OKANE is Bringing Fashion's Past Into the Present

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OKANE / Graphic by ONE37pm

With the dissolution of the boundary between high fashion and the more utilitarian forms of clothing in the past decade or so, a new obstacle has emerged. How does an artist create clothing that nods to the beauty and delicacy of the ornate without sacrificing wearability? The process of overcoming this dilemma is at the center of the design ethos for Alex O’Kane, the man behind his eponymous NYC label OKANE. A collection of immensely well crafted minimalist but inspired pieces, OKANE is a demonstration of the means through which historical garments can be anachronistically thrust through time into the present, while maintaining a cohesive vision.

O'Kane's development has landed his garments on the likes of Peter Dinklage, Justin Bieber, Rauw Alejandro and more—filling a much-needed void for easily wearable pieces crafted with the care traditionally reserved for the more avant-garde. I spent a recent afternoon with O’Kane in his Manhattan studio to pore over his collections and hear about the genesis of his brand.

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The Genesis of OKANE

“I started designing stuff when I was a kid. Just in my house, cutting up fabric,” O'Kane tells me of his genesis as a designer, which followed a gift of an old sewing machine from his aunt. “I didn't know how to use it. And then in high school, I started going to FIT and Parsons for their weekend courses. I did a few different courses there and thought about going directly into fashion, but decided to go do the Liberal Arts path.”

After going to Bard College in upstate New York, O'Kane worked a variety of jobs that were decidedly not in fashion—including a spell for his father’s electrical company.

Growing up in suburban Montclair, NJ, O'Kane spent a lot of his youth in and out of the city. That—coupled with his father’s New York-based business—contributed to a contemporary desire to keep the brand centered around the city. Of his father’s business, O'Kane says, “I think that's also part of the making-everything-in-New-York thing, coming from a New York family business. There's a certain amount of attachment to doing things locally here. It's a hard sell to customers because they're not maybe used to paying for locally made stuff, but I think it's important.”

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Shot by @atprodd for ONE37pm

Eventually, the desire to create something returned. “I left a job in 2016 and went on a road trip around the U.S. by myself," he recalls. "When I came back, I was like, ‘All right, let me start getting back to what I want to do.’ I started working for a suiting company in Brooklyn for a bit. And then I decided I was ready to try this on my own.”

This decision came around the end of 2019, right before the onset of the pandemic. 

“I started the formulation for this in 2020. I think it’s a very common story of you're stuck at home, figuring out what it is that you really want to do. In the beginning, I couldn't go anywhere to work with anyone. So I was just teaching myself how to pattern make, cutting samples," he explains. "And then I was connected with the pattern maker I work with now, who's fantastic, does all of our manufacturing. It's literally a family. The daughter is the owner of the company. Her mom is the seamstress, the dad's the cutter. And it's really just the three of them making everything,” O'Kane adds about some of the manufacturers he uses to this day. 

By March of 2022, O'Kane had released his inaugural collection.


Shot by Kat Slootsky

“As boring as it sounds, it was really about the structure of getting a clothing company started more so than the clothing itself from an aesthetic or conceptual place,” O'Kane says of his first collection under the namesake brand. (Fun fact: despite his name being “O’Kane,” Alex opted to omit the apostrophe from the name as a means to avoid the ways apostrophes can be a nuisance to deal with in code.) “I wanted to pick very basic things that wouldn't be, you know, out of style six months, a year later. And you could continue to mix them in as you made more and more collections. It was a spring collection and I just thought about, what were the basics I was looking for in a wardrobe?”

In all of his work, O’Kane is toying with this notion of how to experiment with his garments, while maintaining a semblance of approachability for the everyday wearer. Each season, O'Kane identifies a few pieces to push the limits of his brand's minimalism. One example is the vest from his inaugural collection, which is an amalgam of two samples sewn together. Again, he finds minor ways to render otherwise orthodox pieces a bit more exploratory.

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"The color palette is very straightforward. It's cream and white and black and navy, and that's carried through, really through all of the collections," he says. "Boxier fits, wider fits, higher waist on pants, and then a lot of quote-unquote 'feminine details' that are more common to women's wear."

The OKANE Aesthetic

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Shot by Kat Slootsky

This conversation around O’Kane’s initial collection easily transitions into a discussion around the overall design ethos of his label. “I want to make clothing that is everyday clothing, but that is not overly casual nor overly formal," he says. "I am a person who likes to wear a suit just as much as I like wearing a tee shirt and some Carhartts. So I think being able to create clothing that can cross that spectrum, but feels connected to each other, is kind of what I'm interested in.”

Every time I have interacted with O’Kane’s work, I’ve been struck by his material selection and how it always results in pieces that beautifully drape—or rigidly hold. In one of our first conversations, O’Kane noted to me: “With all of this stuff, it's about doing it in a way that doesn't feel like you're putting on a costume. Figuring out what that balance is, what's your everyday wardrobe.”

Many of O'Kane's pieces could be categorized as menswear, but incorporate unique silhouettes traditionally withheld in womenswear—whether it be cropped shirts, high waisted pants, or the hourglass cut of his decadent overcoat. O’Kane says he's “just shifting what the standard expectation of proportions are for menswear. But again, without going too crazy where it feels like something you're not actually going to put on to wear.”

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I don't want someone to feel like they're putting a costume on where they're wearing clothing, but I do like the idea of when you get dressed up, it makes you transform or feel a different way.

- Alex O'Kane

In this practice, O’Kane often references aspects of historical clothing, anchored by the approachability of workwear and more ubiquitous styles: “The thing I'm most interested in fashion, it tends to be historic clothing. I just find it beautiful and interesting and—whether from a technical standpoint or just a visual aesthetic standpoint—it's what I always return to when I'm looking at references. So that's kind of the other ethos is having something that feels like it's a reference back to a different time of clothing. 

“A lot of times I'm looking at movies as references in my head," O'Kane continues, and—like with the influence of historical pieces—he is always careful to not allow his references to overwhelm the brand's approachability: "I don't want someone to feel like they're putting a costume on where they're wearing clothing, but I do like the idea of when you get dressed up, it makes you transform or feel a different way."

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Shot by Kat Slootsky

For his current Spring collection, this practice of conflating two seemingly disparate aesthetics is made tangible. “It's kind of a mix between looking at fishermen and the Dutch Golden Age,” O’Kane explains to me as he pulls examples from the collection onto a rack, displaying key components that reference either the former or latter. “It’s this very formal and this very ornate and delicate way of dressing, and then a very utilitarian way of dressing. Kind of mixing those in various ways. Those are the two main points.”

Fashion is a business

As we conclude, O’Kane, garbed tastefully in a combination of his own design and a pair of Doc Martens, turns to the trials and tribulations of running a business. “The best part and the worst part is working for yourself,” he says, adding, “You get to make all the choices, but it also means you have to make all the choices. I think that is good and bad. As exhausting as that is and stressful, I also think it's a thing that keeps me invested and engaged in it all.”

The best part and the worst part is working for yourself. You get to make all the choices, but it also means you have to make all the choices.

- Alex O'Kane

He continues to share some of his favorite aspects of running his eponymous label: “I get to work with a lot of talented, creative people. That's literally across the board—from the people who I meet who help make our buttons or the people I source textiles from and develop new textiles with, or the pattern maker I work with. The past few seasons—there's an embroiderer here in New York City that I've worked with, or I have a friend who makes shoes (named Mar Español) and so we've started working on, what would that look like? I think it's just being able to meet really creative people in different ways and getting to see, what can we do together?"

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Shot by @atprodd for ONE37pm

Smiling behind a large wooden desk, O'Kane smiles as he submits his final answer for the best thing about running his brand. "I mean, you get to wake up and make new stuff every day," he says. "For a creative little kid, that's all I wanted when I was growing up. And I get to do it. It's a lot harder than I thought it was gonna be. But it is cool to draw something, and then sometime later you see it in person, and you’re like, ‘Yeah, that's what I was thinking. And now it exists.’"

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