Known as the first female designer to show at New York Men's Fashion Week and a current finalist for the LVMH prize, Emily Adams Bode continues to push local and global boundaries effortlessly. In her Chinatown studio, we sat down to reflect on her summers in Cape Cod with her family, college internships in New York City, and scaling her growing menswear brand — Bode. Above all of her industry experiences and degrees, Emily points to adaptability and self-confidence as the backbones to her success. Read below to see how she evolved her crafty passion into a modern menswear empire.
This interview took place between Elisee Browchuk and Emily Adams Bode at her office in New York
EB: So the first question we like to ask is how did you get to where you are today? Which is kind of a big one.
EAB: Yeah, totally. So I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. Both of my parents are from Massachusetts, so that's why I don't have an accent, but it's also a big part of my childhood. I was going back and forth from the south to New England and spending a lot of time there. My parents, they're pretty creative, and I was raised doing a lot of craft making and going to antique stores. My grandparents were really into antiques so it's been ingrained in us for generations. When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to work in fashion so I was doing after school programs for sewing and drawing, but I didn't really know what design meant or how to think about designing.
Like as a function?
Yeah. So when I went to school, I did the dual degree program in philosophy and menswear design.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Parsons and Eugene Lang under The New School, and I studied abroad in Switzerland for a year. I wanted to go to a liberal arts college but I knew that my career would probably be in fashion.
Did you intern while you were at The New School?
Yes, when I was in school I interned at Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren.
What did you do as an intern and what departments were you working under?
I was in special projects at Marc so, I did all the little objects that make up his brand identity. Everything from key chains to boxers to bathing suits to all the graphic tee shirts, anything that you would see in the pop-up shops, Marc by Marc, and Bookmarc. At Ralph, I was in rough-wear, which has a heavy vintage influence - all the leather, applicate, beading, fringe. I sat next to tailored-wear (those teams are very close) and we dealt a lot with the concept rooms, the rigging rooms, going to the vintage archives and kind of seeing how vintage can inform a collection. Both of them are pretty corporate environments.
Where else? I didn't like a lot of freelance stuff like styling, e-comm styling, prop styling, buying in fashion but I knew that I wanted to launch my own brand. So after college, I toyed with the idea of going elsewhere because I had offers from companies and had met with a few mentors. I was like, "Should I work for a company for a few years?" But it seemed complicated because they were non-competes and I would have had to move out of New York City for two of the companies I was being recruited for — it just didn't really make sense. Parsons had a really good career program and we started getting recruitments like a year before we even graduated, which was really tempting because it's like, “Oh, should I just not finish? I could get a job right now!” But it was important for me to finish both degrees and I kept coming back to, “What if I get stuck in this corporate job?” I just ended up knowing that I wanted to launch.
So to understand what it would take to write a fashion business plan, I worked with someone who was doing their MBA at Berkeley and who had also previously worked at Levi’s. Then, while I was freelancing, I started developing my collection.
What made it launch was an introduction to a New York Times T Magazine writer, Hilary Moss, who had used a photograph I had taken for another feature with another company. Subsequently, she looked me up and then we planned the launch around this feature and around men's market week. It was very serendipitous and well timed.
When did your interest in menswear begin?
While I was in college, I was always interested in menswear. I had always shopped for my boyfriends and wore men's clothes — we had a few vintage stores in Atlanta. I was always really attracted to these like boyish shapes and the details and the fabrications of men's gym athletic wear contrasted with workwear. The collection today still mimics that original sentiment of workwear mixed with a love of domestic textile — antique garments and fabrications that are primarily female-centric. Historically, workwear was made by females for the home and now we adapt it to be worn by men. I did a project in college on menswear and my teacher who had worked at Perry Ellis and Bill Blass immediately was like you are going to be working in menswear. I hadn't really thought of it until then. I thought I would probably be in children's wear. Yeah, that's kind of how it happened and then I went full into the menswear track.
