Susan Cianciolo is a pioneer of American Independent Fashion. Finding her start in the alongside experimental 90's art brands Bernadette Corporation, Imitation of Christ and Mended Viel, Susan Cianciolo's's signature frayed stitching and handmade alterations of thrift finds became an influential aesthetic for decades to come, seen today on Etsy. Despite constantly shifting trends and economics Susan has maintained a prolific and consistent career without compromise or expansion, allowing her to create and share truly unique clothing, artworks and experiences.

Where are you from?
I’m from Rhode Island. I grew up in Maine with my dad part-time, but mostly I was in the inner city right outside of Providence. I grew up with my mom and grandparents there.
What did your parents do?
My dad has done real estate his whole life and had an antique business as well. My mom worked in a prison most of her life. She was a counselor for men's maximum high security. Later on, she became a parole coordinator planner. I remember taking trips to the women's prison on Christmas, working with a lot of different nuns, getting presents for the women that had kids. But she never allowed me to go into the men's prison.
I read in an interview that your mom also made dolls. What were they like?
It could be anything you could imagine. It was always different. I remember one year, we recycled all our walnut shells and that was a little bed for all these dolls and then they became ornaments. She also made me a dollhouse with little curtains, little paintings. It was such a work of art, every little shingle. 
Was a lot of stuff handmade for you growing up?
Every sweater I owned was hand-knit. Everyone wore hand-knit slippers. Growing up, my dresses were completely made by hand—whatever you can think of—the curtains, the blankets on the beds.
How did you end up making your own clothes?
My mom bought me a subscription to Vogue. That's how I started. I asked her if I could go buy some Vogue patterns and start making things.
Did you want to dress cooler?
It was more that I was embarrassed to be brought up so poor. Here I was, in this house with grandparents and a great-grandmother, and everyone else had cars and lived in cool houses and had a regular mom-and-dad life. As a teenager it is so humiliating to not be like everyone else and be cool.
How did you learn to sew?
I learned from a woman who made wedding dresses. I went to Catholic school with her daughter, who was my best friend at the time. So, I asked my friend’s mom if she would give me lessons. We'd meet in the evenings. I remember being in the basement and she was so good, I was so thankful she had the patience to teach me.
You went to Catholic school?
Yeah, but it was very experimental. The principal was a feminist nun who ran all these programs in the prison. She was super strong, smart—a real renegade of a nun. There weren’t separate grades, so the freshman and seniors were all together. There were no classes either: you had three-month blocks where you did just one subject. I decided I'd create an art studio class for myself. I just sat and drew forever and ever. We didn't have any sports. There was a lot of hanging out and smoking. 
What was your religious upbringing?
Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, and Episcopalian.
Wait, how does that happen?
At age four, I decided I was going to become Pentecostal. I joined with this family that had a church down the street. I spent all my time with them, went on tours with them in their station wagon to meet families, or just stay there all day and read the Bible. My dad was Sicilian Roman Catholic, so I would do that when I was with him, and my mom decided to become Episcopal so I would do that with her.
Were you spiritual from a young age?
Yes, my mom talks about that too. She said it was really scary, very shocking for a young person. I remember giving her talks starting around the age of four.
Talks?
Religious talks. Which is weird because she’s always seemed like such a saint in the ways that she's helped so many. And I always wanted to be like that.
Doing good with what you do?
I was really tortured inside. How could I choose fashion when my mom's working at the prison? Couldn't I pick a better way to help humanity? But I couldn't get it out of my head—fashion and art—and I didn't know how that could possibly help anything.
Was the first time you came to New York to attend Parsons?
Yeah, I was 17. We came for the interview and I just said to myself, “I love this place.” It was so exciting. I was honestly so shocked by all the other people. It was a big deal. People on my block didn't ever go away, let alone go to college. We had loans and financial aid and all of that stuff.
What did you focus on? Apparel?
My parents did not want me to do fine art. I had to do a year of marketing, merchandising, advertising, and then go into fashion. They said I could do art on the side. It's funny, a lot of the professors kind of begged me to go into fine arts. It was looked at like, “fashion is evil.” When I got into the fashion program, every professor said I should be in the fine arts.
You started collaborating with Bernadette Corporation when you were a student. How did you meet them?
Through Seth Shapiro. I don't know how we met, but we'd sit around and talk about God a lot and he asked me to model for him. Then I helped him sew pieces for his first collections. I really wanted to help him. I loved what he was doing. Then I met his cousin Bernadette and joined in on Bernadette Corporation for the performances.
I didn’t know you modeled.
I like the fact that I got to know what it was like to be the subject, whether I was treated badly or if it was exciting. I was glad I would always know the rest of my life what that person would feel like if I was to be dressing them and directing them and how hard it is, how much your feet hurt, all the stuff you go through. All the pain was so worth it for that experience. 
Were you working while you were at school?
I was lucky. I worked at Bergdorf Goodman and did the murals for all the windows. They gave me so much freedom it was unbelievable. I got to do all the fashion illustrations for all the boutiques, and giant murals in the windows and be up on ladders. I learned how to paint really large scale and just do whatever I wanted in there. I was also working as a fashion illustrator and had graphic design jobs. 
