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November 23, 2017
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New York City Sketch. Source: Adimono.deviantart.com.

A growing number of New York City-based fashion designers have been resettling in rural towns further upstate and carrying on with their work from afar. The transition has been eased by continual technological advances that are allowing designers to remain tied to the inspiration and financial markets that ultimately drive their careers forward.

As someone who grew up very far upstate in New York, I was curious to find out how former New York City-based designers are operating in their new settings and how they're impacting and being impacted by their new communities.

Eileen Fisher Designer

Eileen Fisher with her design team. 
Source: dailyviolets.blogspot.com.

The Hudson River seems to serve as the line of economic demarcation. To the east, more affluent towns make up Westchester County. Designer Eileen Fisher resides here, as do a number of her team members who operate out of the company's Irvington office.

To the west, the landscape paints a more depressed picture. Many old stone houses and former farms have been on the market for years, calling for someone to re-inhabit and renovate them.

April Uchitel who has worked in the fashion industry for about 25 years and now resides upstate explains, "The country[side] gives you a true point of differentiation. It's not a cul-de-sac suburban environment. The rural-ness and space is definitely appealing and taking over these old farms and stone houses is also compelling versus a new construction situation. To then be able to [be] a little more rustic, a little bit more hands on."

For the sake of intrigue and exploring an "off-the-beaten-path" approach to moving upstate, I focused on designers who have settled west of the river. My initial inspiration to delve further into this phenomenon came from Ambika Conroy and Laura Sansone. Conroy is a young fashion designer known for her angora hand-knit designs, especially bikinis, which have appeared in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue. She lives about two-and-a-half hours outside of New York City and has set up shop in an old farmhouse. She and her partner rent out spare rooms on Airbnb, partner with the Textile Arts Center to host educational getaways and practice animal husbandry.

Conroy shears, spins and knits the fleece from her angora rabbits into couture garments and accessories, creating a closed loop system of which she is highly in control. She makes regular business trips into the city, but enjoys living in the country where she has the space to raise animals, is mostly self-sufficient, and can live a relatively low-impact lifestyle.

Similarly, Sansone resides in Plattekill, New York and raises several goats. She and her architect partner, Christopher Otterbine, live in a house designed and built over the course of several years by Otterbine and his students.

Sansone enjoys the perks of a large, sunny studio surrounded by a variety of native plants which she uses to make dyes and regularly draws on the knowledge of her neighbours. She makes trips to New York City at least three times a week to teach at The New School and can often be found at NYC Greenmarkets with her students mixing boiling urns of natural dyes made from seasonal produce and flower scraps sourced from market stalls. 

[Conroy] enjoys living in the country where she has the space to raise animals, is mostly self-sufficient, and can live a relatively low-impact lifestyle.

I had the opportunity to visit Sansone several years ago and have remained inspired by the tour she gave me of her personal workspace and the local resources she relies on in and around her community. One common complaint from upstate residents is that the city is an economic drain that often overlooks the important contributions made by the rest of the state, such as agricultural production. Both Sansone and Conroy are working to reverse this trend by highlighting the value of the resources that upstate New York has to offer.

Sansone takes part in local knitting circles and took me to the Hudson Valley Sheep and Wool Company where we met founder, Mary Godesky. Conroy is doing her part as well by organising trips to bring New York City-based designers upstate to tour local farms and mills that could provide raw material, such as wool, for their designs. 

Although both Sansone and Conroy are very much dedicated to living a more rural life, they are far from Pollyanna-like characters. They know the harsh realities of the fashion industry and have chosen to set their own rules. But they also understand that staying in the game, even if it's in their own way, means maintaining strong connections to the city while sharing their upstate findings in ways that could potentially start to shift people's outlooks.

Wanting to learn more about why designers choose to relocate to more rural settings, I asked Conroy for leads to others who are also operating from afar. My inquiry unveiled a network of people in the fashion industry who have made the move, some more recently than others, and surprisingly, many had never met outside of the city. However, their initial motivation was often driven by a similar factor: children. Additionally, almost all expressed the important role technology has played in making it possible to still have an impact on the fashion world without being in the city full-time.

