The designer Raffaella Hanley has had Dolly Parton on her mind. In the days leading up to New York Fashion Week — where she would debut the latest collection for her label, Lou Dallas — she has fixated, in particular, on a 1977 conversation between the singer and Barbara Walters that she found on YouTube. In the clip, Parton, then 31, is on the eve of major stardom — her first crossover hit, “Here You Come Again,” has just reached number three on the Billboard 100 — but her circumstances are still remarkably humble. The musician walks Walters through the tour bus that she shares with her 11 bandmates. Parton shows off her foldout bed and a narrow closet full of stage clothes which, she says, she washes by hand in motel sinks. Hanley is especially moved by a moment at the end of the interview when Parton, seated with Walters in the cramped bus kitchen so closely they’re brushing knees, declares her desire to be a superstar. “She was having a moment,” says Hanley. “She wanted to get bigger, and she was outlaying her strategy.”
It’s not hard to see why the clip resonates with Hanley. The designer’s unmistakable pieces — dreamy, baroque confections with a thrashed, D.I.Y. edge — have been popping up with increasing frequency in magazine editorials and at high-profile events, including the Met Gala. She just sold her first ready-to-wear collection to Opening Ceremony. But the designer still struggles to make ends meet. She works out of the Columbia Street Waterfront apartment she shares with her boyfriend, the artist Andrew Gonzalez, and freelances making curtains. She cuts all of her own patterns and, she adds, “my sewing machine is downstairs in my parents’ apartment — it’s not a sustainable system.” Like Dolly, she’s ready to up her game.
Mainstream success is a goal, however, that can seem at odds with Hanley’s anti-capitalist, art-kid background. The daughter of a painter and an interior designer, she was raised in Brooklyn and attended Rhode Island School of Design for painting, not fashion. Working in collage, she honed an ability “to put lot of materials together that are difficult to make feel coherent.” She also developed a critique of consumption. “I got into this thing at RISD where I didn’t want to buy materials,” she says. “I feel like it’s the duty of an artist to be repurposing and scavenging.”
After graduating, Hanley started to gravitate toward fashion, assisting fellow RISD alums Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta on their first collection and working various odd jobs. Designing clothing, at first, seemed like it might be a way to make some money and support her painting. Hanley, 29, is largely self-trained — with the exception of a post-college year spent in a Parsons MFA program, where she refined her technical skills before dropping out — and she prefers it that way. “No one taught me fashion,” she says. “So I felt like it could be mine completely.”
Since launching Lou Dallas in 2013 — the name was inspired by Bruce Willis’s character Korben Dallas in Luc Besson’s film “The Fifth Element” and the name Lou, which Hanley liked for “sounding sort of French and a little androgynous” — she’s carved an offbeat path for the line, making delicate, whimsical looks from deadstock fabric and scavenged materials. “I love rags,” says Hanley. “They can be transformed and you’re a fairy princess.” It’s a fractured fairy tale, though: Cinderella ditches the ball for a punk show in the woods, and tears her gown on some thorns in the process.
She’s made good on her anti-consumption commitment, too. Hanley’s collections have largely been constructed from surplus fabric, sourced from an upholstery showroom on the Upper East Side. Recently, though, she’s started to run up against the limitations of this approach. “My last collection, I used only donated fabric,” she says. “I’m glad I did it, it was a conceptual challenge. But I realized it’s so limiting. I think the clothes might have suffered.”
For Water Bow, her spring 2019 collection, which will debut this week at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, Hanley continues to weave Lou Dallas’s otherworldly narrative — “I was thinking about a mermaid emerging out of the water at South Street Seaport and wandering New York,” she says — but with some refinement. Ethereal mesh pieces in muted browns and greens are accented with an iridescent taffeta, gathered in tight ruffles and structured bows. Oversized, tailored blazers are a slashed patchwork of rich, jewel-toned velvets. It’s a moderate shift — “I think I bought four yards of fabric,” Hanley says — but one that signals a broadening awareness, and ambition. “The collection has more of a pulse of current trends,” she says. “I felt like I had to show I could be influenced by what’s going on in fashion, that I don’t have just one trick.”
Hanley is torn, she admits, between her one-off, art-school approach to fashion and a desire to scale up. “It’s like I’m halfway in one door and halfway in another. I want to have a business, so I think I have to walk through door A,” she says. For now, though, the concessions she’s willing to make for mainstream viability are relatively few: “This collection is still going to be completely bananas.”