Like many aspiring clothing designers, Iris Benson Nash loved to page through magazines as a young girl, ogling the big-name fashion and fantasizing about someday creating her own. Her magazine of choice? The Filson catalogue.
“I’ve ordered their catalogs since I was really young. That’s like my ‘Vogue,’” Nash said with a laugh.
Born in Petersburg among a family of fishermen, Nash developed a taste for practical clothing that could withstand Southeast weather, but that was less sporty and more versatile than many of the mass-produced lines available to her.
“I’m a commercial fisherman but I also like to go to the ‘Nutcracker,’” she said.
Unable to find what she wanted, she started making her own clothes. Now in her early 20s, she’s recently established her first business, Skookum Apparel, and will be offering her designs to the public for the first time at the Public Market this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Centennial Hall. Nash will be sharing a booth with the Kodiak Coat Company in the main hall.
Over the past few months, Nash has been making prototype after prototype in the space she shares with Kodiak Coat Company owner Bridget Milligan on Marine Way. One of the designs she has perfected for the market is a pair of workpants made of tinned twill — cotton that’s been treated with oil and wax to be waterproof — and accented with leather on high stress areas. The pants, made for both men and women, were created after extensive study of how and where work pants tend to wear out.
“I check people out all the time,” Nash said. “And I’m constantly at thrift stores looking (at pants) as to at why someone would get rid of something.”
She’ll also have long, double breasted pea coats made of waterproof fleece, and a selection of leather beanies for men and women, co-created with Milligan.
“My husband Chris wore one all fishing season,” Nash said.
In addition to a focus on clothing that is durable, Nash is motivated in her design work by a desire to offer an alternative to made-in-China products such as Carhartt.
“I’d like people to have a connection to where their things come from,” she said. “I hate that I went to Costco and there’s a calendar of Alaska photographs that’s printed in China.... there’s a disconnect.”
In the interests of keeping those connections part of her work, she plans to keep Skookum small-scale and personal.
“I wanted to do wholesale in my mind, but now I think person to person is really what I want to do. I think I will make less money, but I want that personal connection – that’s really what’s so gratifying to me.”
Though Nash had an early interest in clothing design, she didn’t get her first sewing machine until she was 17, while living in Anchorage. At that point, she didn’t know anything about sewing, or even how to thread the machine.
“I just got it and knew I wanted to use it,” she said.
At 17, she was beginning to emerge from several difficult years; she describes herself as a “hellish” teen, who attended seven different high schools — including a tempestuous two weeks at Juneau Douglas High School — and dropped out twice before landing at an alternative high school in Anchorage.
While still in high school, she got the sewing machine and took a job at an original clothing shop. There the owner began teaching her the basics of making clothes.
“It was an incredible opportunity,” Nash said. “Between her and the other women who worked with her, they taught me the most simple things that I still use to this day.”
After the shop closed, Nash moved down to Portland, where she thought she’d always wanted to live. But it was difficult to find work and she ended up working in a butcher shop (even though she’s a vegetarian), reluctant to admit that the reality of Portland was less satisfying than she’d expected. While considering her next move, she met her future husband, Chris Nash, who grew up in Juneau.
“Ironically I met him in Portland in a gym, but his family is from here and his father (Bill Nash) been a fisherman for 35 years. And my father (Wolfgang Benson) has owned a oyster farm, he seined and he gill netted, he did Bristol Bay .... Chris and I come from similar worlds.”
Nash and her husband, who are now commercial fisherman themselves, returned to Alaska in April. On their first day back, they saw a poster of Milligan’s Kodiak Coat Company leather work coats on the bulletin board at Rainbow. Nash was floored.
“I just kind of stopped dead in my tracks,” Nash said. “As much as Portland has a thriving do-it-yourself scene, there’s not a lot of integrity I don’t think, or really new ideas, at least that I’ve been aware of. (Bridget’s work) really spoke to me.”
A week later, on her birthday, her husband asked her what she wanted to do.
“I said ‘I want to meet that woman,’ Nash said, referring to Milligan.
She found her number, called her and explained that she’d seen the poster and been very intrigued. Milligan invited her over and the two women spent the next 12 hours talking. Like Nash, Milligan is a former commercial fisherman who loves to get her hands dirty. And like Nash, she is passionate about fabric, drape and cut, and making things that are beautiful.
“We have the same passion and the same drive,” Nash said. “I tell people all the time, Bridget’s my second soul mate next to Chris. I don’t think she even understands that.”
Earlier this year Milligan moved down to Washington state, though she returned for this year’s No Umbrellas fashion show. She’s currently in Hawaii taking care of her mother, and won’t be at the market, but the two women plan to keep their shared work space and continue working together.
Upcoming projects for Skookum Apparel include a merino wrap dress, a welding vest and maybe a tool belt. Nash said keeping it simple is a priority.
“In my two jobs, I feed myself and clothe myself, that’s what I do,” she said. “Catch fish and sew clothes.”
For more on Skookum Apparel, visit www.facebook.com/SkookumApparel.