Last year was a big one for Minneapolis fashion designer Samantha Rei: She was named one of City Pages’ Artists of the Year, debuted two great collections under her namesake label, and published her first book, a history of steampunk fashion. And by the looks of it, 2016 is also shaping up to be pretty solid.
She kicked the new year off by moving out of her home studio into a new space in the North Loop. Later this year, she plans to revive her menswear line, Marching Achilles, which she discontinued back in 2006, and in March she hopes to bring her fall 2016 women’s collection to Vancouver Fashion Week. She was recently tapped by Minneapolis’ Sandbox Theatre to create costumes for their upcoming original production, Queens, running May 19 to June 4 at the Park Square Theatre. It’s about a 1915-era, African-American boxer “fighting for his place in the world of Jim Crow”—an era and theme that Rei was particularly inspired by. Her spring 2016 collection, “Ruby Opal Pearl,” was inspired by her own African-American family history. She’s also is in talks to pen another book, this time on the history of street style.
When I stopped by her studio last weekend, the designer was already hard at work on her fall 2016 womenswear collection. A bust form in the corner is pinned in muslin outlining the shape of a tent dress from the collection, and her drafting table is neatly arranged with tools of the trade, including a sketchbook featuring renderings of the line. The sketches feature architectural silhouettes, a stark palette of black and white, and avant-garde touches. The muted palette will provide the canvas for fabric manipulation, embroidery, and beadwork throughout the collection.
“It’s a study on my mental health over the last 16 months,” she told me via email before my visit to her studio. “It’s dark and monochromatic.”
When I asked if she could expand on the mental-health theme behind the collection, she was understandably hesitant.
“I’ve been really torn about whether I should talk about it,” she says, fearing being pigeonholed or not taken seriously. “But this is my therapy collection.” While she was conceiving the collection, she says, “I was thinking about this thing my dad used to say when we were little: ‘It takes strength to cry.’ A lot of people view it as a weak thing, but my dad really tried to make us realize in letting go and showing this part of yourself that’s considered weak.”
Referring to one of her sketches, which features an angular black shape that juts from the neckline, she says, “You know when you’re feeling insecure, and you feel it right here”—motioning to her sternum—”and it feels heavy, like cement.”
She shows me a ream of black patterned fabric she’s planning to incorporate into the collection that featured Victorian-esque, tactile swirls of pony hair against vegan leather. “It sort of reminds me of inkblots, which goes well with the [mental health inspiration behind the] collection,” she says.
This Sunday, Rei hosts an open house and sample sale featuring discounts on previous season runway samples (and the chance to put in your orders for her Spring 2016 collection) at her new North Loop studio (3-7 p.m. Sun., 707 N. Third St., #202A, Minneapolis). To learn more, visit samantharei.com. Tickets for Sandbox Theatre’s Queens are on sale now at sandboxtheatreonline.com.
Samantha Rei’s new North Loop studio
Samples by Samantha Rei for sale at this weekend’s sale