“It feels weird to not have to buy jeans anymore, because that’s what I consume,” the designer Rebecca Minkoff told us on a recent visit to her apartment in Dumbo, Brooklyn, which she shares with her husband and toddler son. She doesn’t have to buy denim anymore, of course, because she makes it – as part of her super-successful, New York-based line. Rebecca launched her first jeans this summer, and now five new styles are available. (Those who love a mid rise, rejoice. These are for you!)
But back to that part about denim consumption. Rebecca wears jeans just about every day. For the record: before she added denim to her collection, her go-tos were skinny J Brands. It hasn’t always been about a slim style for her, though. She took us back through the years, from wearing hippie flares in high school to the boot-cut-and-pointy-heel look of the early ’00s (anyone else who moved to New York around that time can relate, including – cringe! – us). It was fun hearing all about her days as a stylist – dressing everyone from Disney stars to Heidi Klum on the first season of “Project Runway” – to fund the beginnings of her clothing line. She tells her stories with a laugh, not too seriously. Though she is a serious businesswoman – and she’s got the jeans to show for it.
So, you introduced jeans to your collection because you made everything else and you wanted to have something to put it all with?
Yes. I mean, it was a two-fold thing: One, we thought it was a great casual component to add to the line. And then we also wanted to make a charitable component to something we did, similar to what Warby Parker does. We’re at the point now where we could afford to do something good. But we didn’t want to cut anything out from the denim. They’re still premium, made in the same factories as a Rag & Bone or a J Brand. But, by cutting out the middle man, that allowed for the sale of each denim item to feed 20 kids in America a meal, which was important to me. One out of five children go hungry every day, or without a complete meal. So that was a nice way to take that extra money, and be able to do some good. We’re working with Share our Strength’s No Kid Hungry.
Let’s talk about your denim history. Growing up, what kind of jeans did you wear?
Well, I would shop at thrift stores. So I remember Gloria Vanderbilt. I remember that blue with the white stitching. I’ll never forget that. I remember Levi’s. When I was really little I would wear Marciano. It was the double waistband situation, with the pleats and the rolled cuffs. That was pretty cool. I was obsessed with that.
Actually, we did denim in the line before we officially had denim. We had leopard print, or we did a flower, in 2009, and the inspiration was the Bongo printed-floral jeans I had as a kid. I was obsessed with that. I lived in Florida at the time. They have tons of thrift stores. Everything from Salvation Army, to Goodwill, to St. Vincent de Paul.
What were you looking for when you’d shop there?
It was whatever I came across that stands out. I had…it sounds like, “Oh, poor you, you had skinny legs,” but at the time I was made fun of for that. So I was extra sensitive about finding something I could fit in because at the time, I couldn’t fit into things. I had to alter everything.
What did you wear in your teen years?
I wore a lot of flares from thrift store. If it had a brand, I didn’t want it. That was when I was really into being a hippie, but not a dirty hippie. I wasn’t into the Grateful Dead…but I went to this Jewish sort of hippie summer camp from the time I was 13 ‘tip 19, every summer, except for one summer I decided to come to New York and dance, but…It was like, Birkenstocks, flares and tanks. Or old t-shirts that would say something random. You just bought them because they were fun.
There was a minute when I pretended to be a punk rocker, for like a year. And then I would wear jeans like she’s wearing [points to Jane’s cuffed, raw-denim Baldwins]. I’d wear Doc Marten steel toes. But I don’t know…it might have been a Gap Jean, I have no idea. I was born in San Diego and we moved to Florida when I was ten.
Where’d you go to college?
I didn’t. I moved here in ’99 to intern for a designer, and they hired me there. His name’s Craig Taylor. He was known at the time for doing men’s shirts for women, but very high end. I did enroll at FIT at night school for two semesters. In Florida, I’d gone to a magnet school. I was in the dance department, but I was this tall, which didn’t really work out for me. So I ended up living four hours a day in the costume department. My teacher, she taught me everything – draping, pattern-making, sewing. It was basically me and her, because the other students didn’t really care. But she could tell I loved it. Four years of that, and when I did enroll in night school, I was, like, I’ve already done draping, I’ve learned pattern making. I was itching to just work. That lasted for two semesters. Then I decided to keep working for Craig. And then I went out on my own in 2001. And I had a five-piece collection. Actually, it’s funny, one of the pieces wasn’t like denim pant, but it was made out of denim. And a denim jacket, that was not a denim jacket. I had a very small line until 2004, and then I launched the Morning After bag, and that’s what took off. People were far more interested in that than the clothes. So I just said, Let me invest in this. Let me see where this goes. When we had enough funds to do the clothing right, that’s when we got back into it. We re-launched in ’09.
What has the reaction to your denim line been like so far?
Well, I have some girls who love it and swear by it. And I’m lucky that some of those girls are tastemakers. That makes me happy. I think it was interesting learning that…because I designed them for me and I don’t have a butt…the girls who have a butt were like, “You might want to do a mid-rise!” I thought, that is a good idea. So that’s why this second season is all about our mid-rise. Some brands can afford to launch with the low, the medium, and the high. We’re just slowly growing it. And so far the feedback’s been great. I have a lot of girls excited for the next round. Like, Lena Dunham wears our jeans all the time. And Zosia Mamet. Gloria Baume from Teen Vogue, and Olivia Palermo. Pamela Love loves them. Glamour did this thing called, “These Girls.” It was one night only at Joe’s Pub with some comediennes and some writers, and Zosia was performing. I became obsessed with that format. I’m so sick of these parties where you just sit around and drink. This was a night where women were being powerful and laughing. So, I said, Tell them I will dress them all for the show. So, Zosia came in and we met. And we became friends and Lena kept telling her, I like that one, I like that one. So I said, just give me her address and I’ll send her stuff. Now, we’re, like, pen pals and she sends me photographs of her in the denim that I’m not allowed to post. [Laughs].