Can you talk a little about your design process? Where do you start and what are the steps that you take along the way to create a collection?
It totally depends. Sometimes it's the fabrication that dictates the silhouette but we typically work with two main pants, two main shirts, and two main jackets then develop those into good patterns. It's kind of a seasonless collection in that way. We have garments that I've patterned while I was in college that we still use today, like our workwear pattern for our pant. Though, we add more silhouettes each season based on the narrative and as we scale. I think the foundation of a collection is just minimal styles. The collections are inspired by a familial, or a personal narrative of someone whom I’ve had an intimate relationship with, or whom has a similar sensibility to the world or a domestic space.
So the past seasons I've done collections on an ephemera dealer based in New York. I've done my uncle's grandmother who had a strong relationship to her attic space. My mother and the loss of her Cape Cod home with her sisters and kind of like their youth — coming to terms with tragedy. Let's see, other collections were based on a botanist that I’m very close to who is now a quilt dealer and his idea of femininity and growing up in more of a religious household.
Can you talk a little about the expansion of your team? How did you get to this awesome Chinatown studio space with this group of people?
We began in my apartment. Originally, I had an apartment with a roommate and then when she left I took over her room as my office. I had still been making things at college and had access to factories that I had worked with so, there wasn't really that much stuff necessarily in the apartment. Though, I think the biggest leap so far was moving into this space because it is so drastically different. As we moved, naturally, I needed more employees. The goal is to have a larger in-house manufacturing team so, it made sense to move into a separate studio space that we were able to scale within. This floor is becoming more of our functioning studio with garment construction, patterning, and sampling, and then upstairs is our offices. We haven't taken on an investment so, Bode has scaled very organically.
So is everything almost in-house would you say?
No, so we also have a huge component of the brand that is made in India in addition to our native manufacturing in New York City, Brooklyn, and New Jersey.
Got it. Do you travel to India often?
About once a year to source and to check on manufacturing, and, you know, for inspiration too.
Can you give me a run through of your day to day, what's the first thing you do to wake up in the morning and what's the last thing you do before you leave the studio?
The first thing I do when I wake up is... I probably check my phone.
Yeah, I live down the street so, I typically get an iced tea and walk to work every day. Half the week or maybe two days out of the week I'm the first one here, and then all the other days I'm not even close to the first one here. We have a lenient structure on when people come in and everyone knows what they're doing from the day before. Also, some people will begin at the factory. I still try to go to the factories and to the tailors to check in, but it's not as often as I used to go. Right now we're working on our new collections which includes working with individual team members on sales meetings, checking in on fabric developments, and inspiration. It's kind of three seasons at once — you're finishing one season, in the middle of another, and then beginning the next.
Got It. So, I feel like we've touched upon this, but was there ever a little part of you that was interested in designing womenswear?
It was actually quite the opposite. I didn't want to design for women because I am a woman. Making clothes for myself was something that I did in high school and college. If I knew we had a party to go to on a Thursday night on Tuesday, I would make something to wear. It just wasn't inspiring to me and it’s not the same thing. I get way more inspired when I see someone else wearing my clothes, that is so outside of myself.
Whom do you envision wearing your clothes? Is there a Bode muse?
My friends. I've lived here now for almost 10 years — some of my friends I've had since I first moved here and we were freshmen together in college. Some of them work in furniture design, some of them work in music, and it's just kind of like their way of wearing and their way of existing in New York City.
Given your keen eye for vintage and quilting, can you talk about your stance on the relationship between sustainability and fashion?
Yeah, when I launched it wasn't necessarily about sustainability, but it was just inherent in the way that I was making clothes. As we scale, it's really important that we continue to be sustainable and consider the endless ways that you can develop a plan for sustainability. It’s been a learning process and you begin to look at textiles and garments in a new light. You know, weaving on a machine that's run by electricity is so much more wasteful than doing it by hand.
