02 June 2007

Interview: Alissa Anderson

Alissa Anderson is many things to many people: m i t t e n m a k e r creatrix, Vetiver cellist, style icon, friend of Joanna Newsom, supporter of fellow indie designers, thrifting goddess. The Massachusetts native-turned-SF-dweller fit the Church into her very busy schedule, which includes touring Europe. Many thanks to Alissa for the thought-provoking answers. Photo by Virginia Morrow.

Q. What led you to move m i t t e n m a k e r away from t-shirts?
When I started reconstructing t-shirts it was because I appreciated the graphics and fabric and wanted to just make them fit better. I initially made them for myself but got so many comments on them that I started making more. There's an infinite amount of t-shirts in the world, and many of them are quite large so there is always more than enough fabric to work with. The first shop that carried m i t t e n m a k e r was Wednesday & Proud, a boutique in Hayes Valley in San Francisco run by Marisa Meltzer, who later wrote the piece for Venus. They sold very quickly so I made more and found a few other shops in San Francisco to carry them. Very soon afterwards, I started seeing "reconstructed t-shirts" appearing in Urban Outfitters! So I moved on out of a combination of not feeling that what I was doing was really necessary anymore and wanting to challenge myself with different materials. That's when I began making jackets out of vintage tweed blazers, wallets out of tennis racket covers, jewelry, etc.

Q. How would you describe your style?
I have always approached my personal style with a sense of humor and creativity. The question of "what to wear" is what everybody must answer every day, so why not have fun with it? Personally, I am drawn to things that are interesting or unusual in some way. Sometimes I think, What will the theme be today? By "theme" I mean a combination of the many things that are running through my mind at the moment to create my outfit. My style has definitely changed (dare I say "matured") over the past few years, as I have been making a more conscious effort to wear things that are more flattering and not just weird. Because of my coloring (I have red hair and slightly olive skin), I have taken to wearing a lot of "autumn" colors like various shades of brown, off-white, and gray, with splashes of bright colors.

Q. How has your band and/or playing with your band influenced your personal style?
When I performed in orchestra and marching band in high school, we had dress codes and uniforms to draw attention away from the individual, so when I started playing with Vetiver it was quite liberating to perform while maintaining a sense of individuality. Although I don't think playing in a band has influenced my everyday style at all, playing the cello definitely determines what I wear onstage. There is something about playing the cello that is rather formal and feminine to me, and for a long time I felt that I just had to wear a skirt or dress when I played. Wearing pants just seemed...weird. So I had to find skirts and dresses that were open enough at the bottom for me to play in. Lately I am more open to wearing pants while playing, especially if I don't want to seem "overdressed" compared to the other musicians. As far as makeup goes, I definitely need to wear at least lipstick if I'm performing.
Providing that color and contrast not only makes you look better under the stage lights but it makes me feel more like I am giving a performance. I grew up feeling like sort of a clueless tomboy when it came to wearing makeup, but since I have gotten better at it with practice (because of performing) I do tend to wear it more than I used to. Finally, since touring is a reality, I only take on tour with me things that pack well and I try to be as minimal as possible so I have less stuff to carry. Recently I went on tour with Two Gallants and tried to bring as little as I could and made sure it all "matched," in that I wanted to be able to wear anything I brought with anything else. That worked out great and was a fun challenge.

Q. Do you feel like an icon (after being featured in Venus Zine?)
Definitely not! Especially since my friends who have also been named "Venus Style Icons" like Paz Lenchantin, Bobby Birdman, and Jona Bechtolt, are all basically super down-to-earth people who just naturally have a great sense of style without making a ton of effort. It's flattering to be recognized for something like "style" that is so innate to one's personality, but there are certainly tons of people out there who have way more fantastic style but are just not in the public eye because they're in a band or whatever.

Q. Please describe the perfect outfit.
The perfect outfit is the perfect combination of sexy, creative, and comfortable. If I'm not physically comfortable I don't feel good about myself—I am constantly distracted. If I am comfortable then I certainly feel more confident.

