Not even a year out of school, designer Isabel Simpson-Kirsch already has cosigns from Katy Perry and Lil B. The recent graduate of Parsons The New School for Design has had rare immediate success: Hours after presenting her senior thesis collection—a sporty assortment of jerseys, tops, and shoes printed with Lil B’s face—Simpson-Kirsch sold her collection to the online retailer and fashion community VFILES. Thanks to the media’s fascination with Lil B and love from the BasedWorld, as well as Katy Perry’s stylist, who dressed the singer in one of the jersey dresses, Simpson-Kirsch’s debut collection rapidly spread across the Internet, earning her a following.
Simpson-Kirsch’s quick ascent comes with the added pressure of figuring out how to follow it up, but, judging by her second collection, she has no reason to worry. The designer, who moved back to her hometown Nashville after graduation, drew from Memphis’s early-‘90s rap scene in her new collection dubbed “Ten-a-Key,” a nickname given to the state that she first heard as a kid when Young Buck said it on the radio. “Southern rap has so much soul to it,” Simpson-Kirsch said. “I think there’s so much feeling in it, and that visually inspires me a lot.” The results: Schoolgirl skirts and wide leg pants are done up in green denim hand-painted with Princess Loko and Tommy Wright III lyrics. Project Pat’s face is emblazoned on a bomber jacket with stills of the famed juke dancer BoBo wrapped around the arms. And Lil Gin and Al Kapone’s faces are printed across intricate graphic t-shirts.
While there’s no references to Lil B in her Ten-a-Key collection, amazingly his spirit is still present: Simpson-Kirsch met the comic artist who helped her create the graphics while at a Lil B show. “It’s seriously all because of Based God. I can’t even thank him enough,” she said over Skype, fittingly sitting in front of a Lil B poster where the rapper is photoshopped to look like the four-headed Hindu god Brahma. Fresh off of participating in Nashville Fashion Week—of which she says, “there’s definitely no one doing nearly what I’m doing here”—and showing her new collection to VFILES in NYC, Simpson-Kirsch shared her thoughts on having Project Pat as an Instagram follower, the details that make up “Ten-a-Key,” and Lil B’s reaction to her senior collection.
How was your collection received at Nashville Fashion Week?
Everyone really liked it. I have a jersey that says Ca$hville on it, so everyone freaked out over that. There’s an audience here for my stuff, but it’s not an audience that has come together yet, so that’s part of what I’m trying to do by being a part of the fashion scene here.
Were you surprised that your Lil B collection sold to VFILES as quickly as it did?
That was the biggest whirlwind of my life. I met with VFILES right after I presented my senior thesis, and they were like, “We want to carry it.” The day after, I went into VFILES and they said they wanted to exclusively carry it, and I walked out of there and had a moment like, “Did I just sell my senior thesis to a store?” I never expected it to happen.
I can’t imagine that many graduates have that kind of immediate success.
Definitely not. Throughout school we were always told that Proenza Schouler’s senior collection was bought by Barney’s out of their show. Obviously they’re incredible and incredibly successful. If I can get half the success that they’ve had, I’ll be happy.
What was Lil B’s reaction to it?
I was able to give him a shirt at Pitchfork Festival last summer, and he was like, “This is beautiful. I love it so much.” I’ve only gotten positive feedback from him. He’s emailed me a few times being like, “Send me more pictures. I want to see more.” Fingers crossed that a photo shoot is happening in the next week or so where he might be wearing some of the stuff.
I’m staring at his face behind you right now.
(Laughs) I have a giant piece of Lil B fabric hanging on my wall.
That’s amazing. How did Katy Perry get hold of that dress? Do you know?
I have a friend of a friend who knows her stylist, and he might have seen them wearing the shorts or something and then told him where to get it. I don’t know for sure, but I’m pretty sure her stylist bought it at VFILES and was like, “Here, wear this.”
Were you surprised when you saw her in the dress?
Yeah, that literally blew my mind. First of all, I didn’t even know that Katy Perry knew who Lil B was, and, second of all, just the fact that someone at that level of fame was wearing something I made is just crazy. My whole Instagram was blowing up that day. I was like, “Oh jeez, this is what it’s like to be a celebrity.” It was definitely a trip.
So how did you decide on Southern rap for the second collection?
I was born in New York, raised here. And then [I] moved to NYC for college and came back here last September. Just while living in NYC for an extended period of time, I became more proud of my Southern roots. I tried to hide it for so long, but deep down I’m a Southern girl. So I wanted to express that with this collection. Deep down this is what I’m really about—of course the Lil B stuff is me too— but this is something that people didn’t know or don’t know about in general. I think there’s a huge trend in rap and music where everyone is just loving Southern stuff lately, so I was like, “Well this is what we’re really about down here,” and that’s what I’m trying to show.
Which rappers inspired this collection?
I love the entire Memphis underground scene from the early 1990s. I’ve made myself a total nerd about it; done so much research on it. The jersey I’m wearing right now has Al Kapone on it. I have another T-shirt with Lil Gin. There’s a jacket with Project Pat. I love Gangsta Boo, La Chat, Princess Loko, Tommy Wright III, and deeper cuts.
What’s happening in the jacket with Project Pat on it?
It’s a brick wall, and there’s a famous juke dancer, BoBo. And I took stills of his videos and wrapped them around the sleeves and put diamonds in the background along Project Pat’s head.
