Aisling Camps‘ story is the story of so many immigrants who have to leave one’s country to study. Trinidadian-born, she grew up in Port of Spain before going to study in the United States. A mechanical engineer turned knitwear designer, Camps moved the mountains and mazes the Security Advisory Opinion to finally realize her dreams. Passionate about fashion, she followed a period of hardship, eventually forcing her from Port of Spain, Aisling worked hard on her namesake brand island sexiness, games of transparency, thick notched mesh, and fluidity before coming back to America. Since 2013, her brand has been worn by everyone from Cardi B and Tracee Ellis Ross to Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae. Currently based in Brooklyn, the designer is also a freelance knitwear consultant for Pyer Moss and she is part of the next generation of designers NYC can count on.
Meet Aisling Camps
For All The Pretty Birds, we chatted with Camps about her path as an immigrant in the US, what it means to be a Trinidadian designer, and how to stay relevant and committed in today’s fashion industry.
Amanda Winnie Kabuiku: You studied engineering at Columbia and fashion, with a specialization in knitwear, at the Fashion Institute of Technology making you a knitwear designer with a super technical background. Why did you decide to switch? How do you incorporate your engineering background in your design process?
Aisling Camps: I was working at an engineering consulting firm doing really great challenging work but I just didn’t see myself crunching numbers for the next 40 years of my life. I needed a change, excitement if you will. I took some night and weekend classes at FIT, which happened to be across the street from my office, and my hobby turned into my full-time focus soon afterward.
I don’t think I consciously incorporate engineering into my design process. Engineering is a profession that makes you think analytically and in an organized way. It’s all about problem-solving, which I do every day on my knitting machines. Optimizing prototypes and trying new materials and techniques to get the best possible product. It’s all the same process really, just with different end products. I guess engineering makes me unafraid of numbers and graphs and being a bit anal-retentive and precise. All complimentary to knitwear design.
AWK: Engineering seems to be more secure financially than the fashion sector, which is difficult to breakthrough. What was your family’s first reaction to this sudden career shift?
AC: I only told them after I had saved up enough money to pay for the FIT tuition, just in case they completely disowned me. I was very lucky though. My family has been incredibly supportive and they still are. It’s been 10 years since I quit my old job and I’m still hustling and trying to find the best way forward.
AWK: You’ve interned for top brands. You’ve assisted runway productions during the Fashion Week. After 10 years in the United States, you were unable to renew your visa and you were forced to return to your home country, Trinidad. What was that experience like? How did it influence the creation of your label and the way you design? What did you learn during your time there?
AC: It was incredibly humbling. I think for Americans if you put your mind to something, work really hard, and get really good at a specific skill set, it is inevitable that you will get a job. That’s not the case for immigrants in this country. We are not guaranteed anything because even if you’re the best of the best if you don’t have someone to take a chance on you to hire you and give you that ever-elusive H1-B visa, you’re out. I’ve seen it happen a lot with my talented college friends who have returned to their respective countries. It’s just an additional hurdle to overcome in making it in this industry. So far it’s been the hardest one. I was incredibly lucky to win the green card lottery and have the opportunity to come back and have a fighting chance.
Going back home was a blessing though. I had the freedom to design what I wanted and push my creativity without limitations. I also find nature to be incredibly inspiring and made many trips to waterfalls and secret beaches while I was there. I also got to rediscover my country, the music, the culture, the food! All of this was starting to get lost as distant memories as I had spent so much time abroad.
AWK: Trinidad is a tropical place with warmer temps. How do people wear knitwear there, and how did it influence your approach?
AC: Well, obviously I wasn’t going to use wool and mohair in my designs for my Trinidadian clientele. I worked mostly with linen and cotton yarns and made pieces with a lot of built-in “air-conditioning” in the form of drop stitches and strategically placed cutouts and holes. It’s damn hot back home. It’s no joke. I think that’s why my stuff started off a bit on the sexy side. Also, Caribbean women are incredibly confident in their bodies, no matter their size or age so I knew that they would be undeterred to show a bit of skin.
AWK: How would you describe the Aisling Camps woman? What kind of woman do you create for?
AC: Laid back and understated but definitely elevated. I would be lying if I didn’t admit to designing a bit for myself at times. It changes from season to season. I have a mood board of fly ladies I’d like to dress on my wall though (including THE Tamu McPherson). I take cues from them, my aspirational muses.
AWK: Your work was shown during the Pyer Moss 2018 show. Your clientele is very diverse. Do you feel supported by the black community? Do you feel a real cohesion between Black designers and stylists in the industry?
AC: Absolutely. Almost every single major magazine featuring my work or celebrity wearing my clothes was made possible because of black stylists: Shibon Kennedy, Solange Franklin, and Christine Centenera are all stylists who are people of color that helped me last year. I wouldn’t have had any press last year if it weren’t for people of color in the industry believing in my brand. Also, I feel a sort of kinship between black designers because we all know that it’s an incredibly hard path. I barely knew Kerby when he asked me to make that sweater for his show. He took a chance on me. Sometimes that’s the hardest part, just getting a chance to show you’re worth a damn. It’s rare.
AWK: How do you envision the next decade? As an immigrant in America, what is the message you want to give to those from Trinidad who want to pursue a career in fashion?
AC: I guess I’d say to make sure that you want this before you start. It’s more of a vocation than a typical career. It’s a lot of hard work and often the pay doesn’t match. If you only want to get famous, you might get there but there won’t be longevity, you really have to be obsessed with clothes. Also, I’d say to keep abreast of all the massive shifts happening in the industry. Read up on it. That way you can strategize your approach to breakthrough. There’s real democratization of fashion happening right now, from social media disrupting magazine’s influence to businesses going direct to consumers. There’s no one formula anymore and fewer gatekeepers exist so use your strengths to your advantage and keep looking for different paths forward.
AWK: What’s the most challenging thing about being a designer today? What’s the most rewarding?
AC: The most challenging thing is fighting for the attention of your brand especially when you have limited funds. There’s just so much competition out there.
The most rewarding thing is when you hear that the things you make inspire people and that they appreciate all the care and dedication you’ve put in. I swear every time I’m about to give up, I’d get a dm or email from someone saying to please keep going because they love what I’m doing.
AWK: Everyone is talking about sustainability in fashion, how do you incorporate a sustainable mindset into your brand?
AC: Oddly enough, I was part of the sustainable services group at my Engineering firm so sustainability is deeply rooted in my psyche. It’s tricky because sustainable fashion is sort of an oxymoron. I mean we probably don’t need any more clothes and it is one of the most polluting industries in the world. That’s why I hope people will buy less but buy special pieces. For my part, I try to make truly unique pieces that I hope people will cherish for a long time. I make small batches of clothes and try to minimize my waste as much as I can by only knitting something when there’s an order. I’m off to Pitti Filati soon and will definitely be on the lookout for sustainable and recycled yarns so I can phase out petroleum-based fibers. I’ve partnered with a factory locally that does whole garment knitting. That means there are no seams and therefore no waste during production. I also ship using compostable mailers. There are lots of little things but hopefully, it all adds up.
See more Aisling Camps online and on Instagram @aislingcamps!
Imagery by Tamu McPherson