Olivia Rehm

May 16, 2024

Chicago-based fashion designer and tailor Olivia Rehm received her degree in Sculpture from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. After moving to Chicago, her practice transitioned towards clothing design when she undertook an apprenticeship with a local tailor. Rehm now understands her design process as an anthropologically inspired approach to clothing production and wearing. Leveraging her training as a tailor for traditional men’s clothing, she aspires to integrate gender, sensuality, functionality, and the history of queer dress into a wearable experience for the contemporary body.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.
My name is Olivia Rehm, and I am the owner and designer of the brand ‘Renmei,’ located in Chicago, IL. As a designer, I believe that the objects we choose to adorn ourselves with become artifacts of experiences and expressions. Through creating clothing, I seek to enhance and be a part of the sensuality of living.

What are some recent, upcoming, or current projects you are working on?
The project I’m currently working on is inspired by vintage football imagery and uniforms. I’m drawing inspiration from the detail, material, and silhouette of these vintage American football images, and then reinterpreting them with a queer perspective, both visually and conceptually. This collection is a bit more conceptual and pushes the limits of what one might actually wear, but I think it’s a fun progression from my past work.

What is one of the bigger challenges you and/or other designers are struggling with these days, and how do you see it developing?
Personally, I struggle with the desire to scale up production while being mindful of both financial constraints and the environmental impact of clothing manufacturing. I aim to minimize excess in the world, which is why I primarily operate under a made-to-order structure. However, this approach makes it challenging to reach a wider audience and be more profitable within a traditional business framework. Additionally, the abundance of design in the world can make it difficult to assert one’s voice in a crowded market.

How did your interest in fashion and design begin?
I learned to sew from my mother at a young age, but I didn’t take fashion seriously until after college. Credit for igniting my passion goes to my friend Marissa Macias, who also creates clothing. We collaborated on a runway show during college, and from that moment, I was hooked. In College I was doing foundry, and after school that work felt nearly impossible without the resources of my college. Clothing became this condensed form of sculpture and outlet for making that was really accessible.

What materials do you use in your work, and what is your process like?
My process typically involves research, image gathering, sketching, creating samples (often repeating this process), and then producing the final product. I have a preference for materials like cotton and wool, but currently, I’m particularly drawn to leather.

Utilitarian and uniform-esque designs are at the forefront of a lot of your work. Can you talk about what sparked your interest in this style of designing?
My parents owned an antique mall, and I often accompanied them to antique malls and estate sales. I remember precisely where the booths with clothes were located in each mall. In those moments, I was never interested in the pretty dresses or purses; I was always drawn to the uniforms, belts, hats, and boots. Something about their power and structure excited me.
I believe that excitement surrounding the power of uniforms still resonates within me. Uniforms are designed to convey power, status, and carry symbolic weight. Every detail, material, shape, and ornament contributes to this. What I do now with these ideas is an attempt to reallocate that power, whether to myself or to those who embrace me by wearing my designs.

Favorite thing about Chicago?
The Lake… having access to such a large body of water… is exceptional. Even some cities that are literally on the ocean have to fight harder to get their toes in. Chicago is lucky for that.

Describe your current studio or workspace.
I recently moved my studio into my home, downsizing from a larger garage space. My current setup includes my Juki sewing machine, a table, a small ironing board, and various materials strewn about. Sewing is adaptable—it can fill any space, large or small.

What are you really excited about right now?
I’m excited about enjoying the sun, taking a dip in the lake, forming new connections, and cherishing time with friends. I love the cyclical nature of the Midwest seasons and the constant lusting for what’s to come.

Do you have any daily rituals?
Coffee and breakfast are my morning essentials. Additionally, for the past three years, I’ve made it a tradition to eat a Banh mi sandwich on my birthday.

What do you collect?
I collect a few things, actually. I collect miniature cast iron irons. I think they actually function the same way an old iron would have, but they’re just really small (fitting in the palm of your hand).
Then, I also collect pennies. I started with my Grandpa Norm, and now I’ve been doing it for several years. My personal collection of pennies, or at least my favorites, are the ones that are pretty disfigured with corrosion or damage.



Interview conducted and edited by Lily Szymanski. All images courtesy of the artist.