Text by Caroline Ryder
Photography by Rafael Pulido
THE HEAD DESIGNER OF WOMEN’S AT CITIZENS OF HUMANITY HAS DEVOTED HER LIFE TO TRAVELING THE GLOBE AND EXPLORING THE MOST CUTTING-EDGE FABRIC TRENDS OUT THERE.
Catherine Ryu’s obsession with jeans dates back to her teenage years. Growing up in Toronto, she made it her business to acquire the coolest, rarest European denim out there, at a time when most kids were content to wear baggy Levi’s and Wranglers. Not long out of fashion school, she landed jobs designing denim at Calvin Klein and the Gap in New York, before moving to Los Angeles to work at AG Adriano Goldschmied and then Citizens of Humanity, where she travels the globe exploring new fabrics, textures and silhouettes that add a trademark uniqueness and innovation to each and every collection.
When you were growing up, did you have a favorite pair of jeans?
Oh yes. I loved my C17s. I was in my late teens and they were my first pair of jeans from France. They were the coolest things. C17 was a premium French brand that pre-dated Diesel and Replay, and it was the brand to wear. They had this vintage kind of slouchy boyfriend fit that no one else had, and I was stoked. Denim culture back then was different, there were just a few stores that carried that specific trendy denim, with looks that went beyond what Levi’s and Jordache were doing. At the time, there were no real “fits,” there was like one fit, that everybody wore. To me, it felt good to be ahead of the curve.
What references do you turn to when thinking about what fabrics to use for a new collection?
As much as we look forward in terms of technology, I’m always looking back at the history of denim. History is our touchstone. But we keep an eye on what’s going on in the street. There are many, many things that inform our designs.
I understand you travel a lot, seeking inspiration.
Yes, to Paris, Tokyo and New York—wherever I need to go. Wherever I may be, I always check out the scene, and try to spend time where style-conscious people are hanging out. I’m not so much interested in what they are wearing at that moment, rather than absorbing the little details that might inspire me. Also, I look at all the blogs, on Tumblr and the such. Blogs are a much more dynamic resource than the magazines.
So you observe trends rather than follow them?
Exactly. Denim, by its nature, is timeless. So the trends are in the details, and especially for Citizens, in the technology. A huge part of my job is about exploring what new technology is out there. We really try to keep up with innovation—in that sense, you could say technology is the biggest inspiration for me.
What technologies are you most excited about right now?
Our newest innovation is to laser burn whiskers and worn areas. This part of our laundry process used to be created by abrasion by hand but now we can do in seconds! More importantly, the laser helps us to create consistency in our production. We can burn and create anything from whiskers to any pattern.
Sounds like you’re pretty fabric-centric, as a designer.
Definitely. I love fabric. That is where it all begins. I’m on a high when I’m at the big Paris fabric show—it’s called Premiere Vision. That’s where anything and everything fabric-related can be found. Trims and leathers and the whole overview of what is going on. And there you get to talk to the mills—there are very few brands that are doing premium denim like us, so all the mills come through and show us their innovations. It’s like heaven.
So, did you set out to live a life in denim?
Not really, it just happened. Now it’s an obsession, of course. After school I was recruited by Club Monaco on the basis of my thesis project, a men’s collection with lots of denim in it. Then I was recruited to Urban Outfitters and I didn’t do denim there, but when I moved to New York I got a job with Calvin Klein and that’s where I really became focused on denim. Then I moved on to the Gap. I was in New York for 7-and-a-half years, before moving here, to Los Angeles.
What was the move to the West Coast like for you?
Fashion is such a hectic life; we are always chasing the clock. So it was a very welcome change, moving to L.A., where the pace is slightly more relaxed. The constant 72-degree sunshine helps. Also, by the time I had decided to move to L.A. I was pretty much committed to denim for life, and this is the only place in the world where denim is thriving. I’m so excited to be here.