Max Osterweis is that rare talent who can skip from one artistic medium to another without missing a beat. A professional screenwriter and director, the San Francisco-born, New York-based artist has just launched Suno, a line of stunning women’s apparel made from Kenyan textiles. JC Report chatted with Osterweis about straddling two mediums, naming the brand after his mother and teaming up with Opening Ceremony.
JC Report: What inspired you to transition from film to fashion?
Max Osterweis: I had a little break. I’d just finished writing a script and I didn’t want to sit at my desk for another two years writing another one. Or, let’s just say I didn’t want to at that moment. I wanted to do something that had a little more of a tangible, immediate result. At the same time, the timing was right because I wanted to do something in Kenya—particularly after the post-election violence last year.
JCR: Had you spent a lot of time in Kenya previously?
MO: I used to go pretty regularly, but now I go very regularly. I’ve been going there somewhat regularly for the last 13 years.
JCR: Had you imagined doing something in the fashion arena?
MO: I started collecting the textiles I ended up using from the first time I went to Kenya. I’d wanted to make dresses and skirts out of them for friends for years. I thought about it occasionally, but only seriously recently.
JCR: What types of prints tend to catch your eye?
MO: All kinds at this point. I like the funnier ones. One of my favorite ones—which they talked about in the New York Times—has cell phones and feathers. It’s also funny to see a piece of cloth that’s decorated with various teapots from around the world. I appreciate that in many ways: one, because it’s beautiful, and, two, because it’s hilarious. The funny ones are some of my favorites and then others are just amazing graphically.
JCR: Do the patterns inform the designs?
MO: When we were putting the collection together we had about 20 silhouettes that we decided to do. Then when I was actually assembling the collection, I sat with 2,000 or 3,000 kangas in a huge room in Kenya and figured out which ones would fit which each silhouette. Certain ones lend themselves better to others for a lot of different reasons. The patterns go both ways, or sometimes something has a huge image in the middle, so it only works on a particular dress and wouldn’t work on a skirt that has a lot of pieces because you’d miss the image. And then with other ones, the texture of the fabric is heavier, so we use those for jackets.
JCR: Did you have concepts in mind for the designs beforehand?
MO: Yeah, I did. I had a sense of what might work in the fabrics. I grew up with my mom who is pretty fashionable. I grew up looking not only at her clothes but also at the fashion magazines that she had—Italian Vogue and French Marie-Claire.
JCR: Did she have any input on the designs?
MO: No, I didn’t tell her about it until I was done.
JCR: And you named it after her too—what was her response?
MO: At first she was like “No, you can’t name it after me!” I sent her the look book and then she called me back crying—she was pretty happy.
JCR: Opening Ceremony is selling the line—how did you hook up with them?
MO: I first met Carol [Lim], who’s one of the partners, probably 12 years ago—if not longer—in Berkeley through a friend. I’ve known her forever and then she and Humberto [Leon] came out here and started Opening Ceremony. Over the years we became better friends so when I decided to do this I just reached out to them naturally because they’ve got the coolest store. I invited them to see my designs, but because they’d known me for years and had never known to be in fashion, they were just kind of silent afterwards and I assumed they hated it. So I asked them what they thought, and they said: “We came over here expecting it to be like going to a friend’s poetry reading, but the truth is we like it and want to carry it.”
JCR: How long had you been working on it at that point?
MO: Two and a half months or so. It’s really a brand new thing. It went from being a little project to being beyond full-on.
JCR: Where do you hope it’ll go from here?
MO: We just finished our autumn/winter collection and it’s more than twice as many pieces as last time. It won’t be one-of-a-kind pieces because it’s too difficult to do that—it’s just not a sustainable business plan for anybody.
This interview was conducted by Chelsea Bauch.