I first started following New York’s Bree Billiter and her original designs online last year, back before anyone had even thought to breathe a word about COVID-19. Her attention to detail, stunning editorial work, and whimsical futuristic-esque dresses caught my fashion-obsessed eye immediately; and then I was hooked. From runway shows, to print photoshoots, to videos of her sewing flowers individually onto shiny fabric, I’ve been following Bree’s artistic journey for over a year now. Today, with the Coronavirus gripping the nation, and with New York City at its epicenter, I wanted to see how she was holding up.
But first, a little bit about her creative past:
IRK: When did you first know you wanted to design clothing?
BB: I have always known. I have always known what I was put on this planet to do and I have video of myself designing at three years old to prove it.
IRK: Was your family supportive of your artistic goals?
BB: I think in the beginning I didn’t give my family the option to be anything other than supportive, but I have always been on a train full speed ahead towards my dreams regardless of whether anyone wanted to come along for the ride or not. I am grateful that my brother and sister in law have come to see my shows in NYFW - that was really special for me.
IRK: Who in your life was your biggest inspiration as a child?
BB: Barbie, she always had it all and refused to settle for anything less.
IRK: What was your first major design? Describe it for me and how you felt when it was finished.
BB: My junior prom dress. I used a simplicity pattern and bright blue fabric with about three hundred tiny flowers cut out and hand sewn on the bodice. It was so much work, but fabric manipulation and hand crafted embellishments (especially flower inspired ones) are part of the fantasy that I love. I was proud of it and I still am; it was a great dress and that tedious hand sewing has held up twelve years later.
Learning about Bree as a child and a young artist brought me to her present, colorful existence. A life of creation, art, and design has led her to build this incredible world for herself where she is able to create the fairy tales that she envisions and bring them into reality with just some fabric and a needle. I myself also have a romantic and grandiose imagination, and wanted to know more about hers:
IRK: You work with a lot of talented photographers and artists to bring your design to life on camera – can you tell us about your favorite shoot?
BB: I have been extremely blessed to work with so many talented people. My favorite shoots are always my most recent ones. Shooting becomes a spiritual experience - it’s so peaceful and stunning, and sometimes the way the sun hits my dresses truly takes my breath away. One moment during a shoot that will forever haunt me is when we found a little field of yellow flowers and the models laid in it...it was beyond magical and just sublime to see. Witnessing these moments in real life is incomparable. The photos help show the magic but in person it can give you chills.
IRK: Your designs have a sort of bright, “fairy tale” aesthetic. What influences your whimsical style?
BB: I design to show the world the magic that we can create in our everyday lives. With fashion you can show the world outwardly what you are daydreaming about. Embody the feeling of a sunset, the way the warm sun rays dance across the water – it’s the feeling of pure happiness put into a wearable form. Fantasy doesn't have to just live in your head filed away in those memories of aw striking beauty. I create painfully beautiful garments that transport the wearer to those days where we would play endless games of pretend in the kingdoms of our backyard.
IRK: What is your favorite type of fabric to create pieces with and why?
BB: When I’m choosing a fabric it’s a very quick process. I walk into the store and if it doesn't scream out to me in the first sixty seconds it’s probably not worth my time. It has to be painful to look at. That type of color that’s hard to capture on camera but can shift colors as the model walks to bring another dimension to the garment.
IRK: What was it like to see your designs walk down the runway for the first time?
BB: Fashion shows have always been insane. No matter how many I have done it’s always the same. They are so much stress and hard work put into a maybe thirty second walk if the model walks slow enough. Being backstage as they line up is so emotional. Months of hard work, sacrifice, and every penny you have culminate in that one moment when everyone in the room has to focus on your design for just a short amount of time. It’s extremely vulnerable but I am always so beyond proud.
IRK: Describe your pre-runway show must haves – what do you bring in your bag to prep before a big show?
BB: I take my entire room with me. A few pairs of scissors, needles, thread, hot glue, glitter, invisible straps, extra embellishments, snacks, make up, extra heels, fashion tape, my outfit, printed images of the garments and models and the line-up. So many things.
