Interview: Jillian Billard
Photo: Kat Slootsky
A self-described “California girl to the core,” fashion designer Aza Ziegler creates dreamy, vintage-inspired garments that harken to the sprawling West-coast landscapes she grew up exploring. Ziegler started her line Calle Del Mar (named after the street she grew up on) while studying at Pratt Institute in New York, with a lauded inaugural collection of pastel-toned pleated skirts, varsity jackets and skate shoes. Initially working within the traditional season-based fashion calendar, Ziegler has since found a production model that works for her and her collaborators—and for the environment. Working on a direct to consumer platform, all of Calle Del Mar’s unique knit garments are handmade with locally-sourced fabrics in women-run factories in Los Angeles. In this way, Calle Del Mar isn’t just a clothing line—it’s a mindset that is deeply rooted in the way that we relate to and appreciate the world around us. We spoke to Ziegler about drawing inspiration from nature; sustainability and the future of fashion; and how a garment can tell a story.
If you’re in Los Angeles, be sure to check out Calle Del Mar’s first brick and mortar pop-up at 2915 Knox Ave 90039, open by appointment Monday through Wednesday and 11am-7pm Thursday through Sunday. There will be a closing party on September, 6th.
So I always like to begin at the beginning. Can you talk a bit about your life growing up, and how your early life has informed your practice?
I grew up in Northern California where the mountains meet the ocean. On a clear day you could see the sun literally melt from the top of mount Tamalpais into the sparkling sea. I am deeply rooted in that landscape. I grew up on Calle Del Mar (which translates to “street by the sea”). A lot of my childhood was spent in nature, creating, collaborating and boogie-boarding. My parents nurtured both my and my brother’s creative pursuits. They taught us that creativity was the key to freedom. My father began his career started in journalism, and his curiosity led him to novels, television, design, food, business and painting. My mom was born and raised in San Francisco to an large Italian family. She always made everything from scratch—from home-grown tomato sauce to prom dresses. She is an artist, designer, writer, painter, and chef. So making things was very ingrained in me from day one. At 18 I moved to New York to attend Pratt Institute. That’s when I launched Calle Del Mar.
When did you begin exploring fashion and style and designing clothes?
I’ve always been drawn to style as a form of self expression. My mom is a big vintage shopper, so I grew up appreciating vintage clothing and loved pairing unique pieces together. I learned to sew at a young age and would design and make my own clothes with my mom and Noni (grandmother). I was interested in a lot of things growing up—I loved music and dance—but somehow fashion always came first.
I worked a handful of internships and jobs during high school and college. I looked for a variety of experiences—gaining experience in sales, production, and design—so that I could learn all of the aspects of how a business works. After college, I launched Calle Del Mar, and also worked freelance doing sales and styling for a few designers. I like having a side gig—I find that it keeps my creativity flowing.
Your first collection, which you debuted while studying fashion design at Pratt, is a super fun, playful combination of bright colors, varsity jackets, sequined tops and pleated tennis skirts paired with skate sneakers. I love the way it bridges the gap between these notions of “tomboy” and “girly.” What was your inspiration for this first line, and how has the brand evolved since this formative collection?
Thank you! I think my Pratt thesis really set the tone for my line. I continued to do seasons for a little while after that, but I quickly learned that it wasn’t for me. The way the fashion calendar was organized—you’d showcase pieces that didn’t launch until 6 months later. I wanted to respond more immediately to the demand for product and have a more intimate relationship with my customers. I decided to re-brand, dropped out of all of my stores (mostly international at the time), and moved to a direct to consumer online platform. We decided to do a season-less, product-based calendar and moved entirely to knitwear. This was something I’d dreamed about doing for years. Vintage athletic wear was the initial inspiration for a lot of the design elements in my thesis, so being able to have that come alive through knits has been very exciting to see. I think my brand has changed a lot as I’ve grown—it’s a part of me. Though it has kept a lot of the colorful, playful tomgirl elements it had to begin with. I would love to introduce some more intricate pieces again some time in the future.
How did you take the leap from studying fashion to actually launching your own brand? What was this process like, and what have you learned working for yourself?
Honestly, I didn’t think twice. After the Pratt fashion show I felt a very strong pull to start my own line, so I did everything in my will to make it happen. I was probably too young and knew too little at the time, but if I had a chance to go back I wouldn’t do it differently. I’ve learned so much working for myself. It’s been an extremely challenging and empowering process. I recently hired my first employee and it’s been so weird to learn to be a boss to someone else after I’ve only been one to myself for so long!
That’s super exciting! So you launched Calle Del Mar when you were living in New York, and you have since moved back to the West Coast. When did you make the move from Brooklyn to L.A., and how has it influenced your process?
I love New York, it is a powerful magical city and I owe a lot to it. New York introduced me to some of my favorite collaborators and greatest life long friends, and it sure as hell toughened me up in all the right ways. I can’t image a better place to have studied and I am so fortunate I was able to do so. I stayed there for a few years after college, and it pushed me through my first two years of business—but I fell in love and began to desire space, warmth, and nature. I felt ready for something new. I had also moved my production out to L.A. one year prior to moving there, so that made me feel like there was more purpose for me in the West Coast.
Calle Del Mar is a lifestyle brand—it creates a world that extends beyond fashion.