Supporting sustainable communities has always been a big part of the brand, but not outwardly from a marketing perspective. It’s simply a natural aspect of Bode.
What’s been the best piece of advice someone's given you along the way?
As cliché as it is, I think it’s to trust your instincts. Everyone will give you advice, but you have to trust your gut.
Got it, and what has been your biggest achievement thus far? I'm going to get to the LVMH Prize in a bit!
I think any competition, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund was also a big one. Those two competitions are important to me because I watched them in college not knowing how close I was to being able to be a part of them. I think it probably seemed like a little bit further away in my eyes.
Looking back, is there something along your career path that you would have changed or done differently?
I don't think so. I interned a lot, that's so important. Maybe having more summer jobs, I didn't really do that. I worked in retail but maybe even starting retail younger so I'd get out of it earlier. I worked through to the first year that I launched Bode so if I had a better understanding of retail even earlier Bode could have grown faster...
What has been the hardest thing about being a small brand?
Learning when to play down what you're doing and when to lean into it. It's funny, I mean fashion as a whole is a lot of smoke and mirrors and I think it goes both ways. You even see it with larger companies that try to act smaller and smaller companies trying to act bigger. I think it's really important to just be the brand that you are.
For someone who might be trying to follow in your footsteps, what’s something that you've learned along the way?
Definitely! I think interning and working at both large and small companies is so important because of what you learn from both — the structure of teams at large company versus being somewhere that's a startup. You get to see what you lose when you grow in one way and what you can gain in another. I think I have a lot of faith in the way that I run my business because I've worked at both.
What is something that you've taken with you from your intern experience and applied it to your business model now?
I think not veering too quickly from where you originally came from.
So, going back to the LVMH Prize, you're the only American finalist. What does this mean for you not only as a designer but also for the brand?
It's definitely allowed us to sit on more of a global conversation. It's interesting learning about the other brands and their backgrounds. My background feels very American in this competition.
If you were to win, how do you think you would benefit from the financial and educational support?
Now that we have a business plan, real sales goals, strategies, projections, seasonal turnaround, operations, and know what's happening on a day to day basis; now is the time that we could benefit the most from a grant and mentorship of that scale because it would be easy for us to facilitate our growth in a natural way. We could explain exactly where the money would play into our business and how it could get us to the next level.
Where can we find you when you're not designing? What else do you have your hands in outside of menswear?
I mean we are in almost every day, but this weekend we're going to Brimfield — an antique fair that happens a few times in the summer and fall, which is really fun. That's typically one of our bigger buys for the company.
So it's work and a little bit fun?
Yeah, a little bit of fun.
Can you talk about what it was like to show for the first time?
So after I launched I was approached by the CFDA to show in their emerging designer space during men's fashion week. That was really awesome and a huge honor. Then the following season, we opened men's fashion week, which was really cool. You kind of just have to be savvy and do your best to understand how everything works.
How did you learn everything?
I don't think you learn, I think you just kind of know. It’s the same thing with some of the people that we hire as employees and interns, you can throw some people into any situation and it's fine and some people you can't. I think that's a huge part of the industry too. You have to be really adaptable to change. Most of the people that I tend to hire could make a sale but they could also figure out a sprinkler system. Fashion's really intense and it's really stressful. Part of our business is trying to make it less stressful, we're trying to be a more relaxed brand but we get thrown into all these situations like showing that are stressful yet benefit the company. I strongly believe in having presentations, runways, and showing as a designer but it's a lot.
What role do you play in the show production process?
I have the final say but it's a lot of moving parts, I mean everything is. Part of growing is knowing what to let go of and for me, that's a really difficult thing. I like to know everything from where the threads are being bought to our air conditioning bill.
Is there anything besides the LVMH finals and men's fashion week that you're looking forward to this year?
Yeah, we are opening retail which is really exciting especially because we are expanding our stores into new territories. We're seeing more people shopping from different countries than we ever have before.