My artwork strives to dress that voice inside of us and let it exclaim, ‘Yes, THANK YOU. That’s the way to honour me.’
– Cynthia Ivey Abitz
Prologue by Lauren Shields
For the first nine months of 2011, I covered my hair, arms and legs and didn’t wear makeup or nail polish. Having been inspired by covered Muslim feminists, I called it “The Modesty Experiment,” and it was my way of distancing myself from the modern (white) feminist idea that looking hot and being strong are the same thing. (This phenomenon persists: see Olympic gymnast, and Larry Nassar accuser, Aly Raisman’s Sports Illustrated cover.)
After the experiment was over, I felt…bereft. I couldn’t say of what exactly, but it felt like the Beauty Suit women are socially obligated to wear—the mass-produced, tight clothing, the latest contouring palette, the revealing tops—no longer had the power it once did to bolster my sense of self.
Strangely enough, it was Facebook that helped me—or more accurately, it was their advertising algorithm. I was surfing my timeline when I scrolled past an outfit I ached to wear. That hadn’t happened in a very long time.
It was almost Victorian, but not restrictively so; classic, but not like anything I’d ever seen in real life. A dress with a kind of flowy overcoat, with rough hems, it looked like the kind of outfit one would wear in the garden, or on a quest of some sort. It was tough, well-made, but effortlessly, quirkily feminine. It was the dress I would make if I’d spent years learning how to sew. I was in love.
I clicked on the ad, possibly one of three times I have ever done so. The company was called Ivey Abitz, and the website showcased more of the same. Blouses with buttons all down the front and ties in the back, so you could accentuate your waist without having to suck in your tummy all the time. Skirts with multilayered hemlines (with pockets!). Pants, but with waistlines that were adjustable, thank God.
When I got my first check upon completion of the book I wrote about the Experiment, I fulfilled my promise to myself: I bought my first Ivey Abitz outfit. It was everything I’d wanted to wear, and I wanted to know more about what made this brand so exceptional, so different from everything else on the market.
Cynthia Ivey Abitz, whose last name is a combination of hers and her husband’s (she and her husband co-own the brand), was kind enough to talk to me about just that.
— Lauren Shields
Interview with Cynthia Ivey Abitz, Creator of Ivey Abitz Designs
by Lauren Shields
LS: How did you find your niche? How did you get started, in other words?
IA: I was wired to be an artist. Since I was a child, I’ve had ideas in my head that I had to express through creating with my hands. I was always drawing something.
Growing up, my parents used to take me to antique shops and antique shows, and through that I learned to appreciate the quality and craftsmanship of things made from other generations. I was allowed to get up close and look at antique clothing, inside and out. As I looked through garments made of incredible silks and wools, I was wearing the 70’s child “uniform” of a poly/cotton t-shirt and shorts or jeans. I always found them to be uncomfortable and uninteresting, but everyone around me was wearing something similar, and I was at an age when I thought I had to dress like everyone around me. I put the dresses I adored away to try and fit in, but it never felt right to me. Whenever I looked at antique clothing, there was always an overwhelming question of, “Why don’t we dress like this anymore?”
During college is when I really started to answer this question for myself. As I studied fine art, I started to design clothing that I personally wanted to wear and see others wear. I started to combine glimpses of 18th century regalia with 19th century everyday garments with 1920’s relaxed silhouettes with modern day fabrics and sensibilities. I love creating a design that can’t quite be placed in one time period and making it relevant for everyday modern life.
LS: Can you give us a general overview of your clientele? Who finds you, and how?
IA: The women that wear Ivey Abitz garments really seem to know themselves. They aren’t just floating aimlessly through life — they all seem to embrace the finite amount of time they have on this earth, and they are working hard to fulfill their own personal callings. I think that is partly why they connect with the Ivey Abitz philosophy.
Many of our clients are very creative, and many make their living as visual artists, writers, actors, musicians. We create for teachers, physicians, activists, veterinarians, 911 dispatchers — there isn’t just one type of client. They are all unique, yet there is a common thread through all of them. The clients we’ve really gotten to know seem to have a wonderful mix of inner strength combined with sensitivity and kindness. They take life seriously, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, and have a sense of humour.
Ivey Abitz is found by people actively searching for clothing that speaks to them and those who are looking for an entire wardrobe change. We’re also found by people who wear Ivey Abitz and someone asks them, “Where on earth did you find this clothing?” As an artist, it’s a profound thing to see how the designs that have come from my head are now being used in practical ways in their everyday lives.
LS: What do you see as being “missing” in the market today that Ivey Abitz provides?