Your most recent collection, as you mentioned, is an array of super-soft, vintage athletic wear-inspired knits. What drew you to knitwear? How do you reinterpret vintage designs in a more elevated way and make them your own?
When beginning to develop knitwear, I wanted to use viscose, which is the yarn used in vintage athletic jerseys from the ‘20s through the ‘50s. I’ve always been fascinated by this material and its silky cool luxurious weight. It is extremely smell repellent and drapes gorgeously. I have some styles that lean more towards a direct interpretation of vintage athletic wear and some that are hand-painted stripes that go directly from the colors in my mind to the knitting machine. The yarn and the way use it is very unique to Calle Del Mar. We work with hand knitting machines for a more open weave and hand-touched feel. A lot of my process includes sketching, going through dye samples, and water coloring stripes. I collect a lot of vintage personally but I very rarely reference anything but fit in my design process. I think as my brand becomes more recognized, our styles will expand in a direction outside of athleticism, though I think there will always be a vintage undertone.
This community you’ve found in L.A. seems to be such an integral part of your practice—you even feature some of these creatives on your website. Can you talk a bit about your “Locals” blog?
Community is hugely important to me. I am a people lover and a collaborator. I wanted to showcase some of the people who inspire me on the Locals Blog of my website. The people I feature are those who truly, authentically wear the clothes and embody the brand. My friends photograph my work, and my knitters feel like family.
I am always energized by other’s creativity. I’ve been so inspired by the creative community of women here in L.A. So many women have their own companies out here, while also leading healthy lifestyles and having other hobbies. Some of them are even moms! Since being in L.A., I’ve had the time and space to take on personal projects and explore things that excite me, which were things I only ever talked about while living in New York. In New York people are masters at one thing. I wanted to be a master in my art but a student and explorer in many other fields.
Totally! It definitely seems like a more lucrative place to be able to explore, particularly in terms of getting out in nature. I love the way the descriptions on your site tell a story of exploring and appreciating the natural landscape, for example, you write: “Wearing your green Hanalei Stripe T-shirt you will be transported to dark, stormy mornings brightened up by exotic pink fruit…the sky clears and you run towards the crashing white waves…the rolling green mountains stand tall above you…the black volcanic rock seeps into the horizon…you climb out of a hammock, throw your Striped Tee on over your Pine Bikini and slip on your Tomatillo Skirt.” You can really feel the love, care, and the vision that you have put into each of these handmade garments. Can you talk a bit about how nature inspires your practice?
Storytelling is deeply embedded in me. My father is a writer and my childhood was full of one-of-a-kind stories. One of the first things he said to me when I told him I wanted to start my own business was “tell a story that is authentic to you!” That stuck with me. So I created a world with my product that I wanted to live in. It’s a world of colorful, effortless knitwear that is deeply rooted in nature’s palette and adventures. I name some of my pieces after places I explore, my experiences there, and the palettes that inspire them. Calle Del Mar is a lifestyle brand—it creates a world that extends beyond fashion.
Sustainability is also a major part of your brand. Can you talk a bit about your production process? Why is it so vital for brands to use sustainable practices, and do you foresee a future in which we will see more ethically-produced, small batch local brands and less destructive fast-fashion companies?
I do think sustainability is the future of fashion. I think people are starting to care a lot more about where their products come from, how little plastic is used in shipping them, and that they were made thoughtfully. Making my products locally in a female-owned factory was very natural to me. I wanted to be inspired by the community making my product and to be easily able to collaborate with them. I tried overseas production briefly but I hated the disconnect.
How big is your team currently, and how did you go about building this community? How much of a hand do you have in the production process?
I have an assistant who helps with a number of things including graphic design, social media, and my website. I have a freelance production manager who works with me and our knitters to help with patterns, sourcing yarn, dying, and seeing the overall production from start to finish. We have a small group of amazing knitters who work out of my production manager’s house.
What does your typical day look like (if you have one)? How do you find the balance between running your own fashion line, maintaining your creative practice, and also finding stability and clarity?
No day is really typical for me! Currently, on a typical work day I’ll wake up around 7 am and always have coffee first thing, and then I’ll take a hike or go to yoga. After that, I’ll head back to the garage where my studio is to work on some emails, drop into my pop-up store to make sure everything looks right and we’re all stocked up, visit my knitters for a fitting or to pick up new products or check in on some dye swatches. Then I’ll go home and check on order fulfillment and make sure everything is running smoothly, put some dinner on, chat with my friends or family on the phone, and then head back to my studio to work on a styling job or this sequin bridesmaid dress I’m making. Around 10 PM I usually climb into bed, watch some mindless T.V., lather myself in lavender oil and pass out. Honestly, a work-life balance is super challenging when you work for yourself. Some months are easier than others. It really depends on the work-load. This summer has been a pretty busy one for me so I’ve been working 18-hour days. But some weeks I’ll wipe everything off my plate and so that I have time to skip town and take an adventure. I think living in L.A. has really helped my work-life balance because work just blends nicely into my day and the weather stays consistent enough that I can kind of do things at my own pace and on my own schedule. Eating healthy, exercising, taking the time to cook for myself, and engaging with people are really important to me. I also make sure to carve out time for projects that interest me. Self-care is key. However, when the weeks come where there is no time for anything, I thrive. I love to be overly busy—I find it exciting!