Fashion Designer Rachel Pally On How She Got Her Start and Learned to Evolve
Love yourself a flowing linen frock with just the right amount of form fitting factor? Or have a thing for comfy jersey dresses that look fancy enough to wear to a wedding? Then you’ve likely swooned over one of Rachel Pally’s soft, sustainable pieces at least once in the last decade.
Fashion designer Pally is one of those refreshingly relatable entrepreneurs. She took a chance on herself straight out of school and worked her ass off to create a recognizable aesthetic that combines structured materials and femininity in a truly beautiful way.
Anjelika Temple here, Founding Partner and Chief Creative Officer of Brit + Co, and big fan of Pally’s maternity wear at the moment ;) I had the pleasure of bonding with Rachel earlier this summer at a pop-up launching her newest collection, and was instantly struck by her warmth, intelligence, and vision. For this installment of Creative Crushin’, I’m excited to share Rachel’s story with you.
Brit + Co: To kick things off, tell us more about your beginnings.
Rachel Pally: I grew up in Los Angeles. My parents owned their own business and were very present in my upbringing. They are both creatives and instilled in my brother and myself a great drive towards creativity and music and art. He is a curator now and I’m a designer, so our roots really shaped us! I live in the Hollywood Hills with my husband Kevin (also a designer and musician and creative director… go figure!) and our two boys, Tao (6) and Luca (3).
B+C: How did you find your passion for fashion and clothing construction?
RP: I studied modern dance at UC Berkeley (along with Geography, a very lucrative major! haha) and had to commit a certain amount of hours to the costume shop for my degree. I started making costumes for dancers and loved it so much! I had to think about the drape and the movement and the body. I was never a very adept seamstress but I was able to figure it out enough to pass! I loved the way the costumes worked on different bodies and could convey different feelings. I bought an inexpensive sewing machine and started making clothes for myself and my friends at the kitchen table… and the rest is history!
B+C: Did you always know you wanted to be a fashion designer? Tell us more about that journey of self-discovery.
RP: I didn’t! I always knew that I wanted to work for myself, but I didn’t know in what capacity. My family lifestyle was very flexible growing up. We grew up seeing the passion and commitment it took for our parents to run a company but also saw that it allowed for flexibility for travel, fun, family time. I have always been a self-starter and very independent so working for myself was always a priority. It wasn’t until my time in the costume shop that I started to consider clothing design. Before that I thought I wanted to be a professor! Ha! How dreams change!
B+C: From a little sleuthing, I know that you jumped right into starting your own fashion line right out of college. Tell me more about that decision. What gave you the confidence to just jump right in without a backup plan? Or maybe you had a backup plan? :)
RP: No backup plan! But I’m from a city where I could start a fashion business. I was able to live at my parents’ house and use them as free night and weekend labor. I was young and fearless! When I was still a student, I was visiting my family and stopped at a shop in Chinatown, and the owner loved my dress. When I told her I made it she asked if I had made any other pieces. I said I had a bag of laundry in the car (you know, college student with no washer and dryer so the laundry would come home with me… anyone relate?) and would be happy to bring it in to show her. She loved what I had and asked if I would be interested in making pieces for her to sell. People started buying the pieces and she encouraged me to officially start my own line after I graduated. And I did!
B+C: Was there a turning point when you realized, oh wow, this is really happening?
RP: Jessica Simpson wore an outfit of mine on MTV during her heyday and the business blew up overnight. It was a different time, for sure. Sales were driven by US Weekly and People Magazine, and any celebrity spotting would create a frenzy. I was also featured on Oprah’s Favorite Things, which was incredible! Personally, I have a memory of traveling to Thailand with my best friend Rebecca around that time and seeing racks and racks of knockoffs of my gaucho pants for sale in the night markets. I was so excited — it made me feel like I had really made it! Funny to think of it that way but I had gotten so much exposure from those pants (I joke that those pants bought me my first house) that seeing the way they had trickled into a global economy was so crazy and exciting.
B+C: How did you hone in on your aesthetic? How has it changed and evolved over the years?
RP: I started out using only one fabric: jersey. I had the market cornered, and I started using it and making a lane for myself before it was popular. It was exciting and challenging to come up with a new collection every season using the same fabric, but it also became stifling.
After about a decade in, I wanted to evolve the brand. I started offering groups of styles in new fabrications but my stores weren’t ready to take the leap with me. It was expensive and frustrating to try time and time again to introduce something new, only to find that stores only wanted what they had learned to expect from me. I started to feel uninspired but had to continue to offer stores what they were asking for, and in addition, jersey was losing popularity in the market. On a personal level, I wasn’t even wearing my clothes anymore! I was ripe for a change, and decided to take the risk to start steering my brand in a new direction. I still make jersey dresses but instead of an entire collection, I do a strong, tight group consisting ONLY of styles I love and believe in. Now I also focus on gauze, on linen, on canvas, on rayon. It allows for me to create an exciting broad range - building a wardrobe, rather than just a piece to choose here and there. I’m so happy with my new direction and it is so much more authentically ME!
B+C: Why do you love to make things? What inspires you?
