An interview with the designer Cana Klebanoff.
Phipps: Like I said, I did not know you were still in school. I had assumed from the outfits of yours I have seen over the past year that you were a working designer. What is it that you would get from going to school versus just starting on your own, maybe apprenticing with someone?
The designer at a private fitting. Photograph by the author.
Klebanoff: I believe going to school, you get someone to talk to and mentor you in a certain manner. The teachers are there specifically to teach. As an apprentice, you are supposed to learn based on what you see. They do not necessarily have to teach you, or give you their secrets, or have you do certain things. It's more like you get the opportunity to watch them do certain things. Personally for me, I enjoy working under Joseph [Domingo]. Because I'm still learning a lot from him. He does take the time to tell me, this is how certain things are done. And he has taught me a lot about the industry. Unfortunately, it is something I think the students at the school, I think they will have no idea about. Once they leave the school, and jump into the industry. I think they're going to be lost. Because there is so much to learn. If no one has told them, if they have not been an apprentice with someone. And the other good thing about working with someone like Joseph is he has been in the industry so long, he is able to tell me exactly flat out, and he has never been wrong. And the sad thing is a lot of students who go to these schools don't go to the fashion industry events, like the shows. None of the students from my classes went to SNOW for example, or they didn't even hear about it. You really need to be aware of what's going on, it's your community. I think they assume that once they get out of school they're a designer automatically. Most of them fall into what I call the "design-student's delusion". And I call it that because a lot of people when they first start learning how to do fashion design, they want to buy the most expensive fabric, or the most luxurious fabric. You're going to spend a hundred dollars a yard on silk and you've never sewn silk? It's one of those things, it doesn't hurt to tell people you work with polyester or you work with cheap fabric. I've seen some students struggle because they're learning it the hard way.
Phipps: It sounds a little to me in a way, maybe not a perfect analogy, but as a graduate student what I discovered is that you're expected to be able to teach yourself. That's really the step you take. I don't think that's a perfect analogy for what you're saying, the difference between design school and apprentice work. But it sounds to me a little bit like what you're saying, that the apprentice is sort of a little bit like graduate school.
Klebanoff: I think it totally is. And the reason why I'm saying that is, from what I've learned, in this particular industry, you don't need a certificate, you don't need something saying whatever, if you can find someone who can teach you the ropes. But you do have to work for it though. It's kind of that balance. You do some of my work, I share some of my knowledge, my experiences. It's like a fair trade. Some of the people who are interns, they only do their certain amount of hours, because they kind of expect to know everything within that certain amount of hours. But you really need to be with these people for at least a good year. When they say hard work is hard work, they really mean it. Work is work. It's learning the experience. There's a lot to learn in the industry.
Phipps: So I'd like to talk a little bit about heartbreak, professional heartbreak. Just for context, we talked a little bit about this already, but I mentioned this project-shoot I did, and this shoot was exhausting. It was twelve-hour days, day after day, and I had significant out-of-pocket expenses, and all that, and it did not sell. Everyone passed on it. And I thought my stuff was really good, if I can say that without sounding too self-congratulatory. But I was proud of it. I really thought it would go. I really thought someone would pick it up. And I offered it around, and I offered it around. It was really heartbreaking. So, I want to understand more about being a designer. Talk to me about designer's heartbreak. Talk to me about showing something, maybe something that got a negative reaction. Is there something you showed that you really liked but that got a negative reaction, or that other people just didn't think worked?
Klebanoff: Honestly, I don't think so. I've never heard a negative reaction. I think people like to keep their negative comments to themselves, if there is one. I don't think there should be any regrets. For me I've never regretted anything I've shown or anything I've done, where it had to be photographed. Just because my own two hands were put into it, and my effort was put into it. Obviously it does mean something, regardless of if I love it or not. But the fact that I've done it, I'm standing behind it. So I don't think there should be any kind of negative feedback.
Phipps: Negative feedback, or negative feelings about your own work?
