Keeping It Quilted: Carleen

Founded in 2012 by Kelsy Parkhouse, Carleen has become one of my favorite emerging womenswear collections ever since I discovered the brand a couple of years ago through another love of mine, the always wonderful Natalie Joos. Since then, Parkhouse has been slowly growing her offerings each season, yet she’s still managed to continue featuring the beautiful one-of-a-kind vintage quilts in her work that I’ve come to vaguely obsess over every time I see them in person. I stopped by for a studio visit, and honestly couldn’t help but swoon over the details like a kid in a candy shop (they are truly of another world), so here they are in all their glory. Enjoy!

Q / Hi Kelsy! How do you usually start your day? Any routine that gets you up?
A / I got a puppy named Poppy back in April and now she’s my alarm clock…she doesn’t let me get away with sleeping much past seven and I have to take her around the block right away. Then I need some tea and breakfast and I’m good to go.

Q / Do you have a daily uniform?
A / No, I have trusty standbys and get lazy from time to time, but usually maintain some variety. Though if I hit on an outfit I’m really into, I’m not afraid to wear it three days in a row!

Q / Is there anything you carry with you every day?
A / I just like to be prepared for anything. Usually that means a book and a notebook in addition to the usual (phone, wallet, keys) essentials.

“I just like to be prepared for anything.”

Q / Is there a time of day that you feel most productive? Anything specific that helps keep you focused?
A / I wish I had this more figured out actually. I work best under pressure, and it can be hard to create that sense of urgency when you’re managing yourself. Getting a studio outside of my apartment has been a game changer and really helps me focus.

Q / What is your favorite place to work?
A / I bounce around between my apartment, studio, showroom, garment district, and day job. I love having that variety in my day-to-day life but ultimately it’s a tie between my studio and my apartment. Answering emails and working on photoshop is a lot more pleasant sitting on my couch with Poppy at my feet, but I love pattern-making and spreading out in my studio just as much.

Q / How do you try to balance your time?
A / I work most of the time and am not very good at balance. I’m trying to build something now that will let me have flexibility in my future, and that’s something I’m willing to work for. That being said, a little exercise or a glass of wine with a friend goes a long way towards avoiding burnout.

“I’m trying to build something now that will let me have flexibility in my future, and that’s something I’m willing to work for.”

Q / Do you find lists helpful? How do you keep yourself organized with all the projects you have going on?
A / Yes! I’m trying to make it more of a daily practice. Sometimes I think I don’t need one, but it’s always better when I take the time to write things out. Having interns also helps me stay organized. I’m so grateful for the help and always want to maximize the time they give me, so I really plan out those days.

Q / What is something you are good at? Something you struggle with?
A / Apparently, telling people something I’m good at is something I struggle with….

Q / What do you enjoy most about your career? What are the most challenging things about it?
A / I love creating something that’s all mine, problem solving, and making beautiful things. There are certain areas where I wish I had more knowledge or resources. For example, I find fabric sourcing challenging, and it would be a lot easier if I was working at a higher volume, but it’s also pushed me to use unconventional, repurposed materials, which is now a cornerstone of my brand.

Q / Is there anything you will never take seriously in terms of your work?
A / I tend to take most things somewhat seriously, but I was pushing an old guy in the garment district to rush something once and he looked at me very carefully and said, “Will someone die if I don’t finish this before Friday? No. I will do my best.” It’s a good attitude to have.

“I love creating something that’s all mine, problem solving, and making beautiful things.”

Q / Something that’s very important to you in you work?
A / It’s very important for me to produce domestically as much as possible (so far in my career Carleen has been produced 100% in NYC). I want to actually see where my clothing is being made, catch problems early in the process, and support domestic jobs.

Q / Where do you go to be quiet and think?
A / If anything, I probably spend too much time thinking by myself. One of my favorite small pleasures is getting a seat on the subway armed with a good book.

