Q+A With Eco-Friendly Designer Pariah5K

Barbara Riordan is an Indianapolis based designer behind the brand Pariah5K, who focuses on vibrant prints and textiles. She has sewn her own wardrobe since her youth, but it was much later in life when she realized she could turn her passion into a career. Riordan is mostly self-taught, having to rely on the Internet to learn the process. PATTERN recently had the chance to chat with Riordan in her office to talk about the fashion industry, her upcoming line, and her path to success.

Allie Coppedge: Where does the name of your brand, Pariah5K, come from?

Barbara Riordan: I thought of that in 1996. I was in between jobs and thought I wanted to start a brand, so I sat down and thought up the name and logo. A lot of people don’t even know what it [Pariah] means. It means social outcast, but I was trying to put an edgier spin on it. Now we want to be our own voice, which sometimes requires you to stand out more than others. I remember my mother telling me that when she was in her 20’s, the hem of your dress had to be 14 inches from the floor. Most girls made their own back then. But now it can be long, short, or in between; we have so many options. We don’t have to be this one thing anymore, which is great.

AC: What was the moment that really made you realize you wanted to be a designer?

BR: Since I was six years old, I had always sewn and constructed my own clothes. I grew up in a farming community here in the ’60s and ’70s and didn’t even know that was an option. Living in the midwest, I didn’t know it was an option for a long time. I tried to look into it, but I didn’t understand it. There weren’t any design schools in Indianapolis. It was more the discovery through the Internet of how this process went.

It’s something I always wanted to do. I was still making clothes when I was raising my family. As they started growing up, I realized I could do something else. I didn’t have to keep getting a paycheck. And people were always complimenting and asking me if I sold my clothes. And I thought, ‘well no, you don’t make any money sewing clothes yourself.’

AC: Today’s fashion world tends to revolve around the idea of ‘fast & disposable fashion’ and I saw something on your website about sustainability. Is that an essential part of your business model?

BR: I want it to be, but it’s very difficult to make it sustainable. You can take that in a lot of different ways. Not all of my fabrics and everything I make are likely coming from a sustainable source. I source a lot of fabrics from this company in Belgium because they’re beautiful and their quality is wonderful. Obviously to ship those here makes an environmental footprint. I don’t know what processes they use, but I’m sure it’s not enviro-friendly. These here [motioning to product] are definitely sustainable. My product is made in the USA with factories that I know are ethical and not using near slave labor like fast fashion is. I would hope that since my product does have a higher price point, people would see it as something they’re going to wear for a long time. Even if they decide that they’re tired of it and tuck it away in their closet, maybe they’ll bring it out five to 10 years later and see it’s still very wearable and stands the test of time. So sustainable has a lot of different tentacles.

AC: How did you decide to ethically make your pieces here in the U.S.?

BR: I always recommend that people watch the documentary ‘The True Cost’. Let’s say I’m looking for clothes to work out in. I’m constantly looking at those labels. If I see Vietnam, nope, I’m not buying it. I’ve tried to source ethically-made athletic shoes, but it’s very hard to do. It’s very hard to find these products where you’re not taking a toll on another person’s life. To me, if you’re going to do small manufacture, I think the U.S. is a great place for it because I can oversee the quality. I don’t have to worry about language or distance barriers or having shipping issues. There’s benefit in it for me as well because if I can give my neighbor a job, I’m helping everyone. Also, to know that a Midwestern will talk to me for 40 minutes, that’s not going to happen on the coasts.

AC: How do you source your textiles and prints?

BR: I usually just go to fabric shows, they have them in New York, Chicago, Nashville, and even Miami. There’s a lot of online resources I use as well.

AC: What inspires your design process?

BR: Everything I make is something I want to wear. So I always think, I’m going to go to ‘x’ event or on ‘x’ trip, what do I want to wear there? Or, when I see the fabric at the textile shows, the fabric tells me what it wants to be. The bomber jacket I’m working on for fall, they sell the fabric as pillow tops. A lot of the stuff that I use is either recommended to be a pillow top or a shower curtain. And I’m like ‘hell no, those are clothes.’ I see things differently than maybe even the fabric designer intended.

