W'menswear's Lauren Yates In Her Own Words
Lauren Yates of Ponytail Journal and W’menswear on how she started designing, her love of the outdoors and vintage, and her new collaboration with Randolph Engineering – out now.

I’ve been into vintage since high school, going through donation bins, car boot sales, and charity stores in my spare time. Growing up in Australia, I loved being outdoors where I would actually use my vintage pieces for what they were made for. I was also really into this lifestyle: fishing, cooking, camping, and surfing. I would always be wearing coveralls, rain jackets and utilitarian pieces. My Barbour jacket was my favorite fishing jacket – I’d always find breadcrumbs from slices of white bread I stashed in my pockets. I loved the utility of – what was usually – men's vintage garments for the kind of lifestyle I really liked.

My blog, Ponytail Journal, was an exercise in developing my writing and thoughts on style. Lewis Carroll, who I love, he’d concoct new words in English for things or feelings that didn’t exist in his vocabulary – like in the Jabberwocky – that's how I got the idea for W’menswear as a word and concept to describe my own kind of style. Although I was mostly wearing vintage menswear, I didn't like the idea of being called a ‘tomboy,’ which was what people would pigeonhole me as. There was much more to my expression than just being called a tomboy.

From Ponytail Journal I was able to start freelancing more, which brought me in touch with Nigel Cabourn. I arranged an interview and we met at his Covent Garden store and we just hit it off. He just knows what he loves, and that is vintage military and we really bonded over it. At the time, he had launched his women's brand and I think he saw me as the embodiment of what he wanted it to be. He gave me so many opportunities and I walked for his fashion shows in Tokyo and styled campaigns. I became what most people describe as his muse for many years. Through those years, we traveled together, worked together, and, of course, hunted for vintage together. After a while, he sat me down one day and said, "Lauren, you need to do more with what you're doing right now. You should start your own line." I was pretty unsure of it all. I have never been to fashion school and I had no training as a designer. Nige reassured me “you've already got half of it down. You've got your website. You can pick out great vintage pieces that really speak to you. You should just curate a wardrobe of vintage and then produce it meaningfully and sell it on your website." He taught me how to look at fabrics, and he sat me down with his accountant, who taught me how to cost garments to sell for wholesale. Nige helped teach me everything about running a fashion business, and to this day I am so grateful for his belief in my abilities.

I partnered with Ben Viapiana, a Canadian denim tailor, who at the time was living in Bangkok where I was. Out of his shipping container turned denim studio, outfitted with vintage sewing machines, we worked on my first line of about six styles. It was just basic workwear made on these vintage machines based on vintage garments designed for women. I had adapted all these vintage pieces to fit me, fit my body shape, in what I felt was a more feminine way. This is when I really started to question what femininity meant, redefining it in my head every six months, every collection – I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be a woman.

In the beginning, it took a few years for me to really understand my own handwriting as a brand. And then Nige and I did diverge in our own separate ways, and I became more and more interested in the question of what it means to be a woman. That's where conceptually that diverged quite a lot. That question has really driven me into my own complete my own space. Honestly, I haven't come across any other brand that's exploring this in the same way that I am conceptually. I approach making clothes like I would approach making art. It's got to answer or continue to explore a certain question that I have about myself or the world. When I first started selling the Freedom Flight Trousers as unisex, it was because they just happened to have a great shape for men and women. Some men who tried them on complained about the button fly being on the opposite side – the women’s side – and I was asked to change it. That was a hard no for me. Women have always had to adapt to men’s clothing to fit themselves, but it can still feel unacceptable for men to do the same. I hope W’Menswear can help change that.

There are a lot of women's brands that started from men's brands, men's heritage, or military brands. They'll start from a point of like, "Oh, let's make a product for our customers' girlfriends and wives." It's so condescending and sexist and suffocating. For that reason, I felt that W’menswear should position itself in the women’s fashion sphere, and so we have always showed our collections at women's trade events. My brand isn’t mainstream, but it has been running itself for eight years now.

Just being able to continue and keep doing what I'm doing is pretty cool. We have a small team, but that's all we need really. Our team is more like an extended family because we work with other independent businesses that supply our work – most of them local. So, as we grow, they grow too. So that's been the very fulfilling part of the challenge of breaking away from that hyper-masculine sphere. I think as time has progressed, that kind of store that retails your Japanese denim and your authentic replica wear have become a little outdated because they haven't continued to evolve with the changing values of our world. Some have like Standard & Strange, and they have successfully done so. I think Standard & Strange has taken a risk to put that conversation out there. But I think it's already paying off for them.

The woman’s perspective on military-inspired design is often missing. It was great when Randolph Engineering approached me to design a collaboration that would specifically be based on a woman’s story. I was already aware of Randolph from my research; they have long been making the HGU-4/P aviator sunglasses for the US Military. Together, we built upon a previous collection of mine based on American female aviation specifically the “Mercury 13.” Run by NASA physician Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II, the “Mercury 13” were 13 female pilots who underwent the same physical and mental tests as would-be male astronauts. The screening test program was never officially sanctioned by NASA and Lovelace funded it himself. He assembled and selected the 13 female pilots, all Air Force pilots. These were all brilliant, brave women, highly intellectual, highly skilled, and mothers – just incredible multi-taskers. One of the tests was a sensory deprivation tank where they had to stay for many hours. Many of the male candidates struggled with it, but the women excelled, one of them – a mother – found it to be utterly relaxing. I felt that there was less of an ego involved somehow with these women, the stakes were a lot higher for them to get it right. NASA ended up canning the program, but these women were true trailblazers.

It was fascinating for me to unpick all of the individual stories of these women and understand that they brought to the table something completely different and unexpected than to really excelling in different aspects of what men could do for different reasons as well. Randolph Engineering put together a whole female team for the project as well, it's been really magical to have that share this great project together as all women. And there's a definite similar tone of seriousness of needing to get this right, but also enjoying each other and being comfortable around each other, which has been quite an amazing experience, honestly. And quite different from my previous experiences, often working with men and needing to pay close attention to my choice of wording.

For the collaboration, I designed a pullover parka, a boonie hat, and a crossbody bag all made from repurposed C-9 parachute canopies. These parachutes, with their distinctive tricolor design or Bright orange, white, and olive drab, are made from super lightweight nylon – honestly, it was more like a luxury fabric than anything I am used to working with. It was particularly hard to work with, having to cut the parachutes panels apart by color before sending them to the factory I worked with in Vietnam.

Working with this factory was also super important to me for this collaboration. 80% or 90% of garment workers are women, and I wanted these garments to be made by a woman-led factory. This factory in Vietnam is a second-generation family woman-owned business with only 30 employees. All the tailors and the pattern makers are in their mid to late 50s, and they have a skill level that is very hard to find nowadays. I'm so proud of this particular factory because they're just so freaking good. I've been working with them for eight years, and they were the people I knew were the only people who could get this right. The pieces, about 100 of each, were made in their sample room as this fabric was so delicate that much care had to go into choosing the right tools and treatments for this ironically delicate fabric, prone to fraying. I have a lot of new white hairs from this project, but it's worth it. This military story from a woman's perspective is very important to me and I think it's very important for women. It was a really unique and special experience doing this with an all-women team.

By Lauren Yates

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