You also worked for X-Girl...
And Badgley Mischka. They make evening dresses for the Oscars.
Wow. So you were really good at executing work that wasn’t really your own?
I feel like it's a good skill. It's really hard. It feels like my soul is dying inside. Around the time I started working at Badgley Mischka, I started really intensely doing my own work. And I always did both, but I was really pushing a lot by the end and never sleeping and then when I left them, I just knew I was immediately ready to open my first collection.
What was your first collection?
I had a boyfriend that really wanted me to clean my act up, get a job, and be more professional. After I left that job and I broke up with him, I said to myself, “I am ready.” I got back in touch with Rita Ackerman and showed her all my drawings for my new collection and she said they were great. Then I showed Bernadette and she said, “OK, I'll style it,” and Gabriel Asfour helped me. Then we asked Andrea Rosen if I could do my first show there.
That’s really brave of you.
I know... You can't just go open a collection. People really did everything they could to convince me, and I was scared to death.
What inspires a collection?
I get these insights or messages. I don't know if you would call it a vision—it's like this lightbulb pops up and tells me, “This is what you're going to do next,” and I just put on this tunnel vision and I do it and I never deviate. I dedicate my whole life to every show. I used to push myself to death, like actual hospitalization. I felt like I had to sacrifice my whole self. It's always been sacred to me. It's this offering, and I'm willing to accept if it's hated or if it's loved or if no one comes or if 2,000 people come—it doesn't matter.
Where does the name Run come from?
When I was 15, I was training as a runner, racing for medals, whatever. Then I met this high school girl down the street that was much older than me and she asked if I would train with her every night, and we'd do hurdles. My mom didn't believe me. She would sneak down in the car and watch the track. She thought I was out there doing drugs.
Haha.
I was really into running. And now I see I connect it to work. I had to switch to something else because I'm so messed up from it. It's hard on the body.Running is such a basic thing and it came from that deep love. During the Bernadette Corporation times, I would sign everything as Run and then when I was going out—my very few moments doing graffiti with Phil Frost—that was my tag. I realized you can pick really mundane, banal words and you can transform them and then they have other meanings. Like with Bernadette Corporation, we were running from responsibility or anything to do with society. Then it became Run Collection, because the studio became so big at one point. It was this giant collective of artists and Run represented the studio.
The first way I learned about your work was from photos in fashion magazines. The photos were always really different.
When I began, I really hated fashion shoots. They would make me feel really claustrophobic and I watched them turn into something else in the industry, all this glamour and fluff. I started to remove myself from press and photo shoots because I would get anxiety attacks from the whole experience. Then I met Marcello Krasilic and he started shooting my shows, and photographing me, and doing photo shoots with my clothes. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven, his aesthetic felt like it was my brain. I felt that with Rosalie Knox, too, and Mark Borthwick. They're all very honest.
You seem to switch your self-identification between fashion designer and artist.
Right now, I don't feel at all like a fashion designer. I love fashion with all my heart, but I don't feel a connection with it right now. I don't mean to be confusing, I feel myself to be an artist now, but that's been on and off. It’s a curse because it's always so up and down.
I’m sure your patrons don’t care. What is your relationship like with clients?
I end up being so in love with my patrons. It's a relationship of deep support and understanding. It's very real, as real as it gets. I would bend over backwards for them and I'll do any kind of special detail or work. It doesn't matter to me how much they're paying, and most of the time, across the board, they convince me that they want to pay me more. They always double the price—because they know the value. They're not messing around with me.
You wear your own clothes a lot, too.
I mostly used to wear it just so I would know how things felt, especially because we were doing such big production numbers for each collection. Recently I've been really enjoying feeling what it’s like in other people's clothes and having that experience. I like all kinds of feelings of clothes. I'm not just into comfort.
How did you start making children’s clothes?
I made a ton of dolls for friends who had kids, before I ever had kids. I'm sure I made kids' clothes too. Then I made my daughter Lilac a ton of things and when she got to a certain age, she said, “Sell it, sell it.” Since I would always put Lilac in the show, I'd make some things for the show for her friends. Clients began seeing I had all these children's clothes and wanted to buy them.
Lilac likes being in the shows?
Oh yeah. When she walks on stage and sees all the people she brightens up. She wants to be in the show, she wants to help, she wants to be a part of it. Now she's become so much of a director that she wants to say how everything should be. 
So she is also a collaborator?
I swear she always adds a better touch. It's so much more courageous. We disagree a lot, but it's great to have her collaborative aspect. There's just so much she's added to pieces that have made them 1,000 times better. And it's a way we can get along.
How have you remained independent for so long?
Well, you have to roll with the punches. I know that when a recession hits luxury items are the first things people drop. But I was never afraid to starve because I grew up so poor I never had anything to lose. I was fine if I was homeless. I went two weeks without food, knowing things would come around. Through all the ups and downs I found a perfect rhythm. Where I'm at now, after so much learning and risk taking, it was all worth it.