Representing the creative future

AREA: Power to the underdog

The New York-based brand is making its own rules

Since founding their brand AREA in 2014, designers Piotrek Panszczyk and Beckett Fogg quickly became one of the most vibrant brands on the New York Fashion Week calendar. The founders, who met while both doing Parsons’ MFA Fashion Design and Society degree, successfully established an instantly recognizable AREA look in just a few seasons, centred around elaborate crystal embellishments, iridescent lamé fabrications, and sharp tailoring. Reaching the finals and semi-finals of the 2016 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Prize and the LVMH Prize in 2020, their vision has been acknowledged by industry heavyweights and celebrities alike, having been worn by Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Michelle Obama.

This year, Panszczyk and Fogg decided to break the regular fashion cycle to establish their own production calendar, and launched their first direct-to-consumer collection in January with a series of short videos featuring Leiomy Maldonado, an Afro Puerto Rican ballroom scene dancer, also known as the Wonder Woman of Vogue. Two weeks later, the duo debuted another milestone: their first couture collection. We caught up with Panszczyk to discuss the beginnings of AREA, their new operational model, and their plans for revitalizing couture.

You named your brand after a popular 80s Manhattan nightclub. What was it about this place that resonated with the vision you had for AREA?

It’s funny, I feel like people made the interpretation that we named the brand after a club, but it’s not quite how it happened. When we started, we were looking for a name that could fit a brand and we knew that we didn’t want to start something that was about us per se – it was more about a studio, a collective space, a literal area where we can come together and collaborate with other creatives. And while this was happening, the founders of the downtown club Area – which was actually a block and a half from our old studio – released an amazing book that same week. Area was an art club that used to be constantly flipped on its head; every weekend there was a new super creative theme. They went out of business in the end because they were basically rebuilding a whole club every weekend. Also, it was different than Studio 54, glamorous in a more downtown way, which we found quite cool. So it was this weird synergy of things coming together at that moment that made us stick with the name AREA.

“The thought of doing something on our own kept coming back, and finally, we were like, ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right now because at least we’ll still have time to recover if it ends up being a failure.'”

What drew you to working together with Beckett at Parsons initially and how has your collaboration developed over the years?

It started just by walking past each other’s classrooms and reacting to each other’s work. Although we weren’t in the same year, the classes at the MFA course were super small, so it was really easy to connect with other students. And once we connected, I started to assist Beckett with prepping for her thesis collection. After that, Beckett said that we should start a brand – she comes from a family of entrepreneurs, so for her, it’s easier to have this gutsy mindset. At the moment, I said: “Let me graduate first and you go and gain experience somewhere, and then let’s see how it pans out.” So she went to work at Calvin Klein Collection for a bit, but the thought of doing something on our own kept coming back, and finally, we were like, “If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right now because at least we’ll still have time to recover if it ends up being a failure.” So it was all quite naïve, we didn’t really know what we were getting into. We had an idea and a dream but we didn’t really grasp what it would mean, which was also quite good because it proved that you can learn a lot by just trying.

We’re very different as people and over the years we naturally started to break up the way we went about our business. I do all the designing and creative direction – I actually do that with my husband, Kareem, who’s our digital manager – and Beckett is a lot more business-focused. We saw that in order to make the brand happen, we needed to build a team structure with people that we could have a dialogue with. We always discuss everything together from design to budgets, to marketing, but at the same time, we all have our own responsibility in making it work.

AREA SS19

Are there any challenges of working in this way?

I think that the biggest and most important challenge is to be able to be compassionate and empathetic to people and understand that people will bring different points of view. When we built our team, it was important for us to have people from all over the world and understand that, especially in fashion, every area is so specific, culturally speaking. Our work is about figuring that challenge out and asking how: can we come to a resolution together, how can we get different ideas to co-exist?

“Before the pandemic, we were stuck in this rut of fashion weeks, collections, deliveries, and deadlines. And although we were doing great, we were stuck in this system without being able to breathe – we just had to do what our peers did before us to make it work because that was the only way that we knew. “

You were born in Poland and moved with your family to The Netherlands when you were a child. How do you think your background influences the way you work as a designer?

I’m 34 now, so I was born when Poland was still a communist country. The way that my mom’s generation perceived and communicated through fashion back then influenced my work a lot. Nothing was available to us, you had to get things from illegal markets or go to Warsaw to find stuff. But in my family, there was also a passion for craft and creating clothes yourself. All my aunts were tailors and my mom was constantly making clothes for everyone, so I think this love for creating was ingrained in me from the beginning. We lived in a small house with a lot of women, but everyone made it work. I realized later on that this is why I have an affection for fashion, I understood that you can build an identity through it.

Moving to The Netherlands, which was a very different country from Poland, also was a massive influence as it was super liberal and multicultural, and there was this mindset of sexual freedom. Another thing was just being able to easily get on a bus and go to Paris or Antwerp – I would put on a cute look, walk around and observe. I initially hated studying, and when I was a teen, my mom was really worried that it would all go downhill. After high school, I went to a fashion and beauty school and became aware of my love for fashion. I then applied to ArtEZ in Arnhem, which was a real eye-opener to me: it was an amazing school and I really started to learn there about the possibilities of creating a visual language as a designer – that’s when I became certain that I wanted to work in the industry.

