Fashion forward

CAREERS & ED: Miranda Caroligne's road from physical therapist to fashionista

Looking at fashion designer Miranda Caroligne today, it's hard to imagine she ever did anything other than sew and sell clothing. In addition to running her namesake boutique on 14th Street, she manages the co-op Trunk, peddles her wares at events across the country, and was asked to write Reconstructing Clothes for Dummies (For Dummies, 2007). Thanks to her gorgeous, whimsical, reconstructed styles, as well as her dedication to environmentalism and artistic community, she has become a well-reputed force in the SF indie fashion scene and beyond.

But she didn't start that way — and the road to the present was neither easy nor direct.

Caroligne grew up in the woodland areas of Rhode Island with her mom, an elementary school teacher and brilliant seamstress, and her dad, a textile scientist. As a child, she spent most of her time hiking, exploring, or working on creative crafts with her mom, developing equal interest in both art and science. By high school, she was passionate about three very different subjects: writing, health care, and fashion. But when she got to the University of Rhode Island, she chose her major based on which jobs she thought would be available after she graduated. Health care won by a long shot. "And I was afraid of this thing called writer's block," she jokes. Sewing remained a captivating pastime.

After graduating with a MS in physical therapy in 2000, Caroligne began working with children who had sensory system problems in Washington, DC. "Being young and having a job that relied on my physical strength — that time was psychologically stressful," she recalls.

Caroligne's stress level hit the roof after a bicycling accident in 2003, which left her with a crushed nerve in her neck. Her physical strength had failed her, and she was without a job. It was a sign that it was time to turn her lifelong hobby, fashion design, into a career. With her short-term disability insurance and unemployment checks, she moved to Boston and found an art studio, where she spent nearly all her time at the sewing machine. "Sometimes when I don't know what to do, I just do," she explains. "I'm not one to be idle." She spent so much time working at the studio that she decided to sublease her apartment, leaving her nowhere to sleep but on friends' couches. After a few months of couch-surfing, she cashed her unemployment checks and moved across the country to pursue a career in fashion.

It was January 2005, and Caroligne lived in a closet in her friend's apartment. Her only possessions were a disco ball, which hung from the ceiling next to the skylight, a sewing machine, and a few pieces of colorful fabric draped over a stretch canvas which served as sewing material by day and bedding by night. Soon, she found her dream store in the heart of the Mission District.

She opened the shop in November of that year. About the size of a large dorm room, the cluttered space is filled with radiant, one-of-a-kind garments that reflect many years of hard work. She stitches them with a beat-up machine that faces a window on the street, so she can smile and wave to people as they pass. Her wares are reconstructed garments (made from donated clothing that she dismantles and pieces back together in different ways), articles produced from original patterns, and offcut items (made from the leftover scraps she accumulates while working on patterned pieces).

And her reuse of materials is more than just style — it's an outgrowth of the environmentalism she learned as a kid. Caroligne advocates sustainability and makes use of almost every shred of old fabric, no matter how big or small. "I have this philosophy of not having sizes," she says. "I alter everything to fit." Sometimes she lets her customers alter pieces with her, so inspired buyers can learn how to make clothing on their own.

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