I could have asked Bree questions for days about her work – her designs, her runway shows, the amount of time it takes to embellish every single flower on her materialized daydreams. But it was important to me to acknowledge the medical elephant in the room, if you will; COVID-19. I think we all thought a couple of months back that this would pass, that it wouldn’t be as detrimental to society as it is, and that we’d all be fine and go on about our normal lives. But as we enter our second month of COVID shelter in place, New York City is emerging from a battle that has left it forever changed.
IRK: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work and designs?
BB: Unfortunately I was furloughed at work, so it’s terrifying to have no money coming in. I applied for unemployment like everyone else but I have yet to receive any money. It’s hard because all I have ever wanted was time to work on designs, but it’s the cruelest torture there is to finally have the time but no money for the materials. I have been using scrap fabrics to make new designs. It is also hard to not be able to try it on a body for some time. It’ll be weeks before I get to see the design actually come to life and for now I just stack it on top of all the ball gowns in my room and start on the next one.
Normally spring means outdoor shooting time so this is especially painful. Also as a sewer there is pressure for me to be sewing masks, but I have no income so buying material is out of the question. The only thing I can do to help is stay isolated in order to slow the spread, like every single person other than essential workers who should be doing the same. End of story. I have not left my apartment since March 12th...I am terrified to even go downstairs and pick up my groceries. I use amazon to get groceries and make dresses in order to stay sane. Looking out my window and seeing maybe one person is so freaky. The loss of lives breaks my heart. This is just the most unspeakably devastating time my generation has lived through. I just hope as a result we take care of our planet and go back to the art of fashion instead of fast fashion.
IRK: What is the biggest change you’ve seen for artists in the city since the statewide shut down has taken place?
BB: They are getting creative at home and with their cell phones and skype, but also almost every single creative I know has left the city. For me it’s been so interesting to see where everyone comes from.
IRK: Describe the New York fashion scene before and now during the COVID-19 pandemic – how has art changed and how has your daily life as an artist been affect?
BB: Before all this it was still cold out, it was still winter, but now my everyday outfits have been only pajamas or yoga pants for a month now. Everyone is wearing masks and I have thought about making a non-functioning but beautiful one. But I am not the type to take something so painful and exploit it for likes. Normally right now we would all be rocking spring time dresses and colorful outfits but I think we will just be skipping right to summer. Tie dye is having a moment because that is the essence of summer which we are all craving now.
IRK: Are you still working and designing during quarantine?
BB: I’m an artist. I can’t just Netflix and sit - I Netflix and create it’s how I’ve always been.
IRK: How can we come together as a community to support the artists of New York City during this time?
BB: Most artists in NYC were struggling to pay rent before this happened. I think making NYC more affordable for artists was needed before this even started and now because of this people have given up their apartments to go home and start the process of getting to NYC all over. I remember that painful process and it’s so difficult and I worry that a lot of people won’t be able to bear the thought of pushing themselves to come back here. I can’t imagine starting all over. But hopefully local artists will be the suppliers and choice that people make when they shop instead of big companies.
Hearing the stories of New Yorkers giving up everything and going back to their old homes broke my heart. New York City is the city that never sleeps, the city of dreams, the hope that so many artists flock to in their careers. And now, more than ever, their dreams are being shattered in silence as they are forced to shut down their operations and shelter for safety.
Bree’s story, and the stories of all artists during the quarantine, must be heard. It’s important for us as a community to rally behind artists, buy local, and support the designers and creators that we love. And for the artists still in New York City? We love you and want to hear your stories, too.
Bree’s Favorite color: Red...but if you came to my room you would think it’s pink. Also is rainbow an answer?
Bree’s favorite type of neckline: Sweetheart..probably because I love the name of it.
Bree’s favorite food: Sushi or olives or chocolate
Bree’s favorite designer: Iris Van Herpen
Bree’s favorite binge-worthy Netflix series: The Office
Written by: Ashley Dawson (@Lapin_studios)
Designer: Bree Billiter (@breeoriginaldesigns)