On the Road with Kailee McKenzie
In a world oversaturated by social media, the multi-disciplinary creator-turned-designer, Kailee McKenzie sets herself apart from the masses and offers a sense of digital solace. From her early grassroots in the Youtube beauty and fashion community to her budding clothing line, STAATSBALLET, Kailee has proven herself a master of her craft. She pours passion and dedication into her work, pushing herself and her creativity to grow her community year after year—all with a distinguished sense of style and grace. Whether you know her or not, Kailee is someone to keep on your radar.
We spoke with the rising designer about her daily inspirations, her collaborative relationship with her partner, Avery Ginsberg, and what’s next for their brand, STAATSBALLET. Browse our favorite images from Kailee & Avery’s recent trip to New Mexico and shop a selection of items from Kailee’s closet below.
Niki Frias & Kate Marin: For those unfamiliar, what is your background and what do you do?
Kailee McKenzie: My long-time career (much longer than you’d ever guess) that has allowed me to study here in the city and invest in Avery’s and my clothing brand, STAATSBALLETT, lies in YouTube and blogging. But, it’s always fun to take a step back and acknowledge why there are even videos of me up on YouTube at the age of 12! It all stemmed from having an interest outside of the community that I grew up in; my small offshoot-of-a-highway town was a bit more focused on hunting, sports, religion...etc. After a while, I learned that what I’d been doing for fun could also provide me some sustainable income. The career and life that I wanted seemed a lot more attainable, and when I was 18, I moved to NYC and started my degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology. I had visited the city a few times despite my family’s reservations about a somehow foreign way of life. Now, I’m 21, still in NYC, still acting as a “content creator” of sorts (haha) and now working on my own fashion brand, STAATSBALLETT.
Has your audience changed since starting Youtube?
It’s changed a lot! I used to focus a lot more on beauty content, but as I got older, that didn’t really feel like me anymore. I also used to shop fast-fashion a lot when I was younger, but after research, that’s not something I wanted to endorse. As I evolve, my followers do, too! Being on YouTube is cool because my audience gets to grow up with me. Some stick around and some don’t, but it’s nice to see how the connection changes.
How did you discover fashion living in West Virginia?
The Internet is a crazy place, but a beautiful one I guess! I didn’t have many friends that shared similar interests in West Virginia, so I turned to finding friends online. Of course, I had all of the books and magazines that any local stores would sell (which was pretty limited, and by local I mean half an hour away), but nothing compared to learning everything I could, finding friends, and eventually building a community online.
What was your most coveted piece growing up? What was your first grail?
I had this vintage leather vest with some massive, antiqued-silver grommets at the closure that I wore nearly every day in high school, and a bit into my NYC life, too! I found it at an antique store a few towns away. I still think it was one of my best finds. As far as my first grail, I saved up some money, dragged myself to Barneys, and bought the Balenciaga Ceinture Boots—the ones with the gunmetal and silver hardware. I’ve now had them resoled and repaired twice. They’re my go-to for stomping around NYC.
From West Virginia to NYC, how does location affect your personal style?
NYC is full of inspiration and has certainly served as a major catalyst in the development of my personal style, but of course, it isn’t quite as explicit as that! I think it’s simply an organic process derived from everywhere and everything around you—or at least that’s what I want it to be in the long run! Style representing your interests, way-of-thinking, and mood. That’s all! Sometimes there are explicit references and sometimes not! The one thing that was almost shocking about moving to NYC was how liberating it was. I feel much more free to be myself here than back “home!”
You moved to NYC to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology. What was your main takeaway from fashion school?
I think FIT is better than most schools because you get to jump right into your major-related classes, instead of wasting a year or two more on generals you’ve been studying your entire life. I think being in the city and having access to some great professors and internships definitely shaped who I am and what I want to pursue.
When did you realize you were ready to leave and pursue your own line?
I actually started when I was still in school! I’m really glad I stuck it out for a couple years and got my associate’s. I was planning on completing my BS, but I felt like I was gaining a much more valuable experience from working and building something for myself.
A lot of the materials in the classroom were outdated and my attendance sucked because of meetings and frequent factory visits. I felt that my experience at internships proved more valuable when building the brand than what I learned in school and it seemed like a better idea to put my tuition money toward what I actually wanted to pursue. I took a lot of time to think about my decision and decided it’d be best to put school on hold—at least for now!
How would you describe the aesthetic and direction of STAATSBALLETT?
It’s a bit of a collection by collection basis. We definitely want to remain open to trying our hand at anything—from strictly making clothes for us, to building a character, to making clothes for the future. One thing that I hope will remain constant across all future works is simply drawing from our own lives.
The collection that is out right now is made to fill in holes for our wardrobe combined with our recent tastes, interests, and struggles with school. I like to think it turned out as a grungy corporate school-boy world. In the future, we’ll try to refine our projects both in terms of themes and inputs.
What was the biggest challenge in launching your own company?
For us, navigating production and the manufacturing world has been the trickiest, but manageable! We opted for manufacturing as well as warehousing in New York City because we thought communication and flexibility would be super easy, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case—even after rounds and rounds of interviews and research. Also, it's been a challenge to see the value in taking a step back and realizing that I can’t control everything.
How would you describe the kind of person you design for?
Hmmm I’m not sure we approached our first collection (or if we will approach future collections) with this in mind—but maybe someone honest, or someone who wants an honest garment. This is not to say clothing can’t build some new world or fantasy, but maybe the person we design for wants to represent something other than themselves. That’s a bit of a romantic answer though.
What is your design process from start to finish?
The ideation process is the most fun because it feels like the possibilities are limitless! We take inspiration from just about everywhere as I touched on in regards to style. I’d say the most traceable are of course, movies, music, and events in our lives. Ideas come pretty naturally, but being able to create a finished product is a totally different story. Avery and I usually start by chatting through our ideas and then we take some time to sketch together.
We attend a lot of fabric and trim shows and spend ages flipping through swatch books. After we decide on all the materials and finishes, we work on technical sketches to send through for reference to our patternmakers and factories. Then we go through revisions and fittings, revisions and fittings, revisions and fittings! We usually change our minds too many times until we finally have a final concept!
What advice would you give to someone who is trying to start their own fashion line?
Just start! I think a lot of people are held back by fears that they aren’t ready to create something they’ll be proud of. You don’t have to have a ton of money and you don’t have to create a huge collection. There are so many ways to approach things; maybe focus more heavily on DIY’s to offset financial investment. Research as much as you can and then learn along the way!
What is the most rewarding thing about having your own line?
Throughout my career over the past however many years, you sort of get used to living in a temporary online world. It’s really amazing to create something tangible, something that can outlive me. When we were designing and producing the collection, of course we hoped people would wear it, but actually seeing our customers wear our products and tell us about running into one another is so surreal! I also get to finally have pieces in my wardrobe I’ve wanted for years—and I made them myself!
You’ve worked on quite a few amazing projects in 2017. What are you looking forward to in 2018?
I’m looking forward to doing a lot of traveling, having a bit more free time, and honing in on specific projects that are most dear to me! My lease is up in NYC at the end of April and I’m going to take some time off from the city for a little while. Avery and I most likely will be traveling throughout Europe and Asia as we work on our next collection, source more fabrics (and ideas too I guess!), and hopefully get to work with some awesome brands along the way.
Even more so in the near future: we’re planning a New York retail event for our brand this April! Possibly Friday the thirteenth <3 Stay tuned on social media.