You spoke about the importance of the ‘making it work’ mindset. How have you adapted as a brand to create collections during a global pandemic?

Although this time has obviously been very tough for everyone, I think that my biggest takeaway has been that you have the power to do whatever you want – you just have to be smart about it and plan everything properly. Before the pandemic, we were stuck in this rut of fashion weeks, collections, deliveries, and deadlines. And although we were doing great, we were stuck in this system without being able to breathe – we just had to do what our peers did before us to make it work because that was the only way that we knew. So when the pandemic hit, it was super scary, but it also gave us a moment to think about what we could do better if something like that would ever happen again. We looked at our merchandising plan and the amount of stuff we were producing and we were questioning it, like, how is that really valid? At one point, stores would congratulate us on a 30% sell-through and we would be like: “Then why did we produce the other 70%?” And for us, fashion is very emotional and we want people to recognize that – if they are going to spend the money on our designs, we want them to treasure and love them for a long time. So it was important for us to go back to that feeling and break out from this collection cycle.

“If you keep following the industry, you’ll just get lumped in with a bunch of people and if the industry goes down, you’ll go down with it. So stay above that and be true to your aesthetic – it’s about being above trends and giving yourself space to create an identity that people can always recognize.”

And that’s why you launched your new direct-to-consumer ‘RTW 01’ collection, right?

Yeah. We started seeing that a lot of our clients don’t even understand how the fashion week system works – they want to buy it immediately, not wait six months for it to arrive in stores. So we worked on figuring out how we can pre-produce it and release it immediately after we reveal the collection. And although we really took our time to make this system work and didn’t release a collection for a year, we didn’t disappear – the work just started speaking for itself and people were still really connecting to it.

AREA COUTURE SS21

Last month, you also revealed your first couture collection – how did this endeavor tie into your new system of operating?

Pre-pandemic, we would plan these big seasonal shows and there was just so much banking on this one moment: we would show our commercial collection, couture pieces, and elements of the pre-collection all at once. We thought that putting three extremely different collections in different price-points in one show was just kind of dumb in the end because we couldn’t focus on any of them properly, so we decided to split them all up. We believe that every collection should be treated as its own show and have its own shine because they are all important to us. We want to make an amazing jacket as well as an intricate couture gown – they are both as valuable to us, just in a different context. It’s all about creating an experience for that specific collection, instead of lumping it all in one, and having more frequent drops with visuals that really connect with our consumers. And the response has been really great – when we released our couture collection, we got so much feedback, more than we ever did with the physical shows. I really think that [with all the possibilities of the digital realm], this really is the golden age for young people – the power is within us and you can make a change. And sometimes it won’t happen immediately, but just take your time to do it and be patient. If you keep following the industry, you’ll just get lumped in with a bunch of people and if the industry goes down, you’ll go down with it. So stay above that and be true to your aesthetic – it’s about being above trends and giving yourself space to create an identity that people can always recognize.

“I started seeing how elitist the industry is – how you basically have to be white, rich, from a certain family and area of the world to be successful.”

So it’s all about becoming self-sufficient and taking the ownership back for you guys?

Exactly. In the beginning, we were so consumed with all these foundations and prizes and when we started doing them, I got slapped in the face so many times. And I started seeing how elitist the industry is – how you basically have to be white, rich, from a certain family and area of the world to be successful. But we needed to see that and see what we don’t want to become to try to do better for ourselves as a company. If that route is right for you, that’s also fine and I’m not judging that, but I think that I prefer to be an underdog because then it’s not really about pleasing anyone. You obviously still have to be smart about it and use your resources when people can help, but just don’t get caught up in it or think that it’s the only way to make it. For us, if the doors are shut in our face, we’re like: “Watch me in a year.”

Over the seasons, you have worked with a great signature of your brand, the crystal strand. What first attracted you to this detail?

I think the crystals have been part of figuring out who I am as a designer. I was always drawn to extreme avant-garde things, but I also loved the refinement of classic designs from houses like Chanel. It was interesting for me to figure out what people perceive as luxurious or not, and crystal became the leading way to that idea of: “Is it trash, or is it treasure?” Initially, we worked with really classic materials like lamés, crystals, and furs, but we would rough them up and try to turn these cliché things on their head – shaving the lamé fabric with hair clippers or making lingerie out of the fur. And with the crystals, we started to think about the idea of a pinstripe and how a strand of crystals can be translated into this concept. And we realized how modular this element was, almost like Lego or building blocks. But we knew that getting it in a good quality was really expensive, so we had to become savvy about our designs because no stores would be interested in stocking garments that cost $4,000. We first started to make red tracksuits that had crystal sports stripes on the side and those garments became real products that would live in people’s closets. Once we got that down, we became more experimental with it; we realized that this material relates to elements such as thread yarn, crochet, knitwear, or sculpture, and from there, the sky was the limit. That when we realized how the crystals could work for us commercially as a trim on a lot of different garments. It really gave us the versatility to build things that are very elaborate, and we saw that there was a market for these very niche pieces.