IA: The intricate details of my designs, their construction, their fit and drape, the choice of high quality fabrics — this combination is non-existent in mass-produced clothing.
Bespoke clothing, or garments that are made based on a person’s actual body measurements, suit our clients so they can truly be comfortable in them for everyday life. Many of our clients tell us that they feel so at home in what we create for them, and they don’t want to wear anything else now. It’s a meaningful process for our clients to have one-of-a-kind garments made just for them.
My designs come from ideals and aesthetic values that are not at all readily available in the mass market. The clothing is perhaps not for everyone because it doesn’t adhere to western culture’s ideas and trends. That is why it’s so thrilling for our clients when they discover us. My designs give women permission to be themselves and embrace who they are on the inside and out.
LS: Why are these clothes durable? Why not just make them pretty, but disposable?
IA: Ivey Abitz garments are made to be long lasting for years of wear. These are heirloom garments in that our clients value the aesthetic and quality of them enough to want to pass them down to the next generation. One client has expressed a desire to eventually give her Ivey Abitz bespoke wardrobe over to a costume institute in her city’s museum, which is a wonderful thought.
Fast-fashion companies that create disposable mass-produced clothing have a completely different purpose than we do. These massive fashion corporations are trying to make as much money as possible by making clothing as cheap as possible. They use synthetic, throwaway fabrics, made by slave labour in countries that don’t yet have strict labour laws.
I’m not a fashion designer making trends. I’m an artist that creates clothing. Our business model is one that most corporations would cringe at because it’s not really about making money. First and foremost, I am an artist, and my ideals guide everything I do. My company is creating things that last and that will be relevant for years to come.
I also want what I create as an artist to respect the earth. I want to counter the mass-produced stuff that’s being churned out with planned obsolesce and is destined for the trash. Disposable, mass-produced clothing is creating a crisis for our landfills. Much of the refuse in them consists of synthetic clothing that will not decompose. Future generations will have to deal with the mass-consumption of our culture today, and that is simply not fair to them.
LS: You and your husband run IA together, and it says on your website that you made the choice to combine your surnames when you were married in 1996. Why did you combine your names, instead of going the traditional route of taking his, or even just maintaining your own last name? Did you get any pushback from that?
IA: Yes, we did get pushback from a couple family members and friends, and we were quite surprised by it. We actually heard the argument, “The man is supposed to TAKE the wife.” When we asked what that meant, we never received a thoughtful answer. It was a knee-jerk reaction and rooted in the idea that it’s just what you’re supposed to do, and that’s that. For the most part, though, people were very supportive and loved the reasons why we did it. They were particularly impressed that Josh was willing to change his name, and I think that speaks volumes of how deep patriarchal assumptions run through our culture.
Josh and I are both called to question everything, so when it came to name changing, we both gave it a great deal of thought. We agreed early on that it didn’t feel right for me to just drop my name and take his name. Josh was empathetic and said that he’d feel sad if his name just vanished, and he wouldn’t want me to go through that either. We both didn’t agree with the patriarchal demands of the woman always being the one to change her name, and we came up with a solution that we thought was respectful to us both. We considered adding our mother’s maiden names to our last name, too. In the end, we decided on Ivey Abitz and having the same last name. We liked the sound and look of it. It suited us both, and it was meaningful to us both.
I understand that some women don’t have a family connection that they want to honour, and they look forward to a name change upon marriage. It’s a mark of a new phase in life. I only hope that people give it some serious thought before just doing what everyone else is doing and expects of them. Such contemplation and conversations help shape the relationship for the better moving forward.
LS: There is an undercurrent of self-value in the way you talk about your clothes. What do you think the difference is between your philosophy, and the idea that women’s worth comes from our ability to wear the “Beauty Suit?”
IA: When people discover the collection, we often hear, “This is the clothing I’ve been looking for my entire life, and I’ve finally found it.” Some women get very emotional about it. The aesthetics of the garments speak to them in such a visceral way. I think it’s because they sense the collection is celebrating their entire being, inside and out.
Our finite bodies, or our shells, need to be covered for practical reasons. I’m creating through these practical and needful daily items for the external to lift up the internal woman. I’m giving her tools to help celebrate everyday life and her entire self through the second skin of clothing.
This does not mean that I’m ignoring the external self. Far from it. I’m keenly sensitive to how a garment feels when it’s draped on the body. I’m a visual artist, and I communicate my ideas through texture, lines, symmetry, and hues. But I also know how important it is to acknowledge and celebrate the entire woman and not just focus on physical attributes. When I design from that place, grace and comfort coexist naturally to create the collection that is Ivey Abitz.
