Fashion, A passion from the heart. A Conversation with Matthew Dunne, Founder of Oak73.
Crafting fashion is an art form and great style is one of the most accessible forms of self expression. Throughout history trends have defined generations, from sharp suits in the sixties, to bell bottoms in the seventies, sweatshirts, leggings and angled cuts in the eighties, to khakis and a t-shirt in the nineties, or the infamous Polo shirt; there's been a landmark of wardrobe for each era. Today, self expression is as individual as ever. In fact, never have we seen so many unique style options and talented artists behind them. Technology and a changing landscape, entrepreneurship abundant, like never before-creativity is all around us and to all of our benefit.
One of those very talented designers marching to the beat of his own drum is Matthew Dunne, founder of Oak73, a uniquely fun, responsibly manufactured womenswear line. We caught up with him to gain some insight into his creative process and to learn about the changing landscape of fashion.
What led to the founding of Oak73, was there an “ah ha” moment or was it simply a pure love for design?
Having always been drawn to the world of art and design, I have wanted to start my own fashion brand ever since I was a little boy. That said, it took about ten years of working in the industry at various companies for me to feel like I had the skill set and knowledge to effectively launch a business. The ideal to create a brand rooted in American manufacturing came about from having worked for many designers who produced overseas. In doing so, I saw the inefficiencies with that process and the benefits of on-shoring.
Oak73 - Original. American. Kind. Three unique words that seem to give a great sense of your ethos. Assume I’m a first time discoverer of Oak73, what should those words mean to me?
Original—We manufacture all of our product in smaller quantities using excess remnant materials. When we run out of something, it cannot be remade. In that sense, each piece is truly one of a kind and original.
American—All products are produced between New York and Los Angeles, helping to support the Made in America movement and both garment districts.
Kind—We only work with well- run, quality driven domestic manufacturers who pay fare wages and provide proper working conditions. We have strong personal relationships with each and every one of our factories, many of which are family owned and operated.
Your line evokes a feeling of light heartedness-fun through pattern and colors. It feels very unique and organic. Tell us a little about Oak73’s design style. Is it fun, serious, in-between?
I have always believed that fashion is about having fun expressing oneself so while there is a clear mission that is quite serious, we always maintain a level of cheerfulness. The style is really dictated by prints and novelty fabrics. Each piece is designed to be extremely wearable, functional, comfortable and to fit a wide variety of body types. In selecting materials I try to look for those that are versatile, season-less and appeal to many women, while still being unique.
As a fashion design firm, it seems unique to be one hundred percent Made in America these days. There’s been such a long-standing shift in manufacturing offshore that you are really an outlier in that sense. Is it more challenging to manufacture here at home? Are there any distinct advantages?
There are pros and cons to domestic manufacturing. The positives are the proximity to the factories, the increased level of communication and quality. The disadvantage is really only the cost; it still remains cheaper to produce overseas but only minimally when you factor in shipping and duties. Regardless, as an American designer with an American consumer base, I feel a certain sense of responsibility to working with local manufacturers, ultimately supporting our economy and creating jobs.
"We are seeing a lot more transparency when it comes to manufacturing which hopefully will continue to grow. It is extremely important that we know where what we buy comes from and how doing so impacts other individuals."
You’ve enjoyed great experience with some very well know brands, how has that experience helped you in founding your own brand?
Tremendously. Not only did I learn about fashion construction, design and production, but about launching a brand and the importance of creating a strong identity. I’ve had the privilege to work with some incredibly talented people, many of which now serve as consultants or advisers for Oak73.
What inspires you in each upcoming design, do you have a specific creative process you follow?
I am mainly inspired by the women in my life. I have so many girlfriends and family members with great style I really admire and so ultimately I created the collection for them. They are a diverse group of individuals and so I try to make pieces that satisfy each and every one of them.
Mickey Drexler once said that while at Anne Taylor, Jackie Kennedy was his muse in envisioning their customer’s ideal look. Would Jackie like it, was the way he put it. Is there anyone that comes to mind for Oak73, if "__________" liked it, would it put a smile on your face?
Mainly my sister. We have very similar tastes and she is, not surprisingly, my biggest customer!
It’s very unique that you welcome customer feedback and incorporate their tastes into future designs. Explain how you began that practice and how it has helped Oak73’s aesthetic evolve?
Whenever I am stuck deciding between fabrics and prints I always use social media as a way of getting instant feedback. I will post different options asking for comments, whether our followers like or dislike something, what style they see the fabric being used in, etc. They are extremely active and always helpful.
Which piece of clothing have you personally owned the longest, and what keeps it around for so long? And in comparison, what is the worst item you have ever come across, what item has absolutely no place in a wardrobe?
I have about 5 t-shirts of my dad’s from the 70’s that I have had for my entire life. They have great typography and are so incredibly comfortable after years of wearing. Of course, they always provide me with a sense of warmth being family heirlooms.
If you could design one item that is a totally new experience for you, very much outside of your comfort zone or not specific to fashion, what would it be?
I’d love to design some type of interior. I think it would be extremely challenging but fun to translate my aesthetic into a space.
Where do you see the fashion industry going, will we see more independent designers emerging-selling directly to their customers?
I certainly hope so! I think we are in a very interesting and challenging time in the fashion industry with the rise of the Internet and mass stores that are able to churn out product almost immediately. It certainly makes it difficult for smaller designers to keep up but I do believe there is always room for quality and innovation. Also, we are seeing a lot more transparency when it comes to manufacturing which hopefully will continue to grow. It is extremely important that we know where what we buy comes from and how doing so impacts other individuals.
How do you see Oak73 evolving in the near or not so near future? Any collaborations or new categories in the works?
We are constantly growing our product assortment adding more styles. We are really focusing on building our collection of printed silk items. Also, we have gotten a tremendous demand from boutiques to sell our products so we are slowly beginning to do that. Eventually, I would love to branch out into home goods and menswear.
Any advice to anyone pursuing a career in design, any lessons you’ve learned on your own journey that you’d like to share?
Do a lot of research before starting. I spent almost a year working with a business consultant sourcing every aspect of my business and there were still surprises. When I started working with my business consultant he told me that when things were up and running, every day there would be a ring to jump through and on some days a ring of fire. This has turned out to be incredibly accurate and has taught me to roll with the punches.
Ultimately, while it may be cliché, if there is passion and drive, you can make it happen.
Fun, Unique, American Made Designer Womenswear.