Chicago native Alex Swain, mostly known as Swaintheory, is a multi-disciplinarian. His current focus is fashion design, but he has sights set for many artistic mediums. The inspiration behind his passion for art is unique. After a near-death experience, he decided to put all of his efforts towards his passion for art. “I could’ve died – I got shot in the stomach and I was ½ centimeter away from hitting some vitals. I don’t have any bags, nothing besides a scar. That was a blessing. I healed up and went through this very dark period but from there I decided to go for it.”
On this particular Saturday afternoon, I visited his in-home studio, equipped with several sewing machines, magazine clippings taped to the wall for inspiration and neon orange fabric strewn across the floor. It’s exactly as I would’ve pictured the apartment of an up-and-coming fashion designer.
Swaintheory found one of his fashion niches in patchwork – a rural Japanese practice that originated in the early twentieth-century. When clothing started to deteriorate over time, Japanese farmers would add small pieces of fabric to patch holes. Eventually, the clothing would have dozens of layers of patches. Besides the aesthetics, Alex was drawn to patchwork for its symbolism. Every pair of customized jeans tells a story – each sign of distress contributes to the character of the clothing. Similarly, every experience, whether positive or negative, makes up who we are as individuals. Without Alex’s near-death experience, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
Months before our interview, Alex traveled to New York City to style and design Taylor Bennett for his performance on Late Night with Stephen Colbert. That’s right, the Stephen Colbert. The experience offered Alex further visibility into the business of fashion and was yet another kick in the ass to keep pushing forward with his talents.
Read on as Swaintheory shares his start in fashion design, his journey through many disciples of art and where he sees himself ten years from today.
Swaintheory’s Start in Design
What made you pursue fashion initially?
I started off in a summer fashion program right after I got out of high school. Through the program, I met the owners of a black-owned boutique called Sir and Madame. They mentored us about understanding fashion business and building a brand. At the end of the program, I won one of the challenges and that gave me motivation to try to dive further into the field.
After finishing the program, the owners of Sir and Madame gave me a chance at an internship.
I liked the way the business was operated and loved the aesthetic of the store. Everything I saw there inspired me!
I love that! So many success stories start with an internship or mentorship. When did you transition to make your own creations?
I worked there for about 2 months, then started sketching on my own. I wanted to learn how to design clothes for myself so I could have something nobody else had. I wasn’t fully into it yet, but then I got shot. It was tragic, but it was also a blessing. I could’ve died – I got shot in the stomach and I was ½ centimeter away from hitting some vitals. I don’t have any bags, nothing besides a scar. That was a blessing. I healed up and went through this very dark period but from there I decided to go for it.
After I got shot, they gave me my job back which is another blessing. I looked at one of the racks and there were these customized jeans. They were crazy – my friend and mentor Iicky would take some really raw selvage denim and sand, distress and fade them himself. He’d do his own chemical process to make them look like vintage jeans. He’d do natural wear and tear and natural rips – it looked like if you were wearing your jeans so much that you got a rip in the knees. Every jean had a story. I thought that was really cool, so I went next door and asked him how I could get into it. He told me to create a hole, grab some fabric and a hand needle and just start sewing. So that’s what I did.
I started taking my old jeans that had crotch rips and repair them by hand. Everything was hand sewn. I started doing cool pockets and from there it transitioned to me painting on clothes. I started fading the jeans and painting and sanding them all the way down so the paint wouldn’t overtake the fabric and make it too hard to wear. I wouldn’t even say I was designing. It was all very experimental, I was just creating art.
I wouldn’t even say I was designing. It was all very experimental, I was just creating art.
After I finished my internship I kept customizing. I became more ambitious and started making bigger patches. I wanted to redefine the narrative of patchwork, which is an ancient Japanese technique for farmers and butchers and people in poverty. They couldn’t afford new clothes, so they’d take pieces of fabric and repair their old clothes. There would be patches on top of patches! I thought that was really interesting and I fell in love with it because it connected with me because I felt like I was patched up. The trauma that I endured it made sense to me. And I liked the look so I kept doing it.