So, do you wear denim every day?
I would say four out of five days a week. No, I’d say five out of seven days, I wear denim. The times I wear less is the height of summer. Then I’ll force myself to wear a dress.
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And you’re more of a skinny jeans person?
Do you ever wear any other styles?
I wear a boyfriend, but I like a slimmer boyfriend, which is why I made ours kind of slim. Just because I hate the whole “diaper butt” syndrome.
Yeah, that is a problem, actually.
Yeah, I’d say skinny and boyfriend, that’s kind of it. Skinny is my comfort zone.
Why is that, do you think?
A stylist told me a long time ago…she said, “You have great legs and so your uniform should be skinny jeans and great jackets.” I think also with skinny jeans – I love shoes – so they allow me to show off my shoe.
I was talking to the partner that makes our shoes and they were saying that with the rise of the skinny jean, that’s when you saw the rise of the shoe brands being huge and growing. Because now you can actually see the shoe. Whereas, when we were wearing boot-cut jeans, you didn’t see the shoe at all. So it’s really impacted the footwear industry as well. Which is interesting. I wouldn’t necessarily think about that.
When I moved here, I feel like boot-cut was really in. I remember for my birthday, I bought myself a pair of jeans and they were, like, 120 bucks. And I thought, Oh, my God I can’t afford to do this. I refuse to get rid of them. I still have them, because, I don’t know, it was a moment…I was in New York and I was excited to be able to buy into it. That whole boot-cut with the pointy shoe look, which is terrible. “Roach killers.” It was definitely a phase.
Who made those jeans?
I think it was Joe’s. I can’t remember. I tried all my old jeans on again on Friday, actually. And I thought, Will I ever do this again?
You still have them? Can we see?
[Runs into her closet and grabs her old jeans] Here we go. Oh, they were Citizens of Humanity. Here they are. These were Hollister. Ooh, this is a long time ago.
These are the first, like, skinny. And they’re not even that skinny. Levi’s. Their Red label. It’s a Western boot, but tight. Then this skirt…I think this could almost be ready to wear again. It might be a little long. It has that cool ergonomic seam.
Where were you living when you bought all of these?
I was living in an apartment I could not afford. It was like the size of this [gestures to living room]. It was on Thompson and Spring. My room was the size of that bathroom, and I’m not exaggerating. I had a roommate, it was her apartment. She said, I have a room for $1300 bucks. I said, I’ll take it! It’s new York City!
How did you wear them?
With a black shoe, probably knock-offs. It was a black, pointy witch boot with a sort of heel. I could always wear jeans to work. It’s funny, I won’t allow someone to wear a suit at our office. When we’re designing, our merchandiser will say, We need pants you can wear to work. I’m always saying, Why can’t you just wear jeans to work? Why? Why?! I have trouble making a pant that is not made out of some sort of derivative of denim. I’m getting better at it, but…
What else were you doing back then when you were wearing these jeans with your black, pointy-toe shoes?
I didn’t know where to meet young people. I was 21, and all the people in the office [at Craig Taylor] were in their 30s. So I was trying to figure it out. There was a website called sowear.com, and that was a list of garment manufacturers on one page. And it sort of had a fashion calendar and it had all these events. And so I would go there and try to meet people. I was lucky to meet this one girl who was an editor. And she started taking me along with her all the time. It was inevitable I met a lot of editors or writers and people in fashion.
Honestly, I couldn’t afford to go out a lot. I feel like, it was always Raoul’s in the West Village. I remember being invited out with friends and being so embarrassed because I could only buy a soda. I would eat at home and then go out. So for me, unless someone else was paying for it. I dated a bunch of terrible men. A lot of my energy went to that. Things got better. I definitely didn’t experience nightlife until later.
What about when you started your own line – what was that time like for you?
It was me and one other seamster making everything. I’d go to the garment district and buy fabrics. I’d sew everything. In our last move, my sewing machine got crushed, and that was kind of the end of it. It was a Brother that I’d had since high school. I was doing my line and styling, because that was paying the bills and funding everything. I styled mostly commercials. There was one director who would hire me, and it was anything from Project Runway…I did Heidi for the first season.
Yeah, they were like, “We have $1,000, but if we make it big, you’ll be our stylist for the whole show.” I said, I’ll do it. I remember begging Chanel and calling-in all these crazy designers.
And it worked…
And then they didn’t hire me for the next season, because it was a huge hit and they were all, “We need a mega-stylist!”
I did Hillary Duff before she was Hilary Duff. And all these Disney commercials. Shia La Boeuf…. Mostly Disney, Bravo commercials. And it paid great, so it would fund my clothing line. And then I did the one bag and I could just feel the heat behind it, and the momentum that I wasn’t getting with the clothing. Because I could never properly do a line that was more than five or ten pieces. That’s when my brother became my business partner and we were like, Let’s just see where this goes and then we can re-launch clothing when we can afford to do it the right way.