Adam Arnold

I visited with Adam at his studio on Thursday, April 14, 2011. When I arrived, he said he had a fitting for jeans and shorts that it wouldn't take long and I could watch. I have never watched a fitting before - the pinning and marking on muslin to give a perfect pattern.

I saw Adam's first show in Portland ages ago. It is what I have remembered the last 7 years and led me to contact him. The show was for a local shop in town called Seaplane (no longer open). They didn't know much about Adam as he just moved to town. They said he could be apart of their fashion show but his stuff had to be couture. He showed up with two pieces-everyone else was sneering at him because they had more ensembles. But as you can see by these photos-Adam did produce couture for the show. Adam did have pieces on consignment at Seaplane but now selling strictly made to measure from his studio.

I went to Portland Fashion Week for one night in 2010. I asked about Adam but was told he doesn't do fashion shows-but I've seen photos and video of recent stuff. He does his own shows out of his studio. He hand addresses all of his invitations for the 300 people on his mailing list.

Made to measure. Custom fit from his line. He shows a line of samples twice a year. Most people pick pieces from previous lines to have made. The current lines are usually a year or two out from what people are comfortable wearing. The designs are not dated so everything becomes a part of a larger collection. His future goal is to pick 20 pieces or so and have them in his studio in muslin or canvas with fabric swatches available to pick from. Clients can pick the design and fabric they want and Adam will custom fit the piece to them.


He has been Adam Arnold with the red dot for 11 years.

He started sewing when he was 3 or 4 years old. His grandmother sewed and taught him. By age of 12 he was making all of his own clothes. He would make clothes for dolls but realized at age 10 or 11 that if he enlarged what he made it would fit him. He also made dolls that looked like cabbage patch kids that he made and then delivered by bike in his Vancouver, WA neighborhood. At age 10 he also worked for his Aunt who was a contractor for Nordstrom Visual Merchandising designing window displays for Christmas. He figured out the meaning of the brief, brainstormed with her, did the drawings and patterns. . . .every summer he spent working on these window display concepts for the Centralia Washington Nordstrom.

He did that until he went to design school. He went to PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art) out of high school. He was doing all of this designing and creating all of his life but didn't know what he wanted to do "for a living". He thought of being an illustrator or going into print making. He really got into sculpture at PNCA-he never thought of himself as a sculptor but it resonated with with he liked to do which is make clothes. It is all about sculpture and he never realized the connection. He wasn't sure he wanted to be at Art School. He always wanted to work with fabric. If there was a problem in visual elements or in color theory I would think how making clothes would solve the problem. He would make a shirt or tie and wear it but the instructor needed the end to be washed on bristol paper so that wasn't where he wanted to go to school. He wanted to be somewhere where you work with fabric. But still even then he had no idea what he would be doing.

At age 19-20 he took the time off and lived in his parent's basement. He would go out to the City Nightclub in downtown Portland (no longer around). He would wake up in the morning decide what he wanted to wear, make it and go out that night. He went out six nights a week. He went to goodwill to get fabric-or his parents/friends would help him, yard sales, etc. Then he had a basement of going-out clothes. Someone said to him he should be a fashion designer-you like making clothes. He thought what he did and being a fashion designer was two totally different things. He doesn't like fashion magazines or wasn't into any of that. He just likes to make clothes.

He really wanted to move out of Vancouver, WA. He was accepted to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology)-he applied and got everything together in private. His parents helped him get a ticket to NY and then he had see the business office at FIT something need to be taken care of. After waiting in 8-10 hour lines two days in a row, he learned that getting in line at 4am was the only way to make sure to talk to someone. This was before classes start and they said he still owed $1500. His parents couldn't help them out so he left and came back to the Northwest without going to school in NY. He went to do some research at the library and decided that he wanted a smaller school. He found FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) in San Francisco. He went to school in fashion design to move away. He started working for Caret in California (they make tops and bottoms for women in Florida. They were trendy in the 30s and 40s but grew old with their consumer which are dying now. They are trying to start over now.)

He worked for Caret in San Francisco for two years and then moved to Seattle. He didn't want to stay in San Francisco/too similar to Portland is his mind. He wanted to stay on the West Coast but not in LA so he moved to Seattle. He wanted to work for himself but didn't know how to do it. But after 2 weeks at London Fog-he figured it out. He has $79 and one check coming from his last job. He made kids hats and had a spreadsheet and went around to shops. He did okay with that but he also taught himself to upholster furniture. Anything to keep him from working for someone else-for four years, his whole time in Seattle. It was not focused. .the hats, upholstery, he designed a library,he designed costumes for plays. Lived on rice, beans, peanut butter and pop corn for four years and ran his credit card up.

He met his friend Eric in 2001 in Portland - and it seemed different so he moved back here. He got a studio space and started his line here and sold it to small shops. Seaplane was on consignment. Mimi and Lena's purchased stuff wholesale. He also did alterations for stores downtown. But the customers came to his studio to pick up their items and see that he had a line so it helped expand his presence. Word of mouth is how he got started.

