She’s On the Road: Designing Pieces You’ll Keep — Danelle Des Roches

Dani Des Roches’ brand Picnicwear is slowly but surely out-designing fast fashion.

Dani Des Roches was a corporate sweater designer for most of her career. When Dani attended F.I.T. (Fashion Institute of Technology) in 2010, the edgy boutique brand Opening Ceremony snapped her up as an intern. Known for their trend-setting aesthetic and collaborations with up-and-coming designers and artists, Opening Ceremony positioned Dani as a funky offbeat fashion creative. Urban Outfitters, the popular alternative lifestyle retailer headquartered in Philadelphia, recruited Dani next. She stayed at Urban Outfitters for several years before Express offered Dani a design job that would take her back to New York City.

“Most of my career was in fast fashion but I was interestingly not shopping fast fashion,” she says. “Then, in my last few years [as a corporate designer], I stopped buying new [clothes] altogether. I was always wearing vintage, and that’s something I’ve done since I was a kid — thrift shopping. It always felt weird that I was designing fast fashion when I didn’t even feel right about buying it myself.”

Like everyone else, Dani needed to pay the bills and put food on the table but more importantly, she needed to maintain her work visa in the U.S., since she was born in Canada. Even though Dani wanted to break out on her own to create an independent label, the timing wasn’t right. She received her permanent residency status when she got married in 2017. Within six months, she quit her corporate job to explore other avenues within the industry — namely freelancing and providing sweater design consulting services to smaller brands. At the start of the pandemic, when those contract jobs dried up, Dani put all her efforts behind her slow fashion brand, Picnicwear. Her brand was formed “in response to her dissatisfaction with the industry’s shortcomings,” as her website states.

More than a year later, after starting Picnicwear in the corner of her Brooklyn apartment, she and her husband left New York City and headed for rural North Carolina where she now designs and cuts the brand’s products in their home studio. Meanwhile, she sends the garments back to NYC to be sewn by garment workers, facilitated by her production team Skilled Laborers Brigade. Picnicwear clothing and accessories are all made from vintage and deadstock materials, and all the workers who help bring the brand to life are paid a living wage for their talent.

“I pay living wages to the garment workers as well as my part-time assistant. The only person who helps me that I don’t pay a living wage to is my mother.” She adds with a laugh, “and myself.” Dani continues, “The importance I place on living wages is also very much rooted in my sustainability efforts.”

Dani may have started her career in fast fashion, but she was destined to return to her slow fashion roots. Before she was born, her parents owned a vintage clothing store in Vancouver that featured some of her mother’s upcycled garments. Eventually it grew into a small chain of women’s clothing boutiques that they produced domestically. While the items she creates are made from vintage materials today, she hopes that one day each piece will be considered vintage to its owner.

“I use the phrase ‘future vintage’ over ‘future garbage’ a lot, which is just my way of saying that my intention with my designs is that I’m making things that will last [and] that will ultimately become vintage because they’re not going to become garbage. That’s the goal,” Dani explains. “My biggest fear with Picnicwear is that it will become a trend or a cycle of fashion and get thrown out.”

Picnicwear uses vintage towels to create hats, handbags and garments. Dani doesn’t think she’s doing anything new. Textiles are woven into women’s history and tightly sewn into our future. She tells the origin story of the material she uses: “These towels [are] from the ’60s and ’70s. Women have been making clothing out of them since then (and even much earlier),” she says. Dani’s motivation is to create a brand that consists of “investment pieces” that will evolve into vintage pieces in someone’s personal collection.

Dani bought a vintage towel robe while she was still designing for large retailers, well before Picnicwear was even a thought. It was true vintage, made in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and the robe excited Dani. When she started sewing during the pandemic, the robe was at the forefront of her mind. It made her think about items that women made in their homes out of what was at their fingertips, like towels.

“I’m a sweater designer originally, so I have an obsession with textiles, and these towels are no different, though they are woven, not knit,” she points out. “What attracts me to knitwear is very similar to what attracted me to the towels in the first place.” When the citywide lockdown began, Dani, like so many others, made reusable face masks to help out when the supply of masks was erratic. Eventually, masks were not enough to satisfy Dani’s creative thirst. Quarantined and lacking a formal fabric collection, she turned to her stockpiled vintage towels that could be used as fabrication instead.

Resourcefulness is what kickstarted Picnicwear. The brand began with a version of the bucket hat. When Dani did not have a pattern handy, and stores were closed during the pandemic, she referenced a hat that she had in her home. By working with what she had at her fingertips, like so many women before her who also improvised and invented, her brand was born. Picnicwear’ssignature item is Dani’s take on a bucket hat. After seeing her creation come to life, Dani began sourcing vintage towels online. When the world opened its doors again after lockdown, business picked up and her mom started sourcing for her as well. “[Mom] became addicted to thrifting, Dani says. “She goes every week with her senior discount and you would be surprised how much is out there.”

Dani works with secondhand materials with the goal in mind to minimize waste. In her design process, she will consider how much she has left of a certain fabric or towel, then does some fabric math to calculate what pattern pieces could fit on the remaining portion. “That was a way that I literally designed around the waste,” Dani says. “When it comes to waste, I try [to] be as minimal as possible … every remnant left over doesn’t get thrown away; it either gets patched into patchwork items or gets appliquéd onto sweatshirts, and then the smallest pieces get made into little reusable face pads.” Dani jumps at any chance to be inclusive and makes plus-size orders for her customers.[JL1] 

Picnicwear is made in small batches but most pieces are one-of-a-kind. The brand cuts out a certain number of shorts, hats and handbags, which then go up on the website. Occasionally, Dani creates made-to-order pieces such as her limited-edition Zodiac sweatshirts. The sweatshirts are customized in three steps: the customer first picks a sweatshirt, then a binding fabric color and finally their zodiac sign, that Dani cuts from vintage towels, before affixing the selected trims[JL2]  to the garment. These custom sweatshirts take three to four weeks to ship, and they are slow fashion since they are available when the towels are available.

Dani also tries to be sustainable throughout her entire process by using packaging from[JL3]  the company Ecoenclose that offers recycled paper mailers. Their packaging comes from corrugated cardboard boxes and paper recycled by consumers and larger industrial companies. They are biodegradable and non-toxic, and help Dani reduce her carbon footprint since the shipping materials can also be recycled. For bulkier clothing items, she uses recycled polyester shipping bags.

As a consumer, Dani buys investment pieces, and that is what she creates in Picnicwear because she believes if a consumer invests in something, the chances are that they are going to love and appreciate the garment far more than a fast fashion item. “Even though pieces that I’m selling are not vintage, per se, they are investment pieces,” she says. [JL4] My hope is that when people purchase a Picnicwear piece, they are thinking, ‘This is something that I’m going to wear and re-wear, and cherish for a very long time,’ and the goal is that they will find that they don’t need to purchase as often anymore. I hope that the next wave of fashion is people wearing whatever suits their style identity, regardless of what is ‘on trend.’”

Conversations with Samantha Stanich. Written by Samantha Stanich. Edited by Maya Quarker & Jess Lo.

Page design by Tye Johnson.