Calling all fashionistas and Cate Blanchett! Today I bring you an interesting interview with freelance fashion designer and my friend, Heather Habig. I first met Heather when we worked together at Gap Inc. and was instantly attracted to her sense of humor and kindness. It wasn't until later that I learned she has an INCREDIBLE TALENT that she is sharing with the world. I mean, check out the gorgeousness of her work below. I also owe her a special thanks for inspiring me to teach, and now I know why! It’s in her blood.
DG: HEATHER! EVER SINCE THAT SCENE IN PRETTY IN PINK WHERE ANDIE MAKES HER OWN PROM DRESS, I HAVE BEEN FASCINATED BY FASHION DESIGN. AND YOUR DESIGNS ARE SO BEAUTIFUL! HOW DID YOU GET INTO THE BUSINESS?
HH: I’ve been sewing since Home Economics class in junior high, so for about 10 years. Ha! Kidding….actually more like 25 years. It was a hobby through my teens, but in college I studied music, so that was my priority. Sewing sort of fell by the wayside for a few years. After school, I moved to San Francisco and was working in administrative jobs at music non-profits, but that wasn’t fulfilling me creatively.
I got a cheapie sewing machine and returned to that craft, and fell in love with it again. I wanted to learn Patternmaking (which is the “blueprint” for making a garment), so I took some classes at City College SF and finally found Apparel Arts, which was in San Francisco at the time. Something clicked for me there. The combination of creativity and technical aspects really worked for my brain.
I’ve loved clothes and fashion since I was a kid, so at some point it occurred to me that I wanted to try having a career in that industry. By the time I finished at Apparel Arts, I was working at Old Navy HQ. I was getting a taste of working in the industry, but I really wanted to be my own boss. I like working hard and having responsibility, and it sounded ideal to me to work hard and have the results of that work benefit me directly, rather than “the man”.
I was asked to return to Apparel Arts as an instructor, and that felt like my chance to take the leap from full time working. Teaching part time has been such a lucky break for me. It’s guaranteed income, allows my schedule to be flexible for about half the week, and is work that I love.
I started Heather Who and began trying to generate work. In the beginning I tried to say yes to everything that came my way. I tried lots of different things – custom sewing work for clients, freelance patternmaking, and working on my own designs. I have come to realize that I want to focus on my own vision and am trying to have a go at developing and producing my own line of limited-edition ready-to-wear for women.
DG: AMAZING! SINCE LEAVING YOUR FULL TIME JOB, WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN GETTING YOUR CAREER UP AND RUNNING?
HH: Paying the bills is just a constant concern. Teaching part time is great because it mostly supports my regular life. But for the business, it has been a struggle to come up with funds to buy fabric and materials, let alone pay myself.
DG: YES, I AM TOTALLY FAMILIAR WITH THAT CHALLENGE. BUT THERE ARE GOOD THINGS TOO. CAN YOU SHARE WITH US SOME OF YOUR SUCCESSES?
HH: I moved to a new studio in Oakland at the end of 2015. It’s a charming little storefront space near Jack London Square that serves as both work studio and selling space. This has been a nice change for my commute (my previous studio was in SF and I live in the East Bay), and also gave some fresh energy to my business. It’s helped me find some focus and try some new ways of working. Plus there’s so many cute dogs in the neighborhood that I get to say hello to!
For Heather Who in 2016, I’m hoping to execute a plan where I release a new garment/outfit every 6 weeks or so. The standard fashion calendar starts with a runway show with lots of pieces that are then purchased by buyers and arrive at the stores months later. And there are of course lots of people involved in getting that process to work. Since I am just one person handling every aspect of the business (right now, anyway), it feels more manageable for me to focus on one thing and release it as I go. In some ways, I can react to ideas and trends faster than traditional design houses because I design and produce everything myself. And having newness every few weeks or so will hopefully keep me in customer’s minds more often.
DG: CONGRATS ON YOUR STUDIO. IS HAVING TOTAL CONTROL OF THE PRODUCT PIPELINE YOUR FAVORITE THING ABOUT “WORKING FOR YOURSELF”?
HH: Like I mentioned before, I like working hard and having responsibility, and I like that the results of my work benefit me. It’s also pretty nice to be able to have a day where I want to play hooky, and I don’t have to come up with some fake doctor’s appointment in order to have some free time!
