unseaming: a dress by Asata Maisé

a note on an ever-emerging designer

Contrary to what social media would have us believe, it really does take years to become an overnight success—and there are few people right now who understand this better than designer Asata Maisé.

After 13 years of making clothes, it was not until June that she began to receive industry attention. Using pieces from a recent collection she created for her 4-year-old eponymous label, she applied for Halsey’s Black Creators Fund, which seeks to provide young Black creatives with resources they receive at disproportionately low rates and platform their work, and was a finalist. The announcement of this prize helped Maisé gain a following and the fashion industry started to pay attention.

Over the last few months, her work has been featured in Vogue’s print September issue and on vogue.com, the Cut , The Coveteur as well as Black Cherry Magazine, which is where I first learned about Maisé. Despite all the ways the Digital Age has democratized the industry, fashion still defers to media gatekeepers to give an emerging designer a seal of approval. But after 13 years of working, does the word “emerging” still apply to Maisé?

The answer is yes, but not for the reasons you may think.

Considering the industry is driven by novelty, what makes emerging talents so exciting is their ingenuity, creativity, enthusiasm, resolve and refreshing ideas of what fashion can be and do for people. What caught the industry’s eye with regard to Maisé’s work were the retro collars on colorful patchwork and terry cloth pieces as well as the squiggly smiley face, which has become her brand’s icon, that reflected her personal exploration of playfulness and interest in 60s/ 70s culture. These sustainably made, joyous pieces by Maisé speak to the hopeful direction fashion is currently moving in these bleak times.

At just 27 years old, Maisé has lived many lives. She moved to LA from Delaware at 18 where she gained exposure to different parts of the industry. She worked closely with Michael Costello shortly after he participated in season 8 of Project Runway, learned more about the business side of the industry at a PR firm that represents different fashion designers and wore many hats as an intern at Odd Future while it was still under the tutelage of Tyler the Creator. And she did all this while working a full time job.

After coming to terms with how unhappy she was in LA, Maisé briefly moved to Europe to join her father in Luxembourg. During that time she interned at Diane von Furstenberg as well as palmer//harding while in London, and considered returning to school. After being admitted to the London College of Fashion, which she had to decline due to the prohibitive costs of tuition, Maisé rejoined Diane von Furstenberg in their New York office moving the the City for a brief period.

At 20 she decided to give LA another chance but was reminded of the same feeling she had when she left at 18: this doesn’t feel right. It’s this gut feeling, which redirects Maisé back to her truth, that guides her as a person and a designer. Her move back to LA led her to make lifestyle changes at 25 to live more sustainably with regard to how she eats, consumes, thinks and creates. Since then she has been committed to minimizing textile waste throughout her entire process—from working almost exclusively with second-hand fabrics to producing long-lasting pieces in limited quantities in an effort to avoid contributing to fashion’s overproduction. She found her way back home to Delaware, where she currently resides, and officially established her brand in 2016.

In an industry as fickle as fashion, choosing to be steadfast and loyal to oneself is a powerful decision. When I spoke to Maise nearly two weeks ago over Zoom, she began by telling me about the crossroads she found herself at during the preceding weekend. She was confronted with a decision that exceeded the matter at hand—it became one about the kind of designer and person she wants to be in this industry. Without getting into the specifics of the decision nor the verdict nor the ensuing realizations she said at one point with a smile, “if we had this call on Friday [it] would’ve been different.”

After reflecting on the whirlwind summer she’s had, she remarked how bittersweet it was. While she’s been working diligently for years to share her vision with others, it’s been difficult to see the strings that come with her burgeoning success. In many ways it seems that people expect her to keep doing what has worked, and with that threatening to take the narrative out of her hands.

But out of respect for herself and her process, Maisé is committed to making sure she gets to tell her own story—in her garments and in interviews.

The story she shared with me begins with when she discovered her love of fashion in 5th grade, once she realized dressing “cool” both alleviated her social anxiety and affected how people treated her. She became enthralled by the idea of using fashion as a way to distinguish herself and to be seen. Instead of the classic camel colored Timberlands, she opted for a pink denim pair. Instead of the classic gold nameplate she saw on her peers, she pleaded with her mother for a rhinestone encrusted version. Pharrell’s love of fashion and unique sense of style exposed her to a new expression of this idea, and for her 14th birthday she bought herself a Billionaire Boys Club t-shirt to bring herself closer to the version of herself she saw in Pharrell. “I’m always on the exterior of what is cool, I guess” she said, which felt like the final answer to the original question of how she distinguishes style from fashion.

An important chapter in her story is the dress we’re unseaming.