AC: What made you decide to work with fun prints versus something more traditional?

BR: Probably because I wouldn’t wear something traditional. I was just in Chicago and there was a lady there from LA who is very successful as a public relations person for some very big fashion companies; Italian houses. She was giving a talk and giving advice, so I told her the struggle of how to get into stores because they all want to play it safe and don’t even want to give you a chance. Later she saw the graphic coat that I was wearing and she used the word ‘eccentric’. I knew she was talking about me because of my age whereas if it had been a 25 year old wearing it, it would’ve been delightful, bold, and fun. Yet when I’m doing it, I’m eccentric. I don’t think she even realized what she was saying, but after I processed it, I realized she’s saying that because I’m over 50. There’s a little bit of a handicap there, it’s like I can’t represent myself.

AC: How important is the Indy community to your brand’s success?

BR: I don’t consider this my core market. There are a lot of people that like the brand, but I don’t expect everyone to wear it, it’s a niche product. If I could sell 200 pieces of each piece, I’d be happy, I’d make my factory minimums. People may love it on you, but they’re not going to wear it because they’re afraid to or it’s just not them, and I understand that. Here people are afraid to dress up, and that’s the U.S. in general. But the more Midwest you get, the more they’re like ‘well I wore a scarf with my shirt today, I’m dressed up.’ It is great here because studio space is cheap and there’s talent in this town with photography and styling, but I just don’t feel like the right fashion audience is here for my brand. A lot of these prints aren’t going to go over in New York either, and I know that. There is that woman in every city who will love them though. I’d really like to delve into the foreign market because I feel like that’s where I’d have a stronger voice; where people aren’t so worried about wearing a uniform as they are in the United States.

But on second thought, Indy is important. I get so much emotional support and positive feedback [from here]. That’s important to boost my spirit in this difficult industry.

My product is made in the USA with factories that I know are ethical and not using near slave labor like fast fashion is.

AC: Where do you see the fashion industry going in the future?

BR: I watch the industry closely and read a lot of articles on the Business of Fashion because if you want to make a living, you have to treat it like a business. There are so many people that only want to talk about how fabulous they are and that’s not going to put food on the table. You can see it’s definitely going e-commerce and how you get your voice out in the e-commerce world is going to be the new challenge. The landscape of live fashion shows is changing rapidly. Some designers are no longer feeling like they need to do them anymore; Tom Ford did a video last time instead. Putting on a fashion show is SO expensive, designers are looking at other options.

I also feel like the driving force behind fashion in the future is going to be the relationship with the customer; for them to feel like they’re buying into your brand. Obviously that’s hard to do if you have 300,000 customers, but you can do that through social media and enable your website to do it too.

AC: What advice do you have for creatives wanting to take their next step toward making their dream a reality?

BR: You just have to keep working so, so hard. What I’ve had to do, because I’m basically self-taught, is watch every Youtube video and webinar to get advice from people who have already done it. But it’s definitely changing at the speed of light. Don’t think that you’re so wonderful that everybody’s going to buy into you, because they’re not. In my opinion, marketing is the emperor’s new clothes. For example, ‘so and so said it was great and everybody believes it’ and then when you go in and see it you realize it’s not that great. You just really have to keep trying; work for other people. I didn’t have that privilege and I know for a lot of people, that’s how they have to start and you make a lot of connections with people that way too. It also takes a lot of money to start this, tens of thousands of dollars, so if anybody coming out of school has that kind of money to invest, then you go right ahead.

AC: What are the next steps for the brand?

BR: I’ve already got some ideas for fall. I like the preorder model option on 19th Amendment so I know how much to make and it can be at a lower price point. I want to expand my online presence, get the word out about ethically made, sustainably made clothes, and work on the next thing.


Follow Pariah on Instagram and shop her new collection at 19th Amendment.


Photography by Aliza Brown

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