Words by Sarah Fulton and Emily Gregor

By moving from her hometown of New York to Kansas City in 2013, fashion designer Rachel Anne Gottlieb, 25, did the unthinkable. She left one of the fashion centers of the world to create clothing in the center of the Midwest. Many professionals in the fashion industry would view the move as a step down, but Gottlieb says that working as a designer in the Midwest helped confirm her love for creating haute couture.

At this year’s Kansas City Fashion Week, her line, Present. By Rachel Ann Gottlieb, was inspired by her self-portrait. Example: One shirt features an ocean-filled circle on the chest, symbolic of how Gottlieb sees her heart as a constantly changing sea of emotion. She sees making the collection as a way of processing who she is and learning to love herself. Gottlieb, a Fashion Institute of Technology graduate, plans to return to New York soon, but for now, she’s exploring couture in the land of farms and flannel.

Interview has been condensed and edited

Urban Plains: How did you get started in fashion?

Rachel Anne Gottlieb: It’s something I’ve known I’ve wanted to do my whole life. I’ve always loved clothes. As a little kid, I would get up in the middle of the night, put on weird costumes and get back into bed dressed all funky. I started sketching when I was 6 and started sewing when I was about 12. It’s just been a consistent thing in my life; as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a designer.

UP: What was it like moving from New York to KC?

RAG: Moving here, I was really able to experiment and see what kind of design I wanted to do. In New York, that really would’ve been more of a challenge. Now that I know what kind of design I want to do, I’m going to go back to New York.

UP: How do you think it’s different here in KC than it is in New York?

RAG: It’s night and day. As far as jobs go, there aren’t really any design jobs here. There are a few people trying to change that, and I wish them the best of luck.   

On the other hand, it’s nice because the whole fashion scene in this city is one big community, and they all know each other. They’re fairly supportive and that’s a really beautiful thing. There’s also a lot of positive energy toward new designers. Whereas in New York, it’s a bit more competitive.

UP: What is it like to advance a brand in a city without much opportunity?

RAG: It’s hard to say. My main focus while I’ve been in the Midwest has been to explore my different aesthetics and figure out my industry. There are so many types of markets within fashion; there’s couture and there are high-end designs, and designer, plus different aesthetics within that, like sporty or urban. So while I’m here, my goal is not really to create a business but to explore myself as a designer and figure out what I want to do as a designer for the rest of my life.

UP: What is your advice for other designers in the Midwest?

RAG: First, for any artist, not just designers, just be you. If you try to cater to someone else’s tastes because you think it will sell, you won’t be happy with your work, and it won’t be genuine. You will stifle yourself creatively. Number two is to have a strong social media presence. That’s really important and that will lead to sales. Finally, get to know your community and be involved. If you’re a designer, get to know other designers and strengthen the community that we have and try to broaden it.

UP: What does it feel like on the day of the show?  

RAG: It’s all kind of a daze. It’s so fast. You spend four months working every day on this collection and then your runway is only 15 minutes long, tops. It just seems like such a blur. I have a 40-person team helping me with my runway this year for 13 models, so it’s really stressful, very hectic, super chaotic. Then it happens, and it’s like a sigh of relief.

UP: Where do you get your inspiration?

RAG: Some amazing designers have always gotten me really excited about fashion, but all of my collections are based on inner conflicts. Making my clothes and runways is me sorting through these conflicts within myself and expressing them and solving them through these clothes. The process is very therapeutic in more ways than one. It allows people to grow as a person.

UP: Can you tell us more about your collection?

RAG: This collection is about a few different things, all related. It’s based on a self-portrait of how I see myself. I took elements from that self-portrait and made them physically tangible. The collection is not just showing how I see myself. Everyone you interact with sees you in their own way, so it’s like you have a million different identities. No one ever really gets to see you how you see yourself. So that is what the collection is about: understanding who you are, being at one with that person and accepting it, and then showing that person to the rest of the world. It’s a universal topic but also something that is very personal to me.

UP: What do you hope people take away from your collection?

RAG: I get excited about my runways and want to share them with other people because there are ideals and beliefs that I’ve grown that I am really excited about and I firmly believe in. Hopefully, the people who see my runway know what it’s about and can have similar self-reflections and similar growth in their own personal way.

UP: What are your long-term goals?

RAG: My long-term goal is to have my own brand where we do couture. I think over the next few years, I will do a combination of traveling and working for larger couture houses. I have a really strong portfolio at this point, so I don’t feel like I will have any difficulty getting a job. So I’ll probably work in New York for a little bit at some larger design firms that are very high-end and then move to Paris and do the same thing. In a perfect world, I would get a job at Dior or Jean Paul Gaultier. Then, in 10 years, own my own couture house in Paris or New York.

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