The definition of beauty then encompasses all of the person’s attributes, not just parts of the body that our culture currently defines as sexy. The “Beauty Suit,” or tight clothing designed to show as much as skin as possible, is one-dimensional. I believe it focuses on solely the sexuality and particular “sexual assets” of the person. The clothing essentially points arrows at what we were taught as children to be the “private parts.” This is why many believe it’s belittling to women — and men.
Having said that, some women claim to find transformation and power within such clothing trends. This is a very sensitive topic for some women, and any questioning or conversation is cast out with vehement calls of “I can wear whatever I want and you can’t tell me what to do.” I don’t want people to tell me how to dress either, and I respect that they are on a journey and are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit into our culture right now. When our culture becomes more thoughtful, it will inform and transform the clothing we choose to wear.
LS: Do you consider modesty as a concern in your design, or is it a natural extension of your vintage-inspired aesthetic?
IA: I need to deconstruct the word modesty before I can fully answer this question. The definition of modesty is “the quality or state of being unassuming.” Unassuming means “not pretentious or arrogant.” If that is the case, then yes. I’d say my designs are modest. They aren’t pretentious, and they aren’t arrogant.
I use the word modesty very carefully, though, and I usually don’t use it to describe my artwork. Our culture seems to have turned the word modesty into a shameful label and has twisted its meaning. Modesty seems to be synonymous now with covering the body out of prudishness or being afraid of one’s sexuality in some way. I’m not at all afraid of my sexuality. I also don’t feel the need to expose my cleavage and wear garments that barely cover my genital area in order to feel like a woman. Body parts do not define my value or my beauty.
I don’t describe my designs as vintage-inspired because that conjures up all sorts visual misunderstandings and more recent decades in people’s minds. I am, however, interested in historic clothing from hundreds of years ago. I like to understand design trends within their historic contexts. For example, what was really the underlying purpose of panniers, or wide gowns, in clothing back in the 1700’s? Why did men wear tights back in the 1500’s while our culture today would deem them too feminine? Clothing trends don’t just randomly come about, and there is usually a social reason for them.
LS: If “clothing has a transformative power,” what do you think is the transformative power of mass-produced clothing meant to make a woman look sexy, but perhaps not comfortable? Or is there any?
IA: We need to listen to our intuition about how to honour our entire selves. The answers are not in the TV and in magazines and the trends that are put before us. I suggest turning those off, even for just a little while, and start paying attention to our own internal compass. We’ll find that it’s quite interesting and informative.
If our shirt is so low cut and tight that we aren’t able to comfortably sit down or bend over without a breast spilling out of the neckline, if our shoes are so tall that they hurt our feet and constrict our natural movement, if our skirt is so short that we aren’t able to naturally sit down or bend over without showing our genitals, our bodies are sending signals to our brains and to our souls that this is NOT working. If something is not comfortable and literally hurts us, it is not worthy of our attention. It does not honour the external or internal self. There is something better out there for all of us.
My collection strives to be that something better for the niche that is seeking it. My artwork strives to dress that voice inside of us and let it exclaim, “Yes, THANK YOU. That’s the way to honour me.”
Since mass-produced garments have infiltrated many of our closets, our culture has been told to put up with ill-fitting garments for the sake of fitting in to trends. The message is that it’s our fault — not the clothing’s fault. Many just blame it on the so-called flaws of their own bodies and not the poor quality and cuts of the mass-produced garments. Mass-produced garments are oftentimes based upon fit models that are a size 0-2 and are 6 feet tall. Mass-produced garments are cut in stacks hundreds at a time, and sizing isn’t precise. That is why so many people have such a hard time find clothing off the rack that really fits them. Things are too long. Sleeves are too tight. There is always a pull across the chest. There never seems to be enough room across the shoulders.
Ivey Abitz clients experience something so very different. The garment designs speak to them and inspire many to exclaim they’ve found their sartorial home in our clothing collection. They love knowing that the garments are made just for them and fit them exclusively. They appreciate the comfort and ease mixed with thoughtful design. Our garments honour the uniqueness of their bodies and their entire beings, and that’s why they find Ivey Abitz bespoke so liberating.
About the author:
Lauren Shields is a writer, comedian and progressive pastor living and working in San Jose. After an article on Salon about her “year of modesty” led to calls from The Today Show and Good Morning America, Lauren wrote her first book, The Beauty Suit: How My Year of Religious Modesty Made Me a Better Feminist, published with Beacon Press. She can be found at www.laurenjshields.com.
The Beauty Suit can be purchased at independent bookstores, Amazon, and on IndieBound .
Further Reading: Cynthia Ivey Abitz shares thoughts on her reading of The Beauty Suit.