Note from The Haute Seeker: Since interviewing Chelsey Carter over three years ago. The Chicago based fashion designer has increasingly accelerated her label to new heights. Chelsey and her unisex clothing brand, “Alex Carter,” competed as one of three Chicago designers on Bravo’s ‘Project Runway.’ The locally-based designer is using her time on the silver screen to continuously elevate her brand to new heights. In our interview, we discuss collaborating with other Chicago creatives, her latest collection, and the future of her growing brand.
Meet Chelsey Carter
I first met Chelsey Carter at the Agora Sneakerball. She was rocking bubble gum pink hair and an off the shoulder dress, a piece from her most recent collection. She was accompanied by her friend, one of the many women in her life that she refers to as her ‘day ones.’ I had the pleasure of interviewing the now blonde bombshell at her Pilsen design studio and residence, no less than a mile from my own home in the arts-driven West Side neighborhood.
Upon entering her apartment, my eyes were instantly struck by a collection of hung paintings, drawings, and photographs. A vast majority of the designers own artwork; a foreshadowing to the beginnings of her career. The natural sunlight basks her living room which doubles as she neatly kept workshop. A large drafting and cutting table tucked off behind two large mannequins wearing brightly colored coats with craftsmen like details. Too warm for the current temperatures, but wonderful to admire nonetheless.
Our candid conversation began with the designer’s inspirations and ended with her aspirations, as she reflected on her foundations as a designer, the power of collaboration, and the squad of fellow creatives that drive her to succeed each day.
Why ‘Alex Carter’
THS: First off, where does the name come from? To be honest, I thought your first name was Alex.
CC: My name comes from two different things. When I was in college, my professor told me that a lot of women have a hard time dealing with hearing from another woman about what to wear and what to do. It’s a hierarchy of scale and a power struggle. It would almost be nice if I went with an androgynous name. She never really gave me a name. But gave me the foundation of where I could start.
I did a project on androgyny and what it means, and how it is conveyed in design. I went home that Thanksgiving and my uncle Mike told me that I should run with the name “Alex Carter”. My whole name is Chelsey Alexandrea Carter. It’s clean, sharp, and quick. And I like the idea that you would not know if the designer was a man or a woman. I liked the idea of a surprise.
THS: What or who inspires you?
CC: I’m inspired by quite a few things. I consider myself to be an emotional designer that thrives at the moment and the feeling and the vibe. Whatever is happening in the world politically or economically or worldly. I am moved by those things to create each collection. I lean more on abstract things versus people and actual items. If you are creative, anything and everything moves you.
I am a huge fan of music. I do everything to it. My grandmother has always been a huge inspiration. She is not only the matriarch of my drive but everything I represent as a woman as well. I inspire to be as strong and as transparent as she always is. I am inspired by the reflections of all my friends. I literally would not be anywhere without the support of my family and my friends. I am inspired by them because they continue to believe in me, so I can’t help to believe in myself. I am inspired by literally everything.
THS: How would you describe the Alex Carter guy or girl?
CC: The Alex Carter customer is generally creative professionals or people that aren’t afraid to start conversations by way of dress. They are brave, they take risks, and enjoy and understand quality. They don’t want to look like anyone else.
THS: Your work implements a lot of volume, texture, solids, and incredible structural elements, why design in this fashion?
CC: Each collection resembles an emotional release, along with textures and silhouettes. The last collection, the collection (Ode to Femininity) was inspired by Frida Kahlo, and it was designed to embody the female experience and everything we are capable of doing. And that’s the molding and the bending, from birth to breaking through the barriers of gender equality. The ruffles, in that collection, were a light ode to that idea.
I continuously create different looks and sketches over and over, adding and removing details to have an overall movement, ease, and flow. This particular collection, Class is in Session was still emotionally driven. The fact that I am always learning; a lifetime student and will, not be wise enough to know that there is something else to learn. I chose to stay in a youthful, “classroom” setting environment. I named each piece from characters in ‘Rugrats’.
THS: Yeah! When you put that on your Instagram, I was wondering what that was all about.
CC: Yes, every collection has a name. Each has been named after people in my life. All by people that I have been inspired by during my time as a designer. I try to get funnier and quirky with it(names) every time. I love Rugrats. I come up with those design elements by way of the emotions that I use to grasp the direction of my collections. The lacing, eyelets, hardware, a lot of these are added appliqués that are not necessarily functional, but I tried to make them as functional as possible in a jacket, that I named ‘Lil.’
THS: You do a lot of customized pieces and have a small stock list? Do you hope to one day be in Barneys or because you have that high-end aesthetic to be in those types of stores?
