Over the past 17 years, Caroline Priebe has collaborated with established players and newcomers alike in the fashion industry, while honing an honest approach to design grounded in ethical sourcing and low-impact manufacturing. Well versed across all aspects of production, Caroline nimbly dances between sustainability and performance, with a keen eye for style throughout.
Tracing back influences, Caroline recalls observing her seamstress grandmother, formative workshops with fashion-pioneers and seminars she's taught at Parsons in Zero-Waste Pattern Making. In studio she favors the hands-on approach to design, both in pattern and fabrication where she most effectively employs sustainable practices.
In 2004 Caroline launched her own brand Uluru, up-cycling cashmere sweaters into knitted tank tops before expanding into zero-waste patterns and hemp blends with her collection for Barney's New York. Her track record includes previous work with Donna Karan, Alabama Chanin, Freeman's Sporting Club and more recently Outlier NYC. Nowadays, Caroline consults for a number of brands in sustainable development, from concept-to-production, source to afterlife.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
I grew up outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But I live in Brooklyn now. I’ve been working in fashion for 17 years in both men’s and women’s wear, primarily for smaller companies.
My very first job was with Donna Karan, and early on it became very clear to me that I didn’t want to work in a larger corporate atmosphere. I think that’s because I grew up in the family business. Afterwards, I left New York to go to design school in California.
Where Did You Go To School?
I went to school at CCA, California College of Art, though when I went there it was called CCAC, California College of Arts and Crafts. It was founded at the turn of the century with the Arts and Crafts Movement, which is ironic given how on-trend the Arts and Crafts Movement is now.
I discovered the program through a woman named Lynda Grose, who I am now lucky enough to call a dear friend. In the late ‘80s to early ‘90s she designed the E-collection for Esprit. The range was sourced primarily from organic cotton developed in Africa, which was a very progressive move at the time. She has been doing all sorts of work in the industry ever since, and now is a tenured professor at CCAC, where she introduced the first program that focused on sustainability as part of a design curriculum. The program had a very strong pattern-making and sewing component, and you very much had to learn how to flat-pattern, drape, sew, and construct. All of this has been super influential to my design process because so much of the design happens in the pattern, not the sketch.
To fast forward a little bit I also worked with this really amazing person named Temo Rissman, who brought sustainability to the curriculum at Parsons. At the time I was working for Rogan and Lucy and they brought me on to co-teach this zero-waste pattern-making course at Parsons. With zero waste pattern making it’s very much like a draping exercise but can also be done with flat-pattern. I remember Temo made this hoodie. You look at the drawing and it’s just a hoodie, but it has the most amazing pattern because it uses every piece of the fabric. You wouldn’t see it in the drawing, but you would see it in the pattern.
“Most people with a sense of style don’t necessarily have a giant closet. They have these go-to elements that people identify them with.”
Tell us about your brand, ULURU.
Uluru was primarily knitwear based, and ironically there were no real patterns involved. I made a cashmere ‘wife-beater.' I wanted it to be socially flexible. A wife-beater that you could wear anywhere. I danced as a kid and I loved these wrap sweaters, so I made that.
At first I sold myself, literally going door to door with a suitcase. Next season I hired a traveling saleswoman and she got me into 65 boutiques, and the season after that I got into a showroom and then Barney's.
After a few seasons I moved into womenswear. It was primarily hemps, hemps with blends, and with one of those patterns we did some work in Zero Waste. We didn’t use any closures - we created closures by the patterns; we used the bias.
That women’s collection is some of the work I‘m most proud of in terms of innovation and sustainability, and it has ended up in a few museums and galleries, much to my surprise.
What’s Important To You About The Clothes You Wear?
I like to think of my garments or my closet as pieces of collection and so when I see them it’s like, “Okay, is this a piece for the collection?”
Some pieces are pieces you just have to have, and then some pieces are part of your uniform or your wardrobe. There are certain designers that I definitely get, and a small group of designers that I definitely go to.
I think of myself as minimal and super functional. I value a lot of the same things that men do in menswear. It’s all about utility, comfort, and being able to move, to breathe.
It's also about pockets. I really love pockets.