I wanted to find a way to get these machines because I knew it would eventually expand and transition into making clothes from scratch. I got my first apartment and things slowed down so I had to take a step back and figure out how to make this happen. A year passed and I finally got blessed with some money that I invested into these machines. And here I am now.
Would you sell your customized pieces in the beginning?
Yeah, that’s what I started off doing – one of one customized pieces for people. Now I’m in the process of working on my brand and getting into production. I’ve actually found a studio space just waiting on the go ahead to move in and then I can start expanding and start bringing people onto the team to create a full-on brand.
Tell me more about the relationships that you’ve built through customizing. Did you start out just creating for your friends?
I was creating a lot of clothes for myself and my girlfriend at the time. Then I created really small 1 of 1 collections by repurposing old clothes. With those collections, I presented at Chicago’s Fashion Week and that helped me get a better idea of the industry. It took forever to do that, but it was a lot of fun.
Was there a lot of pressure presenting your art to larger groups of people than you were used to?
It was really interesting. At the time I was just trying to figure out where I wanted to go, what I wanted to say and what I wanted to represent. Right after I started doing patchwork it became kind of a trend. That pushed me back a little and I started adding different things like painting and silkscreening. I would silkscreen my own patches and sew them onto the jeans. I wanted to be unique during my pre-design phase of creating.
Why did the patchwork trend set you back?
I didn’t want anyone to think I was copying anyone else. I still stuck close to it because I respected the story behind the techniques and the actual style of clothing.
How did you start out making your own clothes without formal training?
I started by breaking down clothes that I liked and making patterns out of them to try to recreate them. And then I started slightly altering patterns – that’s what I’m working on now is creating my own silhouettes and looks – and I’ve been taking different pieces from different pockets and other garments and putting them together with new fabric that I find.
What are you creating right now?
I’m working on some sample jackets. I’m redefining the narrative of color theory.
Is orange your favorite color?
One of them, yeah.
How’d I guess… [Laughs.]
I loved these pants on your Instagram. Those were really visually pleasing but very functional. How much of that functional piece do you put into your creations?
I really love function and utilitarian styles of clothing. Without functionality, the garment is just cool looking. With function, it becomes classic. If I buy this piece of clothing, will I have it five years from now and still want to wear it?
Does that part go into the design initially or is the function incorporated later when you’re already creating the piece?
Oh man, it depends on the design. I start out by sketching. Everytime I sketch, I end up changing it. When it came to customizing, I didn’t sketch anything. I just looked at it, take a step back, look some more, spray some paint on there, look again, maybe dye it, look again, sew it up. Now, I may sketch something but once I start making it another idea may come to mind. Translating from sketch to a real piece is crazy.
In that case, do you think sketching is even still necessary?
Oh yeah! 100%. You have to be able to lay the ideas down and see it on a piece of paper. It leaves room to have more ideas.
Designing for Taylor Bennett on Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Tell me about your trip to New York! When we first met you were preparing for it.
That was a hectic time. I pretty much had two or three days to make three full outfits. But everything went great! The pressure taught me a lot.
Taylor Bennett has been one of my friends since grammar school. He gave me the concept for his song Streaming Services and told me to just build three outfits for three performers of the song. I researched the three individuals’ styles and designed based off the essence of the song and how they normally dressed. I played off of American colors, some black, and rockstar silhouettes. I wanted Taylor to look like a new-age rockstar.
Did he ask to see the designs before you started making them?
He trusted me. I had made a couple pairs of pants for him before so he knew what my work was like. I was on set and it was really cool. I was there the whole time for the rehearsals and everything.
What was it like being behind the scenes of such a large production?
When I got there everything was chill because I already made the clothes. It was really cool – I got to see my friend who lives out there, I got to explore and see some things. But I was only there for three days so I didn’t get to do much. It was an amazing experience and a great way to start off the year.
After that experience, if you could style anyone else who would it be?
