How the Brooklyn-based designer is breaking with tradition

Arianna Reagan is rewriting history through fashion. The Brooklyn-based designer discusses her brand like a novelist’s treasured narrative. “Arcana isn’t just clothes, it represents history, and generations. It pays homage to the badass women in our pasts.” She is intent on preserving stories through her designs, from sourcing vintage kimono fabrics to sustaining traditional handicrafts through global artisans. Arcana is her response to the disposable world of fast fashion, and she’s creating her brand with “heart and human hands.” Arianna weaves decades of soul and stories into her “heirloom” designs. She’s most inspired by female protagonists – including the [Jane] “Eyre” blouse she’s currently wearing – and she sees each collection as a continuous chapter of the Arcana story.

“We need a wardrobe that can take us everywhere, and feels special the whole time,” she says, walking about her earth-toned atelier reminiscent of a Bronté tale. Skimming through her collection is like digging through a treasure chest, with countless hidden wonders in store. From reversible bomber jackets and handwoven Indian pantsets, to tiered silk dresses, she designs pieces to be cherished, not discarded. She’s building a positive platform around globalization and sustainability, and working the industry on her own terms. Through her designs, Arianna is empowering indigenous communities, crafting a connection between foreign worlds and preserving bygone traditions of the past. She is creating more than fashion, but stitching generations of culture into clothes. Here, we chat with Arianna on her spiritual background, preserving ancient artistry, and storytelling in style.

COOLS: Tell us a little bit about your background, what you studied.

Arianna Reagan: I never planned on going into fashion. I loved art. I loved people. I went to Bard to study fine arts and took a class on a whim called “Sexuality and Spirituality.” It blew my mind. I took another class on “Women in Buddhism,” and switched to Religious studies. I studied thousand year-old stories you wouldn’t even believe. They were so visually rich and inspiring. Studying philosophy and history gives you a multi-faceted view of humanity. I tried to approach religion in grad school from a literary lens and it didn’t work.  I had that twenty-something moment you have, where I was floundering. I was working in retail for ages, and hated it. I had a 3AM epiphany one day that I had to do something creative with my life, and that was what would make it worth living. I literally pulled out my laptop and applied to Parsons right there. And then I ended up going to Parsons, and it was incredible.

As I started to work in the industry, I realized so much of the ugliness; people treating manufacturers terribly, and not caring where they sourced things. Treating their coworkers terribly. Really strong hierarchy where somebody who was two levels up from me wouldn’t speak to me directly — called me “her.” Then when I got a job with a young Australian woman, I had this completely new experience. She had a sort of vision quest for Guatemala. She started designing with these ancient textiles from a family of weavers. She was able to support them, and grow their economy in their village. The genuine authentic love that she felt for them felt so refreshing. She was passionate about putting a real meaning in fashion. She was bringing this heart, and human hands into fashion. I realized I would only do fashion if it was on my own terms.

COOLS: Arcana is a Tarot term, referring to the narrative of a soul’s journey through life. How does that resonate with your brand?

AR: Tarot culture has always been important for me. My great grandmother was a witch. She taught my father how to read palms, my parents taught me how to read the Tarot. Whenever I’m faced with a big life decision, I go to the Tarot. When I started studying religion more, I read mythology from all over the world, and loved all their stories. No matter where we’re from, no matter the decade or the century or the millennium we grew up in, we have this same core of seeking that holds us all together. That’s one side of Arcana. But the other side is it’s the Latin word for the arcane, or lost knowledge that’s only known by the selected few. I want to bring history into the present. Not only through things like vintage kimono silk, but supporting people who are doing traditional textile art. They’re carrying this on generation to generation. It’s a dying art.

 

COOLS: Your focus is bringing fashion back to quality art and soul. How do you perceive the industry right now, and what are you doing to change it?

AR: That’s a big question. We all know the conflict with disposable fashion, and the way we consume it like we consume food. Today’s consumer is savvier, but up until recently, never considered where their clothing came from. For me, being able to learn the history of, and meet the people who are still practicing the textile arts, is so incredible. How labor intensive, how highly skilled you need to be. It makes you really appreciate clothing in a different way, and I’m hoping that seeing this value, seeing the person who’s behind your clothing, seeing the culture and the stories behind your clothing, is going to be one way people can appreciate it in a different way.  It’s an art form. It’s a projection of who we are. It’s a way of carrying on history. But that’s one hell of a task.

COOLS: How does Arcana bring the mythological world you’re so inspired by into modernity?