How did you come up with the graphics?
I worked with my friend Dillon on it who I met—a total Based World connection—at the Lil B show at Pitchfork. I was wearing the shorts that I made and holding a shirt, walking up to people and saying, “I made this for Lil B. Will you help me get to the front?” Then I met Dillon and he said, “I’ve seen your shirts online. I will help you get to the front right now.” We got right to the front row, enjoyed the concert together, and bonded over that. He showed me this beautiful illustration that he did of Lil B, and I was like, “This is so inspiring. Can you do illustrations for my next collection?” He was like “absolutely.” It worked out so well because the illustrations are realistic enough that you can tell who they are, but they’re also so expressive and deep.
Were you a part of Lil B’s online community before your collection came out?
Not before but now definitely. I’ve gotten a ton of Based World followers, and I’ve made so many #Based friends from across Facebook and Twitter. Based World on the Internet is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever been a part of. The love and support for each other and the understanding of Lil B’s message is incredible. I love that it's all on the Internet. It’s perfect for our world and generation.
Do you think they’ll be excited about this line?
I’ve gotten feedback from some of them already and tons of support. I have people that still want the Lil B clothes, but they’re like, “Wait, let me see your other stuff.” Just because of Lil B, people are like, “You’re my favorite designer. I’m dying to see your new lookbook.” I’ve definitely made solid friends and fans from that whole world.
I thought the styling was amazing in its own right in the new lookbook. I see you’re wearing one of the lanyards. What inspired the necklaces and cornrows?
I honestly found the lanyard necklaces at a local crafts store in Nashville and then painted some of the squares on it and put a key on it. As far as the cornrows, I had a really awesome hair stylist and makeup artist, my friend Jessica. It all magically worked out, and we got those beautiful Impalas we shot with. It was crazy because it was raining all day. The shoot was at 4 o’clock and at 2 o’clock it stopped and turned into a beautiful day.
Who do the cars belong to?
The red one is my friend Joe’s. I tweeted, “Who has a dope ass dope boy car I can borrow for this shoot with hot girls?” And my friend introduced me to him on Twitter, and he was like, “I have a friend who has a green Impala. We can both come through.” Both of their cars have been in Three 6 Mafia and Yelawolf music videos so it was perfect.
Talk to me because some of the smaller details—there are a lot of them.
This jersey that I’m wearing says Kapone on the back in custom felt letters. I did custom felt letters on the Lil B collection and just loved them so much. There’s so much detail within the print. This one has a bunch of digitized knives around his head, purple flames in the background. It took me about eight hours to develop each print for this collection. Everything is purposeful.
The handprinting on the skirt that says “45 in my pantyline,” we sat for hours painting it. I knew I wanted to make a schoolgirl skirt because I love that look. I wear a lot myself and go to Goodwill and chop them off. I was listening to the Princess Loko and Tommy Wright III song where she goes “Blow away your brains with this 45 in my pantyline,” and I thought that’s the hardest line for any female to say. It’s so badass. And I wanted to put it on a skirt. Then I have the jeans that say “On da creep” on the side which is a reference to Tommy Wright III who always said he was on the creep at night.
The camo shirt was kind of a last minute thing. Camo is huge in the South, obviously. It’s funny because I always see people in NYC wearing camo, and I’m like, “You don’t blend in at all.” Here everyone and their mom has a camo shirt; people at the gas station; people wearing it as a trend; people out hunting. So I was like I have to put some camo in there, and I like the way it looks because it blends in with the green denim.
Have any of these rappers seen the collection yet?
They haven’t. I think it’s too early. Project Pat follows me on Instagram, which is the best follower I’ve ever had, so I’m going to DM him a picture. I just haven’t gotten around to it. I’m definitely going to send it to Lil Gin, Al Kapone, everyone I can find. I have friends that talk to Tommy Wright III on Facebook all the time, so I know it’s pretty easy to reach these people.
Do you have any desire to do custom pieces for rappers or other artists?
Absolutely. That’s a big thing I want to do. I’m already trying to find out how I can make a pattern for a XXXL jacket for Project Pat. If someone approached me and was like, “Put my face on this and make a dope print,” I would totally do it. I did clothing for a film a few months ago called She Told Me She Was Dead. It was with Sebastian Sommer, and Hari Nef was the star of the film. They approached me and were like, “We love your Lil B stuff. We’re doing this film about paparazzi, how they affect celebrities, and how crazy that whole world is.” So I did a crazy printed dress with him on it. It was awesome and I’m definitely down to do custom projects like that.
In the future, do you think you’ll stick with hip-hop?
I don’t know. I’m trying to brainstorm for my next collection. I’m a sucker for country music because I grew up in that world—my dad was a country songwriter—and I would love to do a dope collection paying homage to some of the OGs of country.
I bet Miley would be into that.
Yeah, she’s been dressing in that style lately. And I’m like, “Oh my god, people are going to start wearing rhinestone cowboy boots again,” which is great. There’s a designer from Nashville called Manuel who was the creator of those diamond studded crazy country suits that Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton and everyone wore back in the day. I interned with him briefly in 8th grade because he was the only fashion designer in Nashville at the time. I’ve always loved his stuff. Doing something along that route would be incredible.
Marissa G. Muller believes we should all dress like Based God. She's on Twitter - @marissagmuller
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