Pharrell. I would love to put him in my designs, more so than styling him. He already is one of the most stylish people in my opinion.
Fabulous answer! He has such a versatile style, I feel like you’d really be able to test the limits.
Yeah, I know. That’s exactly why I picked him – he’s a huge inspiration.
What’s been your favorite piece so far?
I’ve gotta say, I’m pretty excited about this jacket right now. This is a part of a sampling process that I’m going through. Right now I’m creating a wide range of garments that we’ll pick from to launch a capsule later this year. This is just a part of me experimenting and creating.
Have you ever made anything and you’re like, “damn I should keep this to myself.”
All. The. Time. It’s actually really cool because I’ve realized that it looks better on them. It’s why I do it.
How much has your workspace grown? What did you start out with that’s in this room right now?
I literally started off with just a hand needle.
That’s crazy. How long would it take you to create the pants that you’re wearing with a hand needle?
Two weeks if I was working all day. It took me 8 hours with the machine. Huge difference.
There have been plenty of times where I could’ve stopped and where I wanted to stop, but I didn’t. I didn’t know how long it’d take to get to this point to be honest. It took me awhile to get these machines but now I have them. It’s kind of hard to even think that it’s been five years and now I’m here.
There have been plenty of times where I could’ve stopped and where I wanted to stop, but I didn’t.
Hand sewing was really therapeutic – it took so long so it gave me time to think about where I want to be in the future. I’d think about how I envisioned myself looking as a grown man. As a person, I grew a lot. I wasn’t like this when I was 18 – I wasn’t thinking like this or talking like this. You start to realize what’s most important in life. All of that stuff is the reason why I am who I am right now.
Even the good stuff – it all makes us into who we are!
What do your parents think of your artistic pursuits?
My mom is extremely supportive. She didn’t think I’d stay the course in the beginning because she thought it was a phase. She comes from a traditional generation where you have to get a job, get a degree, have a career and have a pension or 401K. That’s cool, but I wanted to try something else. My dad is indifferent about it. He supports me but he’s a black man from Chicago and he’s older so he doesn’t really understand where all of this is coming from.
How does being a black man from Chicago, like your father, change how you view the arts community?
There’s a very limited perspective on fashion in the city. But it has some classic gems! You know the classic Chicago style – Air Force One’s and Timberlands. Even down to the True Religion jeans with the slits on the sides to flow over the Timberland boots. All of that stuff has everything to do with my style and has everything to do with what I’m creating as well. I envision my style as a black kid from Chicago that moved to Japan.
I envision my style as a black kid from Chicago that moved to Japan.
Chicago is a huge influence on me and the way that I think and view the world. I think that’s what gives me an edge over other people – I’ve seen so many harsh things that I pretty much feel like I’m prepared for anything. I’m not afraid of anything.
Ten Years From Now…
Ten years from now, how do you envision yourself?
Ideally, I’d like to have a fashion house building beautiful garments out of sustainable fabrics that don’t harm the earth. Fast fashion is stealing the earth and I want to find a way to create sustainable garments that are biodegradable. I know that takes a lot of research and resources, but that’s my goal.
In ten years I’ll probably be a totally different artist, working on a totally different medium.
What other mediums do you see yourself pursuing?
I’m not sure, I just want to keep challenging myself as an artist. As a multidisciplinary, I’m consistently challenging myself mentally, physically and as a craftsman. I’m just trying to become the best me I can be. Everything else just comes to fruition from that.
I’m just trying to become the best me I can be. Everything else just comes to fruition from that.
Have you ever pictured yourself doing anything besides this?
Originally I thought I would be an engineer or an industrial designer. Eventually, I’d like to learn how to create furniture – some chairs, couches, a table, a really cool ironing board. Product design is something that I’m really interested in.
It’d be really cool if everything in your storefront was created by you. I don’t even know if that exists!
I’m going to have to write that down.
Just remember who gave you the idea.
I will! [Laughs.]
The Three Words
Describe yourself using only three words.
Bold, innovative and true-to-self.