Anyone who's seen Aviva Falk's fashion line Viva Aviva wouldn't expect her to be quiet or restrained—the clothes certainly aren't. Over the course of our deeply interesting conversation with Aviva about the two colleges (The University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Fashion Institute of Technology), multiple internships, side jobs, and sheer hustle that led her to run a successful company, she definitely didn't disappoint on that front.
Aviva was also refreshingly candid about New York vs. the Midwest, the classes she loved while pursuing her bachelor's in fashion design degree from UW-Madison and her associate's degree in Fashion Art from FIT, and the ones she could've done without—plus what she would've done differently if she could go back and do it all over again. While this is essential reading for anyone with dreams of pursuing a fashion career—or considering what a non-traditional school path might look like—so much of what Aviva has learned is applicable to anyone looking to set themselves up on a path towards success.
What is your job title? Fashion designer.
Where do you work? I work for myself at Viva Aviva, a contemporary womenswear brand, with price points between $195 and $800. We're proponents of "loud dressing." A lot of people take themselves too seriously. I think you should feel happy when you get dressed. I like to say, if you dress for a party, your life will always be one.
Has the brand, and your business, evolved over time? So much. It started with me just making five pieces and walking into stores and asking if they wanted to buy them. Which kind of worked! The brand has definitely become more wearable. In the beginning, I thought I was going to make couture only, but it turns out that most people don't want to spend $2,000 on a skirt they wear once.
For any artist, finding your meaning, and finding your identity, takes a long time. We've honed in on who we are, and always want to move forward. The line has grown bigger, and retail-wise, things have grown. We're now sold everywhere from ShopBop, to Rent the Runway, to small boutiques. The company is me, mostly, a factory in New York that only works on Viva Aviva, and a number of contract people, like graders, a cutting room, pattern makers, etc.
Where did you go to school? What did you study? When did you graduate? I have a bachelor's in Fashion Design from UW-Madison and an Associate's in Fashion Art from FIT. I graduated in 2008. I liked that Wisconsin had a direct pipeline to NYC. FIT had much better teachers.
What do you mean by 'pipeline'? Madison has a fashion program, which is what I ended up doing, and it feeds into FIT in New York for your senior year, which is what I did. My mother wouldn't let me go to New York right away because my brother went to NYU and she didn't want anyone else going that far. Ha! I spoke to my counselor in high school, who said: "I don't know why you want to study fashion—you're so smart." He was obviously wrong, but it didn't discourage me. This is what I knew I wanted to do.
The program worked: the plan senior year was to go to FIT, and I was saying, by that point, "please get me out of Wisconsin." I need to be in New York City. Backing up, part of why I went to Wisconsin was that my high school boyfriend also got in.
So you're married now, obviously. Exactly. We have 10 kids. Ha, no. No, we're not.
What were the differences between Madison, a big state school with lots of programs, and FIT, as specialized a school as you can find? We were pretty insular in Madison, and because I came into college with 30 credits already from AP courses I didn't do that many general classes. My schooling was focused more directly on my major than it was for most students at the school.
The fashion program is only 15 people, so in all my classes we had the same teachers. And I literally had a key to the building and could work in there all night alone, which I did all the time.
Madison's a big party school, so EVERYONE always asks: how many parties did you go to? I didn't. I was sewing all the time, and I had to work my way through college. It's weird because Wisconsin is such a big school, but things almost felt bigger at FIT, because so many more people were studying fashion design.
The teaching at Wisconsin was geared towards: you will go work at a big corporation one day, because the brands in the Midwest are Abercrombie, Victoria's Secret, etc. So everything was very technical. Everything we turned in, you needed a pattern with it. Everything was about who's going to wear this? Who's going to buy it?
When I got to FIT, I had a draping instructor who was like, "it doesn't matter how to wear it, as long as it looks beautiful." FIT was more about growing as a designer, and I definitely grew more in New York and at FIT.
What were some of your all-time favorite, most useful college courses? My draping class at FIT really opened up my mind. I was still focused on all these rules I learned at Wisconsin, like, your lapel has to be a quarter inch away this center front edge. Our FIT instructor was like, "there are no rules." Which made me feel a lot better.
After graduating, I took a couture sewing techniques class, because I was getting some negative commentary on the quality of my sewing. I really loved that class, which taught me the value of the actual work and not just the finished product. I also took a couture embellishment class because I love doing beadwork. I don't really do any beadwork now because it's just so expensive—and it's hard to find people who can do it in New York—but I just remember loving it so much.
How about your least favorite, lease useful courses? I took a weather patterns class at Wisconsin. I spent $120 on the book and they were like: wait, we've got a new edition! So I dropped it in the Books for Africa box.