Pre-production

The red dress was what came after she applied to be on Project Runway in 2018. After making it past the first round she showed her collection to a panel who liked her work, but told her she needed to push herself further. It’s the kind of vague feedback that can be disheartening for someone trying to move forward on an unpaved path, hoping to make the world see the reality in their dreams. But Maisé, being who she is, turned their criticism into a challenge to make something completely different from her work at the time. As she went home she kept thinking about that, asking herself: What can I do? What do I like? What do I want to see? The answer to these questions at the time included, “romance,” “Alexander McQueen, “silk,” “'Madame Grès,” and she turned it into an opportunity to explore her long-standing interest in couture. She completed the dress after three months and realized how much more of her own potential was waiting to be discovered.

When it comes to designing, Maisé is a fabric-first designer, saying “I’m always inspired by textiles. Always. Sometimes I can’t even conceptualize a design unless I know what fabric I’m working with.” While she had had her eye on this particular fabric for a while, the delicate nature of it made her nervous. But she wanted to see how far she could push herself, so she took the risk. She picked this red silk-chiffon that ombrés into purples and black for the outer layer of the dress, and lined it with black silk. While she is accustomed to using deadstock and vintage fabrics, Maisé decided to buy this fabric online from Mood, New York’s fabric store made famous by the show that inspired this personal project.

Production

The fabric isn’t the only aspect that differentiates this piece from others currently displayed on Maisé’s site. While those pieces are 100% machine made on a domestic sewing machine she’s had for years, this dress was done half on the machine and half by hand. Because silk-chiffon is an exceptionally delicate fabric, subject to tearing and pulling, Maisé had to create the delicate ruffles down the front and attach the ruffled sleeves to the lining by hand. And she hemmed the dress by hand too.

“Sewing is very meditative,” she said at one point, later adding, “when I have anxiety one thing I do is a draping exercise, so I’ll take fabric and drape it until I get to a design” (A technique also used by master dressmaker, Zac Posen).

According to Maisé, pattern-making is not her forte, yet she was able to create the one used for this dress from scratch, based on a vintage Vogue pattern she saw. And although she did a quick sketch before cutting the fabric, the drawing was to figure out how she wanted the ombré to flow throughout the dress than to fully document how she was going to construct it. It was pretty daring considering Maisé never makes samples, and she didn’t start with this piece. She worked on this piece everyday for about three months. She never rushes and she didn’t start with this piece.

It shows.

The uniformed ruffles are beautifully done and designed to complement the body. The way the ombré shifts from red to black and back to red was carefully considered. The ties mirror the contrast of the fabric—the strings are red when the dress fades into black and black where the dress becomes red again—in an effort to create visual depth and dynamism.

Post-production

These days she’s doing press and interviews, pulling for stylists, receiving requests for custom work and selling out on her site. By many industry standards, she’s in the process of making it. Yet, she said, “there are a few things that are making me realize I need to shift the direction that I’m going in.” Amongst those “things”: a custom-made bag created for a photoshoot was lost, another bag was returned to her damaged, she has outstanding invoices by two multi-million dollar companies and has been ghosted by seemingly-interested clients. Fortunately, Maisé doesn’t subscribe to industry standards.

She’s committed to doing this her own way.

She quoted the book she’s currently reading, The Road Less Traveled by Dr. M. Scott Peck who wrote “In order to lose yourself you have to find yourself.” The terry cloth collection was the culmination of finding that Asata Maisé two years ago, who was heavily inspired by the 60s and 70s, hippie culture and the books she was reading at the time. However, with the success of this collection she realized just how much she’s evolved since then. Each collection marks a period of transition and pigeonholing her into one aesthetic would be to miss the ethos of her work entirely. When describing the trajectory she sees for herself now, she was very clear: “I don’t want to lose myself. That’s really important for me. I don’t ever want to lose myself for monetary gain or recognition or anything. I want to remain true to myself.” With everything that happened to her over the summer, and the intense periods of reflection that ensued, it makes perfect sense why her designs are starting to look different.

Clothing has long been the way by which Maisé metabolizes the world around her, and these days she’s looking increasingly inward to find inspiration. Whether it’s a vague idea, the spirit of a historical period, artsy.net, a book, a movie, a Google rabbit hole, Tumblr, textures she finds in nature, she’s focusing on exploring her own responses and reactions through clothes rather than the stimuli themselves. With her references becoming less static—bound neither to time nor place nor specific area of interest—Maisé’s willingness to externalize her current state is fueling her conceptual approach to design, paving the way for new pieces that skew towards timelessness.

