Photographer: Tarilyn Quinn.
Make up artist: Anna DeMeo.
Here is our exclusive interview with fashion designer: Karen von Oppen. *This interview is featured in the Winter Issue of Sinical. To clarify: on page 3 of her feature, the eye mask and neck corset are designs by Karen von Oppen. The waist cincher and girdle are designs by Rago.
Sinical Magazine: How long have you been designing clothing, and what inspired you to become a clothing designer?
Karen von Oppen: I've been officially designing for over 20 years, but I like to joke that I've actually been doing it for as long as I could read and pick up a crayon. I was smitten from the beginning and inspired, in particular, by comic book artists and illustrators for the empowering way they adorned their characters and heroines.
Later on, as fashion became an important mode of expression for me, I realized that I had a taste for the provocative and a bent toward the unconventional. It was important to me that my clothing represented who I felt I was, even though I was still too shy to express it otherwise, and so I started quietly creating my own clothing to say it for me. My personal drawings and illustrations had always been full of fantasy and powerful imagery, and so it was only a matter of time before those aspects of my self manifested themselves 3-dimensionally. I guess I've always been a bit of a geek.
SM: Were you self-taught or formally educated?
KVO: I'm pretty much self taught as a fashion designer. I got my BFA from Parsons where I was formally educated in fine art and illustration – my extensive interest and training in human anatomy helped me to understand the human body in ways that conventional fashion training may not have. That knowledge has continually come in handy not only in my sketching techniques, but my draping and pattern drafting skills. Clothing is actually more akin to sculpture to me, especially when it comes to something like corsetry, because I approach it from a different perspective.
SM: Which designers have influenced your work?
KVO: The usual suspects, of course, like Alexander McQueen, Gaultier and some of them classic masters of theatrical drama like Mackie and Capucci's late-in-life sculptural dresses... but also many illustrators like Luis Royo, Erte, Beardsley and Alistair. I've had a fantasy for years of executing Erte's beautiful adornments for exhibit, or collaborating with Royo to actually bring his provocative women to life...
SM: You've had surgeries on your hands. What is the condition of your hands now?
KVO: The hands are doing so much better now, thank you! And if I may, I'd like to encourage anyone who thinks they may be having symptoms of Carpal Tunnel, please please do not ignore it. I did, and I ended up with severe nerve damage in both hands. When it started, I ignorantly believed that the tell-tale tingling waking me up at night was due to bad circulation... it wasn't until I mentioned something in passing to my doctor that she pointed out how severe it had already gotten. Fortunately, the nerve damage was not yet permanent and I'm very happy to report that my surgeries were a success and I am back to work at full capacity. I consider myself very lucky.
SM: What item of clothing or accessory do you enjoy the most designing?
KVO: That's a tough question. Part of me wants to say any execution of any new design since it's always exciting to bring a new piece to life, but I know that's not the answer you're looking for. To be honest, it changes continually as I discover new mediums, new trends, new subcultures and new clients. Perhaps my ADD is partly to blame, but anything new excites me. Lately I've really enjoyed designing accessories because they have the uncanny ability to transform an outfit from something simple, plain or even conservative into something extravagant, creative or unique.
SM: How long does it take you to make a corset?
KVO: A good corset is a very complicated thing and can take anywhere from 20 hours for something simple like an unadorned underbust or as many as 100 hours (or more!) for something lavish and heavily trimmed.
Corsets have the responsibility to transform not only one's curves, but one's self image and attitude; and so proper execution, exquisite design, and a smooth, comfortable fit are all of utmost importance. Skipping steps, skimping on layers or using inferior materials is unacceptable and can yield unhappy or ill-fitting results. A corset is not a torture device, as it is so often referred - a properly drafted garment should feel like a hug, and should empower the wearer not just with an hourglass figure, but with grace and confidence. I implore anyone thinking about purchasing a corset for the first time to do their research as this is truly an industry where you get what you pay for.
SM: Does music inspire your work? What’s currently in your mp3 / CD player?
KVO: Currently I have a jazz CD in my player, because I was working on something that required concentration, but next it could be industrial (when I have to just jam through some production) or dance (when I have to stand at my workbench and cut) or classic rock (when I feel like going back to my rock chic roots). My musical tastes are pretty eclectic – lately I've been listening to a lot of Black Keys, Abney Park, Frenchy and the Punk, RjD2 and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
SM: Current and upcoming projects?
KVO: Lots! Along with several costumes and corsets in the works, I'm finally working on adding a few new items to my collection. Also, I recently completed my third bridal ensemble and am thinking about delving further into alternative wedding gowns. On the other end of the spectrum, I've become intrigued with the infinite possibilities of that tiny circle of modesty – the pastie. Stay tuned, I have some really fun ideas!
SM: What would you tell to an aspiring designer trying to break through to the next level?
KVO: It's a cliche`, I know, but don't give up. If it's your passion and your calling then you'd be miserable not doing it, so just keep going. Find good people to surround yourself with. As a designer, you're in a wonderful potion to form productive symbiotic relationships with photographers and models who are always looking for awesome fashions to shoot. So don't be afraid to be awesome....and adventurous, and uber creative. Be good at your craft, because it you're not, it shows. Get a print portfolio together, get your name out there, get on Model Mayhem to hook up with other creatives and post pics all over the social networks. Open a store on Etsy. Look for fashion shows to showcase your designs. There are always events looking for new designers and shows looking for vendors to sell their wares. Be original, respect other's designs and keep a close watch on your photographs online. Be warned, you will get ripped off eventually, so be prepared for that first horrible feeling of personal violation. I know they say it's the ultimate compliment, but if you can raise some Hell and cause the thief some trouble, do it. I had an entire site taken down because a foreign company stole 3 of my photographs right off my website and then used them to try to sell me my own designs. You may not ever really win, but a small victory counts for something and at least you'll feel you fought for what's yours. No matter what you do, tho, always be true to yourself, even when you're creating a client's vision. Remember, they came to you because you are you.