Every year the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America)/Vogue Fashion Fund selects a group of emerging fashion designers to participate in a four-month-long competition. Cash prizes go up to $400,000 for the winner and $150,000 for the two runners up, and there’s also a mentorship program and the opportunity to be included in a series of promotional videos. It’s a wonderful, high-stakes program that has become the launchpad for several careers.
In 2019, one of the ten finalists was knitwear designer Alejandra Alonso Rojas, my fellow School of the Art Institute of Chicago alumna, former employer, and great friend. As some of you already know, one of my many side hustles is working with fashion designers to create knit (and crochet) pieces for the runway and lookbooks. I mostly help with development now, but in the beginning, I was making final knitwear samples, too.
Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with Alejandra to create some super fun knits. Today I’ll take you behind the scenes, show you some of the development process from three past seasons, and tell you about three major lessons I learned from working with Alejandra. But I also just want to celebrate someone who deserves the recognition that she’s finally receiving.
One of the things I love about working with designers over the course of multiple seasons is getting the chance to witness them maturing and growing into themselves. When I first began working with Alejandra, she was working under her original brand À Moi. It was still a very young brand at that point, and she was looking to expand the knitwear section of her Fall/Winter 2016 collection. We had both gone to SAIC—me for undergrad and Alejandra for graduate—but we didn’t really know each other back then. It wasn’t until she came to my cramped midtown knitwear studio a few years ago that we had the chance to talk.
I had only decided to start my business a few months before our first meeting. The studio was one of the first ones I saw within my budget. I had leapt at it with maybe a little too much gusto, and I was beginning to wonder if I had started my small business a little too soon. Spoiler alert: I had.
One of my best friends and former schoolmate Daniel Nelson was working for Alejandra at the time. One day, without warning, he texted me that he would be coming by to see my new studio with Alejandra. I naively said yes, even though it wasn’t a question. I sat cross-legged in jeans for most of that meeting, and Alejandra and I instantly connected over our shared love of knitwear, pictures of her dog, and our SAIC memories. They stayed for over an hour, and at the end of our chat I realized three things: 1) it was a job interview and not just a hangout, 2) I had gotten the job, and 3) the next several months of my life were going to be insane.
a crochet top goes From the mat . . .
Over the next few months, we started down a path that would become familiar to us both. Alejandra would email me a series of images or text me an image of a landscape that she had seen. I would translate that image into a swatch or texture idea. We would then meet in the living room of her immaculate SoHo apartment/studio, bolts of fabric and sketches surrounding us while her adorable dog Latte snuggled up on my lap. I would pay close attention to the feedback she was—and almost more importantly was not—giving me. Then more swatches. Followed by my first view of her sketches, yarn choices, and tech packs. Then it was off to the races.
That first season the focus was crochet. I made all her knitwear that season and nearly lost my mind in the process. But I learned how important it is to know your limitations. After that season, Alejandra and I found our rhythm. The more we trusted each other, the better everything flowed.
To the mannequin.
To the runway.
Alejandra’s style has matured with her and with the switch of her brand to her self labeled Alejandra Alonso Rojas brand. One of my favorite sweaters to develop for her was her traveling cable sweater for Spring 2017 (under À Moi) and the version we later did for Fall 2017 (under Alejandra Alonso Rojas).
Alejandra showed me her sketch, and I knew almost immediately that the distance that she wanted the cables to travel across the body was going to be impossible for me to do. But our working relationship was still pretty new at that point and I didn’t want to disappoint her. I worked the first sample and tried to ignore the voice in my head that kept saying “this isn’t working.” When we finally tried on the sample, it was horrible. The cable was fighting the yarn every step of the way. Lesson: Trust your gut and keep an open line of communication with your client. Even if that means disappointing your client. They will respect you a lot more if you don’t waste their time.
I thought that I was for sure going to lose the job, and I had to think quickly to save the project. The answer: knit the cables separately the way you would a pocket. Then we could place them in whichever direction we wanted and sew them in place later. The result was one of my favorite sweaters that I’ve ever worked on and led to many more that used this same technique.
In the MDK Shop
One of the more challenging and rewarding items I ever made for Alejandra was a beautiful crochet dress with leather inserts for Spring 2018. She knew exactly what the dress needed to look like before we started developing it. Her final sketch and the final sample are directly linked.
The only part that wasn’t completely nailed down before we started was the pattern for the four large crochet mandalas on the hem. Other than that, the sample had to look exactly like the sketch.
The dress had to fit like a glove. Each time I punched a hole in the leather I held my breath. That project was quite an undertaking. Not so much because of the difficulty level of the stitch work, but because of the amount of time it needed. Lesson: Know when you need more hands, and ask for help. But in the end that dress was done in one muslin (rough draft) and one final sample. It was time consuming, but it was also an extremely satisfying process.
The hole punching.
The muslin (rough draft).
Every day is a new adventure in the sample making world. But it’s a treat to get to work with someone who is not only super talented but also a wonderful person. Every season I’m excited to see Alejandra’s collections and how she has grown as a designer. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for her and the entire Alejandra Alonso Rojas team! If you are interested in learning more about the work that the CFDA does you can follow the process of the finalists through the CFDA’s website and Instagram account.