Samantha Rei Crossland has had a busy winter. Between presenting at the Minnesota Fashion Awards, debuting her new evening wear collection, holding her first solo show in years and being named Artist of the Year by some other paper, she's also kept her hands full juggling some less lauded endeavors. She's mentored aspiring young designers, served as a cross-cultural fashion ambassador, taken on a slew interns, and prepped for her part in this weekend's Red Dress Collection. With all that on her docket, though, she still found time to answer a few questions for Vita.mn:
At first, before you were formally trained in fashion, you were working as a sort of outsider artist. What made you go back to school for your degree later?
I went back to college when I was about 25. I had gone to art school for illustration right out of high school, but after about a semester realized that it was the wrong choice.
Why was it the wrong choice?
I realized that even though I wanted to be an illustrator, there wasn't really much more I could learn from school that I couldn't just learn through practicing myself. It was an expensive endeavor and I got burned out pretty quickly.
So you went back later to focus on design?
I went back, honestly, to be able to say I went to school. Back then, a lot of people didn't seem to take me seriously because I was self taught. Being able to say I'd gone to school helped a bit. In the end it was the right choice because I really did learn a lot.
I always tell me interns that the moment your stop learning is the moment you're doing it wrong. And I'm also I glad I went to tech school; I feel like MCTC has a really good focus on technique and construction, and while that had always been one of my strong suits, it only got better with knowledge.
Early on, you were focusing on lolita/gothic lolita, but your focus has shifted a bit.
My focus now is my same feminine and dreamy aesthetic, this time without labels. I feel more free in my designs without having to adhere to a set of rigid rules. I started moving away from Lolita fashion around 2013. While I still love the fashion, I stopped liking the scene. There is a really terrible culture of bullying that I just couldn't deal with anymore.
So many girls just want to wear pretty dresses and "mean girls" will take out these terrible terror campaigns against them until the victim leaves the scene. It's terrible and I want no part of it. I still incorporate a lot of what I love about the style into my own designs, but being free of the label gives me a chance to be more creative.
Has leaving the lolita scene gotten you away from a lot of the meanness you experienced there, and are there other issues that carry over into the broader fashion world?
Absolutely. The people I was friends with in the scene, I'm still friends with, and I still like the aesthetic. Now I don't have to deal with the bullying hands on. As far as the fashion and modeling world, it's mostly been better. There is a lot of drama in the alternative fashion world because it's a much smaller scene, so now that I'm not really in that scene anymore it's a bit easier. The only problem really, and it might just be the Midwest, is sometimes people have a tendency to be passive-aggressive or nice to your face, but not behind your back. But, for sure, it's way less obvious and a lot easier to deal with.
(Samantha Rei Crossland, right, posing with model Zoë Loviise, center, and intern Mason Santos, left, at the Black Pearl Lounge show in February.)
What specific traits do you look for in a model?
The first thing I look for is someone who looks approachable. I want them to look like they are pretty second. (As in they are nice first and just happen to be pretty.) I want the kind of girl that would be friends with anybody, who is not too stuck up to be friends with someone who might not be commercially cool. I like to choose girls that look like they would wear my clothes in real life. When I cast my own models, I have a specific look in mind and it's usually the face first and the body second. My most recent collection has models ranging between a size two and a size 12, with high school age to adult, because I chose girls that looked like they might actually want to hang out with each other.
I've worked with tall models and short models. I really just try to look for who's right for the project. I have a main spokesmodel or two most seasons, the ones who end up in my catalog, and they represent what I like in my clients. The first one I ever had was a girl I went to high school with. She is my age and she modeled for me until we were about 28. Of the two ladies who work for me the most right now, one of them is a single mother and one of them is a scientist.
What did you take away from working with Design Diaries International that affects the work you're doing today?
DDI was awesome! I love the History Center, so if they ask me to do something, I always say yes. This was extra cool because I love teaching and meeting cool kids. I wish something like that had been around when I was just discovering fashion, so I want to be to them what I couldn't have for myself.
One of the girls I mentored is actually one of my interns now, which is rad. The girls were all just so funny and bright-eyed. They wanted to learn so much. It was great.
Have you had some pretty memorable experiences mentoring and working with interns?
My first intern ever was a high school girl named Josie. I met her at Joann Fabrics and she knew me from the internet. She asked if she could be an intern and ended up working with me for almost two years. She went on to go to college for costume design, actually. Now that she's a grown up we hang out and it's so crazy to think of her as his bright-eyed little intern who just wanted to learn all the things. We would sit and just make ruffles and watch law and order marathons.
What new concepts and ideas went into your new collection?
My last couple of collections have been ready to wear, but the majority of my sales throughout the year are bridal, day dresses and special occasion, so I figured it was time to break out the ultra fancy. I met this really great photographer from Germany and he had done this gorgeous photo shoot inspired by old Chinese cinema. That was the beginning of this collection.
I remembered reading 'Shanghai Girls' a couple of years ago and how much that inspired me. I wondered why I hadn't done anything with it, so I just started researching. (I'm a huge research nerd). Anna May Wong came to be a part of it because she was born here in the United States, and there was a quote I found that really felt intense to me:
"It's a pretty sad situation to be rejected by [the] Chinese because I'm 'too American' and by American producers because they prefer other races to act Chinese parts."
When I read about people feeling rejected by what should essentially be their own people, (both China and America for her,) it hits me in a sensitive part of my heart. Growing up, it was hard not feeling quite white enough to be accepted or quite black enough to be understood. It took me a long time to be okay with me, so when I discover other people who are an influence who felt the same way, I feel less alone. I think that's why she really struck a cord with me in the collection.
The Red Dress Collection
With: Russell Bourrienne, Laine Sou Weinberg, Christopher Straub, Elizabeth Geisler, Emily Trevor, Adrienne Yancy, Caroline Hayden, Tim Navarro, Thom Navarro, Kimberly Jurek, Jennifer Chilstrom, Elizabeth Klebenow, Tessa Druley, Samantha Crossland, Ivan Idland, George Moskal, Lindsey Hopkins, Sydney Ahlum, Laura Fulk, Emma Berg, Mary Pranica, Jen Scheffler
When: Sat Mar 7 at 7 p.m.
Where: Loews Hotel, 601 1st Ave N, MPLS
Tickets: $25-$1,000. www.reddressmn.com