Q. What are you currently listening to?
The sound of cars driving by on 6th Avenue and Andy making a "New Age mix" in the living room.

Q. Do you wear jeans?
Funny you should ask! I used to be vehemently opposed to wearing jeans in high school. I don't believe I even owned a pair. I dressed pretty rebelliously, much more extreme than I do now. I was so against looking "normal" and jeans represented the epitome of normal, boring, and unimaginative. Nowadays I am much more open-minded and own a couple of pairs, but I still feel like there are just so many more interesting things to wear in the world. I would say I wear jeans maybe once every month or two. I do own a pair of what I would call "denim pants" made by my friend Savannah Knoop of TINC. They're inspired by jodhpurs and I love them to pieces, but I don't really consider them "jeans". They're what I was wearing in the Venus feature.

Q. What labels or designers do you admire?
After recently seeing the Vivienne Westwood exhibit at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco (which I highly recommend), I was totally blown away. The punk stuff Westwood and Malcom McLaren basically invented in 1971 still looks totally amazing, especially in person, and her more formal, tailored, yet extremely avant-garde pieces are basically the epitome of "haute couture." It's ridiculous how ahead of her time she was—and still is. I admire that she adheres to her vision so resolutely and insists that most modern clothing is ugly and mediocre—because it is.
Also, and more importantly, my friends and colleagues in both the music and design worlds are infinitely inspiring to me. Knowing the story behind a song or item of clothing attracts me more to it and makes me appreciate it more.
I feel very fortunate to be part of a community of independent designers who are mostly self-taught artists with very different personal styles. Locally, I am inspired by the androgyny of TINC, the elegant cuteness of Minnie Wilde and Paala, and the romantic idealism of Venus Superstar—all designers I consider friends. My people are those who design because they have an artistic need to create something they feel is not in the world yet—even though many of them can barely afford to.

Q. How would you describe the fashion scene in SF?
Honestly, I can't really describe the entire "SF fashion scene" because it is made up of so many different kinds of groups, from Marina society types to Noe Valley moms to Castro queens—but there are definitely a few themes I've noticed. Compared to other cities, San Franciscans definitely dress more casually, in general. You don't see a lot of suits and ties and stilettos, that's for sure!
Current SF "hipster" fashion is extremely inspired by bike messenger culture, and also just by biking in general since that's how a lot of people get around. So many kids have stripped-down track bikes (I like to call them fashion bikes), tight pants, and messenger-style bags they wear high and tight on their backs. Sometimes it's impossible to tell hipsters from bike messengers, which I think is hilarious.
Also, 90's warehouse-party culture (and Burning Man) unfortunately still play a large role in the underground fashion scene. If I see one more outfit that consists of fake fur hot pants, platform boots, day-glo dreads, goggles, and some serged-on-the-outside, extra long- sleeved but belly-baring, reconstructed hooded sweater I am going to throw up.

Q. What do you wear in "real life?" For example, what have you worn in the past two days?
My new favorite "everyday pants" are these awesome, brown, soft, fuzzy pants I got at the Salvation Army in Sacramento for $6. They're some random brand I've never heard of, but they're super comfortable and make my ass look awesome. They are basically 5-pocket jeans style and slightly bootcut, but not denim. I've also been wearing these brown paisley Juicy Couture stretch corduroy pants that I got at a clothing swap. They lace up at the top with leather and they used to be bell bottoms, but I took them in so they're narrower. They sound really weird, but I love them! On top I usually layer some soft, thin shirts together, usually combinations of gray, off-white, gold, etc., and often stuff I've made or altered in some way. SF has been pretty cold lately, so jackets are a must. I have a lot of interesting jackets, but my trusty friend is my dark brown hooded leather jacket I wear when I ride my scooter. I got it at my friend Elissa's store Calico in New Bedford, Mass. It's super tight and goes with just about everything. If I'm riding my scooter I pretty much have to wear boots, but if I'm walking around my neighborhood I tend to wear flats. I wear the same earrings everyday (ones I made), a silver turquoise ring that used to be my mom's, and switch my necklaces around depending on the outfit. A current favorite is my leather one by my talented friend Amy of Daughter of the Sun. It never fails to attract many compliments!