AR: I have always been fascinated by stories; from sitting on my dad’s knee when I was little and listening to his tall tales, to studying mythology when I was in school. These narratives weave into my head. The blouse I’m wearing now, I designed when I was reading Jane Eyre. It’s about feeling those echoes, feeling the people who came before you, but also back to that seeking. I think something that holds religion, art, philosophy and ultimately science together, is that feeling of reaching towards something we can’t quite describe. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to describe that.

“I’m hoping that seeing this value, seeing the person who’s behind your clothing, seeing the culture and the stories behind your clothing, is going to be one way people can appreciate it in a different way.  It’s an art form. It’s a projection of who we are. It’s a way of carrying on history. But that’s one hell of a task.”

COOLS: And with weaving indigenous practices into your pieces, how do you discover these artisans and develop a relationship with them?

AR: Well, from the very unsexy Google searching. It’s very difficult to find sustainable textiles. I found a mom-and-pop shop in Japan that sells these kimono silks. It’s grandmas in the back restoring old kimonos. Her daughter-in-law speaks English, and she does all the translations on their website. I’ve never been to Japan, but it’s on the list. When I had just started my business, my boyfriend and I went to Bali. I learned enough Indonesian to ask around for the traditional weavers. I found this amazing weaver’s collective that employs these village girls. Bali’s economy is almost fully supported by tourism right now. Young people move out of villages into big cities, and the cultural arts are disappearing. They’re actually importing sarongs, their traditional costume, from China. Where once, they were made on looms. Each area of Indonesia had their own specialty, using natural dyes from the environment around them. They’re unique to that part of the world. I saw it and thought they were doing something incredible and brought it back here.

COOLS: Tell me about some of the artisans you work with?

AR: I work with ‘Women Weave,’ a program that teaches vulnerable women in impoverished rural areas the craft. They’re widows, they’ve been divorced, they don’t have many options for an honorable livelihood. Women Weave teaches them to master khadi, a traditional fabric in India, and become their own agents. They teach other women, and they run these co-ops. I love this idea of empowering women through entrepreneurship. We struggle with that in America, let alone in India where we have a lot of ingrained misogyny.

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COOLS: You describe the brand as “heirloom fashion,” what does that mean to you?

AR: I got into fashion because of my dress up box when I was a kid. It was filled with cast offs from my aunts, my mother, my grandmothers. When I wear their clothing, I get this glimpse of who they were and their lives before I even met them. My grandmother died right before I started my company, so that was really big in my mind. I still have her clothes, and carry some of her eccentricities and spirit with me. So that’s part of it, the echoes idea. The fact that Arcana isn’t just clothes, it represents history, and generations. It pays homage to those badass women in our pasts. The other side is that it’s not disposable fashion; it’s expensive. I don’t want it to be an impulse buy. This is something you really want, that you’re going to cherish for your lifetime. And maybe one day your daughter or granddaughter will get to wear it, because that’s how it used to be.

COOLS: Your commitment to sustainability also runs deep?

AR: Yes. I’m super selective about my fabrics. Vintage fabrics already exist, so I’m not producing more. I’m also supporting indigenous cultures that essentially have zero carbon footprint. These aren’t mills run by electricity; they’re literally doing it by hand. So that’s sustainable. I use organic cotton, natural dyes, and weird fabrics like salmon leather. And that’s actually a byproduct of the fishing industry. Normally they would be throwing out the skins, but there’s actually a precedent in Icelandic history for fish leather clothing. There’s this tannery that takes the skins from the fishing industry, so that when the fillets go off to our market, they keep the skins and tan them using geothermal energy. Again, no carbon footprint. And because of the natural grain from the scales, it’s super tough, but feels just like lambskin. And it doesn’t smell.

“It’s not disposable fashion; it’s expensive. I don’t want it to be an impulse buy. This is something you really want, that you’re going to cherish for your lifetime. And maybe one day your daughter or granddaughter will get to wear it, because that’s how it used to be.”

COOLS: You mentioned the importance of a shared human experience. What kind of culture are you creating with Arcana?

AR: Globalization is one of the big issues right now. Our world’s gotten really small, and we’re all bumping up against one another. But I want to focus on the other side of that, which the connection with people on the other side of the world. I like the idea that one person can wear a top from a 50-year-old Japanese fabric that somebody wore in their wedding. And pair it with pants woven by women in India supporting themselves by continuing their grandmothers’ traditions. I bring it to America representing all of these hands that created it. It’s a little bit cheesy, but I like the idea of globalization inventing a global culture.

COOLS: And what’s the legacy you’re creating with Arcana?

AR: I want to make those pieces that you can’t find anywhere else. I want someone to pick up what I’ve designed, and have it strike them the same way that one can walk into an ancient cathedral, and feel all those people who came before you. I want people to feel that history.

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