Between the Seams
September 18, 2019
From the pages of Issue 4: Plans Change
An interview with KHRISTIAN GILHAM of topo Designs | @topodesigns
WHO ARE YOU?
Khristian Gilham, an apparel designer for Topo Designs, and you can find me on Instagram at @k.gilham. I’m from Montrose, Colorado, and I started school at CSU studying art and switched my major halfway through to apparel production and design. I am the youngest of five kids. I’m a bit awkward, I love naps and hate ants. I like popcorn, beer, climbing, movies, being right, and airports.
HOW DID YOU LAND THIS SWEET ASS JOB AT TOPO DESIGNS?
Haha, honestly, no idea. Just kidding. I was persistent in offering up my time and energy and in showing I was eager to do whatever I could for the company in order to learn about the jobs. I happened to get sort of lucky. I started at Topo as the fit model and then asked to shadow the designer for a bit so I could just learn from her, and then when she decided to go another way, I was given a sort of “trial period” to see how I would do. And I’m still here! It’s been such a crazy learning experience, but really, really rewarding. I also have a degree in apparel production and design, and I also had completed an internship for a company called Ohlin/D in New York. Being raised in Colorado with a serious interest in fashion helped me get along with our team pretty well.
WHERE DO YOU FIND INSPIRATION FOR YOUR DESIGNS?
Inspiration comes from everywhere for me. I know everybody says that, but it’s true. I love old clothing, old photos, military surplus furniture, architecture, sculpture, art, streetwear to runway, style across the world, movies... the list goes on. As cheesy as it is, I really love to shop for old clothes. It always inspires me a lot and reminds me of why I love clothing.
WALK US THROUGH THE PROCESS—HOW DO YOU GO FROM IDEA TO EXECUTION?
There is a ton that goes into that. We are constantly changing the formula as the company gets bigger. We do a ton of research at the beginning of each season to understand what we think cool, and what is already being made. We create mood boards and color boards, and we try to all get on the same page about what’s happening in the world. But in a nutshell, our team tries to come to an agreement about an initial idea for a product (like for example a coverall, a zip-up fleece or a raincoat, etc.). After this, I will do research around the idea and make boards around the specific product. Then I sketch out as many iterations of the product as I can (with sleeves, without sleeves, with pockets, adding different seams, changing up the silhouettes and showing as many variations of the design as I can). We narrow that down, and from there I sketch up the final ideas with more detail and some color options. Then we narrow down even further, and start the process of putting the design into a “design spec.” That’s essentially as much detail and specification as I can give around the product: stitching, color, zipper size, button size, label placement, and any trims we want. Then this “spec” goes to our production team, and they communicate all of this to the factory in a much more detailed, thorough, and digestible way. (They’re the real MVPs of the process; without them, nothing gets made.) Then we work with them to work through fittings, color approvals, and problem-solving. Once the product is made, our other teams try to sell it and market it! There’s wayyyyy more to it, but you get the picture!
WHAT’S AN AVERAGE DAY ON THE JOB LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
It honestly depends on where I’m at in the season. For instance, we are starting the spring of 2021 right now. So I am doing as much research as I can on trends, inspiration, colors, and silhouettes. Then I will compile all of that information and we will start the process I just described. Some days it looks like a full day of fitting prototypes of certain styles on our fit model or finishing technical specs, approving plaid strike-offs, graphic tee artwork, or editing designs with updates from the production team, or even processing requests for collab projects.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE KEY TO YOUR SUCCESS IN THIS ROLE?
I think a part of my success has been a willingness and excitement to continue to learn. I probably could have used a bit more confidence at times, but I think when you are willing to learn from mistakes and really accept that some people know more than you, it can help every aspect of your life and job.
WHAT’S THE ONE THING THAT PEOPLE WOULD LEAST LIKELY EXPECT ABOUT YOUR WORK?
Probably that our team is extremely small. I do men’s and women’s apparel (and some accessories), as well as a lot of the apparel- based collab projects and graphic tees. My manager and creative director help me a ton with decisions and collaborating, but the design team is really only a team of three. I think most people think our company is a lot bigger than it really is.
IF YOU COULD DESIGN ANYTHING, WHAT WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
Honestly, I really love the problem-solving and functionality aspect of designing for Topo. But I think I would love doing costume design for films, television, or even plays/broadway/live shows. I really love to design into themes or personalities, and a job like that would combine styling, searching for old clothing, sewing, and designing, which feels like a really fun mix of all the things I’m passionate about.
FAVORITE PODCASTS, MUSIC, OR AUDIOBOOKS YOU LISTEN TO WHILE DESIGNING.
It’s a bit dark, but I like to listen to true crime podcasts or American history, so Last Podcast on the Left, Criminal, Crime Junkie, Bear Brook, Lore, The Dollop, and sometimes Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, Risk, Stuff You Should Know, and Oh No Ross and Carrie. Sometimes I listen to “Harry Potter” while I work if I can. For music I have the most random music taste—it ranges from really bad top 40 pop music to classical to jazz, to old country, to everything in between. My family has a very eclectic taste so I have been influenced by them.