On the day of my interview with Rachel Antonoff and Allison Lewis, the designers behind Mooka Kinney, a PAPER colleague asked me to describe the fashion line: "Think Joanna Newsom," I said before heading out the door.
It just so happens that Joanna Newsom, the wood-nymph of a folk singer known for wearing spritely frocks not unlike those designed by Mooka Kinney, was the one who initially brought Rachel and Allison together. Back in 2005, recalls Rachel, "I had a room for rent and we had a mutual friend who knew that Allison needed a room. I was heavily into Joanna Newsom at the time -- most people didn't know who she was -- and Allison came in and was like, 'are you listening to Joanna Newsom?' So I knew we were destined. It's a trite story -- but true."
Two years, a fateful Teen Vogue article, a collection at Barney's and a nod from Newsom later ("She told me she liked our dresses when I saw her at Bonnaroo," says Rachel), the former roommates (Allison moved out last year) are putting the finishing touches on their Spring '08 collection to be displayed at their first runway presentation, as part of the Gen Art Fresh Faces in Fashion show. It's a big deal -- this is after all, the show that launched Zac Posen -- and the girls are appropriately nervous. "I've been waking up every morning feeling very something," says Rachel of her pre-show nerves-cum-excitement.
Unlike most fledgling designers, Rachel and Allison are not Pratt
grads who walk around with sewing needles sticking out of their mouths
talking about princess seams. In fact, the two have no formal fashion
training to speak of. A year ago, Rachel (then a freelance writer) and
Allison (a graphic designer), would often go vintage shopping together.
Recalls Rachel, "the two of us loved vintage dresses â that was kind of
our shared thing -- and we constantly talked about how we wished there
were dresses that were more vintage-like, that were mass-marketed that
you could just find in a store. We just constantly talked about actually
doing it, and we literally just got our shit together and did it -- and
that was like a year ago."
After making a few sample dresses -- sewn by Rachel's next-door neighbor -- Rachel took to the computer. "I had done PR for Rebecca Taylor and I seriously swallowed my pride and emailed everyone I had ever spoken to when I worked there," she says. "Teen Vogue got back to us right away." Following a profile of the duo, which appeared in the magazine in October of 2006, Barney's ordered 300 dresses. Then came small boutiques like I Heart, Jumelle and Steven Alan. Famous fashion plates like Jenny Lewis, Lily Allen, Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces and Zooey Deschanel started wearing the dresses.
Mooka Kinney frocks are as cute as can be; often empire-waisted, always super-girly and coy, these are dresses to be worn with bangs or vintage riding boots. These are dresses that could outfit Alice as she prances through Wonderland or the bad-ass older sister played by Olivia d'Abo from The Wonder Years. Indeed, when describing the inspiration behind the chintzy jumpers which dominate their Spring '08, collection, says Allison, "We were listening to a lot of female singers from the '60s and teasing our hair a little more when we started designing the collectionâ¦ so we wanted to makes stuff that the girl who caught smoking in the bathroom during high school during the '60s would wear."
The two 20-something-year olds, with their equally adorable shaggy hair-dos, clearly live on a very similar wavelength. "We're oddly, very, very in sync, creatively," says Rachel. "It's not even an issue of closeness." This is evident hearing the two launch into the fairly absurd story of how the name Mooka Kinney came to be. Allison begins: "So Rachel's dog is named Mooka and he kind of acts like a cat and lies aroundâ¦ he isn't much of a dog -- he's two and a half pounds. And Rachel calls him "kitty," but she has this language that she speaks with him, so 'kitty' is 'kinney.'" Rachel interrupts, "So, Mooka Kinney. Your name would be 'Anexis.'" Got it.
As the show approaches, and they begin to meet with models and hair stylists and pick out the shoes and hats to go with each look, it's all a little surreal for these girls for whom Mooka Kinney was, only a year ago, just a fun side-project. "It went further than we ever thought it would," says Rachel, adding, "It's all so beyond. It's literally like waking up in someone else's life, doing someone else's job."
The Gen Art Fresh Faces in Fashion Show takes place on Wednesday, Sept. 5th at the Grand Ballroom Manhattan Center, 311 W. 34th St.