Editor’s note: this conversation has been edited for length.
Julia Perciasepe: What does it mean to you to be able to come back to Moore as a faculty member?
Dom Streater: It’s pretty thrilling. I guess this has been the word I've been using the most. It's kind of like coming back home. You've been here, you're familiar with it, but there's an excitement of having a whole career behind you [and the idea] that you can pass on some of that knowledge because you've learned so much in fashion. In any design industry or art related industry, everything moves so fast. You pick up this wealth of information and it's really mind-blowing when you look back on just a few years’ worth of work, let alone a decade. I'm really looking forward to sharing some of that with the students.
It's also really exciting because there's something about the nature of art and design that allows every new generation to push the limit a little bit more. And that's something that I started to notice just as a senior designer and having my own business: the younger designers today are so much more open-minded and progressive than we were. It’s exciting to see how they think, how they perceive the art and design world and how they're interpreting some of the things that are going on in the wider world, and how they're putting that into their design.
JP: What has been the most valuable thing you've learned since graduating from college?
DS: I think if anything it's keeping an open mind, not just in terms of the wider world, but in terms of your career. Because a lot of times, especially with artists and designers, we pigeonhole ourselves into our title. You come out of college and you only want to focus on women’s sweaters. And then you become a sweater designer and you like it, but then you only have sweater design experience. It's really important for designers to understand that they need to [branch] out and put out feelers.
I was speaking to a class yesterday, saying you really need to keep an open mind when it comes to what you're designing and the kinds of jobs and internships you're going to get. Just because it's not what you want to do doesn't mean the experience won't be valuable for you in the long run. I've had an insane 10 years, with Project Runway and the jobs I've had, the freelancing that I've done and having my own business. I've learned a lot from each of those experiences. And I think it's really nice to have like a naiveté about every job you take and then just be surprised. It’s really easy to fall back into your comfort level and not move forward if you're never challenging yourself or you never practice. You can't get better. You become stagnant.
JP: What are you most excited about in the fashion industry?
DS: The number one topic right now is sustainability. That's on the tip of everybody's tongue. Inclusivity and sustainability. Within my brand I’ve started to focus more on sustainability. I used to be a little more wasteful than I am now. I wasn't bad before; I would do things in limited runs, get a certain amount of fabric printed and then whatever I could make from that is what I made. And then I'd just sell it. The issue with that is you wind up potentially having clothes that don’t sell, back stock, and you have to put it on discount. Sometimes things don’t sell at all and you’re just left with stuff. When I was practicing that way, it was such a tremendous waste.
So if you can imagine that on a bigger scale—in terms of the industry, like with your H&Ms and Zaras and Primarks—it all goes to landfills. There was a controversy not too long ago with Burberry; they were burning their extras. It shook the community because everyone actually saw how bad it was. I've been to lots of factories at this point, most of them in Asia, and their output is crazy. Who is buying all of this? Apparently nobody, because they're trying to get rid of it. And then it all winds up in a dump. Doesn't get recycled. I think sustainability is probably the number one thing that I'm concerned about, personally. Now I only make things to order. So you get your fabric printed strictly for your order. And that is it. There's no waste. Then also finding ways to use any leftover fabrics to make one-of-a-kind things for people who want something a little bit more special.
JP: Is there leadership around this movement or is it just individual people, designers and companies?
DS: It's threefold. Individual designers and companies take the first level of responsibility for it. The second part is the CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America]. They are the governing body of fashion designers, at least for America. The third level is environmental sanctions. The politics that surround it are less than ideal. For instance, China is not following all the environmental protocols when they're making fabric or clothing, or even when it comes to how they treat their workers. In China, when a factory is not following current environmental protocols, they'll shut them down for a period of time. And this is something that I ran into a lot, working at Urban Outfitters. We would have issues where factories would just be shut down, and product wouldn't get shipped to the stores. There aren’t many of those places left in the world, so if they shut down, you can't just hop over to Guatemala and say, hey, can you make this work? Because it just doesn't work that way. There's a lot of negotiation and pricing. The amount of steps that need to be taken to make one garment…it's fascinating. We have to hold our leaders accountable for sanctioning countries that don't have proper practices.
I've been able to see fashion from about 10 different facets. A lot of people don't get to experience that in their lifetimes. Sometimes designers come right out of school and they go right into corporate and they never come out of it. I've been lucky to be able to have a small business, but also to be able to work for a larger company like Urban Outfitters. And then I get little weird views of it, like Project Runway.