“Every region in the world has its own core root and craft, not just France. We wanted to see how we could start something on a global scale and show that you can do this kind of work in a lot of different places. “

Is that why you decided to branch out into couture?

It was a really natural decision for us, we didn’t overthink it. People had a lot to say about it, stuff like: “Who do they think they are?” We are in no way comparing ourselves to masters like Yves Saint Laurent or Cristóbal Balenciaga, but for us, craft and making these types of pieces is very true to our brand. Pre-pandemic, we actually were already talking with the Chambre Syndicale – when we were in Paris for the LVMH Prize – about possibly being the guest of the Haute Couture week. And even though we weren’t able to show in Paris, it was almost more important to prove that there are different ways of doing it. For us, the concept of couture goes further and deeper than when ‘Haute Couture’ was officially established in 1858. It even goes back to ancient civilization with the need to express oneself, a peacock in a way, prove your status. Every region in the world has its own core root and craft, not just France. We wanted to see how we could start something on a global scale and show that you can do this kind of work in a lot of different places.

And revitalize it, in a way?

Yes. A lot of young people really love the idea of couture and craftsmanship and want to learn about the techniques. I think it’s really important that the new generation is starting to get excited again about quality and the art of taking the time to create something.

Crystal Chair Bag,FW20 Photo by @bobrowiec

A lot of your pieces, such as the heart-shaped dress or the chair bag, have been very popular on social media platforms and even became memes. How crucial is creating visually-striking designs that get a lot of attention online?

I think the viral aspect has been accidental for us, these pieces are just really true to our aesthetic as a brand. Our clients always relate to these pieces, no matter how bombastic or out of this world they get. For instance, with the chair pieces, we were approached by the architecture firm Crosby Studios to collaborate with them and we thought that it should be something related to furniture. Then we asked ourselves: “How can we make it AREA?” So we created a crystal bag and an earring. It was just a very natural and fun thing for us to come up with, something that felt very fabulous, but also in a way so stupid and over-the-top. [Laughs]

“If you look at our clientele, it’s such a broad range of ages and people from all over the world. They all have their own restrictions of how their body works, but they can all dissect it and pull from it, and I don’t think they ever feel excluded. It’s important for us that our work never becomes about tokenism.”

What’s a message or emotion that you wanted to evoke with both your ‘RTW 01’ campaign and the visuals you have created for the couture collection reveal? 

I’ve always been a massive fan of Leiomy Maldonado, who we photographed for the RTW campaign. I just think that she’s such a good person and a true activist. And the ballroom culture has been such an underdog for years, but at the same time such a nurturing space and a safety net for so many people of colour. Last year, a story about trans activists from New York came out in Vogue Mexico and Leiomy was featured in one of our braided couture pieces. I thought that it was just such a moment, even bigger than when Beyoncé wore our dress, in a way. So we reached out to her and she said that she loves our brand and would love to collaborate on something. We wanted to create something dynamic and a pick-me-up for people after this tough year. We started looking at the concept of voguing and the photography of Steven Meisel and Irving Penn, and thought about how we could almost make it better [laughs], with someone that can kill it in one take. This campaign touched so many people and proved that there’s so much in fashion that has been ignored constantly. I’m not saying that we are reinventing the wheel, but we are trying to propose a new idea of what ‘classic’ was and what it can be, as well as how important it is that everyone can recognize themselves in it. If you look at our clientele, it’s such a broad range of ages and people from all over the world. They all have their own restrictions of how their body works, but they can all dissect it and pull from it, and I don’t think they ever feel excluded. It’s important for us that our work never becomes about tokenism.

When it comes to the couture campaign, since ‘couture’ to me means made-to-measure, I knew that we wanted to showcase it on a curvy body. It’s easy to make someone that’s size zero look great, so it became about showing that the same design can look great on different body shapes. When we began working with Precious [Lee] on the fittings, the first thing that we did was the tailored suit look and she said: “This has never happened to me before.” It’s so problematic that these types of bodies haven’t been previously considered in couture. So we’re coming from a standpoint that if you have the privilege to change things, you have to just step up, be empathetic and make a change – hopefully, that’s the essence of our product.

What have been some of the most pivotal moments in your career since starting the brand in 2014?

I think Michelle Obama wearing our suit was a really big moment, because people didn’t really take us seriously before and thought we were just a glam brand worn by Bella Hadid or Kendall Jenner. But this moment changed that perception and showed that we can speak to a variety of people and a lot of career women in very serious fields all of a sudden were like: “Oh, I understand it now. I know how to buy into this brand.” Another great moment was dressing Jazmine Sullivan for her ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ performance at this year’s Super Bowl. Even though I’ve never watched the Super Bowl before [laughs], it was amazing – it was such a fashion moment and we got an overwhelming response. It gave us more power in regards to who we can address and dress in our clothes.

Is there anyone who you are dreaming of dressing, but haven’t yet?

Naomi Campbell. I would love that, so let her know!

*Naomi Campbell wore AREA some days prior to the publishing of this interview

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