Maryam Nassir Zadeh has established herself as a staple in every stylish closet since the inception of her namesake store in 2008. Like any successful business owner, Zadeh has a team of equally driven and committed team members on her side, working behind the scenes to ensure the success of the MNZ label, storefront, and showroom. As Design and Production Coordinator for the label, Claire Mckinney is a fundamental branch in the tree that is MNZ, ensuring that, every season, garments go from ideation to final product (which often involves a lot of running around the Garment District in Midtown Manhattan to keep production on schedule, amongst other tasks). It’s a job in which she wears many hats; we sat down with Mckinney to hear more about how she got here, creating one-of-a-kind reworked denim for Maryam’s collection every season, and why the ideal lifestyle should always include lots of plants.
This interview took place between Claire McKinney and Emma Banks at Little Canal in New York
How did you get to where you are today? Where did you go to school?
I grew up in Oregon and right after graduating from high school I came to Pratt to study fashion. I graduated from Pratt in 2015 and worked for Creatures of Comfort for a year as a design assistant working really closely with the Creative Director. I’ve been at MNZ for two and a half years — I met Maryam through one of my instructors at Pratt, Susan Cianciolo. A summer program I took ended with an exhibition at Maryam’s store, she saw my work there, and in my last year, I guess around 2015, Maryam reached out to my roommate and me about doing reworked denim pieces for her collection. Since then we’ve created one-of-a-kind reworked pieces for her collection every season. So Maryam got to know me pretty well through that and I later asked about just working part-time for the company. And within a couple of months, it was full throttle. It's been a really great partnership, such a pleasure to work with Maryam. She has such a wide scope of talents.
What's been the most surprising part of the whole experience?
I guess I was just happily surprised by how much I enjoyed production because I figured I would always be in the strictly development and design realm. But I really like the rhythm and the pace and all the details involved and all of the problem solving, on a large scale. It's really interesting to me. I've worked with the same factories since I started working for MNZ, and just the amount of trust you build with teams over time is amazing. The factories are spread thin — really, really busy. They have a lot of people to manage and a lot of things can go wrong in a day, communication is challenging. The factory directors are in charge of translating information to all these highly skilled individuals whose first language is not English, and because of that there's a lot of room to slip up on my end and on their end. But I've just found that working with them for a long time, we're able to negotiate work together to solve the problems. They’re like family. They also know the level of quality we expect and I know what they're capable of. Maryam is set on keeping production in New York because we really have that face-to-face experience.
Sounds so complicated to manage.
It's a lot easier to manage when you put trust into all the people involved.
Can you tell me a little more about your job? What's a day in the life like for you?
I work full time for Maryam Nassir Zadeh, as the design and production manager, which most of the time means managing production of the Ready to Wear line in the Garment District. So a lot of running around, organizing materials, checking in on how clothes are being cut and sewn, sourcing trims, etcetera. It's very hands on.
After sales finish I’m at the office all day, I'm just glued to my computer confirming orders and analyzing totals for production. Orders have to be checked carefully to make sure they’re correct, especially when dealing with big store orders. But my favorite time of year is that two to three month production window when I'm in the Garment District. That will start in a month. So yeah, it's like May, June, July. And it's funny too because we're producing the F/W collection in summer, so I'm running around with rolls of wool in 80-degree weather and then in the winter, November, December, January, I have big rolls of silk in the freezing weather.
Coming from a design background, I was a little bit uneasy about going into production. It's considered a separate career path. But design can happen in production too — each garment is sort of a puzzle to figure out.
What's the timeline from the first ideation of a garment to all of the different places it goes and then putting it together and getting it in a store?
It's close to a year-long process to get a product in the store. Someone else on the team handles development and sample making. And then I'm in charge of coding colors, confirming pricing for all the components involved, and preparing the products for sale. Once we finish sales, I’m analyzing totals, figuring out if we have the materials for production, and if not, how much we need to order, what the lead times are, and what limitations we might face with materials and from our manufacturers.
The cutting and sewing process takes a minimum of six weeks in the Garment District with additional processing at our warehouse, and then finally we ship to our stores. So it's a long process, but the most important part is staying organized because it's managing thousands of garments at once. Fabric often needs to get divided among three or four factories, but it's also amazing that our factories are within a few blocks of each other. Most of the year, you know, I’m walking close to 10 miles a day, because I'm doing this for eight hours straight. I also feel like I’m often asking factories to run big carts of fabric down the street!
