Suzanne Rae Pelaez founded her eponymous women’s ready-to-wear clothing line out of her home in Brooklyn.
Born in the Philippines, Suzanne Rae Pelaez ’01 was two years old when her family moved to New Jersey. As a child, Pelaez was a good student but also loved ballet; at Bryn Mawr, she majored in economics, with a minor in dance. A decade later, after a few career twists and turns, Pelaez founded her eponymous women’s ready-to-wear clothing line out of her home in Brooklyn. Rooted in feminist fundamentals, social awareness, and environmental responsibility, the brand also has a playful side, positing fashion as a performative art.
Finding fashion: Being an econ major in the late ’90s, everyone was going into investment banking, so I did my fair share of those interviews. I quickly realized that it was too abstract for me in a way that my brain didn’t want to work, and I had no genuine interest in it. I wanted to explore art history and ended up working for Holly Solomon, a famous New York gallerist with works by Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Christo. Two years later, she passed away and it occurred to me that success means nothing if you’re lonely and sick. That made me self-evaluate, and I decided I would try medicine. I went back to Bryn Mawr for the postbac program, but after starting off strong, I realized I was losing interest and needed to be creative in a different way. I looked up fashion design programs, found Parsons, and after three weeks in the program, I knew I wanted to start my own line.
“Not superficial” At Parsons, I realized that fashion could be important and open up different dialogues. There was a perception at the time that fashion was superficial. I wanted to let people—and most importantly let myself—know it’s not superficial. I had this artillery of knowledge that I wanted to exercise, and fashion was my vehicle.
Sewing the seeds: After Parsons, I headed to Milan for an internship with Costume National, where I did a lot of research and drawing and worked under the head designer of the women’s team. Back in the U.S. I worked for Morgane Le Fay and then in retail for Prada and Chloe while I slowly started my line, making little collections, hiring a seamstress, spending all my money. After three years of that, I wanted to do it full time. We officially launched in September 2010, with shoes following in 2017.
A sustainable approach:
We made everything in New York, and I still work with the same factory. The majority of the shoes are made in Italy at a wonderful factory—everything is done in-house. Because we are not doing mass production and are paying for quality materials and paying people properly, it makes for an expensive product.
I like the direction that we’re headed in, and my favorite part of everything is still the creation. We have a sustainable approach, using deadstock fabric and hemp and bamboo and also Piñatex, a leather made from the discarded parts of the pineapple. We also work with an Italian vegan leather partially made with materials that come from farm waste; they take trash and do something constructive with it.
There’s a level of confidence and strength that you learn at Bryn Mawr. You learn that you can take who you are and do anything, and that your definition of success does not have to match everyone else’s. I could make my own path, and I didn’t have to follow someone else’s formula. That was so liberating and empowering.