I grabbed a coffee in Georgetown early one Saturday morning. On my way home I wandered by a nondescript building with a big logo that I recognized. Prairie Underground is a brand that has been in Seattle more than a decade. Their website states that their clothes are cut from organic, sustainable, and conventional fabrics in the most delightfully muddy hues... However, Once Inside the front door of a rather bland building, the lobby was wash with color, sculpture, and art.
I met with one of the original founders, Davora Lindner. Davora was busy setting up for the monthly Art Walk that would be happening that evening. She welcomed me in with a smile. The lobby opened up to sculptures, bolts of colorful fabrics and textiles, and a rainbow of beautiful clothing hanging from racks in the front room. A window over Davora’s shoulder peered through the lobby into the (currently quiet) manufacturing floor. Davora motioned me to follow to the break room where she could get her morning coffee and we could begin the interview
How did you guys end up in Seattle?
We came to Seattle in 2004 to start the company. My business partner, Camilla Eckersley and her husband were looking to buy a home and start a family. She knew that manufacturing was happening in the pacific northwest and it was a much more viable option than NY, LA or San Francisco (where she was living at the time).
So you both moved to Seattle to start your company?
Camilla felt it was time to start something on her own. We had been friends since high school. I was currently in a fellowship period and was transitioning from a role as a fine artist. I knew that Camilla was brilliant and I was really feeling that anything we would do together would be successful. I really admire her and felt that it would work.
A lot of startups were happening at that time... where did you see yourself?
Things were exploding and it kind of created this giant market. It has evolved a great deal over the years. That sort of, better price point, still exists and that is where we kind of live... between the prêt-à-porter and the boutique designer. Mass fashion has begun to catch that energy that was once only a part of independent design. It is being consumed and copied and adapted really quickly, so it’s a very different market today. I find it quite interesting.
I feel like Seattle is growing in an interesting way within the Fashion market. I’d like to know what was your experience with the Seattle market as you came up here to start your company?
When we arrived there weren’t many independent designers here that were manufacturing locally...the manufacturing industry locally was kind of dying off. There was a huge amount of apparel manufacturing in the Pacific Northwest up into the 90s. Actually 60% of all US made garments were made in the Pacific Northwest...
Wow - I didn’t realize that…
Yeah there was a real tradition of apparel manufacturing that was diverted overseas. So a lot of the sewing contractors that we engaged were kind of closing down shop while we were starting up. They were a bit skeptical of us. They had these large shops that were relatively unused with older machines kind of pushed off in the back of their warehouse...
That has changed a little bit but there are still elements of that today. Like in terms of trying to invigorate our local production and manufacturing, which has always been our major interest. We feel that it is a viable model and we should be able to compete. We really work in earnest for this idea that we are still a manufacturing region in a country that is capable of manufacturing. This is part of our core values.
How did you stand out in the beginning?
We were one of the few independent designers at the time that were consistently producing collections. Our perspective of the local scene was people who we saw at sewing contractors. If you were doing it another way...we didn’t know about you.
However, now there are a lot of really talented designers that are scaling their business in a different way...knowing that they can do something that is small where their production is sewn in house - This is really possible.
Yeah I am beginning to see that too.
There is not only one concept of how to function as a designer. Frankly I think that small and unique content and relationships may be the future. There weren’t a lot of these types of designers around in Seattle when we arrived but now there are a lot of them and I think it’s really exciting.
So does it feel like they are setting out to create an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and test their line to see what does well?
I definitely think that is a road that a lot of people take. However, Prairie underground is more of a manufacturing culture. We are - focused on specific fit and patterning. A test for us is usually larger and spread over a couple regions with the hope that it will gain enough traction to repeat the style again in greater quantities.
That brings me to great point. What is the current driving inspiring of your collection?
The market that we are in sort of responds to greater trends in fashion. We are not necessarily in the role of creating those trends. We are, however, beholden to think like inventors for our products to take off and capture the interest and the imagination of our customer to the point that they identify with it and share it with other people. Women tend to form a very passionate bond with what we create. I think it partially began with our sense of color and fit, that was very unique when we entered the market. Today, I don’t feel like we are in a moment where people want to be identified by their clothing. Instead, I feel people use clothing to accentuate who they are as individuals.
So Prairie Underground is much more about Fit and comfort?
We are definitely inspired by fit. Our patterns are really exquisite and fit really well. We really want to have dynamic fits to garments. We don’t believe you can approach design and fit as if our customer is only one woman or one body type.
We are also excited about fabrication and color. When we started out we were more focused on neutral patterns. Now we are finding ourselves working with more color, texture and yarn dye fibers. We are more finding ways to connect with our idiosyncrasies and make our brand connect more uniquely to us. We produce 30-35 garments a season and we do that four times a year.
That’s a productive season. I love the variety of tones and colors ...how do you approach color?
We work in a lot of organic fabrics and that really impacts the array of colors we deal with. Often with organics they won’t be bleached out or have chemical stabilizers so they still retain the natural color of the fiber. When you add color to the garment, you are always going to have a tonality that has shifted. We play with that sometimes too. There is definitely a certain tonal rage in our spectrum. The variation in tonality is part of what makes our garments so compelling. You could conceivably create a wardrobe based on a certain color and have many variants due to the variety of textiles.
What do you see moving forward that you are excited about as a brand?
I think we are in a very new space - Dead-stock textiles are something we have been exploring. They allow us to innovate with color and fibers we have not worked with before. Novel constructions that are really an entirely different animal. It allows us to offer a greater range of apparel. It helps us think of ourselves as more of a full collection, as opposed to a boutique collection.
We are also becoming more finessed at doing smaller runs for styles that are really unique. Styles that we have a real passion about and that show the skill and vision of our company yet are still able provide income.
What influences your design process?
We are passionate about working with the local creative community and remain a platform for artists ideas and vision. That is the backbone of our gallery and boutique space. When people visit they immediately learn about our values and aesthetic. Maintaining a gallery in our space is important to me. I’m influenced by art all the time. It’s at the core of my being.
Well, thank you so much, Davora, for your time. It’s an honor to have met you and heard your story. I look forward to seeing your collection continue to evolve. I will definitely be at the next art walk.
To see more of Prairie Underground product line, please come down to Clementines in Seattle’s beautiful & historic Pioneer Square. Make a day of it, grab lunch, tour the art galleries nearby.