JP: How did Moore prepare you for a career in the fashion industry?
DS: One of the things that I really liked about being here was the atmosphere. Some art schools and design schools don't really feel welcoming. They're a little bit more cutthroat and that's fine. That’s kind of the nature of the industry we work in. But I liked how warm Moore was and, not to sound corny, but it was a safe space in terms of atmosphere. So that made it easier to be creative.
The other part of why I came here is because of the diversity of electives that you can take, textiles being one of them. That was something that I focused on a lot and has had a huge influence on my career. Print design and surface science [helped me] to be successful in the industry.
JP: Do you have a fondest memory of your time here?
DS: It’s hard to pinpoint, but one of my favorite experiences at Moore was when I was a resident assistant and residence hall director. That was really nice. Sometimes when you're in your major, you get caught in your bubble, but I got to meet so many other students from all of the majors. I basically knew everyone, including the professors, which was really nice. It made it a much more enriching experience.
JP: What has been your greatest challenge as an artist and designer?
DS: Besides just keeping an open mind? I think it's still getting over that fear that you are going to run out of ideas. I think every artist or designer experiences this on some level. It's one of those incessant things that eats at you as a designer, as an artist, and we all have it. Some people can jump over that hurdle really easily but it’s a fear that's never left me. But I think having that fear can be a catalyst to make you want to research and explore more. So it can be a good thing. It's just one of those weird things that tends to hold you back. It's a strange thing—like, how do you explain to someone that you might run out of ideas?
Things that other people might find challenging don't tend to be challenging for me because I'm good at problem solving and working my way around things. So once I get over that initial fear, I’m going to have ideas on ways to work around something. Because that's all design is, really, just problem solving. Also, you have to [consider] that your client may not like what you do. Hopefully you're working in lockstep with your clients so that you don't have that problem at the end of your project, but it happens occasionally. It’s happened to me. I had to make a dress for someone for a red carpet. And I was fitting the dress on her and she was like, you know what? I think we need to just change this completely. So I had to change a dress for a red carpet overnight. That's a natural part of what we do, but that's where the problem solving [comes in].
JP: Fashion and interior design are so intimidating to me because they are like math and science.
DS: And some people are just not good technical designers. So that job has to be handed over to someone else. They can sketch it, illustrate to their heart's desire, but when it comes down to pattern making, they can't do it because their brains don't work like that. I think we are a little bit science-oriented in our brains, more so than maybe a traditional art major.
JP: What inspires you?
DS: I like learning new things. I'm one of those people on their phone a lot, just looking for stuff. I can easily get into black holes when it comes to research, because my brain works visually. I'll click something and I'm like, “oh, I've never heard of this technique,” and then I'll Google the technique and then I'm on the technique’s Wikipedia page, and then I'm reading about it all over the internet. And then it's three hours later and I have now learned a new skill involuntarily. Learning one new thing can spark so many ideas.
I took up Shibori a year ago and it got me thinking about surface design and different textile design applications. In my most recent collection, I did a bunch of hand-dyed Shibori muslin pieces. I layered them all on top of each other and I kept the edges frayed. Then I scanned them and took high-quality photos of it, messed around with it on the computer and made a digital print. So I still get all the texture of what it was, but now I'm able to be sustainable and digitally print it, over and over. [Techniques] like that tend to inspire me. I'm like, “oh, I can do a whole thing with this. This is an awesome idea.”
JP: What does success look like to you?
DS: Hmm. That's a tricky question. On a personal level, with my own business, it's that it must be sustainable, as in it can sustain itself and also be sustainable. I've never had grandiose dreams of being that big. I just liked making things, and maybe there is an innocence in that that I want to try and keep. I don't want to make millions and millions of dollars per year. I just don't believe in that level of working. When people measure success with how many sales you make, especially in design, it takes the joy out of it.
The thought of it gives me anxiety. For example, the late, great Virgil Abloh. He was working for Louis Vuitton, and I can imagine the level of stress that must come with that. When you work for another company, you have to come in with your own ideas, but you also have to stretch yourself so that you're meeting their brand and their needs, and keeping their customers happy. And then you become more of a public personality that gets carried with [that brand].
When I have my own job or my own business, I get to call the shots, for the most part. Obviously, there's going to be feedback and I have to listen to my customers; I can't just do whatever I want. But I do have creative control. I remember when we used to film Project Runway, one of the things that Tim Gunn always said was, “the next great American fashion designer.” I just want to be a successful fashion designer. I'm at a pretty happy place and hopefully that'll grow. That's the goal.