RP: I have always loved making things and expressing myself creatively. I grew up playing guitar, dancing, doing pottery, crocheting, embroidering, jewelry-making, block printing…..anything I could get my hands on, really! But it’s funny how working in a creative business can sometimes actually limit my personal creativity. I am creative every day, but with a business, choices are also financially motivated. Last year I started taking a ceramics class again and it has completely changed my process. I get to go in there and experiment and play and it doesn’t matter if it looks good or not! I get to do art for art, not art for business. And it is WONDERFUL. Sometimes the pieces come out great. Sometimes I throw three pots in a row and squish them all. It doesn’t matter. I feel like it’s better than talk therapy for me. I get to just be my authentic self! And now I have been bringing that confidence and that passion back to my clothing design and it is so fun. I also get that recharge from picking up my guitar and singing a song with my husband, or from salsa dancing with my girlfriends. Any exercise in self-expression and creativity comes back to me (and my business) tenfold!
B+C: You’ve played the role of designer, seamstress, model, brand ambassador, manager, creative director, and so on. What’s your favorite piece of the puzzle to work on?
RP: My favorite role is creative director. I have had the same designer for over 10 years, and we work beautifully together. That said, we all laugh at my drawings around here - I couldn’t design a collection without Laura! My least favorite part is being a model - that is NOT what I signed up for when I decided to be a designer. That’s a new part of social media that I struggle with but I do think that it conveys the authenticity of the brand when you see me wearing it. I don’t just want you to wear it, I want to wear it too!
B+C: I know that sustainable and responsible materials and production practices are important to you and your brand. Tell us more about that.
RP: Of course they are. I don’t even think about it, honestly. I make choices that make me feel good. I employ people (mostly women) fairly and generously, I would never settle for unhealthy working conditions for myself or anyone else. I see the trend moving towards buying fewer, better things, and I love that. We can really make a strong statement by spending our dollars responsibly and by supporting ethical small businesses - I think it’s just as important as our vote!
Favorite Quote: “Don’t freak out about things you can’t control - try to keep the focus on the things you can.” - My dad
Trivia About You: I’m a serious salsa dancer and have an alter ego that comes out on the dance floor! I even slip into a tight dress and put on lipstick (very unusual for me!). I also put an ice cube in my cereal because I despise milk unless its ice cold (or hot in my coffee). My husband thinks I’m so gross.
Go-to Karaoke Song: "Dancing in the Dark" by Bruce Springsteen
Favorite Material: Linen (currently). Also gauze. Also jersey.
Late Night Snack: Spoonful of peanut butter
Currently Reading: Michelle Obama Becoming and Brene Brown Rising Strong
B+C: How has motherhood changed your approach to your work?
RP: I work my ass off when I’m working, then I try to stop before I get home. That way I can parent my ass off without distraction. Easier said than done but that’s the goal! I just said to my husband last night that I feel like my priorities have been out of whack, that I have been spending so much energy on my business lately that I haven’t had enough to give at home or to myself and I have to keep it all in check. Everything feels heavier and more important to me since having children. I have so much more to work for now. It makes me feel stretched thin, but it also makes me want to work hard and show my children just what I can do!
B+C: With your family *and* business being so important to you, I’m sure you get asked that pesky “how do you do it all” question all the time. Any tips on balancing all the things?
RP: You can’t do it without help! I couldn’t run and business and parent two young children without my nanny, my parents, my in-laws. I have a ton of support, which makes our life work. Also, I cry a lot! That helps relieve the pressure! It’s true. It is not easy doing it all. I don’t always do it all well. And I’m not a perfectionist, which is probably the only reason that I can even TRY to do it all. Ideally I work when I’m working and I parent when I’m parenting, and I don’t mix the two. Not always possible but that’s a goal. The goal is to also carve out more time for myself (ie my weekly ceramics class) and for my marriage, which I am trying to do.
B+C: Being a founder can sometimes feel like an island. What does your support system look like? Do you have mentors, community groups, etc that help you thrive?
RP: Until a couple of years ago, I didn’t feel like I had ANY sort of community around my work. But now I have a thriving, amazing, supportive community of fellow creatives and entrepreneurs and mamas who I rely on for support, both online and in real life. It’s really incredible. I’m a member of Hey Mama and Fashion Mamas, which are both networking groups for women in business, and I have my own personal group of friends who collaborate and support each other on the daily.
B+C: On that note, who are some other fashion babes our readers should know about?
B+C: As a creative entrepreneur, what are three tips you can give our readers for getting their idea off the ground?
RP: Be bold. Be fearless. Find a lane. Do it better than anyone else. Take risks. Evolve. Believe in yourself or nobody else will!
B+C: Can you tell us more about recently launched or upcoming collections and the inspiration behind them?
RP: We just went live with our last Summer delivery, which I’m so excited about. The linen and gauze pieces are perfect for everyday wear. And we have some beautiful heavier knits and wovens coming for Fall. I can’t wait for you to see it!
If you know of a creative entrepreneur with a story that's sure to inspire our readers, DM me at @anjelikatemple on Instagram! And check out past editions of Creative Crushin' for more stories of badass babes.
Author: Anjelika Temple (Photography courtesy of Rachel Pally unless otherwise noted)