Yet, a topic we we often returned to, is the crossroads she now finds herself at between what she feels is expected of her and what she is eager to accomplish.

“I feel like the public has latched onto an aesthetic and a product that was a concept of mine from a year ago and I'm already ready to do other things. But people still want something from me that is an old part of me and my heart isn’t in that.” With demand for these items increasing, raising further questions for Maisé about how she wants to grow her business while staying true to her values as a person and a designer, she finds herself leaning further into her approach as a slow-fashion producer. While she describes herself as a “perfectionist and a very private person,” who keeps projects to herself until she feels they’re fully completed, she’s decided that she wants to share her process to help people better understand her work, though she acknowledged, perhaps paradoxically, social media presents a challenge to accomplishing this.

While she marks the official establishment of her brand as the day she created her company Instagram page, and is for all intents and purposes a digitally native brand, her relationship with the platform is challenging. “Like with everything else it’s bittersweet because it’s a way for me to reach people, like I sell out now because I have a large Instagram following. I gained over 14 thousand followers in three months. I had under 1,000 followers for the last four years.” While the sweet part is the algorithm recognizing the bright colors and patchwork pieces as relevant right now, boosting her work in a way that would’ve been difficult pre-Instagram, the app threatens to undermine the caliber of her design and skill. To that end, she added, “I realized that most of us have such a short attention span when we’re on [Instagram] that the work usually isn’t appreciated, that it’s usually lost in the algorithm, and I would love to figure out a way to reconnect with people. And I haven’t quite figured that out yet.”

Two years after making the dress, Maisé reflected on who she was then and who she’s become. At the time she defaulted to iterating on what she knew. Now she constantly pushes herself to be innovative in designing and constructing her garments. She used to have a challenging relationship with her body and the dress’s measurements reflect that. Now, she has a positive relationship with her body and the fact that the dress no longer fits her reflects this. Her technique was good then. It has since improved significantly. Inspired by travel, she envisioned herself wearing this dress while eating a plate of pasta somewhere on the coast of Italy in a cliffside restaurant. While she never wore the dress out, it’s clear she cherishes this garment, saying with a big smile and audible joy, “it is a constant reminder of what I'm capable of. I’m capable of getting out of my comfort zone and I’m capable of pushing myself, I’m capable of bringing an idea to life and committing myself to something. I would love to see myself do more things like this in the future.”

When I envisaged the unseaming series I imagined, or rather presumed, that designers would choose pieces from their most recent collections. After all, there are few professionals as acutely aware of their creative and commercial impact than fashion designers. Yet by the end of our nearly two-hour conversation I realized this dress represented Maisé’s past, present and future. This point of temporal convergence, an illusive and aspirational design framework that transcends the volatility of fashion, is what Maisé is capable of and has worked towards in all her garments. Her techniques, aesthetics, values, and approach synthesize traditional sensibilities with modern considerations in a way that is uniquely Maisé’s. It’s for this reason the questions Maisé asked herself in 2018—What can I do? What do I like? What do I want to see?—are still the questions that guide her today. The question she’s added after this summer: what don’t I want to become. Her singular point of view is a reflection of being equally committed to her values and to evolving, personally and professionally.

In an industry where now is often late, Maisé’s model is unconventional. She’s a modern couturier, who elevates the craft’s techniques with a level of taste that is equal parts youthful and elegant. She’s willing to abandon what’s worked in favor of what’s true to her, saying “I always want to get better. I want to be the best that I can be.” In an age of fashion where brands seek to make clothing that is viable to as many customers as possible, designing personally and producing slowly could be seen as a liability. Yet, this is what differentiates Maisé from her peers and the industry that Irina Aleksander analyzed in her incredible piece, Sweatpants Forever.

Many designers have revealed over the course of their careers that retaining the ingenuity and enthusiasm that distinguishes an “emerging” talent can become increasingly challenging as years pass and expectations amass. The qualities we use to describe emergent designers are precisely what many of them lose after years of being in the industry or trying to make it. But is there a real metric by which the industry decides someone is no longer “emerging”? At what point does the designer eventually relinquish their “emergent” status? Is it a number? Does that number correlate with years, dollars or followers?

With Maisé’s desire to constantly improve, to be the best she can be, as she said multiple times throughout our conversation, it’s difficult to know when the industry will stop using this verb to describe her. Perhaps they never will since the qualities of an emergent designer feel intrinsic to Maisé as a person and a designer. She is someone who has long embraced being on the peripheries of cool in favor of finding ways to express herself, whose commitment to the work she does offers a beacon of hope for the future of fashion. So, maybe this means, that by her own volition, Asata Maisé will never stop emerging.

Here’s to hoping.