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The Creative Minds—and SVA Alumnus—Behind Menswear Darling Krammer & Stoudt

Not every emerging fashion brand gets written up multiple times by New York Times fashion critic Guy Trebay, but there's little about Krammer & Stoudt that's typical. Founded some six years ago by Courtenay Nearburg (MPS 2013 Fashion Photography), a former freelance photographer, and her husband Mike Rubin, a former scenic artist for Disney, the Americana-influenced menswear label has established itself as one of the most interesting in the business. They have used non-binary models in their campaigns and runway presentations, insist on durable construction and out-of-the-ordinary materials, and ignore industry trends to create what Nearburg describes as "elevated, mature" updates to classic staples like button-up shirts, suits and bomber jackets. This past January, Rubin was honored with Fashion Group International's Rising Star Award. Earlier this month, Krammer & Stoudt's autumn/winter 2018 collection—named after and inspired by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith's obscure 1971 play, Cowboy Mouth—debuted in stores worldwide, including Modern Anthology, in Brooklyn, and Merci, in Paris, as well as online.

Nearburg and Rubin live and work in an artist's loft in Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood, where they recently met with us to talk about their brand and their backstory.

How and why did you decide to start Krammer & Stoudt?

Nearburg: Mike and I were living in Orange County. I had been working as a freelance photographer, mostly for small newspapers and magazines, and I started getting interested in fashion photography. So I started doing my best to pursue that, doing some look books, assisting some fashion photographers. And when I was trying to find men to shoot to build my small, inexperienced portfolio, I was like, "Mike, you have the coolest style. You have a closet full of the coolest clothes. You should style the men I shoot for my book. Bring your own clothes and dress them."

Eventually he said, "Maybe I’ll teach myself to sew and make some clothes," and we set about educating ourselves about what that would mean. This was maybe 2009, 2010. I was following Fashionista and some other blogs, and they posted a thing that SVA was doing this one-year graduate photo program. By this time Mike and I were pretty bored with Orange County and about a year into this experiment. So I said, "I'll apply, and if I get in we'll take it as a sign to move to New York and really pursue this."

Courtenay, your MPS Fashion Photography class collaborated with designers in the CFDA's Fashion Incubator program. Did you take part in that? And did you use the opportunity to get any insider advice?

N: Yeah, I requested the Burkman Bros. It worked out really well. I got to shoot a video and hang out in their studio and do a lifestyle shoot that they ended up using for an Urban Outfitters collaboration they were doing. I told them all about what we were doing and they were super lovely.

We've met so many people in the industry who have been really supportive, like [Brooklyn Circus founder] Ouigi Theodore. We met him at the Northern Grade fair in Minneapolis and he invited us to be part of this thing he was doing for a Liberty Fairs event at Pitti Uomo. His endorsement, just going around and promoting us, this tiny little brand with no accounts that nobody's ever heard of, got us embraced in a way that you can't really pay for.

Though your business is relatively young, you've gone through several seasons by now. What do you think Krammer & Stoudt does best?

N: I think it's Mike's choice of fabrics. He's drawn to unique fabrics that smaller brands like us would normally shy away from. Even a basic piece like a pocket shirt can look really elevated and beautiful and mature when you apply a color or fabric that you've never seen used for it before.

Rubin: I spend a lot of time mixing colors. Fabric is like painting for me.

N: Fall is when you can really go nuts. There are so many types of pieces you can do and layer, and Mike puts together a beautiful palette.

Mike, how do you think your art background influences what you do?

R: I went to art school and I was basically relatively proficient at everything—sculpture, painting, performance art, noodling around with music. And really that's what fashion is. It's all that stuff together. But it's also more structured. Art can be kind of overwhelming. I like so many different artists, and there are endless approaches to making things, so it was kind of confusing for me. Every time I made fine art and did shows, it would be really difficult to frame it. I was all over the place. Fashion has more of a framework to work within, and I've been able to be really productive. I've actually probably done more drawings in the last three years than I've done my entire life.

Since you're both self-taught in fashion, is there anything you feel like you're still figuring out about the field?

N: The market is the most challenging thing. We started during this made-in-the-U.S., heritage moment. It was a lot of vintage redux, just straight-up recreation, and people didn't know what to make of us. And then streetwear took over and we're not there, either. We're always orbiting around these big trends. You can get really buffeted by people in the industry saying you have to do this or not be successful. That's hard to resist when you’re desperate to survive and be able to pursue your craft.

R: I think you can go too forward too fast. You want to develop, but don't get ahead of yourself too quickly and surprise people too drastically.

N: You have to think about how what you create can remain viable and functional. We see a lot of ridiculous stuff go down the runway, and it might have a splash in the press but at the end of the day it’s not practical. It's about how you can be the best artist within this limitation. And that's a beautiful challenge, to me.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

A version of this article appears in the spring 2018 issue of the Visual Arts Journal.

For more information on SVA's MPS Fashion Photography program, click here.

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