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Designers of Breakout Chicago Brand Remi Canarie Talk Post-College Reality Checks

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Looks from Remi Canarie's first collection. Images via Remi Canarie.

Lisa Rigney and Liz Patelski met while students at the Art Institute of Chicago. Last year, after partnering on a few small school projects and nabbing tons of awards for their work, the duo decided to take a huge leap of faith and launch a full-scale clothing line with the funds from a fellowship. The result, Remi Canarie, has received tons of buzz—and their first collection hasn't even hit stores yet.

In a conversation with Racked, the duo spoke about the challenges of building a fashion brand in Chicago, how going to art school did and didn't prepare them for the rigors of the business and why they're currently obsessed with New Orleans.

What's it like working in the design scene in Chicago?
Lisa: "There's a really small amount of people who are doing fashion design in Chicago. There aren't a lot of resources here, but we've found some. It's nice to be able to develop things creatively in our own little bubble, so that's been beneficial."
Liz: "There's really not a lot of fashion here at all. We'll definitely move to New York in a few years. It's just a matter of developing the company a bit more before we can do that."

Did you both grow up in the area?
Liz: "I grew up in Park Ridge, but Lisa grew up just outside of Saratoga in New York."

How does living in Chicago affect your designs?
Liz: "We're drawn to an edgier, more masculine [aesthetic] and we look at lots of utilitarian details. We're in a really industrial part of the city. Our studio is where the meatpacking industry used to be. I think that affects us and our design.

What I've noticed, being in Chicago, is that people dress very utilitarian. People dress for the weather, really. It's not that they're not stylish here, but I think people are afraid of being cold."

What kind of challenges have you encountered so far?
Liz: "Sourcing fabric has been one of the hardest things. We knew it'd be a challenge, but maybe not as much of a challenge as it's been. We've had a lot of really great help and really great resources, but learning the business side was a huge hurdle. We never had any of that in school. It's not just about making things, it's about developing a business around it."

Is there a reality check after college where you realize that things have to be commercial to sell?
Lisa: "SAIC really focuses on the conceptual and trying to bridge the gap between art and fashion, and that was our background."
Liz: "Especially because it's a fashion school inside of an art school and it's an art school that is so heavily focused on fine art. All of the programs that are not fine art are kind of like the ugly stepchild of SAIC. You don't learn commercial things. They're more interested in going to conceptual places."
Lisa: "We knew that we had to learn to put normal details in garments and to really think about the wearability of the garment. It was cool. It was like, oh, we're designing real clothes. We knew how to pattern make and we knew how things were supposed to look, so all of those challenges have been fun."

Where can people shop your clothes?
Liz: "Right now, we're not selling in any stores but we can do personal orders. With the first collection, our goal was to get press and to have a collection to show investors. And now we've picked up an investor and we can expand, go to a tradeshow in New York and all that."
Lisa: "It was great because we were able to develop a fit, a general brand aesthetic, get ourselves some press and test the interest in Chicago. Now, it's about pushing on a national scale.

Can you explain the name of the line?
Liz: "We didn't want to use our names. We wanted to create a name that sounded like a person's name but was also gender ambiguous. Remi came from one of Jack Kerouac's characters and Carnarie comes from Canaryville in Chicago. It was one of the first neighborhoods in Chicago and was developed to be stockyards back when Chicago was a hub for shipping. We put those two together and really loved how it sounded and, visually, how it looked."

What designers do you admire?
Liz: "We both really love Alexander Wang and Rag & Bone, for similar reasons. They both have a nice edge to them and they play with sportswear and Americana. Band of Outsiders—we really like the little world they've created. When I was in school, Henrik Vibskov, Comme des Garçons and Haider Ackermann.

For fall, you were playing with masculine/feminine and sportswear. What are you working on for spring?
Lisa: "That theme is going to stick with us as a brand, but for spring we're focusing a little bit on New Orleans and the idea of extreme living situations. We've been watching Down by Law and Beasts of the Southern Wild and generally the idea of that place and the culture, the climate, the extreme weather. And we've been focusing on Mohammad Ali and boxing."
Liz: "We're interested in New Orleans, that there are still people living there even though they're basically below sea level. There's always a huge risk that everything is going to be under water. We started looking at traditional trench coats, and stuff that protects you from weather. That's how we interpreted it with clothing."
Lisa: "We also loved the blues music background in Chicago, and that is definitely a huge part of New Orleans, too."
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