Fashion designer Ryan Roche moved to an old dairy farm with 12-acres of land in Hurley, New York five years ago with her family, which now includes three children. In her former Williamsburg life, she was the proprietor of children's store, Mor Mor Rita, and developed a children's line for the better part of a decade, which she continued on a wholesale basis after moving. She currently designs a womenswear line under her name, Ryan Roche, which is now in its fifth season.

laura sansone textiles ecouterre
Laura Sansone. Source: Ecouterre.com.

While occasional visits to the city remain important to her business, Roche explains, "With technology and the internet and computers, I don't think I could have functioned so smoothly as a fashion designer and been current and up to date in the same way I am now if times were different. I come into my studio and it's peaceful and quiet and I can see everything that's going on that day, anywhere I want and I think that, that's an amazing luxury that exists now that allows people to function outside the city in a productive way. I never feel like I'm missing anything."

Unlike Conroy, Roche sources most of the material for her knits internationally. She has an eight-year relationship with a women's cooperative in Nepal and continues to have her cashmere knits made there. However, the latest addition to her line features hats made in collaboration with a milliner she stumbled upon upstate.

Finding such sources when working outside of the big city is not easy as many people still operate in a "cottage industry" manner and don't market themselves publicly. "Everything's so spread out that at first you don't realise. It takes a minute to discover and then you realise that it's such a small world, that there are so many like-minded creative people up here," explains Roche.

Roche directed me to Uchitel who also works in the fashion world and lives in Hurley with her husband, fashion photographer Diego Uchitel, and their two children. The former Executive Vice President of Global Sales and Strategy at Diane Von Furstenberg for over nine years, Uchitel now finds herself living full-time in what she previously considered her weekend home.

Transitioning from a "weekender," a term used to describe New York City residents who have a second home upstate where they spend weekends, to a full-time resident was a bit of a transition for Uchitel, further noting, "Having been in the industry for 25 years, I don't think I could've done this 10 years ago, just in terms of experience and relationships." 

Uchitel continues to work as an independent consultant for brands such as Rachel Zoe and Tucker by Gaby Basora, serves on advisory boards for digital platforms and fashion marketplace brands and mentors two designers from the CFDA Incubator Program. However, for the most part, she is able to do her work from anywhere. "The quality of work I do isn't impacted by what desk I do it from," Uchitel explains. "No one even really asks me. I volunteer the information because I think it's part of my life choice and it goes towards my own integrity in a way. It adds a different layer of intrigue and interest." 

The two women [Uchitel and Roche] are far from isolated. They continue to have blossoming careers and may actually be more productive and able to offer a different perspective to the fashion industry.

Of course being two hours from the city allows Uchitel the flexibility to tap into the energy and frenzy of the city in person for important events such as New York Fashion Week. The distance also changes the way time passes and allows for more focus. She has a lot of space on her 78-acre property with streams and a waterfall and when she does make trips into the city, she is now able to selectively appreciate aspects of it that she never paid attention to when living there.

Jewellery designer Allison Nowlin Ward of Madame Fortuna who also recently re-located upstate, describes her interaction with the city in a similar manner. On her weekly Friday trips, she notes, "As I get closer to the city, I get excited. I park in my old neighbourhood, jump on the train and then spend a day surrounded by beautiful things and hope to have some interesting exchanges." 

Although Uchitel and Roche's moves were largely driven by lifestyle choices, the two women are far from isolated. They continue to have blossoming careers and may actually be more productive and able to offer a different perspective to the fashion industry.

"Ryan's been up here a lot longer… She's built a great workspace up here and her line is in a showroom," explains Uchitel. "Other than meetings here and there, she can do all her creative from up here while still dealing with factories and everyone else. It's all about staying connected." 

Some may be surprised to find out how many talented creatives are increasingly calling upstate New York their full-time home. With the prospects of running into the likes of Gisele, Carolyn Murphy, Natalie Merchant, fashion designer Zaida Adriana Goveo Balmaseda or David Bowie at the grocery store, perhaps making the move would be less isolating than it initially seems. And unless you go significantly far upstate, the city remains in close proximity and can be easily accessed in a day trip when need be. The majority of time, the Internet and having a little extra space seem to works wonders.

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