Q / How does your home influence the kind and quality of work you produce?
A / I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn that my home is very full, sometimes to the point of clutter. I am not a minimalist, I like being surrounded by things. I think it influences my work in the same way that I usually skip the first blank page in a notebook…a totally blank slate is too much pressure for me.

“…a totally blank slate is too much pressure for me.”

Q / Do you keep any collections? If so, how do they influence you creatively?
A / Ha! I have so many collections, I am a total hoarder. It’s nice to have tangible things to draw on and not just be tied to the internet all the time. I collect swatches and scraps of paper, random ephemera, books…all sorts of things. I also have some very specific collections: boxes covered in seashells, vintage ceramic mermaids that hang on the wall, things with the american flag on them…

Q / Where did you grow up and what led you to your current home. How would you say these places shaped your perception of work?
A / I grew up in Long Beach, California. I loved it but as soon as it was time to think about college I knew I wanted to go to the east coast. My favorite aunt lives outside of the city and I loved visiting her, I loved all the hustle of New York. I’ve lived in New York for over ten years now and both places influence me tremendously. It’s a strange combination of California mellow and New York hustle.

Q / What is your first memory of work? Of success? Of failure?
A / I was self-employed for my very first job…I taught swim lessons out of my mom’s backyard pool for at least three summers in a row. It’s still one of the best jobs I’ve ever had! My thesis fashion show at Pratt and the accompanying recognition felt like a huge success. I don’t think anything has been a total failure, but there was one season that I was really proud of that didn’t do very well at wholesale. It was extremely disappointing but I definitely learned from it used it to fuel improvements!

“It’s nice to have tangible things to draw on and not just be tied to the internet all the time.”

Q / How would you define beauty and what part does it play in your work?
A / This is a hard one. Color and light are both really important to me. So is function. Things that are truly beautiful to me are usually useful as well. It’s one of the reasons I love working with denim and repurposed vintage quilts so much.

Q / Does social media factor into your work at all? Is there anything you find problematic about it?
A / It’s something I’ve really come to embrace. I used to feel more like, “If I just keep my head down and make good work, that’ll be enough…someone will recognize it,” but I don’t feel that way anymore. You have to put yourself out there, and social media is the easiest (and most fun) way to do it. I definitely enjoy Instagram, I wish it wasn’t such a time suck though!

Q / Do you use the internet on vacation or do you prefer to completely disconnect?
A / A little bit of both, really. It’s nice to disconnect and I’m pretty good for up to a day at a time, but after that I start to get twitchy. I’m a one woman business, so there’s no one to handle things if I totally unplug. It feels better to check in every once and a while and make sure nothing urgent has come up, then I have the peace of mind to relax again.

Q / Is there anything in particular that you do to take care of yourself and relax?
A / The past few summers I’ve really committed to lap swimming at the Mc Carren pool and I find it really meditative and restorative. My off-season alternatives are yoga and dog-walking. I do best when my relaxation involves at least a little bit of activity.

“Color and light are both really important to me. So is function. Things that are truly beautiful to me are usually useful as well.”

Q / Was there any particular person who helped shape your career in formative way?
A / I couldn’t really call out a single transformative person, but so many people have been influences and mentors in small and large ways – I seek advice often. Growing up, my high school art teacher really pushed me creatively, and my aunt was always a fashionable inspiration every time she visited. When I graduated from Pratt, my department was really supportive and helped me catch the eye of Meredith Melling (who was at Vogue at the time) and Cathy Horyn (who was at The New York Times). Their words of praise and encouragement really made me believe this was something I could do.

Q / How did your parents feel about your career path? Does anyone in your family work in the same industry?
A / My family is incredibly supportive in every way, and has encouraged me to keep going even when I start to have doubts. Their faith in me is extremely heartening. My aunt spent a lot of time in the fashion industry in various capacities and it helped make it all seem a little more familiar and less foreign. I understood some of the mechanics going into it, and of course she loves supporting me now.

