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Frei Designs

Frei merges design, comfort and sustainability to produce a beautiful, ethereal and whimsical collection of great beauty, through intriguing and clever cutting, Zen-like print and plain combinations, and understated color coordinates. The clean simple lines of the collection belay the complexity of the cutting, the sophisticated asymmetric silhouettes, and draped and tailored pairings.

Designed and manufactured in the heart of Chicago, Annie Novotny originally studied fashion at the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating in 2004.  Cutting her teeth in the design world through working with Gary Graham in New York, she returned to Chicago to start her own line while simultaneously researching organic and sustainable fabrications.  “Falling down a rabbit hole” of research as Novotny puts it, extending into fair trade, and natural design techniques, mostly due to the limited availability of ecological fabrications available commercially at that time.  Novotny originally dyed all the fabrics for the collections herself, creating colors and textures that were unique to her, as well as fashion forward. Eventually finding a local dyer working with natural dying techniques, making her life and her production a lot easier, without compromising her standards.  Frei Designs are produced by a team of seamstresses in Chicago, with Novotny very aware of their working conditions and pay, in the production of her clothing line.

The Frei collection is produces using mostly organic cottons, natural dyes, and locally manufactured textiles, as well as vintage dead stock fabric, mill ends and organic buttons made of shells or nuts. Each season starts with a story, with ideas drawn from her personal experiences in travel, literature and, most importantly, historical study. Collections are heavily influenced by cultural and social examination, and themes have included Colonialism in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love and Other Demons, Amelia Earhart and the dawn of aviation, and nineteenth-century mourning photography.  Constantly evolving, Frei is dedicated to emphasizing artistry through nature in everything they do.

Having been in business for six years, and created fourteen collections, including a few specialty holiday collections, Frei have received some great press coverage and attention for the collection, but as is the case with many small designers, whether ethical or otherwise, has found it increasingly difficult to continue to self finance her own growth. Selling to as many as thirty-six stores in 2010, Novotny found it impossible to sustain the financing of the sourcing and production of such a large collection, and has since downsized radically, to cope. Sadly, this is the story all to often heard from small designers, talented or not, and part of the reason why our existing fashion ‘system’ is not sustainable.  It is a system that unfairly disadvantages the small designer by forcing them to pay for all materials and production costs up front or C.O.D., while retailers get immediate 30, 60 and 90 day terms, many times returning unsold garments, requiring deep discounts to sell unsold stock, taking 150 days to pay or simply going bankrupt leaving the designer to carry the financial burden of lost and promised orders.  I am a huge proponent of buying local and supporting new design talent rather than the established order of business as usual.  Frei is a good point in case, with great talent, creativity and obvious resourcefulness, she is never the less likely going to make this her last collection for a while, as she is as unwilling to compromise her aesthetics or her ethics, putting her at a major disadvantage to high street and established designer labels, despite being the winner of Chicago’s Best Fashion Designer award for 2011.

Frei Designs operated from 2006 until 2012.