How did you decide where to go to school? My mother pushed me into going to a school close to our home and Wisconsin was one of the very few schools in the midwest with a fashion program.
Are there other schools that people you know in fashion attended, and thought they really benefited from? A lot of the kids I know that go to Parsons really love it, but Parsons is also obscenely expensive.
A lot of the kids who went to FIT for four years really liked it. And if you're in-state, it's actually really affordable. I should've just moved to New York, waited tables for a year, saved money, and then gone to FIT in-state. But people were like, "if you don't go to school right away, you're a failure."
What I didn't realize then is that there's zero shame in being 22 or 23 and joining the workforce instead of 21.
What's a typical day like for you at work? Every day is somewhat different but I am usually either in the garment district sourcing materials and checking on production, designing at my studio or doing sales and press appointments during market week.
How did your education prepare you for your job? It gave me some technical skills (sewing, patternmaking, draping) and prepared me for the workload and pace of the fashion industry.
What's your advice for students who want a job like yours? I do not necessarily think college is the best route for all art-related careers. Interning and practical experience is, to me, the most useful tools to becoming a professional.
What route would you encourage students to take instead? So much of fashion is really truly who you know. So if I had gone to New York right away, and bartended full time, I still could've interned full time as well, and worked at the bar at nights. If I had done that, and took a course here and a course there, versus going to college full time, I probably could've made more connections than I did.
I interned at DVF, and the contacts I made there are still friends. So if I need a pattern maker or advice on fit, I know all these people from when I interned there.
Do you think it's more difficult to get an internship if you're not currently going to school? Now? Maybe—although it didn't use to be. Companies want to give you college credit because they don't want to pay you. At DVF, some of the kids complained that it was slave labor because they had to go get an executive Pinkberry. Stories ended up running in the New York Times and Washington Post that got the companies doing internships in trouble.
What's the one thing you wish you knew when you were starting out your career? That I should have interned even more than I did.
Where would you have looked to intern? What would that look like if you could do it all over again? I would've probably done some more public relations internships, connecting with magazine editors. And buying internships (understanding how retailers like ShopBop decide what to sell each season). I would've interned in different departments—not just in design. My advice for future interns is to go from a company that has a good name to another company that has a good name. I would've done more of that.
What's the best career advice you've ever gotten? To take a risk and start my company while I was young and had no responsibilities, children, spouse, etc.
What inspires you? New York City and the women here. New York has such great energy, but it's not an easy place to live. If you aren't here to do something specific, you probably shouldn't be here. You can't just drift along—it's so hard to make a living and support myself. I remember living in the Midwest and being bored; there's so much time in the day. In New York, there's anxiety, so much to do, so many places to go. All the amazing art and museums, and the street fashion—even if you ride a subway you see 10 people who inspire you.
And the stores inspire me. Before I came to New York, the biggest high-fashion designer I knew was Betsy Johnson. In New York you see Balenciaga and Chanel, Balmain—you see these amazing clothes, right in front of you, and you can try them on. That's pretty cool.
People take their look very seriously in New York, and they all want to be individuals. People are not trying to fit in or blend in or wear a uniform. New York celebrates individual style and imperfections.
What's your favorite quote and why? My oldest sister always said, "there are very few things in life that you cannot bounce back from". Whenever I experience setbacks at work, this advice gives me the perspective to move forward and problem solve.
Any interesting stories about what you've bounced back from? She told me that because when I graduated I was working at the bar. And this guy comes into the bar, and his family just sold a building at the Bowery that the family had owned for hundreds of years. He said he wanted to open a store. At the same time, DVF was like, "Do you want to talk about a job? Please let us know." And I was like, "I don't need one—I'm opening this store with this guy."
Of course, it fell through, and I was like, "I should probably get a job because that's what everyone's doing." I interviewed at this jewelry company, and I worked there for a week and I hated it. And that's when I decided to start my own business.
I called my sister and she said, barring criminal things, there are very few things you can't bounce back from. So I went for it.
If you could go back and do it all over again, would you go to college? I think a lot of people need to sit down and actually assess what they're doing before they go to college if they cannot pay for it outright. When I graduated it felt so insurmountable. Know how much money you'll make from this career, and what $120,000 looks like in debt. You'll be paying it off until you're 50. These are the conversations that need to happen.
A lot of people think you need to go to college for everything, and I feel like you don't. When you factor in the benefit vs risk, I don't think it's as necessary as people make it out to be, and I don't think it matters where you go to school. You have this fear that everyone's going to know you're an idiot went to a state school instead of Harvard. I don't know where 90% of the people in my life went to college!
Success is about experience, temperament, how hard-working someone is, and how they deal with people. And connections. Those are the important things. I wish I had known that when I was in school.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.