Q / What’s the worst job you’ve ever had? The funniest?
A / I don’t think I’ve ever had any horrible jobs. I’ve spent a little more time working retail than I really care to, but it’s always been with really awesome small businesses and they tend to have pretty great customer bases. I’ve never done the corporate chain thing, and for that I am grateful. Teaching swim lessons wasn’t exactly funny, but I got to wear a bathing suit to work everyday and commute for approximately 30 seconds, so it was pretty great. It’s the sort of first job that seems exceptionally normal when you grow up in southern California, but not so much anywhere else.

“I couldn’t really call out a single transformative person, but so many people have been influences and mentors in small and large ways – I seek advice often.”

Q / In what capacity do you work with other people?
A / My career is pretty solitary right now, and it has its perks but it’s not my favorite. I miss having people to bounce ideas off of and having the accountability of teamwork to keep me on task. I rely a lot on my boyfriend, my showroom, and my photographer to contradict that feeling of creating and working in a vacuum. They’re really great at stepping in as collaborators in a pinch.

Q / What is the most fulfilling part of your job?
A / I love making clothes that people feel great about themselves in. It hasn’t actually happened yet, but I am looking forward to the day when I pass a stranger on the street and they’re wearing something I designed, that seems like the biggest thrill.  I also love shooting the lookbooks, it’s always really wonderful when a season’s worth of work comes together and I get to work with a team to bring it to life. I usually run an all-girls set, and it’s a really fun day.

Q / How does your work affect the rest of your life?
A / Work…is my life? 🙂 I have a lot of flexibility, which I really value, but I don’t usually have much cash on hand – everything goes into the business. I’ve made or even just solidified some really great friendships through my work. I spend most of my time working, so I try to only work with people I really like!

“It hasn’t actually happened yet, but I am looking forward to the day when I pass a stranger on the street and they’re wearing something I designed, that seems like the biggest thrill.”

Q / What has been your proudest career moment thus far?
A / Getting featured in a Vogue editorial is something you dream of happening…and it came true! Less glamorous but equally important: I feel like I’m getting better at setting (realistic) goals and sometimes achieving them. It’s not something most people besides me know about but it feels really good.

Q / What are you looking forward to this year?
A / Some of my very best friends are getting married in the next few months, and I am looking forward to dancing at their weddings and seeing a bunch of old friends. I’m also looking forward to my puppy being more than a year old. Maybe if I’m lucky she’ll let me sleep in sometimes.

“I feel like I’m getting better at setting (realistic) goals and sometimes achieving them.”

Q / Lastly, some of your favorite people, places, and things that we should discover too?
A / 1. Lenny Letter – if you haven’t already signed up, get on it. All of the reading is in the body of the email (no links) so it’s ideal for subway reading (if I haven’t already finished it at breakfast).

2. I’m really enjoying this pin trend that’s happening. On a recent trip home I found some I’ve had since High School, and even Hillary Clinton has gotten on board.

3. I just made this healthy/hearty “salad” (originally via everyone’s favorite, Smitten Kitchen) and I feel like it’s going to be a staple all winter.

4. I tried to visit The Broad the last time I was in LA, but it was all booked up. I’m going to prepare in advance next time.

5. Ashley Sophia Clark’s Instagram feed.

6. Morgan Rachel Levy (who shoots all of my lookbooks) recently shot a story about Roxaboxen Park, reminding me of one of my very favorite books from my childhood.

5. Also via a deep dive on Instagram, I discovered the concept of wearing a specific scent for a specific event (in this case, a wedding) and then using it to evoke that event again years later. So lovely.

6. My dogs. Nellie lives in California with my mom, and Poppy lives with me here.

7. Los Hermanos. I never ate any good Mexican food in New York until I moved to Bushwick.

8. Also about tacos: Tacoway Beach (formerly Rockaway Taco) makes the best fish taco I’ve ever had in my life. This is basically heresy coming from a native Californian.

Interview & Photography
Catherine Litke

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