In New York City, wearing color is a bold move; wearing color and pattern is nearly iconoclastic. And, when pulled-off, making a career out of designing garments covered in bright hues and prints is to ascend to the status of hero. “Life can also look like this,” these clothes say to hordes of professionals swathed in black and navy. Namely, it can look a lot more fun.
Ellen Van Dusen, the woman behind the fashion label Dusen Dusen, has done all of that. Since releasing her first line—covered in pattern—in 2010, she hasn’t changed course. She fashions her aggressively bright and geometric fabrics into relatively simple silhouettes—pants, blouses, skirts, and, an area Van Dusen is especially excited about, interiors like pillows, bedding, wallpaper, dog beds (a pile of which, covered in striking rectangles, polka dots, and squares, rest in the corner and hold her dog, Snips) and much, much more.
“My personal focus has gone more towards making my surroundings pleasant versus getting dressed,” Van Dusen tells me, smiling. We sat inside her second-floor Williamsburg studio, which was very successfully demonstrating her new focus. Lemon yellows and apple red swirls, applied to fabric swaths behind her, melded with the kelly green striped button-down of her own design that she wore.
Actually, I said, that sounded relieving. “Yeah, totally,” Van Dusen agreed amiably. Snips had hopped up onto her lap. “You know, you can really put a pattern on anything. So [interiors] just seemed like a good, easy, next step for me.”
Sitting on the table between us was a weighty book that Van Dusen had made with her brother and in partnership with Microsoft. The pages were translucent and filled with vibrant colors that ranged from forest green to neon pink. Dozens of pages contained cut-out patterns of squiggles or straight lines or Tetris-like shapes. Each color and pattern, when placed and layered on top of the next, transformed into a dramatically new one. I watched Van Dusen demonstrate, mesmerized.
“You’re so cool,” I marveled.
“I’m not that cool,” Van Dusen demurred.
“No,” I insisted. “Let me correct you.”
Van Dusen Grew up in Washington, DC, with two brothers and two architect parents in, of course, a beautiful home. Her parents had redesigned it together. But, she says, they warned her not to get into architecture; it was a hard career path to follow.
Still, Van Dusen observed, “Fashion design in the end is really similar in a lot of ways.” The work of her parents influenced her practice more than, at first, you might imagine. In her childhood home, Van Dusen was surrounded by architectural drawings and models. Plus, her dad loved to draw. A portion of an incredible ten-foot-wide and six-foot-tall geometric metropolis, which he drew by hand using a No. 2 pencil and no ruler, hung on the wall behind her. Its precision looked digital. Meanwhile, her mom was into color. Together—her dad’s mathematic-like patterns, her mom’s preference to stay away from black and white—their influences are directly manifest in Dusen Dusen clothing and homewear.
“For clothing, I work in terms of patterns,
and then in terms of the shapes themselves.”
In high school, Van Dusen knit prodigiously and knew she was into fashion, but did not want to study it in college. At Tufts, she created her own major: Neuroscience and art history. “Basically, I was interested in color and art, and especially color and field painters, and why canvases that were one color were super appealing to a lot of people.” Van Dusen told me, as bright morning light streamed into her studio that already burst with color. “Why, on a neurological level is this so appealing,” She had explained about her interest. She studied color field painters like Ellsworth Kelly to find out.
After college, Van Dusen worked for designer Mary Meyer in her Bushwick studio, and learned a ton about the business, Van Dusen said. Finally she asked herself: why not try to sell her own line? She brought some pattern heavy dresses and backpacks to the boutique Duo in the East Village. “They’re like, ‘We’ll take it,’ and I felt like, ‘Oh my god, like I conned them, I feel so bad!’” Van Dusen laughed, recounting it. He pieces sold out immediately.
“I think when people want to buy something from me, it’s mostly about the print.” I told her I thought moving in that direction was brave, especailly when faced with a sea of black. “But that’s my way,” she countered, “and I would never do it any other way.”
Currently, Van Dusen is starting to think about her next clothing and interior collections. She is still in early sketch-stage, but she doesn’t like her influences to be too narrow, direct, or explicit. She takes a lot of pictures on her phone, and tries to find within them a common thread.
“I like breaking down patterns to the smallest element, and working from there,” Van Dusen explains of her design process. “For clothing, I work in terms of patterns, and then in terms of the shapes themselves.” When the patterns are set, she’ll send them to her manufacturer, and, before the fabric comes back, she’ll come up with the outlines for her garments. “My brain just works like that—first pattern, then shape. That’s really the fun part, designing the prints and stuff.”
Currently, though, Van Dusen is most excited about tile. Per her observation earlier, she can put her true love—a pattern—on anything. “If I could apply my interests to that, through different collaborations, that is, like, a fulfilling life,” Van Dusen concludes.
Before I leave the bright world that she had created, I had to ask: Why Dusen Dusen? Why twice? Was it her proclivity toward pattern, manifest as words? After all, that’s what a patter is—repetition.
“Totally,” Van Dussen agreed, as she petted Snips. But she added to that something more important. “And I think it reflects the lightheartedness of the brand.” ♦
Photos of Jane Bruce