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Conner Ives Designs Kitschy Americana Clothes That Are Made to Last

Aug 14, 2023

Conner Ives has been interested in fashion since he could speak. "I was always hanging out in my mom's closet, or commenting on what people were wearing," he says. Fame came in 2017, at the age of 21, when supermodel Adwoa Aboah went to the Met Gala wearing a custom dress he had designed—a swanlike ivory gown made of upcycled vintage pieces. Now his work is featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute's permanent collection. "As a kid, I would go to the fashion exhibit every summer," he says. "To know I have pieces I made myself in one of the greatest fashion archives in the world? No words."

Ives, now 27, is a leader in the slow fashion movement—a response to the current era of disposable clothes, which often feel made to be worn once for TikTok and then discarded. Although his clothes have an element of American kitsch—Budweiser t-shirts, Florida Gators sweatshirts and dresses patch-worked with different patterned fabrics—they are made without the mass production that's become ubiquitous with American fashion. Instead, he designs his clothes to be produced in small batches at high quality and with a luxurious feel—and he intends them to last.

Rather than pushing out several collections throughout the year, Ives's eponymous label issues just one annually. He ensures that 75 percent of his brand's products are made from vintage clothing, fabrics, recycled material and dead-stock fabric. This recycling takes four times the labor of a traditional cut and sew business, because the fabric must be repaired and refashioned, but it's central to Ives' brand.

Sustainability has been a priority with Ives ever since he was a 16-year-old intern in New York's garment district, when he saw factories with dumpsters full of discarded fabric. "I started to realize the massive problem our industry has with waste," he says. "It was quite disheartening, especially at a point in my life where everything was so magical, exciting and new."

The clothes in his 2021 collection, "The American Dream," tell stories about female archetypes he saw growing up. For instance, "The LA Crystal Girl" look, which features a beaded, glittery halter-neck dress, embodies the revival of New Age practices in the 21st century. And "the 9-5 Working Girl" ensemble, a polychrome knit set, exemplifies a matriarchal breadwinner, middle-aged, "probably in therapy." In 2022, Ives took inspiration from another female archetype, designing a Cruella de Vil-style dress that Dua Lipa wore for her cover story in Vogue magazine. His latest collection draws from influences of Kate Moss and The Parent Trap character Elizabeth James, in a continuation of Ives' preoccupation with American pop culture. "Maybe that is a kind of patriotism, but I see it as a new patriotism that champions everybody."

Ives is painfully aware of the fashion industry's flaws: the destination shows, the constant production circuit, the relentless need for newer, cooler clothes. "As an active participant in it, I often feel jaded," he says. The pressure the industry puts on creators churning out three to four collections a year, which encourage speed and novelty over his style of thought-out, high-quality pieces, can sometimes feel insulting to his craft. He believes real luxury doesn't come from swapping out clothes every few months but valuing fewer, timeless pieces. He'd hoped that after the disruption of the pandemic, the fashion world would slow its pace. "Yet here we all are again, doing the same thing we were doing before all of this," he says. Still, he is hopeful that people will eventually come to appreciate the value of their clothing and see the beauty in mending, re-wearing and recycling.

What sustains Ives through the troubles of the fashion industry and a world of rising temperatures is the inspiration he draws from the process of creating. "I truly would go mad without it," he says. "There is something so magical about making an idea a reality." (His latest ideas will be on display in September, when he shows his Spring/Summer 2024 collection for the first time.) He always tries to keep uppermost in mind the memory of his 10-year-old self, flipping through glossy magazines and dreaming about a life making clothes.

Correction, 8/21/2023, 9:30 a.m. ET: This article was updated to correct the spelling of Conner Ives' name.