“The students every year are so different that if I wasn't so in touch with that generation, just evolving and shifting with how trends are manifesting, then my brand would suffer. It is kind of like a cheat sheet, being in the classroom with future designers.”
My name is Helen Castillo, I am a professor of fashion design and a designer of evening wear but how I would introduce myself is that I’m an educator. I love teaching because when you put a concept out there, your students give you something back that you might not have ever thought of yourself. That really just inspires me to continue creating. Teaching at a university allows me to have the time to balance my work and my life. I'm able to do my designs uninterrupted, and get feedback, or just inspire my students to do more with their own capabilities.
Designer for Vivienne Westwood, Vera Wang, Zac Posen, featured on Project Runway and Project Runway All Stars (US), worked as a dresser/seamstress for Madonna, Rachel Melvin, Mary Lambert, Justin Timberlake, etc. More recently teaching Fashion Design at The Fashion Institute of Technology and developing collection for AW24.
THE QU & A
What are 3 values that you wish to mediate through your work?
Well, it’s funny you mentioned that your new volume is titled 'Empathy'. I think this is one of my values. I always approach everything with empathy. Even if I'm drinking soda from a can, I'm like, “Oh, I'm creating this waste”. But at the same time, at least I'm not drinking Coca Cola. So, would that be a beige? My beige line would be trying to drink with seltzer instead of Coke.
I'm a workaholic. I don't know if that's a value. But empathy is good. I think it is good to care about other people, even if they're dirtbags and they do mean stuff to you. Maybe something is wrong, or something happened, or you just have to give them space.
Empathy and I’m a workaholic. These are what my moral fiber is built on working.
What are 3 relevant problems that you wish to solve through your work?
From a business perspective, it is a very complex question. The pandemic destroyed this industry. I had a beautiful studio in Bryant Park which was closed for almost a year, and coming back, rent doubled, tripled. It’s just impossible. I really utilized that time during lockdown to connect with more people on a digital level which I don't really love because that takes away from the craftsmanship. But then technology is creating that connection with people. So I'm very conflicted.
Empathy is probably another problem because I'm always thinking about others before myself. It cuts a lot of time into my brand and developing that.
I worked with loads of stylists, hair stylists, makeup artists, big brands, and a lot of them, unless you have a TikTok with a million followers, are asking what other brands I am working with. So, I decided I'm gonna work with my squad that I've always worked with, pulled them in, and we did independent projects so we don't have to sweat all that phony TikTok dancing and lip syncing. That's another problem. Social media is a problem that I hate but have to embrace more.
Short term memory loss. That's another problem.
Free format conversation with Helen Castillo
On the Role of Education and FIT:
FIT is so traditional in their way of teaching, it is always about foundation and how you are starting from the most technical perspective with very old school values. There are still a lot of my professors that are here, even though I'm teaching. They are the greats and they create the greats. There are so many big names that have come out of this college.
Based on my teaching style, I feel like I'm always creating. That Is really vital to being a teacher, it is all assessment based. You can't teach the same format every semester to every class to every student because they are all different level learners. That took me a really long time to understand as a professor.
I'm inspired by my students every day. That helps motivate my brand to continuously evolve. The students every year are so different that if I wasn't so in touch with that generation, just evolving and shifting with how trends are manifesting, then my brand would suffer. It is kind of like a cheat sheet, being in the classroom with future designers.
How can Creatives improve their impact on the world by creating intentionally?
As customers, we are making the shift where there is this greater appreciation for craft. What is beautiful is that the Asian market loves that. Also, the European market has an appreciation for it, although when I think of the European market I think like Chanel, Dior, all this like tacky stuff, which is fine to each. You know if that’s your taste level, that's totally okay. But the problem is if a business is going to suffer, then you have to sacrifice a percentage of your integrity for your brand.
As creatives, if you're going to continue succeeding, you have to make some sacrifices. I've done collaborations on Instagram for example where I've gotten paid some amount, and I didn't feel like it was entirely genuine. You could do a video of you walking down the street, and the cover image can be of something completely irrelevant. And you get a million views. What is the concept behind that? To some degree it offends me, I'm sure it offends you too where it is a lack of absolute effort.
How can Creative Leaders show a more realistic example of trial and error?
At the end of the day, people make mistakes, we all make bad decisions. But as long as you have just an awareness and empathy towards who your audience is, who you're impacting, it's okay to make mistakes.
When you say trial and error, as an artist, I think about what we are creating and the mistakes that we make getting to the end result. That's very niche. Not everybody gives a shit about seeing the process, seeing what you're messing up, or learning from it.
As an educator, when I first started teaching, I was so conflicted about that because I want to share education. But when it comes to social media, people want it quick-and-fast, short-and-sweet. They just want the end result, they want to see something cut and sewn and created in 10 seconds, or whatever the algorithm is. But I'm just genuine, especially on my socials. I post everything. I would rather be authentic with what I'm sharing, even if it's my mistakes. I was doing some shoe designs a few weeks ago, and it totally flopped. I'll probably tell my followers it didn't work out. My philosophy is that it makes people have more interest because they see that you are human and that you make mistakes, that you have trials and tribulations where things don't work out.
What are some responsibilities Creatives should take on?
With my brand I only use remnants or overstocked fabrics. For the most part, no two items are alike. This whole narrative right now about sustainability is catching on and the next generation realizes that “Oh the planet is effed up, we need to make some changes and just be more aware of what we’re putting out there or what we’re sourcing.”
Long story short… responsibility: being aware of the political and ecological climate. It sucks because especially my students, they just want to create and they don’t want to have limitations but if there is no integrity to what you’re creating then you’re just making more clothes. There’s plenty of clothes to go around.
Brands and politics:
Politics just depend on the brand’s philosophy, what their ethics are and if they want to address it. If they have the capability to do so, if they have the funding to support things that won’t compromise their businesses’ success.
Look at Vivienne Westwood for example. I interned for her and I’m still in touch with colleagues from there. They have a sub brand called Active Resistance where they get political. They host rallies and demonstrations, and typically recruit artists and dancers. But then there is a fine line where you ask whether it is marketing or genuine concern.
I think with brands, if you believe in something indefinitely then that’s how you preach your brand and how you want to impact an audience. Maybe you shouldn’t care if what you say offends some people. My mother always says, you can’t make everyone happy. At the end of the day, just do what you love, and that’s what I do.
Helen Castillo invites Melinda DiMauro Culp into conversation
Melinda DiMauro Culp
EDEN STUDIO NYC, Chelsea NY
Selfless vs. Selfish: what is a realistic balance between these two states of minds and how can creative relationships help finding it?
Melinda DiMauro Culp
Being selfish for me is about priorities. Putting my own art and time above others needs feels selfish at times but it’s the only way to accomplish what we are called to do. As part of an artist community we can be selfless in contributing time or grace for others need to be creative. I’ve found being selfless is also so rewarding. Is that selfish?
Selfish to me is the demand for quenching a thirst that results in satisfying a need or desire, where selflessness can result in loss and sometimes overlooking the needs or thirst for yourself. I think with our current social climate there are many obstacles we need to consider ourselves first when we are faced with, a matter of survival and possibilities for our future and that of others. In either a creative sense or just with a hope for future optimism.
This conversation contributes to a new media format, where Creatives are in full control of their narratives. By exploring alternatives to narrative journalism, GAHSP starts unconventional conversations, emphasizing values and problems that shape our lives collectively.
Conversation Led by Julia Horvath
Conversation Assisted by Julieta Flores
Image Courtesy of Helen Castillo
Unedited. Only Formatted.