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Sculpting a Career in Fashion

How Alice Wu made the switch from fine arts to clothing design.

Moriah Carlson and Alice Wu of Feral Childe.

Courtesy of Erin Weckerle

When I first contacted Alice Wu, she had just returned from a week of meetings with store buyers and fabric suppliers in Los Angeles, but she promised to get in touch with me soon. The following week, she was on the road for sales appointments in the Pacific Northwest. Ten days later, she wrote a warm, apologetic note from a cab en route to the airport; she was about to fly to Taipei, Taiwan, to visit family before returning for another week of promoting her Feral Childe brand. In fact, Wu is almost always going about the business of making and touting her surprising creations, but she still endeavors to do even more.

Designed by the bicoastal team of Alice Wu, who’s based in Oakland, Calif., and Moriah Carlson of Brooklyn, N.Y., Feral Childe is a women’s clothing line that exudes a maddeningly effortless elegance. It is perhaps best known for its quirky, original prints: One season’s designs resemble stars or little jolts of electricity, while another’s hide secret details like tepees and sea horses. You get the sense that you could pile on any combination of layers and feel comfortable, mysterious, and a little bit badass. 

Unlike many fashion designers, Wu and Carlson both come from fine arts rather than fashion backgrounds. Wu studied sculpture at the Yale School of Art; Carlson studied painting at the New York Studio School. They met at Wellesley College, where they studied as undergrads, when a printmaking professor hired them to wash eggshells for an art installation. Their clothing line began in New York as a casual collaboration. Fifteen years later, this serendipitous beginning has evolved into sophisticated-yet-whimsical seasonal collections that are made in midtown Manhattan and sold all over the world. 

Before she embarked on a career in fashion, Wu created colorful and minimalist sculpture and video art. Using found materials—felt, construction paper, scrap wood, broken furniture, other artists’ discarded materials—Wu describes her artistic practice then as “dumpster diving in the name of art.”

When she graduated from Yale and moved to New York, she and Carlson both worked to balance office jobs with creating art in their respective studios. Trying to find their place in the art world was a struggle, “scrounging for scraps, always fighting for survival like a wild thing.” To support one another’s artistic practice, they collaborated on printmaking and sewing projects, making editions of utility aprons in fabrics like red silk satin or pink fake fur. Or one of them would create a dress and the other would re-create it with a twist—“like playing exquisite corpse in 3-D,” Wu says.

One day on the subway, Wu met a stranger with a business idea. Awed by her hand-sewn outfit, this woman told her that a friend was opening a shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and was looking for edgy new designers. “She scribbled down her friend’s contact information and dashed out of the car. Moriah and I decided to present our clothing together. We had nothing to lose.”

When it came time to choose a name for the line, the two thought back to their shared experience of struggle and creativity in the city. Inspired by the post-apocalyptic world of the Mad Max movies, and, in particular, the growling, boomerang-toting character of the Feral Kid, they decided on the name Feral Childe. (They added an extra “e” to convey an old-timey, fairy-tale aesthetic.) Wu explains, “In those early days, our clothes were very punk. While our aesthetic has evolved over the years and our fabrics and construction have become more refined, we remain true to the spirit of our name.”

As Feral Childe gained visibility, Wu says she and Carlson participated in group fashion shows, hosted trunk shows at their studio, and were contacted by store owners who were interested in carrying the line. At first, financing their growing business was tough, and they paid for everything with personal credit cards, loans, and savings from their part-time jobs. They finally got their big break selling clothing at SCOPE, a global contemporary art fair, where they were invited to fill a booth with their sculptures and clothing. “We decided to fill the booth and then invite our friends and the band Taigaa! to perform daily. It was a real contrast to the rest of the hyperpolished, slick offerings at the art fair.” Over the course of the fair, they sold enough to pay back their loans.

After that, though, Wu says things got only harder. Since they came from outside the fashion industry, they had to learn as they went along. “To grow Feral Childe, we needed to adjust our design schedule to coincide with the industry calendar. In the beginning, we made one-of-a-kind pieces, and they’d be in stores that season, but to sell to more stores we had to start designing collections nine months in advance. You need all that time to source new fabrics, develop the prints and draft new patterns, sew up sales samples, photograph everything, take it to market to show buyers and press, order fabrics, and get them printed and dyed, and then have everything cut and sewn into finished garments. There was a very sharp learning curve to get from sewing everything ourselves for fun to learning about production and having a proper business.”

While making clothes certainly isn’t the same as creating sculpture, Wu says she doesn’t miss making art for art’s sake. With Feral Childe’s seasonal collections, she says there’s always a new opportunity to explore a theme. (Past themes have included Dust Bowl portraits, Jorge Luis Borges, the ancient Roman city of Tarquinia, and Walter De Maria’s earthworks.) She and Carlson create original prints in marathon drawing/painting/collaging sessions and come up with props and styling for photo shoots. They have even made animated films (one shows paper dolls roaming through Yosemite wearing miniature versions of Feral Childe clothing) and put on performances, like the time they outfitted hip-hop dancers, who then choreographed K-pop-inspired routines and performed them to live music. Wu and Carlson aspire to make clothing that can be cherished for years, just like the works of art they once solely focused on creating.

Wu says running the company is rewarding in a surprising number of ways: “Finally having clothes that fit me. Meeting people who tell us they feel good wearing our clothes. Forging a business and making art with my best friend. Getting to see the world because of it!” She adds, “Sculpture can be overwhelmingly open-ended. With fashion you refine your ideas and whittle everything down to an elegant size.”

Asked what advice she would offer to someone looking to switch careers, Wu says there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But, the advice she offers is this: “Work for others in the field. Start local. Keep physically fit. Know your numbers. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Be kind to others. Be kind to yourself.”

This month, Slate is sharing stories of people who started over—like budget wonk Ina Garten, better known as the Barefoot Contessa and fashion designer-turned-director Cindy Meehl—in our "Second Acts" Hive. We want to hear your tales, too. Please hit the "Enter your proposal" button or go here to submit your story about starting over.

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