Jess Grindell’s eponymous label is fuelled by feminine energy

“A fun and unique uniform for the modern female to express herself.”

Auckland-based designer Jess Grindell “can’t ever remember not having an unnecessary amount of clothing”. While she didn’t grow up in a fashion-orientated family, she learnt the value of a wardrobe investment piece at a young age. Working between her dad’s building sites and a local supermarket, Jess saved to spend on clothing she loved; inspired by influential female fashion figures.

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In 2021, she founded her label as an ode to those powerful women. The label’s signature Riding Shirt was the catalyst for the Jess Grindell Couture collection; comprised of “silhouettes made to make the wearer feel powerful and seen”. Below, we speak to the emerging designer about feminism, historical fashion and what’s next for Jess Grindell Couture.

How would you describe Jess Grindell to someone who’s never seen it before?

A collection of silhouettes made to make the wearer feel powerful and seen. Elements are drawn from both historical garments and traditional menswear, using a collection of considered and quality fabrics. A fun and unique uniform for the modern female to express herself.

Tell us about you. What’s your fashion background?

I’m not one of those people who have family members in fashion. [I didn’t] have my grandmother teach me how to sew from a young age but what I did have was an addiction to shopping. I can’t ever remember not having an unnecessary amount of clothing. I had a job from a young age, so I could afford to buy things I wanted, I used to clean building sites my dad was working on in high school, as well as working at the supermarket. It’s so funny because you’d never catch me in a high-vis now.

I never explored sewing during high school either but I knew I wanted to be in fashion one way or another. I strategically went into uni to do graphic design (which I had done at school) so I could then switch my major to fashion the following year. I became obsessed with it.

I was one of the only young students [going into] school on the weekends; I [spent my time] making clothes for me or my friends. I then moved from Wellington to Auckland to transfer to another school. I didn’t know many people, so my only friends were the ones I studied with. Naturally, I spent every day at the studio.

Where did the name come from?

I’m obsessed with learning about people’s lives who are/were people of influence in fashion and culture. I love listening to interviews and watching documentaries about people; understanding why they are the way they are. This drew me to want to create a brand around me… I just called it my name. I feel like this won’t restrict me to just fashion, as I’d love to make other things in the future as well.

How did the label get started? Talk us through the process and the challenges.

It’s annoying because this is such a cliche answer in today’s world, but in lockdown (of course) I was making a few things and posted this one shirt. It’s now known as the Riding Shirt. Several people had responded really well to that post and asked me to make them one.

It took a whole year (until the next lockdown came) for me to take myself seriously. I posted [the Riding Shirt] again and just went from there. Also, during the first lockdown, I’d just finished uni… everyone who’s done a fashion degree knows you don’t touch your sewing machine a year following graduation.

In terms of the process, it’s challenging to put your work out there when you begin. When you’re studying, you’re taught to relate everything back to something so specifically (like a historical garment, a uniform, a piece of art, etc). Even a type of pocket, or the placement of a pocket. Everything had to mean something and if it didn’t, your work wasn’t considered ‘good’ or ‘successful’.

Taking myself away from that mindset slightly – and being okay with what I designed – was the biggest obstacle I found when first started posting garments. The brand generally just has an overarching vibe and energy about it, so that’s how I’m trying to design . I pull inspiration from similar places for every piece but I try to not get myself in a crazy cycle of overthinking everything.

What were you trying to achieve from the project at the time? How has this evolved and what are you trying to communicate through the brand now?

I think women are the greatest invention ever and I have a strong feminist ethos; one I explored during university. I researched gender bias in the medical industry and how to use clothing as a way to evoke emotions in people through protest fashion. I also have an obsession with the idea of ​​a housewife… I just think it’s so ridiculous the way that women have been treated (and still are).

These things are definitely major factors in my designs and the overall feeling of the brand. I just want all people to feel strong, powerful, confident… all those positive emotions when wearing my clothing. Now I am trying to explore who the Jess Grindell Couture girl is and create an interesting narrative around my brand.

What are you most proud of in your work on your label?

The event I put on a month or so ago, which I called the Jess Grindell Couture Night! It was so nice seeing people appreciate my work and to have a community of people with similar interests get together. I don’t have my own retail space and clothes never give the same impact as they do in person as they do over the internet.

I’d love to continue doing more events in the future. I think there’s something interesting about it and it’s a cool way to portray the brand. It’s a space I’d love to continue to explore.

What do you wish you knew when you started?

Going back to studying days when I first started sewing, someone once told me ‘There’s a right way to do things, and there’s your way of doing things’. It’s really not that deep but I think it’s a good piece of advice to just go back to, especially when you get overwhelmed with others doing ‘well’ (or at least looking like they are).

Find out how you design and just make it. There’s always so much change between your original design drawing and the final product. I really believe it’s best just to make somethingeven if the first toile is awful and you’d never want anyone to see it. The best bit about making clothing is the problem-solving process.

Also, I wish I had known earlier that books are the best for inspiration. Literally, [just] go to the library. It’s much nicer than researching from your computer or phone. There are so many beautiful books with great images and information rather than other people’s opinions on the internet.

I think you take in much more from books because you’re not so distracted with the other 200 tabs you’ve also got open. I’m not a big reader but I love looking at images. I think images can speak much more than words and you can draw your own opinions [from them].

What about the local fashion industry needs to change?

People always talk about how you can either go into fashion to make money or to make things you like. I wish there were better resources to allow people do both.

Who is in your wardrobe right now?

Lots of vintage items! I love clothing that wasn’t made in our decade. [Back then] everything was made with quality in mind, instead of making production easier and cheaper with mass production. My favourite piece is this beautiful Costume National velvet coat. I’m so in love with it and the detailing is so traditional… it has elements of menswear construction which I’m drawn to.

The sleeves are even lined with the striped Bemberg lining. It’s Italian craftsmanship at its finest! I also have an ’80s Comme blazer, which I bought in Melbourne. It was my first real ‘designer’ purchase, so it holds a special place in my heart.

How can we buy one of your pieces?

On my website! I also have a few stockists in New Zealand. Pre-orders for my past collection have closed but I’m always open to doing custom [pieces].

I’m currently working on some new items which I’m planning on dropping early September, so keep an eye out or subscribe to my mailing list for updates! It will be a mix of made-to-order items and pieces I already have in stock, which is very exciting.

Browse the Jess Grindell collection here.

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