Creative Direction and Photography by Collette McGruder
All clothes designed and styled by Michelle Helene
Words by Alexey Timbul Bolukhov
Michelle Helene is a womenswear label created by School of Fashion alumna Michelle Grunberg (BFA Fashion Design, 2003). Her unique woven textiles and designs are created by hand and cater to an increasingly appreciative audience desiring environmentally-conscious and style-savvy fashion. The journey to this success has not been linear. Grunberg credits her education with sharpening life skills, such as emotional resilience and creative perseverance; while, overall, recalling the process as tough yet constructive.
One of her earliest in-class memories is a project requiring students to design something using only paper. “I remember Simon Ungless, Executive Director of the School of Fashion, walking around, providing sharp but constructive feedback to the class. He won’t sugar-coat his thoughts to students,” Grunberg laughs. “I knew not everyone could handle that, but I loved it. I soaked up constructive criticism to become a better designer. I’ve kept in touch with Simon over the years as he’s proved to be an amazing mentor!”
Living in San Francisco was another stimulating experience. Grunberg grew particularly fond of riding the public transportation buses, enjoying the eclectic eccentricity of its many passengers. She learned that “inspiration should come from the real world, not someone else, nor the computer.” It’s a credo that would serve her well beyond graduation.
We reached out to Grunberg to feel her pulse on the industry and her label.
180: How has the fashion industry changed since 2003?
MICHELLE GRUNBERG: Honestly, I think every element has changed: from the initial inspirations to the way clothing is produced. There are celebrities doing their own lines, models with a large following have become brands. Social media dictates what we need to be wearing at any moment. Fast fashion has affected the quality of standards and access to clothing is very cheap. We have lost the value of craft and hard work to some degree.
Having spent several years in Los Angeles designing for five to eight different fashion companies at a time, Grunberg speaks of these effects from an informed perspective of someone with first-hand experience. She recalls the pressure of a particular moment when a supervisor, unenthused by her complex mood board approach, handed her a recent issue of a fashion magazine suggesting to get inspiration directly from its pages. Seemingly successful and in-demand career was grinding away at Michelle’s creative spirit. This was not the “real world” she’d imagined growing up in New York City suburbs taking the train to attend weekend classes at FIT as a teenager. Something had to give. She quit her job, packed a bag and spent half a year trekking and photographing in Asia. Meanwhile, her brother Alex had moved to Taos, New Mexico, and began making yarn and crocheting. A late-night catch-up conversation sparked an idea to work together. Michelle was eager for the next step and the brand Michelle Helene (her first and middle names) was launched.
180: What are main differences in working as a contracted or independent designer?
GRUNBERG: As a corporate designer, I had to create collections very fast, every month, and I desired to do the opposite. As an independent label owner, I really love being highly involved in every aspect from design to sales. This pushes me to learn more of the business every day.
Her first collection was aptly titled Twisted / Beauty and executed in all white. The second, primarily black collection was called Surrender. However, these were not mere exercises in contrast. In addition to proving to herself that she could design in monochrome and show texture and depth, this set the stage for conceptual exploration of ideas beyond our binary mentality. Good or bad, female or male, Taos or Manhattan. A powerful description on her website explains the visionary ethos: “In nature, upheaval and turbulence caused by opposing or unexpected forces often creates a rare and unlikely type of beauty. While the innocence and sanctity of that which is familiar is stripped away, the will to survive allows life to endure. Leaving behind only a stark yet serene simplicity and the boding of new life.” She is drawn to processes that honor and celebrate complexities instead of championing simplification. Her latest advertorial campaign was shot in Cuba following easement of restrictions on travel by American citizens.
180: Was this creative decision a political endeavor?
GRUNBERG: There is a certain political aspect in every art form. It’s inherent in our culture. However, I did not intend this to be political. While I do not root my collections in any one thing, it was mainly island-inspired. It was about being in a timeless space and Cuba still has that sense. I wanted to present the beautiful and moving people and culture. The images were captured in a variety of places there, including the Santeria Forest, La Guardia, the brutalist Giron building, and so on. Fellow alumna Collette McGruder directed the video and beautifully conveyed the feeling. Andrea Dosouto did the street casting and found such beautiful individuals, both young and older. I have always wanted to show my collection on an older woman and finally got to do that.
Grunberg is developing a number of signature looks such as the Sir Dress and the Snowdrop Cape. The labor-intensive process is also infused with love and care of the people who contribute to it: from local sheep farmers dedicated to the wellness of their stock to the Buddhist nun who taught the siblings unique yarn dying techniques. “I believe there is a spiritual element to my fashion. The ability to handle the fibers, dye and fine tune the colors, weave the designs… it lends to a certain serenity and calmness,” reflects Grunberg. Most garments are handmade and carry a poignant emotional story that makes them more than stylish pieces to wear, but indispensable collector’s items in a well-curated wardrobe. Through all the ups and downs of creating one’s own path in the fashion industry Grunberg is happy to be able to count for support on her lifelong Academy friends and her brother.
GRUNBERG: Alex and I love it when we dork out on creating. Our work ethics are similar. We feed off of each other to be better craftspeople, better persons. We honestly have such a great time! I didn’t realize how happy I could be in life doing what I love.