Worn Well: An Interview with Alton Osborn

Amy Mackie interviews local fashion designer Alton Osborn on his extraordinary life.

Alton Osborn on the steps of his home in New Orleans, where he designs and makes clothes. Photo by Jonathan Traviesa.

Editor's Note

Fashion designer Alton Osborn has lived the intrepid life one would only expect from a novel. Amy Mackie interviews the New Orleans native, who was a staple of Jazz Fest for decades, starting with a question about time and place—essentially, where it all began. From the heady musings of French scholar Michel de Certeau to more mainstream approaches to locality by economist author Michael H. Shuman, it seems we are constantly thinking about how our geographic past and present impacts our future endeavors. Osborn’s world travels ultimately led him back home, but along the way he cultivated a flair for the dramatic and an appreciation of eclectic forms, which is evident in the clothing he designs.

Amy Mackie: When and where were you born?

Alton Osborn: I was born in New Orleans in 1962. I am one of six kids. My family lived here until I was nine, mostly in the Seventh Ward and Gentilly. We moved around a lot after leaving New Orleans—Chicago, Illinois; Akron, Ohio; Durham, North Carolina, which was just too racist in those days; and eventually Carson, just outside Los Angeles. I went to high school there, but dropped out my senior year to join the circus.

AM: Wow. How did that happen?

AO: I fell in love with a woman who rode elephants. I would go to every performance and watch her. She had the greatest legs ever. I loved hanging out with the circus folks, especially the clowns since they liked to smoke pot and do a lot of acid. My job was to clean the horse stables. Eventually, the woman and I hooked up and I was pretty much dismissed the next morning. In total, I was in the circus for about six months. Young buck that I was, I was really dejected. I was in love. I took a Chow that the clowns had shaved to look like a lion and I left. I couldn’t afford the train, so I went to the Greyhound station and had to sell the dog for a ticket to go home. I had nothing. I felt like an indentured servant when I went into the circus. I made very little money and it all went towards buying food from their food truck.

AM: Was Carson still home at that point?

AO: Yes, I went back to Carson and my folks. I took the GED, which made them happy. Soon after, through a family friend, I got signed up with the Merchant Marines. I joined the union just before I turned 19 and on my birthday I flew to Yokohama, Japan. Since the ship was late, I was there for about two weeks living in a hotel with a stipend. I thought I had the greatest life—until the ship came. It was an empty tanker that was being filled up before heading to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. Sea life turned out to be really hellish. I was completely green for weeks. When I found myself in Tahiti, I fell in love with another woman. Nearby Mo’orea was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. It was paradise with beautiful brown people. So I decided to jump ship.

AM: How did that turn out?

AO: I stayed there for six months. At that point, I either had to get a Visa or get married. I knew I was too young to get married, so I left. I went back to California and started taking photography classes. I was tall and thin in those days, and obviously much younger. Pretty soon somebody asked me to do some modeling. I became a runway model and did fashion shows in Milan and New York.

The modeling led to an opportunity to choreograph shows on Tuesday and Thursday nights for a nightclub in Los Angeles called Voilà. We mostly used lingerie and bathing suits. It was really sleazy, but it was the ’80s! One night we ran out of options, so I used body paint and melted trash bags to dress the models. For some reason a critic from the Los Angeles Times was there. I had no idea, but a few days later there was a review about this new fashion designer who had “broken it wide open with deconstructed clothing” and that “trash bag fashion is where it’s at.” This made me even more interested in taking apart clothes and figuring out how they were made.

AM: It sounds like fashion design found you. Did you have a mentor? Or was there someone in your family who taught you how to sew?

AO: My mother was a seamstress for several years, but I didn’t pick it up until long after I had left home. I just decided to get serious and figure the process out myself. I would go to thrift stores and find clothing to deconstruct. I would narrow bell-bottoms and make skinnier lapels. Again, it was the ’80s. I decided to go to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York. I had already taught myself how to sew, but I began taking pattern-making classes. This all happened throughout my 20s. In my early 30s, I decided to move back to New Orleans and try to make it selling my clothes in the French Market.

AM: Was the French Market cool back in those days?

AO: Not really. It was a bunch of t-shirts and imported things. I think it’s actually getting better now. Eventually, the guy who ran the market at that time, Ken Ferdinand, put a call into Jazz Fest and inquired about me getting a booth at the festival. There was a last minute cancellation and I got in. This was a pretty big deal because I had been trying to make it in New Orleans, but I was really struggling. I was really into vests at that time. I sewed day and night to make product and ran out each evening. One day Cyril Neville, one of the Neville Brothers, stopped by my booth. He loved my vests, so I gave him one and he wore it on stage. My relationship with the Neville Brothers continued for quite a while after that.

AM: Had you begun calling your clothing line “Second Line Clothing” at that time?

AO: Not yet. At that time it was “Awearness.” It was all about cultural awareness. I worked with a lot of ethnic prints. Jazz Fest was the only place I was making any money though, so I started traveling and showing my clothes at art markets, things like that. I became totally smitten with a girl I had met out in California. She passed through my booth and I cornered her and convinced her to look at my clothes. Soon after I decided to move to Los Angeles and marry her. During that time, I continued to nurture relationships with musicians I met through Jazz Fest. They would ask me to make clothing for them to wear on stage and for touring gigs. I was really into the music, so making clothing for musicians got me access to the shows I wanted to see. I made clothes for big international players like Dianne Reeves, Boukman Eksperyans, Cassandra Wilson, and Quint Davis. It was funny because Quint would find these fabrics from all over the world and would have me make him pattern-block clothing. It guaranteed me a spot at Jazz Fest, but the flipside was that Quint was known as the worst dressed man in New Orleans because of the fabric choices! I wouldn’t have picked those combinations, but I can tell you they were well made.

AM: When did you stop having a booth at Jazz Fest?

AO: I had a booth there for twenty years.

AM: What are you working on these days?

AO: I never thought I would be able to do business in the Bywater neighborhood, but I opened my boutique at 3214 Burgundy Street in April 2013 and worked out of that space for almost two years. I now work out of my home.

AM: Who are some of your influences? Do you follow any trends or other designers in particular?

AO: I don’t look at fashion magazines or follow trends, but I have always admired the work of Jean Paul Gaultier, particularly in the ’80s. Also, I went to the Alexander McQueen show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago. His work was so unbelievably detailed and incredibly creative. His untimely death is really a shame. Lately, I’m most interested in a classic late ’40s, early ’50s style, and of course, lightweight breathable fabric to accommodate the climate in New Orleans.

AM: What’s next for you?

AO: I am currently specializing in menswear. I obviously don’t focus on vests anymore, but like most things in fashion, it seems that they’re coming back around.