Do you feel THAT living in New York has a lot to do with how you choose what to wear and how you style yourself?
Sure. Most people with a sense of style don’t necessarily have a giant closet. They have these go-to elements that people identify them with. They might have accessories, hats or other sprinkles they put on, like jewelry.
There are certain things that I get obsessive about for both their appearance and functionality. I have a lot of white T-shirts or white shirts. I have lot of Vans. Things like that. Go-to staples that you can go to that aren’t necessarily “on trend.”
Speaking Of Being On-trend. How Do You Feel About The Whole Athleisure Market?
I don't like ‘ath-leisure’ at all. I just don't get it. I think most people (especially outside of New York) wear ‘ath-leisure’ at all times. I just don't understand why you want to look like you're on the way to the gym all the time. I think it's lazy and weird.
I have to admit: I spent a day at Disney World not all that long ago and the entire park was wearing ‘ath- leisure’ and all I could think was, “This is not an athletic pursuit.”
We are going on rides or sitting in an auditorium. Why do you need be wearing gym gear at the amusement park? It's ugly!
These days I practice yoga, I box, and lift weights. I have very rudimentary workout clothes. It's not because I don't have an interest in it, it's just that I end up spending my dollar on fashion.
Lycra has done a huge disservice to the average American. Just because you can get it on does not mean it fits.
I‘m Going To Quote You On That
It doesn’t! I think you should wear actual clothes.
We Heard You’re Taking Culinary Courses.
Yes, I’m currently back in school.
What Is The Relationship Between The Things You Create For Fashion And Your Culinary Interests?
Well, my grandmother was a master seamstress and as a kid her influence played a big part in my childhood. I was always making things whether it’d be preparing food or playing dress up, textiles or knitting.
I think I came to sustainability via my interest in health and cooking, which then transitioned into fashion, and now back into cooking.
I'm reminded of when Lynda worked for the Sustainable Cotton Project. One of the things they help farmers do is transition from conventional to organic farming. They also take executives from Nike, Williams-Sonoma, H&M, Levis, Gap, etc. on these farm tours in the San Joaquin Valley.
One of the things you learn on the tour is that conventional cotton farms end up having this stuff called gin trash. The cotton goes in the gin, and gets separated to get rid of the husks, leaves and whatever you put on the plant, including pesticides. That gin trash is then taken down the street to the factory cattle farm and it's put on the floor of the pens where the animals are. They call it “bedding” or “footing.” It’s supposed to be good for the animals’ feet. In reality the animals end up eating it because it's fatty...
Long story short, it's all connected. A lot of food and economic justice is not only what it’s doing to our environment, but what it’s doing to the people who work on these farms and the surrounding areas.
Is there a place that you go to be inspired?
Where do I go? A lot of times it’s a memory, or some nostalgic item. I still really like books. One thing at Outlier that I loved was this library Abe created. It's such an incredible library, such a luxury to have.
Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency...
There is this book Schumacher wrote in the ‘70s called “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered”. He talks about the importance not only of full employment but employment as being a human. If we continue to mechanize everything and none of us work:
A. We won't have consumers.
B. We lose your purpose in humanity.
I don't think we should be using cotton. I think we should be using hemp and linen-like fibers that don't require pesticides, herbicides, or defoliants, but have similar or better properties than cotton. We should find ways to more efficiently use fabrics so that we have less waste. We should reduce the use of water and improve labor conditions. Those are the real human needs in the short term and the long term. I don't actually need my heart rate on my T-shirt.
Right now I'm reading a book by Dr. Janine Benyus on biomimicry. I think all of our solutions lie in biomimicry.
Can You Site A Specific Example?
One of my favorite stories is the dung beetle. It walks through shit but it's so clean. It has these little beads of water on the top of it. Its exoskeleton allows it to go through things totally clean without polluting anything. In New York, we walk through shit all the time so why can't we have some material that allows us to do the same? Its exoskeleton is non-toxic. I'm totally down with some non-toxic Scotch Guard.
Thank you Caroline for your time and hospitality. We look forward to seeing more of your work and are inspired by your passion to push fashion in a more sustainable direction.