In the world of high fashion, the word "horsey" is not a compliment. But the term is tempting when it comes to the leather creations of Kerry Riley. This Minneapolis designer has made a style out of collecting old leather belts and turning them into harnesses.
"It comes from a long history of being involved in horses," Riley explains, recalling her childhood as one of those lucky girls who had a pony.
Riley, age 30, is the founder of Red Shoe Clothing Co., a clothing and accessories line well known in the local fashion scene. I stop by her two-bedroom apartment in NE Minneapolis for a chat on patterns, production, and preparation for the April 11 fashion blowout, Voltage, where I'll be modeling for her fellow designers George Moskal, Anne Selden, and Labrador.
Riley's apartment is littered with magazines and clothes. A half-mannequin in her living room sports a thin blue blouse, chunky belt, and black beret. The mannequin's head is tacked to the wall next to its body, dangling inside a nylon. I plop down on the couch and take out my camera.
"You have a Canon EOS, too?" Riley squeals, her face lighting up like a little kid's. She majored in photography in college before switching to apparel design, and works part-time as a horse photographer in addition her jobs at the Lagoon Cinema and local design store Cliché. Riley helps me adjust my camera's UV Filter and I snap away.
As long as Riley is on the wrong side of the camera, I ask if she ever wears her own clothes. "I just made a dress for Cliché that I couldn't give them," she laughs, pulling out a red and white striped cotton dress. "I wanted to keep it." This afternoon she's wearing a stretchy black sundress over an off-white t-shirt and ripped jeans. With a handful of tattoos on her upper arms and short, spiky platinum hair, Riley looks like Madonna from one of the grittier scenes in Desperately Seeking Susan.
Figure-hugging cuts and bold patterns are some of the characteristics that define Riley's 10 years as a fashion designer. She prides herself on perfectionist tailoring and finds altering garments just as difficult as cutting them.
With the exception of that red-and-white dress, getting rid of her clothing hasn't been too hard. Riley sells an average of two items a week at Cliché: tops and basic skirts for $40 or so; harnesses for $58; difficult-to-make shirt dresses for around $150; and custom orders like wedding gowns for $300 and up. Currently, her woven stretch shirt-dresses are attracting the most buyers. This is a mixed blessing for Riley because "they take a long time to make, so it's kind of daunting."
As far as horse-inspired harnesses go, I mention that I haven't seen many girls wearing them around. (It's a tough look to carry off: You definitely don't want to accessorize with your own saddlebags.) Seconds later, Riley whips out a photo of Sienna Miller sporting a double-breasted piece.
"You know when you're making stuff at home and you see things in the press that are similar to it?" Her eyes flicker with anger and she sets the picture down. "It just freaks you out, makes you really mad. It's like, Shit, it's already out there?"
During my visit, I watch Riley craft a pink paisley blouse from scratch, to include in her Voltage line. It starts out as a collection of long strips, cut in various shapes, and after 10 minutes of seam work, the piece fits snuggly on a mannequin. When she's finished, a tag on the collar will read, "Made in Minneapolis," stressing Riley's mission to keep it local. "I'm proud it's made here," she says, but admits that sending her designs to an out-of-state--and possibly out-of-country--production company may be necessary if too many orders start coming in.
Going national is typically the next step once a designer finds local success. Some, like Riley's pal, designer Katherine Gerdes, turn to reality TV. "Since Project Runway's been on, my friends have been bugging me to go do [it]. I've always said no" Riley says, flattening down a seam. "I think the challenges sound really fun, and I think that'd be a great thing to do, but I'm not interested in doing that on camera in front of millions of people."
Moving to New York, on the other hand, is a possibility. "It's always in the back of my mind," she says. "But I'm so happy here right now that I just want to keep doing this."