The red dot started in Seattle with the hats and working for himself.


It is different for every line. This industry is at least two seasons - spring/summer and fall/winter = deadlines for inspiration. It's an evolution-not re-inventing the wheel. Things pick up off from the last thing. It is not like the page has turned. Music, movies, obsessed about something. He approaches how to create his line as PNCA taught him to really find the voice inside of you that wants to be expressed and to exercise that skill and drawing that out and making that versus what is popular. Being sensitive to your environment, what is around you, what are you craving. He's a notorious rebellious soul. Whatever is going on-he wants the exact opposite. It's good for this industry. He sees this or that everywhere and wants the opposite. He tries to insulate himself from store windows, etc but he does notice what people are wearing. He'll want the opposite and design it-that becomes the inspiration. He'll get into a color for no reason.

He got into the condition called Prosopagnosia-which is face blindness. Certain people can't tell the difference in faces - something in their mind keeps them from seeing the difference. It is what the person is wearing or a hairstyle that they can tell the difference. A person will leave the room and come back in and it's like a different person until they start talking. He did this show where everyone wearing a mask and they had these pantyhose over their faces. The audience sees all pantyhose but they are all different people. Color blindness, biological functions, biological conditions - everyone being a red head in the show, or the same name. Inspiration he consider fuels - whatever gets him excited/will feed him through this time period. It is kind of unnatural to just create (poop out) new things each 6 months. He's had 2 shows every year since 2003. March 25 was the last show.

He feels it physically. A fashion show should free, like a gallery show. Show everyone what you've done the last 6 months-but actually it was the last 10 days.

He has to make a living and he can't do a little bit here and there. He focuses on the show for 14 days before. It'll kill him one day. It is always 14 days before the show. You don't want to start a show right after you finish a show. Doing a show doesn't get him business-but it reminds people about him/gets them excited again. Word of mouth is the main way he gets business.

Two clients order new wardrobes every fall/winter. Making these clothes take time.

He's thinking his shows will become more. More for him/his bear-trap of a brain that snaps down on an idea and doesn't give him any flexibility. "You are doing a fashion show and these are the certain expectations." He has super integrity x 27,000 with a bear trap around it. He has to give himself permission-he has all these ideas of what he want to do but there's no outlet for it, that has to do with clothing-so maybe my shows twice a year become events that are clothing-based but they are more event or an experience. Collaborate with another artist or something to make it an event.

He has made a lot of suits in the last 11 years so he was thinking of inviting all of the guys and women that he has made suits for, for a catered dinner. Chandeliers made of scrap metal. Have everyone wear their suit and have an appreciation dinner.

The Meyer Briggs temperament disorders-he's really into that. A night of temperament sorting and invite all these people and get score cards made with a gigantic overhead projector and everyone has pencils with Adam Arnold/Meyers Briggs on them and they take the test. He has made these sweatshirts with your Meyer Briggs temperament on them (he showed me an example. A striped sweatshirt with the letter I N S A on it). You get the sweatshirt with your temperament on it at the end of the evening. Different than Portland Fashion Week and his own catwalk shows. It's about giving himself permission to do it-and then changing his mind again, because he is rebellious. Rebel against himself.

His permission for his last show was to designing 5 new items and the others would be in muslin (that could be used in his studio as tools). And then he didn't want to do it - so he produced 20 new pieces. He show is 12-20 new pieces. He has an assistant to help him cut the patterns out but Adam does all the sewing. Two days before his show last October he started having stabbing pains that lead him to the hospital to get gall bladder removed. He'll work 20 hour days working up to a show. He called Brady, his assistant, to tell him what is going on-he still wanted the show to go on. The pieces were almost all done- so he and Brady went through everything from the hospital bed. The show happened-Adam was having his gall bladder removed. Brady didn't tell anyone where Adam was, even those who were helping-he told them Adam was out running errands. They told everyone after the show where Adam was. He did this to show everyone how serious he is.

People ask if he's a trust fund baby because how can he make a living making clothes for people in Portland full time? His clothes are made to measure so the people need to live here for him to make the clothes for them. He never thought any other way-he lives here in Portland and he makes clothes. He doesn't want to sell in Seattle, San Francisco or LA on consignment or wholesale. He likes the way everything is right now and feels like he is still getting a foundation.

When you hear about people hitting it big-they were working without recognition 20 years before that. What is success? For Adam it is-can you make a living doing what you love? What more do you want? Do you want to make so much money so you don't have to do what you love anymore? Is it being in a magazine? He's never courted media but they do come to him (like I did). His aesthetic sticks in people's mind-like the show with couture pieces and the red balloon. It stays with people-gets under there skin-it takes awhile. He would have done Project Runway if it had started years earlier. He is ahead of the curve and sometimes that has drawbacks but Adam is patient waiting his turn for your subconscious to suggest to go find Adam Arnold to make sure he is alive and well and to make you some clothes.

Check out Adam's collection here.

Photo credits: double-face portrait-Christy Kiep Photography; Couture photos-Jeff Bizzell; studio/garment shots-me

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