Rachel Comey Runs Her Business By A Different Set Of Rules

Photo: John Lamparski/WireImage.
How many people can say that David Bowie helped launch their career? For designer Rachel Comey, unconventionality has always been part of her business strategy. While most young designers hustle early investments, chase after celebrity clientele, and copy the runways, Comey has built a highly obsessed brand by relying on slow growth, gut instincts, and good sense. Over the past 15 years, she paid off all her startup debt, juggled two jobs, created the jean style of the decade, and appeared in High Maintenance, a TV miniseries about a pot delivery man, all in order to fulfill her number-one goal: to live an interesting life.

"It really isn't about winning this month [...] or having two hundred stores," Comey says. "It's really about the creative day to day, the environment that I work in, the people I work with, and the stuff we're making. Is it exciting? Does it inspire me? Does it feel fresh? Does it feel interesting? Am I learning?"

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Rachel Comey is not your typical boss, nor does she run a typical business, as she explains to UnStyled's host and Refinery29's global editor-in-chief and co-founder, Christene Barberich. "[In the beginning, there] was a moment [where we said] we have to do this ourselves and trust our own instincts here and see what we can do. I can just do what makes sense for me and the industry can decide later what they think. And, it worked."

I can just do what makes sense for me and the industry can decide later what they think.

A few highlights from the chat are below, but make sure to head to iTunes and subscribe to season one of UnStyled for even more good soulful stuff.
So, your Legion pant really launched this sort of frenzy. I don't think I've ever seen a piece that had gotten knocked off so much. It was like minutes after we saw it in your show. How does that make you feel?
"In general, I find it flattering. But, I mean, I was kind of bummed. At the moment, we couldn't manufacturer fast enough because I can't compete with those big-box stores. I felt like we lost out, in some ways. But, it was a surprise, though, because I thought that when we made that item, people would think it was crazy. That item was inspired by growing up in the '70s and, you know, I'm kind of on the shorter side. My mom would hem up my pants, like, four inches or something, and then as [I] grew, [she] just took the hem out. I was always kind of, humiliated that [the hems] would have a darker wash, and it was obvious that the hem was taken out. It was something I was a little bit embarrassed about, growing up. So, when we designed it as a thing, it was like a therapeutic release or something."

When you're building a business, it takes a lot of convincing yourself about what it is you're trying to accomplish, what it is you want to put out there into the world. Do you have any moments like that?

"Before I started my line, I started [with] men's shirts. Button down shirts just seemed like a really nice, basic place to start, where I could learn and I could make design decisions based on my personal aesthetic, but simultaneously, learn. Because I wasn't adding a third sleeve or anything. Before that, I was experimenting and just making things for performers, and I had a boyfriend at the time who was a musician, and he was always wearing my stuff on stage.

"Then, my friend Avena Gallagher came to me and said, 'Do you have any more of those shirts that you were making for your boyfriend? You know, I'm styling Bowie for this tour that's coming up.' I gave her some stuff to take to him, and a week later, she calls me and says, 'Bowie loves them. He's wearing them to this and to that and to this and that. And he wants to buy them. How much do you want to sell them for?' She's like, 'It's David Bowie, so he's got a lot of money. Just charge whatever you want.' And the most expensive thing I could think of was two hundred dollars. He bought two."

What's your advice to people that are doing that [starting a business]? How do you get it right?

"I have been very conservative over the years, and I think that was really super smart and helpful, [during] the first ten years. But as we grow, I realize that we have to think about how to take some risks. I'm learning how to do that a little bit, but it's scary for me. In the early days, I was advised so many times to just keep repeating silhouettes that were selling and fabrics that were selling. And I remember thinking, 'Oh, God, it's so boring. I already did it. I want to do a new thing.' I think my decision to try to keep exploring was probably not the best business decision, but definitely, the best creative decision."
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