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How Rachel and Rick Antonoff Run a Brand While Fighting the Good Fight

Plenty of fashion designers have their loved ones watching from the seats of their shows. But there’s only one designer who has her father — and business partner — model her designs on social media while offering hilarious shopping-network commentary on how to wear the uber-cool prints. Rachel and Rick Antonoff’s family dynamics and business partnership have been beacons of fun in an industry that often hides the relationships behind a designer’s aura. But for the Antonoff’s, business is family, family is business, and nothing is off-limits to discuss and work on together: from dinner table politics to prints that take on a political context of their own.

Besides running her namesake brand, Rachel and her brother Jack Antonoff co-founded the Ally Coalition, an organization which seeks to help end discrimination against queer folks by creating opportunities for fans and entertainers to advocate for equality. The Antonoffs have all been taking conversations about privilege and the power of allyship from their family dinner table to the world at large for years.

“A big pet peeve of mine has always been the idea that what’s polite is the most important, and that there shouldn’t be real conversation about politics at the table. Maybe that’s a luxury we’ll be able to afford someday, but not today, and not yesterday,” Rachel tells me over breakfast on set, fresh from the makeup chair. “People want a neutered form of empowerment. But it’s important to work on things that help you sleep at night. We talk about everything — from the serious to jokes, work and whatever, all the time — at home or the diner or the office, because it matters to us, and it shows in the work.”

Antonoff’s politics are on the sleeve of everything she sells. Her best-selling t-shirts and sweatshirts are politically minded and tongue-in-cheek: Hysterical Female, Difficult, and uterus-emblazoned garments all raise money for Planned Parenthood and various other social justice organizations. Her 2015 collection was also entirely focused on biology and botany, and heavily featured the female reproductive system. Making fashion both fun and political has been her habit since the start of her brand -— though not, she would note, from childhood.

“In high school, I was the exact archetype of what I wished didn’t happen for girls: an “I’m not like other girls,” girl. But I’ve learned that women are your friends, and now I’m dedicated to doing the best I can of spreading the message that people can change, and can listen. We all have toxic ideas ingrained in us, and it takes generations to deal with. And that’s where getting good at listening comes in,” Rachel said, turning to her father. Pepper gray-haired and good-natured, he’d been quietly listening and supporting his daughter for most of the dual interview. Taking the back seat and letting her run the show is how he shows his support. It’s also, Rick notes, one of the easiest ways to be a good ally in any room.

“A lot of us – folks my age, men like me –  were clueless about a lot of issues before social media and the women in our lives brought them to light. It’s hard to avoid seeing what’s going on in the world, and harder to ignore calls to action in response. In the 70s, people were protesting Vietnam, and somehow a lot of these kids grew up and lost touch of what social justice looks like. People are clinging to archaic ideas and prejudices. So it’s hard to preserve idealism, but it’s important to know it’s still here — and that there are people doing the work,” he notes.

That work is part of the day-to-day life of his family, with Rachel leading the charge. Besides fundraising for itinerant causes through her clothes, she also hosts The Ally Coalition’s Talent Show, which rallies up stars to perform and show up for marginalized LGBTQ+ youth organizations, designs their fundraising merchandise, and promotes a multitude of campaigns across intersecting identities. It’s a lot of work to take on, to say nothing of the fact she is running her own brand, and working with her own father to do so. Was there an adjustment period in their power-dynamics when he came on board to help manage the brand? Judging by the look they shared and the wry laughter, it’s safe to say: of course.

“The hardest thing was going from a parent where your kid depends on you, to where they transition into an adult,” Rick answers diplomatically. “We’ve gotten out of the parent-child and have turned into true business partners.” Rachel agrees: “ We used to have one issue during meetings I find funny now. You know when you can feel someone’s eyes boring into you? I would feel that during business meetings early on, and I would look around and it was him, looking at me as someone he was extremely proud of, which was so sweet….” She trails off and laughs, letting Rick take the rest, which he’s game for: “But also patronizing. That was hard to get past. But if that slips in again, Rachel tells me I’m doing it again, and we just get back to work.”  

Which circles back to the point that the Antonoff’s as a family, and as a brand, have been doing right for years, and is best said by Rachel herself: “When you’re in a position of power, even as an ally — it’s important to just be quiet and listen, and learn.” As their very fun, but also very passionate brand proves very well: you can have fun and still be passionate about the serious stuff, and you can dress well while trying to help shape the world.

Arabelle Sicardi is a beauty and fashion writer whose work focuses on beauty and power. They’ve written for Teen Vogue, Elle and more. Sometimes they’re a woman! And sometimes they’re just mostly Cheetos.

Photos by Paola Kudacki

Arabelle Sicardi