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Studio Visit: Shea Christner of Open Air Museum on Asking Important Questions

STORY BY RACHEL SCHWARTZMANN – SHOP OPEN AIR MUSEUM – PHOTOS BY NICHOLAS PETER WILSON FOR THE STYLE LINE

Designer Shea Christner is all about asking questions.

Her thoughtful approach to design is evidenced by the success of her growing contemporary fashion brand, Open Air Museum. The emerging label is built upon the pillars of sustainability, wearability, and ease – and as a Portland-based brand, Shea has situated herself and the business within one of the most sought-after hubs for ethical fashion. In fact, Shea contends that her peers continuously support the idea of challenging industry standards and asking questions that bring sustainable design (and thinking) to the forefront. As she mentioned in our interview with her below, “People in Portland are asking the right questions when it comes to consuming, and their dedication to buying quality-made sustainable goods has enabled a movement here that supports our local economy.”

With the above in mind, Shea has masterfully tapped into the Portland market and cultivated a unique community of women who, as she puts it, “value intentional living.” Coupling this with brand’s fluid aesthetic and dedication to encouraging sartorial exploration, we can’t wait to see our future interviewee continue to shape the way women think about the process of getting dressed.

On that note, we’re excited to share more from our recent conversation with Shea who kindly shared more on her story, current design, process, and advice for the next generation of designers looking to follow a similar path. Discover the full conversation below and enjoy exclusive imagery from our visit captured by Nicholas Peter Wilson for The Style Line.

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“It is easy to under or over design, and I am still learning that balance. The more questions I ask, the more the design transforms from a simple flat sketch to something with life and purpose.”

– SHEA CHRISTNER

Hi! I’m Shea Christner,

I am the founder and designer of the womenswear line Open Air Museum. I live in Portland, Oregon, where I moved to start and build the brand after graduating college in 2015. My interest in fashion began with a love for textiles and all the different forms they take and the roles they play in our lives. I went to Savannah College of Art and Design to study textile design and fell in love with the tactile process. I have always loved fashion, but it was and still is a connection with the materiality that propelled me into making wearable forms. I have always been an independent person who values the quieter, simple aspects of life, so when I am able to step away from the constant turning wheels of running a business my hobbies are shaped by what grounds me as a person. I love taking time to drive down to the coast for a slower pace of life, and sometimes I attempt to surf. Cooking and yoga are regular activities in my life that I enjoy and both encourage a more quiet and mindful posture. And finally, we have incredible thrift/vintage stores here that I like to pop in regularly.

Sustainable design seems to be prominent in Portland’s fashion community. Would you agree? Why do you think that is and what void is Open Air Museum filling in this particular community?

I would agree, almost every designer I have come to know in Portland has built their brand around environmental responsibility, which in turn has created an attitude that we are all in this together, working toward a similar goal. Portland lives up to its reputation for being hardcore environmentally conscious, so having a business model built on sustainability is attractive to Portland customers. I do not believe this is the sole reason sustainability is prominent in our design community, however, I do believe the city is a strong foundation for building and upholding businesses with an emphasis on sustainability. People in Portland are asking the right questions when it comes to consuming, and their dedication to buying quality-made sustainable goods has enabled a movement here that supports our local economy.

Walk us through your design process. How has it evolved since formalizing Open Air Museum into a business and how do you maintain a balance between your creative vision and customer demand?

When I started OAM my design process was very much centered around pieces I would want in my closet – something I would wear every day that is simple yet versatile. However as we near our fifth collection and have a better understanding of our customers and best-selling styles, the process has become a bit like a game of tug of war. Our designs are centered around quotidian, timeless pieces, but not so simple that they lack design.

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“People in Portland are asking the right questions when it comes to consuming, and their dedication to buying quality-made sustainable goods has enabled a movement here that supports our local economy.”

– SHEA CHRISTNER

It is easy to under or over design, and I am still learning that balance. Currently, my design process will start with a body of 8-12 pieces, including both new and recurring styles. I will draw the garment in its most simple form, and then begin to ask questions like – technically, how will this garment function? And in terms of design, what does it offer? How is it different? Who is the woman who wears it and what does she do? The more questions I ask, the more the design transforms from a simple flat sketch to something with life and purpose.

What is one question you wish people asked you more often?

Not to throw shade at coffee dates, but many people ask to meet over coffee, and I’d love for that to change to “brunch?” (or any meal for that matter). There is something really special about gathering together over a meal, and on a Saturday morning with no place to go, I covet quality time with a friend over good breakfast food.

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“My hope is that the honest and creative efforts of our brand would offer change and bring awareness to a culture bent toward apathy and immediate gratification.”

– SHEA CHRISTNER

What role do you think Open Air Museum can play in helping women fulfill any sartorial resolutions for the year ahead?

Women are speaking up and finding their own voices now more than ever, and my hope is that OAM, not just the clothing, but the soul and the storytelling of our brand would be a platform for women to be fully themselves. I design a lot of oversized styles and use non-traditional silhouettes that challenge our cultural perception of what is flattering. Whatever a woman decides she feels confident, comfortable and sexy wearing is what is truly flattering and beautiful, and that is the attitude we hope to encourage women to have as they seek individuality and style in 2018.

Who is the Open Air Museum woman and how do you hope to see her evolve as the brand grows?

The woman I design for is someone who values intentional living. A woman who cares about individuality and personal style without any fuss. Her wardrobe transitions well to different roles and is versatile enough to be worn throughout seasons. As we grow and continue to create new design concepts, I hope to see this woman evolve toward an openness to untraditional styles that still embody her values and daily activities, while contributing to her closet as a statement piece. This is something I am opening myself up to in my own style as well.

How do you think creativity contributes to some of the world’s bigger conversations and how do you hope Open Air Museum plays a role in this?

Creativity in large part is another way of problem-solving, of contributing to a more efficient and beautiful way of doing life and that takes on many forms. It takes a willingness to look at a problem creatively to challenge and change a society. In terms of OAM, I have dedicated long hours of creative problem solving and research to find sources, factories and collaborators alike who contribute to the social and environmental consciousness of our brand. You have to look further than what is in front of you, and it takes creative vision and energy to take that extra step. My hope is that the honest and creative efforts of our brand would offer change and bring awareness to a culture bent toward apathy and immediate gratification.

How would you advise the next generation of creatives to leave an imprint in the world, simply by doing what they love?

There is a lot I could say on this topic, but one thing I wish someone told me is that we’re all kind of making it up as we go and the most important ingredient you need to start something impactful is to know why you are doing it. If you can answer why you’ve got what you need to make a start.

People are attracted to passion, and I believe passion will take you further than your five-year plan and technical skills. Both are good things, but it’s nothing without a heart behind it. I told myself I did not have the appropriate knowledge, skills, and finances to start my brand, but I knew why I wanted to start it and I believe the reason we have seen growth is because people see the soul of the brand and want to be a part of that.