By Gina Malone
Suzanne Armstrong’s lifelong love of fashion, a willingness to change her business model with the times and an openness to what her customers truly want led her to where she is today—an artist, designer and personal stylist with her own collections that inspire and empower those who wear them.
“As an entrepreneur, what has become so clear to me is that there is no real separation from ourselves and our businesses,” she says. “My business has been my journey of learning to not only trust myself but to understand that what must come before trust is to unconditionally love and accept every part of me—the light, the darkness and even the size of my thighs. This is what my connection with my art and artwear has taught me and continues to every day.”
Her artwear, Suzanne says, grew out of dissatisfaction with the corporate retail model. She took a break from her career in fashion merchandising with an “in-between” job, she says, and thereafter began the journey to take things in a different direction. “I felt empowered to change the rules of retail for myself,” she says. “I opened my own boutique filled with everything I loved and that lit me up! I created an ‘experience’ for customers that allowed them to enter my ‘mad, mad world’ [the name of her shop at the time] and gave them permission to create their own world full of color and joy and fun.”
In the early days of entrepreneurship, she was traveling to NYC shows and bringing wearable art collections into her shop, but in the late 1990s, with the changing landscape of the fashion industry, many designers closed their businesses. One of those designers had supplied about 70 percent of Suzanne’s merchandise. “So I took what I had learned after years of selling others’ artwear, and, most importantly, listening to my customers about what they loved, how they wanted things to fit and what lifestyles they were living at the time, and I ventured out to do it myself—with a lot of outside expertise, of course,” Suzanne says.
She has now been designing and selling her Clothes Encounters clothing collection for almost 20 years. She designs four collections a year and has them cut, sewn and dyed in her custom colors in the US. She does not work with pre-made garments. Instead, each is made from her original pattern and designed by her. “For me,” she says, “the most important aspect is that the style, design, fit, colors, art and detailing on each piece wear my personal stamp and intention, so that is where my focus lies.” She uses mostly cotton fabrics, with some cotton blends. “My line is all about comfort so the fabric choices are an important decision,” she says. “Feeling comfortable in our clothing allows us to feel comfortable in our bodies and then comfortable being who we are and how we show up each day for ourselves and others.”
Each piece of artwork on the clothing is a hand- painted, one-of-a-kind piece of her original art. Many aspects of the world around her are inspiring, she says, including movies, books, color and Dr. Seuss. “But a lot of it comes when I spend time in silence listening to what my heart is yearning for,” she adds. “My collections are really like my own personal art journals. They tell the story of what I’m thinking about or discovering about myself at the time, what my bigger dreams and visions for myself and the world are, and sometimes just simply the joy I am feeling in the moment.”
The “zing” that color gives her inspired her latest endeavor—expanding her artwork to totes, pillows, pouches and other products that are produced locally. “I call it Zing,” Suzanne says, “‘Happy Art that Zings Your Heart.’” Customers have asked for these products for years, she says, and she plans to continue developing and expanding the new line to include even more products.
“Our world breeds unrealistic expectations of women when it comes to their bodies and this leads to lifelong internal dialogues of self-deprecation in millions of women in our world,” says Suzanne. She believes these feelings lead many to put off “living” until they attain a certain ideal. Her own diagnosis of breast cancer in 2016 set her on a journey to “reevaluate, realign and re-decide how I wanted to live going forward,” she says. Treatment also brought her to Asheville to live and work.
“I truly believe a world led by self-love and fueled by self-expression is the path to healing,” she says. “This begins with connecting to ourselves and then discovering our joy, what lights us up, what makes us feel like ourselves and at home in our bodies. Artwear has a freedom to it—free of boundaries and structure and rules. I believe it gives the wearer a permission slip to be the masterpiece they were created to be! It’s not just clothing; it’s a lifestyle of love.”