Q. What are your other creative projects?
I just got back from Europe playing cello for a Two Gallants acoustic tour, which was a lot of fun. Before I left I took some band photos for a relatively new band called Port O'Brien, which are some of my favorite portraits I have ever taken! I have always taken photos in some capacity and can't imagine a time when I wouldn't. Also, I have become much more domestic in the past few years and really enjoy gardening and cooking, which I feel are creative activities but also really relaxing.

Q. Do you ever dress theatrically? (That is, to make an artistic impact to the utter disregard of comfort.)
Dressing "theatrically" shouldn't necessarily mean being uncomfortable! I certainly don't dress as extreme as I used to, although I should more. Thanks for reminding me! Maybe I'll bust out that wig soon...

Q. Are you still into spats?
I really like the look of spats, but honestly I hardly ever wear them because I only wear them with heels—and I don't wear heels very often. I have one pair of white canvas Army spats that are pretty cool. This shoe designer in San Francisco, Paolo, makes these beautiful leather ones in all different colors, but I have yet to splurge on them. They are definitely an underappreciated accessory that automatically makes any outfit more interesting. They can turn any heels into boots!

Q. Please describe your favorite items from your wardrobe.
Here are a few things I love:
*vintage Marshall Field’s dress from Painted Bird worn with brown velvet
reconstructed m i t t e n m a k e r jacket;
*Miss Velvet Cream dress made out of beige grosgrain ribbon, worn with Daughter of the Sun leather necklace, m i t t e n m a k e r "pom pom pow wow"
necklace, & a couple more m i t t e n m a k e r necklaces;
*beige Japanese asymmetric blazer from Goodwill on Clement St.

Q. Where do you buy clothing? Do you do retail/malls?
I don't think there is any need to buy "new" clothing, really; there is just so much already in the world. Although I love going to places like H&M and seeing what's currently trendy, I have major moral issues supporting companies that make their clothing in sweatshops in other countries and from virgin materials. I get by just fine finding things at thrift stores, clothing swaps, and estate sales, and by supporting other independent designers. When I have an urge to wear something new many times I just make something out of stuff I already have, which is far more satisfying than spending money. Especially since most of the time I don't have very much! My favorite places to shop in SF are Thrift Town on 17th and Mission and Painted Bird on 24th and Guerrero.

Q. Please describe a moment of style euphoria from your life.
Seeing Elliott Smith in his cute white suit at the Oscars. Precious.

Q. Do you sew "formally?" That is, can you, for example, you read patterns or drape fabric?
Nope! Although I have made a few very basic patterns, I have virtually no formal training, just growing up watching my mom and grandmother. I have often thought about taking some classes but m i t t e n m a k e r has always been more of an experimental project. I kind of enjoy approaching designing with somewhat of an outsider's perspective, although I sure would love to make a pair of pants someday!

Q. What got you into doing m i t t e n m a k e r?
To create what wasn't available from things already in existence.

Q. Do you have any advice for would-be designers?
Be prepared to be poor! Unless you have financial backers or a trust fund, it's a hard road. There are lots of expenses and tons of competition. Start small and be creative with your resources. Experiment with materials that are inexpensive or unusual. Take apart clothing to see how it's made.

Q. Whose style do you admire?
My friend Joanna Newsom. She always looks totally fantastic and sexy and adorable no matter what. I have known her for quite a while and I have never seen her looking remotely sloppy in any way, not even right out of bed on tour! Also, she is quite the fashion forecaster. If you want to know what people will be wearing two years from now, take a look at what she's wearing today. I mean, shit, those Gunne Sax dresses are now practically known as "Joanna Newsom dresses," which I know really pisses her off!

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