Wow, that's crazy.
But I love it!
It seems like if you miss one deadline then there’s this domino effect where everything gets delayed. Have you found that to be true?
Yeah, that's partially true. But I've also built really strong relationships with the factories and they're able to sort of speed things up if components are late. I do wonder if other production managers are having a similar experience. One of the beautiful things about MNZ, is how the collection is so nuanced and how many small details there are — combinations of fabrics, special trim, etcetera.
And I guess the flipside of that attention to detail is that it also adds a lot of time and money.
Exactly. Yeah. So this time of year, I’m looking at all of the numbers for sales and sort of wrapping my head around production as a whole. It's a pretty difficult job.
It seems very detail oriented and yet also requires thinking about the big picture. So in the calendar year, when are your busy times and slow times? How does it flow throughout the year?
I'm also super involved in the runway shows — so the two months leading up to the runway show are very busy. Those dates actually coincide with when our production window is open. So it’s kind of full throttle those times of the year and we're a tiny team.
That's awesome. What's your favorite item that you ever helped create, or maybe you just have a standout memory you want to share?
Well, maybe less so one item, but since MNZ began, we’ve always made two clothing collections a year, S/S and A/W. There had always been a lot of interest from our stores in a third clothing collection — Resort. It's supposed to be the vacation collection, and Maryam and her friends love to travel so it fit really well. So I think maybe a month or two before Resort 2019 market week, I took inventory of all the leftover fabrics we had in the Garment District. I compiled our best selling and favorite styles from over the years, and we created a collection very fast without any idea of, “How is it going to do?” and “Will it sell?” I think all of us were like, “This is a test, we've already produced these styles so let’s see what happens.” The original idea was to just use what fabric we already had on hand, it completely surprised us how well the collection did in sales — it proved that our stores trusted the creative vision that we had already invested time into through past collections. I think it was just such a beautiful beginning to changing the way we work on the collections, knowing that we can trust in our well-loved styles. Thinking about this core group of styles and fabrics, we're already planning the next Resort for market in June. Once again we're looking at all the fabrics we love and seeing what people may have missed out on; styles that didn't get ordered previously can also be great to include because it might've just been that people weren’t ready for it. I love the idea of revisiting old things and giving them new life.
Where do you see yourself in five or ten years? What's your dream job?
I'm pretty comfortable where I am but I would love to have more time for my own creative work. I would like to dedicate more time to projects like the reworked samples and production my roommate and I do. This season we'll be making 35 garments, but those are all made one by one in our apartment. It's not really a production line because each piece is unique in nature. In the future, I hope to have a healthier balance between my full-time job and this sort of work.
And what about your dream job?
That’s a good question. I don't ask myself that very much. It's probably going to be a situation where I have my feet in ten different places.
Well, and it's a tough question because you might have a different answer a year from now.
Yeah. The ideal life is working at a plant store five hours a week and having the other 60 hours to make my own stuff. It could just be that, totally step away from what I’m doing now, but I don't know if I feel ready for that. I still feel like I have more to learn and more to give.
What advice would you give to somebody who has similar aspirations or is coming out of design school and not sure what they want to do?
I’ve had several interns with a design background work with me in production, and have found it to be something that they really enjoyed despite being a little bit uneasy or unsure of what it would be like in the beginning. My advice would be to keep your options really open and to not rule out any job titles. I think it's more important to find a company you want to work for because in small companies, you're really doing everything. I love working on the runway shows, seeing the creative energy that goes behind the styling that obviously wouldn't be possible if I was a production manager at a large company — you wouldn't see that at all — they’re completely separated departments. But because it's such a small operation, when we're dividing up the tasks, you can kind of be like, “Hey, I enjoy doing this a lot. I want to help.”
My other piece of advice is to find people that foster your creativity, whether it’s a boss, a friend, or a classmate, and start collaborating. My roommate is one of my best friends who makes clothes under her own name and also works full time for a women’s clothing brand. We both do studio work in the apartment many nights after work and on weekends. We have good energy in that apartment — we both consider sewing all day a good Saturday.