DG: AS A FREELANCE DESIGNER, HOW DO YOU GET INSPIRED EVERY DAY?
HH: It can be challenging – when running a business the list of administrative tasks never seems to shrink. I love magazines and subscribe to far too many of them. Just flipping through a few pages is always fun and inspiring for me. I also love that all the runway shows are available online basically the minute they happen. I probably watch a show or 2 everyday to see what’s happening out there.
DG: IS IT DIFFICULT TO KEEP BALANCE IN YOUR LIFE? FOR EXAMPLE, CAN YOU “STOP” WORKING WHEN YOUR IT’S TIME TO SWITCH GEARS, LIKE TO CREATE FOR YOURSELF, OR SAY, GO TO SLEEP?
HH: Balance is one of the hardest things to find. There’s so much to do for the business that I could fill 24 hours a day. And there is some planning required for teaching, so that takes up a good chunk of time as well. The creative time for myself unfortunately falls to lowest priority on many days. I’m lucky enough to have a work studio, so I can leave projects and tools out. Seeing the pretty fabric I bought for myself out on the table, or having markers and watercolors at the ready remind me that I should take a little creative time for myself.
DG: YES, HAVING A WORK STUDIO MUST HELP! AS FAR AS A “STUDIO PRACTICE,” WHAT DOES THAT PROCESS LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
HH: When I get to my studio in the morning, I try to start out by working on something that feels fun or inspiring or new, even if it’s only for 20 minutes. That way I’m sure to have that moment everyday that reminds me why I love what I do. If I waited until I was done with everything I have to do in a day, I wouldn’t get to it.
I also must have music or a podcast playing while I work. I do like to work alone, but total quiet is sort of a lonely feeling. I confess to listening to cheesy pop music while I work – it’s good background noise for me. Then if I’m working on a task that doesn’t take much brain power, I’ll listen to a podcast like Serial, This American Life, or Radiolab.
DG: I LOVE IT! HOW DO YOU USE YOUR SKETCHBOOK? CAN YOU GIVE US A PEEK?
HH: One of my goals is develop my fashion illustration skills. I’d love to incorporate watercolor in them. I also carry around a tiny notebook to jot down an idea to do a quick little sketch of something. Pinterest is a fun way to keep track of images I like online (pinterest.com/heatherwhosf).
DG: DO YOU HAVE A FASHION ICON THAT YOU WOULD LOVE TO DRESS?
HH: I’m a big fan of classic Hollywood glamour, so making a dress for a modern Hollywood style star would be pretty cool. Cate Blanchett, call me!
DG: OOOOHHH. HOW CAN WE GET CATE TO NOTICE YOU? I COULD DEFINITELY SEE HER IN YOUR DESIGNS. SHALL WE GIVE HER A SHOUT OUT ON TWITTER? SERIOUSLY, SELF PROMOTION IS DIFFICULT FOR ARTISTS. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT IT?
HH: This is such a challenge for me, being the shy introvert that I am. Frankly, if I pretend “Heather Who” is someone else, that helps me get over myself! It’s something I have to put on my calendar for a reminder, or else it won’t occur to me to do it – it’s just not a habit yet.
DG: WHO OR WHAT HAS INFLUENCED YOUR WORK THE MOST?
HH: I come from a couple of generations of teachers, and I have had some great teachers in my life. I would be nowhere without their guidance and belief in me.
I watched a lot of old movies when I was a kid – Alfred Hitchcock, the Hepburn's, big Hollywood musicals. The glamour and style of classic Hollywood movies is always an inspiration.
DG: I BELIEVE IN YOU! AND I ADMIRE YOU FOR GOING AFTER YOUR DREAMS. DO YOU HAVE ANY WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT FOR PEOPLE WHO WANT TO DO THE SAME?
HH: Stay focused on and confident about what you want, and you’ll figure out a way to make it happen. Just because things have been done a certain way in the past doesn’t mean you have to do it that way. And making mistakes is how we learn, so don’t be afraid of mistakes!
DG: AND LASTLY, WHAT IS YOUR SECRET SUPERPOWER?
HH: I have quite a good memory, which definitely comes in handy. With so many details to manage in my work, I can hold a lot of those details in my head. And if I had a conversation in passing a couple of years ago about a certain bit of information, I can often recall it pretty clearly and accurately.
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Good to know! I’ll remember that, hopefully. Thanks to Heather for sharing her story with us today!
Don’t forget to look her up at: