Generally, if people ask me about costuming or steampunk fashion, I’m the first one to not pay attention. I can sew buttons, but I can’t design, and any costuming I do is a mishmash of anything I can find in stores. DIY costuming ethic, I has none. Which really doesn’t stop me from admiring the wonderful fashions coming out of the steampunk fashion scene.
However, when I discuss racial diversity, I do acknowledge that the best way to get steampunks of colour involved is to show that there already are steampunks of colour in existence, who proudly wear and weave their heritage into their method of participation. It’s even better when it’s something as visual as fashion, because being able to wear the clothing is very much a draw, and to be able to wear clothing that isn’t Victorian-inspired is even better.
So, I introduce to you, Britney Frady-Williams, founder of Berít New York. Britney is proud in acknowledging her Cherokee blood, and it really shows. You’ll see her around organizing fashion shows, and the Berit New York store will be open soon!
How did you first get into steampunk?
I got into steampunk as a designer, and like many independent designers lately, it started on Etsy. I had an Etsy shop and frequented the forums, where people starting saying that my work looked like steampunk. At first I thought steampunk was just another term for a certain style of Jewelry—nothing more. I figured that as a clothing designer, steampunk had little to do with me. Around the same time I was vending at The Brooklyn Indie Market and Kathy, the owner of the market, asked me if I liked steampunk and I confessed that I did not know much about it. It’s embarrassing when I look back, but originally I thought it was a spinoff of Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic stories. I eventually found out about steampunk as Victorian Sci-Fi, complete with its own body of literature and a thriving subculture. Kathy told me that she was also interested in steampunk, and we decided to have a Steampunk Day at her market which has turned into an annual event. In the process of all this, I realized that steampunk is the natural direction that I wanted to take for Berít New York all along, and that pretty much brings me to where I am today!
Why do you find steampunk appealing?
I would say mainly because I can relate to all aspects of the genre: the fashion, the literature, the historical influence, the philosophy, etc. I grew up in the Punk and Goth scenes but never felt like I truly fit into either. When I discovered steampunk it was like I had found what I was looking for all along. I always regretted that there weren’t any subcultures from my own generation that I could identify with, but steampunk has helped give me a community and a design framework that have inspired me and given me a home.
You’re a fashion designer! How awesome! Did you go to a school for that?
Yes, I graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC with a degree in Fashion Design. A few months after I graduated I started my clothing company, Berít New York, and it’s been a whirlwind ever since!
Which came first, the fashion designing, or the steampunking?
The fashion design came first, definitely. I started sewing at the age of twelve and had been hot gluing fabric on my Barbie dolls long before that. Design has been a part of my life since I can even remember. Steampunk was a natural evolution for me and my company, as I started Berít New York with the aim of bringing old world charm into modern living. In many ways, that’s precisely what the steampunk subculture itself is trying to do!
I understand that you positively identify with your Cherokee heritage. How do you weave your Native heritage into your steampunk work?
I grew up closely associated to my tribal roots and would regularly visit my family near Cherokee Nation in North Carolina. During my visits to the reservation, I would study the crafts and jewelry for sale and that was how I learned to do beadwork and make other native crafts like headdresses, pottery, jewelry, and dream catchers. I don’t think that influence will ever leave me. I like to veer to the “wild wild west” direction of steampunk, incorporating Native American textiles, cowboy fashions and, of course, exotic technology. Although I do love the fashion of Victorian England, I hope more people will come to appreciate the Americana of the nineteenth century in steampunk on the same level that they’ve come to appreciate European history and design.
How has your work been received, particularly those most obviously influenced by your heritage?
The reception has been very positive, and I’ve received a good deal of compliments about the colors I’ve incorporated into my native-inspired work. I’ve always wanted to show the versatility of steampunk fashion, and go beyond the generic brown and brass. American natives particularly have a great range of vibrant colors to utilize, and lots of people have taken notice of the way that palette comes across. Taking a Native American perspective on steampunk makes for a wonderful contrast, as it brings natural colors together with bright and even synthetic colors. I feel that the native influence helps my work stand out.
How are you involved in your local steampunk scene?
I stay in contact with people mostly through LiveJournal and ModelMayhem.com, and from there I’ve gotten to take part in a lot meet-ups and photo shoots around the New York City area. Thanks in large part to Berít New York’s press coverage, I’ve gained something of a reputation as New York City’s premiere steampunk clothing designer. I’ve coordinated fashion shows at conventions like Dragon*Con in Atlanta and the New Jersey Wicked Faire. I’ll also be running the show at the upcoming Steampunk World’s Fair, not to mention I’ll be a guest of honor at the inaugural Con-Nichiwa anime convention in Tucson, Arizona. I am also the fashion-show coordinator for the Brooklyn Indie Market’s Steampunk Day coming up on Saturday, October 24. We’ll be having an after party event hosted at the Way Station—Brooklyn’s first ever steampunk bar! Tor.com will be involved in that, as well as Bust Magazine, L Magazine and a whole bunch of other sponsors.
That wraps up the interview! Hope you enjoyed that, folks. Leave some love, and if you’re going to the Steampunk Day party, don’t forget to say hi!
Jaymee Goh is a freelancer living in Halifax. You can find her blogging about various things, both steampunk and non-steampunk, here.