CC: When I first started I did not want to be mass-produced, that was five years ago. Now, I have changed my mind because my two hands can only do so much. I would not pitch my line to every boutique, I would not slut out my line. I want to make sure the Alex Carter brand remains exclusive in its availability. I don’t want it to be everywhere and on everyone.
I want it to remain, in a sense, modern-day wearable art. It was made from scratch. I never want to lose sight of what that meant for me originally, to grow this brand from seed to sprout. I would work with Barneys or Bergdorf, and I wouldn’t mind being in smaller boutiques as well. But I do want to remain a snob about that. I won’t have my line in Marshalls and certainly not Target. Although I do admire the collaborative collections done by Issac Mizrahi and other designers. I worked hard to get to where I am. That includes the quality, the vision, and the name in each piece.
THS: I got you, no reason to cheapen your brand.
Collaboration over Competition
THS: You talked about your friends is a big part of your inspiration, so who is your creative squad? The key people that you bounce ideas off of or use as models, etc., and why are they so important to your brand?
CC: Oh, I never got that question before!
CC: My squad, without naming each one of them. I call them my ‘day ones.’ I have had the same batch of friends since I moved here 12 years ago. We grew together. Most of the friends I have here are musicians, some have relocated to Oakland. One, in particular, is my best friend. I have a couple who are in the creative field as well. I start to bounce ideas now off of people with credibility.
I ask people who have jurisdiction over an opinion because they’ve done it. You ask people the right questions which you know can give you the right answers. I have compartmentalized my friends. We hold each other to the highest potential that we can. We are accountability partners. We support each other through the ups and downs, on Twitter and in person. I am grateful as hell for my goons/ squad.
CC: I’ve known Shani for over half of the time that I have lived here. I’ve watched her grow as this mega superstar and been able to be apart of her journey. Being able to lean on her as a friend has helped my brand. We feed and fuel each other. She grabs pieces for her trips to use, and I get my hair braided for SXSW. We use and support each other. It’s a beautiful thing because I am only as successful as my friend’s success.
As hungry as she is for it, is how hungry I am for her to get it. I’ve known Joe for about the same amount of time as I’ve known Shani. He’s been making waves in the city for years. He reached out about the towel project. I made a sample, and he loved it. Thirty-seven towels later he had a full collection. He chose to exhibit them, and our relationship professionally has blossomed since then. And because the entire world is watching him, especially the whole city of Chicago it helps my brand. Who doesn’t want exposure?
THS: Yeah, collaborations are always good.
CC: Collaborations are amazing—especially with the right people!
What’s next for the fashion brand?
THS: Earlier we talked about your Class in Session collection. What’s next for the Alex Carter brand in general.
CC: I dropped the collection in the summer, an all jacket release. I wanted to give it enough time to build. This fall, I will be doing a pop-up shop. Just getting people in to try on and encourage to buy since it will be the right season. In November and October, I plan to drop more(coats) under the same collection in a few more materials and styles. Next year I am thinking about a bridal collection.
THS: Wow, Bridal! What inspired that? Wedding bells ringing in your head?
CC: No, not at all. There is just something very romantic about making a woman’s dress for the most important day of her life. I’ve made a few custom ones, but not my collection. Coats and dresses are the most sought out customized pieces. I would like to do that my way. How would Rihanna, show up to a wedding? What would Rita Ora wear to her homegirls’ wedding? Nothing like Vera(Wang). But very modernized. Very avant-garde, but subtle enough to be worn by a member from Sex and the City. I would like to segway into making more dresses. I think it would be fun!
THS: Is the love for outwear because you live here in Chicago, so it’s kind of by default?
CC: No, every fall I get rid of about 10 coats. I love coats. I own about 50 coats and jackets. I love fall, it is my favorite season. I love how you can have your pajamas underneath an amazing jacket and walk into someplace, and nobody knows. The whole onion aspect is amazing. Ther are so many things you can do with jackets. The coats are amazing! I’ve been building up to be an outerwear designer. I am in my cave, this is my safe zone. I know that I will do more.
THS: You’ve lived in Chicago for eleven years. Why have you continued to build your brand here?
CC: It took me over eleven years to build it initially. I had to establish and learn what I wanted to be. Learn to be a businesswoman. It took me a while to get noticed by people like Joe and put clothes on an artist like Erin Allen Kane. In my head, I am thinking if I move will it take another 11 years? Or do I sit tight in the community that I have built here?
THS: Do you think it would’ve been easier to move to New York or overseas?
CC: Yes, it would have been easier if I left directly after college. But I would not know everyone that I know. And I wouldn’t have the impact in the city the way that I do. It’s a small impact, but for me not to be from this city, I feel like I’ve done okay, and I am proud of that.