Klebanoff: Both. Both in general. Because I don't think there should be any kind of, I guess, regret on showing something that you really put your time and effort into. Regardless of the outcome, or the way people reacted. And that's why there was that hesitation when you asked me that question. I don't think I've heard anything negative, at least not people saying things to my face. Yes, of course people are not going to like everything I do. And I can't, you can't please everybody. As long as you are able to feel comfortable standing behind it. If you don't feel that comfortable standing behind something, then don't show. So simple as that. But if you are absolutely able to stand behind the fact that you put the time into it, if you do or don't love it, stand behind it by saying, I did this. I put some time into this. Look on the positive side, maybe of certain detailing you did on the garments. Or maybe the positive side of what you did to get to the completed garment. There is always something to talk about besides the downside or the negativity. If you ever hear negative stuff, you can go ahead and tell me. But I think that's the great thing about people having their own opinions, what they do or don't like. Sometimes people take it personally, but I don't think designers should, because it's their own work, their own tastes.
Phipps: Do you remember the movie Unzipped?
Klebanoff: Isaac Mizrahi.
Phipps: Yes, I think that starts, and he has sort of a bad show, and the critics savage him I think, if I remember the movie, the setup.
Klebanoff: I think, I remember he had a lot of garments with fur, I think, and then Jean Paul Gaultier did it before, so there was some of that.
Phipps: What I remember is, that's how they bookended it. They start the movie, he has a show that gets poor reviews. They follow him for a season. At the end of the season, he has a great show. He does something I really liked, too, he had that sheer panel. You could see a little bit of what was going on behind the scenes, I thought it was really cool.
Klebanoff: The models weren't too happy!
Phipps: Yes, I remember, I think Yasmeen Ghauri. I think he said to her, you know, we're going to have, or I'm thinking about having a sheer panel so people can see backstage where you're changing, would you mind? And she says, dramatic pause, would I mind? YES.
Klebanoff: Eve Salvail, she is one of the cool models I think. The fact she has the shaved head. The tattoos on the side of her head. One of Gaultier's favorites too I think. I thought she had a great walk. Kristen McMenamy too.
Phipps: Can you talk to me a little bit about finding personality in a garment. Could I see Joseph's personality in one of his garments, for example?
Klebanoff: I believe you can. Because all his work is sewing perfection. Extremely accurate. That's one thing about Joseph, is that accuracy, and cleanness. And he likes to keep things clean, even in his own studio. Accuracy, organized. You do see it. You do see it in his clothing.
Phipps: Where could I see your personality in the garments you have shown?
Klebanoff: You would see it definitely on the craftsmanship. The neatness. What I like sometimes is the fit. The fit has a lot to do with it.
Phipps: These are a little more, your preferences. I'm trying to ask a little more personal question, about you, your personality Cana. Can I see who you are from your garments?
Klebanoff: Something like that, I don't, I want to say "No."
Phipps: Maybe, I wonder, in answering that, you're too close to your own work. If the question doesn't work, it's that perspective. How about with Joseph? You have worked with him now. You have a sense of him, who he is, who the man is. So could I see any part of Joseph in his garments?
At Black V. Photograph by the author.
Klebanoff: Personality-wise, I want to say except for his taste, I would say "No." And I would say that would be true for the majority of designers' work. With the exception of their taste. That would be the only place. Something like bare legs. I don't think, you're not going to be able to really read that or see it, except you'll see instead a translation, on the neatness or the craftsmanship. If the craftsmanship is really good, then you know that they are excellent at their pattern-work, or their cutting, or their sewing. That's the closest thing if anything. Sometimes you might see the personality, if it's like S&M. When it comes to ready-to-wear, you're really marketing towards almost anybody. So that's why it's really hard for something like that, your question.
Phipps: Your answer makes sense, but let me try my hypothesis again. I think, I think it goes like this: Take someone who is more introverted, maybe they do a particular style of clothing, long stuff or heavy fabrics, say. Maybe someone who is extroverted does a lot of very flirty stuff. It's their personality. And you can see it in what they design.
Klebanoff: With the exception of design taste, I don't think you can.
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