I’ve always been creative. Somewhere in my parent’s attic there is a box of mowhawked Barbie dolls with custom makeup and hacked dresses to prove it. As a teen, I carried a poetry notebook around and would hide it in my textbooks to write in class if the mood struck me. I remixed my clothing and turned our garage storage into a painting studio.
Despite a childhood of self-expression and making things, I didn’t go to school for art or fashion. Instead, I spent almost a decade in marketing while managing a chronic illness. After going into remission, I took a year off to figure out my next life. At the time, I didn’t know what that would become. But I started out simply remembering what it was like to live as creatively as possible. I went back to things I loved when I was younger and could do from home. For me, that meant painting and hand-crafting. I started making some feather headpieces and fringed jewelry, and rediscovered my love of crystal embellishment when having a creative date with a friend. Pretty soon, I refined my skills and began working with smaller crystals. Then one day came a lightbulb: “I’ve put crystals on a lot of stuff, what about sunglasses?” I thought I was just coming up with creative ways to keep boredom at bay in recovery, but I was actually brainstorming a career in real time.
Somehow I got lucky enough to be creative for a living. If you guys have been following this column you’ll know that I have my own eyewear line and I occasionally take a break from making glasses to hand paint bodysuits for Lady Gaga, or turn Missy Elliott into a disco ball. It took over 30 years for me to get here, but it’s never too late—and never too hard—to live a more creative life.
Start with your closet. Clothing is a very powerful medium. It’s not just a tool you can use to tell others about you at a glance; you can change your own mindset with what you wear. Your clothes affect your language, your gait, your confidence, and your headspace. I realized this at a young age, and have always used my wardrobe to help express myself and expand my thinking. If I’m trying to channel a certain era in my work, I dress in a similar style and it helps me stay focused. When I need a little creative jolt, I give myself a few extra minutes in the morning and try out ensembles I’ve never worn before, pairing different pieces together in fresh ways. And it never involves buying something new. Spend an evening at home remixing your wardrobe and figuring out how to marry garments you’ve never worn together. It’s a simple way to start flexing the creative muscle.
Schedule your art time like workouts. Becoming a better creative is a lot like training to run a marathon. You don’t run a solid 26.2 the first time you put on a pair of running shoes; you’ll be lucky if you make it through a mile. Your form will probably be terrible, and you’ll feel like shit when it’s done. But train a few times a week and you’ll eventually get faster and run farther. Creativity is no different; schedule a few “workouts” each week in the areas you want to focus on, and just start doing it. You can YouTube yarn knitting, candy making, and splatter painting techniques as easily as you can a seven-minute ab routine.
Just like physical workouts, you should mix it up. Spend a day each week just doing inspirational research. Viewing creativity like exercise has also made me more sympathetic to the overall process. You can’t bench press your own weight the first time you pick up a barbell. So why would I expect myself to be a creative genius the first time I experiment with a new medium? These things take time; be kind to your spirit and keep reminding yourself of that.
Collaborate. It’s as fun to go to spin class with a friend as it is to be creative with one. I first refined my crystal technique while I was hanging out at a friend’s studio. His work was in an entirely different zone, but those techniques and methods ended up being perfect for what I was doing, and I wouldn’t have known about them otherwise. Since then, some of my most exciting work has come out of collaborating on a project. I made a crystal garter for Rihanna, set a Supreme hoodie on fire for Lady Gaga, and created some crazy melted face masks for Vogue Hommes Japan. These aren’t the kind of things that I would have thought to do in my free time, but when those stylists asked me to create them, I said yes. A dialogue with people who have different skill sets and ideas can only help you enhance your own. Invite a friend or two over for a crafting or brainstorm session. I guarantee that you’ll end the night inspired.
Be confident. As a full-time designer with perpetually looming deadlines, rent, and responsibilities, I often find myself stuck, uninspired, or feeling various degrees of self-doubt. These feelings grow heavy every time I start a new collection, but I’ve mastered how to get through it. Yet there were new monsters lurking once I started writing again. When Nylon first approached me about doing a column I was over the moon, but that was soon clouded by fear and apprehension. I won creative writing awards as a pre-teen, but stopped when I got sick. I had barely written anything more than an email since college. Did I have it in me to properly tackle this wonderful opportunity? I turned to Ira Glass and his thoughts on creativity. This quote from a radio interview gets passed around the internet every few months and is worth reprinting in its entirety:
"Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through."
I let this sit for a while, and thought about those Barbies in the attic. From the top floor to the basement of my parents' house, there’s a museum’s worth of mediocre art. Sure, some of what I did during those years was pretty damn good, but I look back on a lot of it and almost feel embarrassed for my former self. How did I ever think any of this had merit? How did I wear these weird, hand-sewn spandex pirate dresses in public? Have you ever read the rhyming poetry journal of a depressed teenager? It’s terrible! But being repeatedly terrible is what allowed me to get here, and to get better. My fear was gone, and the columns began... I just had to try. Once you start being creative, there’s nowhere to go but up.