Photos: Nate Stern


“You can show that you have interest, but what do you actually have”: Designer Nate Stern on why passion alone isn’t enough. 

The other week I was lucky enough to catch up with a designer, who not only had an intense passion for his own craft, but also a willingness and desire to learn from his predecessors. A designer who, after an ‘ordinary’ start in life, said no to convention and yes to following his dreams. I’m happy to present – Nate Stern. 

Hey Nate, thanks so much for taking the time to tell us a little about yourself today. Lets start with some background – how did you find yourself in the creative space you’re in now? 

So, I’m from a town just outside San Francisco, where you can garner a sense for who someone is just by looking at what they wear. I started exploring clothing in high school and then college, poking around thrift stores trying to find unique pieces. I ended up choosing to study economics, which as you can imagine is a little different to fashion, more of a passing interest of mine. I was a little intimidated and chose the practical route.  

I think a lot of people can relate to that. There’s not only pressures from other people but also pressures in your own head around taking an alternative career path, outside of society’s norms.  

Like you say, I was caught up in my own head, I didn’t want to be that starving artist type, just kind of miserable, barely able to scrape by. My college didn’t even offer something as niche as fashion, so studio art was the closest I could get to it. After sophomore year, me and my best friend decided to make the most of the summer by starting a cut & sew brand called ‘Subtletees.’ It was quite the experience, going to San Francisco city hall, incorporating as a business, taking the steps to make an idea into a reality.  

“I didn’t want to be that starving artist type, just kind of miserable, barely able to scrape by.” 

Shortly after that, my mom, who is a critical person to mention in my story, stepped in. She’s a designer as well who creates prints, textiles and amazing cuts for womenswear. My mom was encouraging in whatever I expressed interest in, particularly clothing, and taught me basically everything I know about sewing. To have a parent in that space was super important and I’m so grateful because a lot of people don’t have that, meaning they’re even more scared of going out on a limb. 

I actually found you through a Reddit post where someone was going crazy for one of your custom jackets. How did you get from that position in college to where you are now, creatively? 


After college I was in an office job in the LA area, because I went back to thinking about what was practical, and I was feeling pressure after graduation. Looking at my options, I thought I could hop from company marketing to marketing within the clothing industry, but after 2 years of working there my creative energy felt absolutely stunted. It was tough being dialled into a space you feel invested in, and having to sit back and watch it progress without you.  

A pretty pivotal moment happened when I listened to Mike Cherman (Chinatown Market) on the Business of Hype podcast. He was saying people always approach him asking for a job, and he asks them, well what do you have for me? You can show that you have interest but what do you actually have, what concrete evidence, to show your interest and passion for clothes. That really resonated with me, and I decided I just had to have as high a creative output as possible to make fashion a reality for myself. Luckily I had good relationships at the marketing agency I was at, so I could go part time. This meant I didn’t cut out all my income which many people struggle with as well.  

The remaining 3 days, well, all 5 days because I worked at this on weekends too, I just tried to create as much unique clothing as possible, stuff I thought would stand out, and the need to simply create just spiralled from there. I was painting a lot at that point, which helped, and took a pattern making class which was recommended to me. 


That’s kind of the skeleton of your skillset – being able to construct your own garment rather than having to go elsewhere and pay someone to do it. 

Yeh absolutely. Or instead of upcycling, you can actually create something from scratch. 


Would you say you’re conscious of the environment, or whether it was more a case of thinking ‘I don’t want to pay for new materials so I’ll just get old ones and change them up.’ What was the thought process there?  

It’s tough because I wasn’t sure of my capabilities – I felt a bit limited to altering something that already existed. That being said, if I got more traction I would really like to play a part in directing the industry towards a more sustainable path, using old materials rather than buying massive rolls of fabric. So sustainability is definitely a key pillar of what I hope to endorse as a designer. It’s just where we have to go as an industry. 

I guess these one-of-one pieces are appealing on surface level, but then when you try and change the practices of big brands, it’s more difficult because they are a business at the end of the day.  

For sure. I also had the opportunity to work with this brand ‘Atelier & Repairs,’ who I think are one of the pioneers pushing sustainability forward. They’re based in LA and were founded by Maurizio Donadi, who was at the top of retail for huge brands between the 70s and the 90s, and saw the massive amounts of waste they were producing. 

We need to move away from fast fashion, and realise how important it is to invest in well-made pieces that will last forever. There’s something beautiful about buying something like that – I remember everyone being on the raw denim wave. It literally reflects how you walk, and what you do. It’s so personal, we need to bring that back in clothing in general. That’s why I love doing commission jackets - because it’s that personal, and I know I’m doing something the customer loves and something they’ll appreciate for their entire life. It’s really an honour. 


“I know I’m doing something the customer loves” 


What can we expect from you next? I read that you were enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. I know you’ll be busy at those swanky bars, but what’s the dream?  

So I only applied to two schools, Parsons and FIT, and got into both, it was a tough decision but I chose FIT and my orientation starts tomorrow. It’s a really hands-on course, which I’m excited to get into, because they expect a high creative output from you.  

To be honest I hope to get into some really cool small brands in New York that I can learn from. I was trying to learn the ropes as I went with Subtletees, and I want to do the same with a really great designer - how the operations work, how the flow of things go, making sure your small brand is successful.  

Long term, I hope to establish my own brand, it’s at the top of my professional bucket list. However, I acknowledge that I’ll need to work under other people first.  

Great! Thanks so much for your insight and sharing your story with us. Is there anything you wanted to plug or any final bits of knowledge for our readers? You have the floor. 

Honestly to go back to Mike Cherman, if you want to get into a new industry, do something to show you’re interested and excited, have tangible things to showcase your passion. That’s the best advice I can give and that’s what spurred me on to dive in. 

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