. We had this “five kids in this crazy house” mentality that just transferred to our work life. It’s all you know, and it’s how you interact and that’s the dynamic.

But we’ve worked really hard to grow beyond those family relationships and be professional and it works. I love that I get to work with my brothers and my mom. I love them, and we’re close, and for the most part, we think alike. It can be trying too, but you can yell and scream and have a big fight and know that it’s all going to be okay tomorrow.

“The film heroines were intriguing mysterious risk takers that were always beautiful and stylish. “

That’s one of the things that’s unique about working in a family business – you can have those big blowouts, and know that it’s going to come together in the end.

Exactly. That’s very comforting. I feel very lucky that I get to experience my family this way as well, and spend so much time together.

Since you are working on Moulé and Rachel Mara together so often, how intertwined are they for
you. Does one lead into the other? Do you find yourself designing pieces for Rachel Mara that you think Moulé needs and you haven’t found from another designer, for example?

Not necessarily, because Rachel Mara has to be done so much earlier, at least six months ahead of my buying for Moulé. I’m showing Rachel Mara at Fashion Week at the same time I’m at the shows buying for Moulé. But I’ve started to develop this line called RM, which is a diffusion line that does fill
those needs for Moulé.

Where do you see Rachel Mara headed and Moulé?

Well, Rachel Mara I see pretty much on the same path. I really like the idea of keeping it smaller and doing limited edition and more specialty pieces. And Moulé – the word actually means “to shape” or “to mold”. It’s about evolving and trying new things, that’s what keeps it interesting and fun for all of us and our customers. We’ll always continue to try new things.

I keep expecting you to start a collection of accessories for Rachel Mara, so that’s the one I’m waiting for.

Yeah, I would love to. Handbags, shoes and scarves, that would be fun!

Since we are coming up on spring, what are some of the trends that you are excited to see for the season?

Well, we were talking about that phenomenon where everyone does a similar thing, and it’s true this season. I have a very kind of 1970s retroglam thing going on in my spring collection, and it’s showing up a lot of other places too. I’m very excited about that –high-waist denim, colors are
back, crochet, headscarves, there is a glamour that’s fun and playful. I really think there is a little bit of everything out there now, and that’s kind of nice – you can really find your own voice within all the trends that are out there.

What’s the first piece from the Rachel Mara spring collection that you are going to grab off the rack when it comes in?

Oh, I usually need a little bit of distance from a collection once I’m done with it, to be honest. But I’m pretty excited about the Peach Print wrap dress, my pleated men’s trouser in off-white and my denim suit.

AFM01-rachel-girl_suitecase

AFM01-rachel-girls_in_mirrorAFM01-rachel-girl_in_car

About The Author: Becki Singer