Audio Helkuik: Oral History

Audio Helkuik for Audio Helkuik was interviewed on December 11th, 2018 by Kelly Reddy-Best via Zoom. The interview was 38 minutes. The oral history transcript reflects the history of the brand at the time of the interview.

Oral History Transcript

REDDY-BEST: Ok! So the first question is, can you, uh, ooh, just say your name and your brand.

HELKUIK: My name is HELKUIK and my brand is HELKUIK.

REDDY-BEST: And can you, briefly tell me about your background, like where did you grow up, you know where have you lived?

HELKUIK: Um, so I grew up in the Midwest, my family moved quite a bit, but I’ve always lived in like Nebraska, and Iowa, for one summer, the weird glow of Minneapolis called to me so I lived there a little bit, but right now I live in Omaha. I’ve lived here about 9 years. Me and my partner have a house here, and we really like it here. I like to call it Homoha.

REDDY-BEST: And then, can you tell me about your educational background, you know, it could be formal education, informal education experiences

HELKUIK: Sure, um, I graduated high school, at a public school, and then I went to University of Nebraska in Lincoln. I was undeclared my freshman year, because I wanted to do art management, but they didn’t have a degree that was specficically art management. I was planning on trying to navigate different departments and hodgepodge a degree together, to make it what I wanted. And then, my freshman year, I visited this textile/fashion art gallery on campus and just totally connected with it. And right there I decided instead of wanting to manage artists, I want to do that. And so I basically declared my major to textiles that day.  I have a bachelor’s of science in textile and apparel design and a minor in studio art and I also have a minor in entomology. It’s not the most cohesive areas of study, but it’s definitely weirdly rounded, and perfect for what I want to do.

REDDY-BEST: Yeah, and what was the last minor? I couldn’t hear that part

HELKUIK: Entomology. Insect science.

REDDY-BEST: Cool. And then, um can you then, tell me about your work history, like what have you done and how, kind of briefly, any other work that you’ve done, or what you kind of do?

HELKUIK: yeah, um, so since I’ve graduated college, I’ve always worked in theater, I got a work study job in college because I knew how to sew and I could work in my school’s theater department’s costume shop. When I graduated, I managed a costume shop. I’ve done freelance and commission work for theater, bands, and different performance outfits for all types of performers. I actually still have a day job costuming in a children’s theater, so I continue to still do professional theater costuming. In the past, I’ve also kept a part time job as a janitor, I’ve worked at a record store, I’ve done warehouse picking, pretty much whatever needs to get done so that I can do the creative endeavors that excite me.

REDDY-BEST: mm-hmm. and then, Uh, which terms do you use to describe your gender identity

HELKUIK: I usually say, I’m non-binary, or gender-queer, gender-fluid, gender non-conforming, all of these apply to me. If I’m talking to like a cis-gender hetero normative person, who just doesn’t totally get it yet, I just say non-binary, because if I say I’m a femme-presenting, but masculine-leaning, non-binary queer person, I think their brains kind of explode. All those words make sense to me because I’m in the community and I’m around this vocab and expression all the time. Mostly, I insist that I am not a girl.

A; [unintelligible]

REDDY-BEST: Sorry, what was the last part?

HELKUIK: Non-binary works for me.

REDDY-BEST: Mm-hmm, and then, um, which gender pronouns do you use?

HELKUIK: I use he/him/his.

REDDY-BEST: And then, what… can you describe your personal clothing style?

HELKUIK: Sure, um I like to say I’m an introvert with an extroverted wardrobe. I think my style presents itself bigger than my social personality sometimes. I’m actually pretty reserved in social settings, but my outfits invite people to flock to me, I love to do over the top accessories, like just keep piling it on, that’s kind of my motto. More is more is more.

REDDY-BEST: mm-hmm, and then, do you, um, wear any of the products that you make?

HELKUIK: I do like to wear my own products. I wear the chokers and necklaces that I make almost every day.  And then when I’m feeling fancy, I put on some leather harnesses that I’ve designed.

REDDY-BEST: mm-hmm and then, so now, just kind of thinking about the start of your um, uh company, so when did you begin thinking about um, starting?

HELKUIK: Once I graduated college, I had more time to create handmade things, because I wasn’t in so many design classes. So I was making things at the same rate as I was in school and I didn’t have to turn in the things I made for grades, so I started selling on different platforms, or like at craft shows. Etsy was a great outlet for my creative energy.  I just kept making and selling items, and it wasn’t super focused, it was just finding fun yarn and making a fun hat. Or I’d  pick up a piece of paper and draw an interesting picture. It was very spontaneous. I did that for a long time, but I, I wasn’t like a focused brand.

REDDY-BEST: And what year, what year did you graduate college?

HELKUIK: I graduated college in 2008

REDDY-BEST: 2008? And then, when did you, when did your brand officially become a business, like did you incorporate, or did you, like how did that, when did that come about?

HELKUIK: I consider my brand to have started in 2011, that’s when I changed my name to Audio Heluik, and then I decided to change my brand. I rebranded, and made it cohesive. I only sold wearables, and I sold a specific aesthetic with consistency since 2011.

REDDY-BEST: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. And then, how did the idea come about, or how did you begin thinking about um, your brand, what, what inspired you to start?

HELKUIK: Um, I really wanted to do fashion that was really exciting visually and didn’t draw on menswear or womenswear. I really wanted to incorporate this nice blend, which is what I focused on my projects in college. I knew I wanted to create an androgynous brand. It’s like weird to say that because androgynous is not quite right. It’s more like, I designed without gender in mind. Whoever would approach my work, they would connect aesthetically with it. That’s why I wanted to make my brand, I wanted to focus on the visuals and work on making really exciting visuals that I can put on a runway and have exciting show production. I work in theater so I like, I know dramatics, I love the dramatic part of the runway.

REDDY-BEST: mm-hmm, and then, um, what is the significance of the name, hehe, I think I maybe kind of know, but [laughs]

HELKUIK: I did name my brand, after myself, which I was hesitant at first, but um, if you look through history at the fashion world, this is really normal. So instead of getting hung up on what to name it, I figured I named myself and I knew that was right. Now I have this dichotomy of being HELKUIK the person, and HELKUIK the brand, I get to separate and overlap those how I choose. It feels very empowering to know I’m exactly in charge.

REDDY-BEST: Mm-hmm, and then, um, can  you tell me about the model, the business model for your brand, can you, how does work, like if I was gonna like come to you and I didn’t know anything, like, what would that like, you know, how do get stuff and kind of like,

HELKUIK: So, most of my business is done direct online from me to my customers. And most of the products are made by me in my studio. So if you went to my website, and you placed an order, I’d see the order come in, I go to my studio and I make it, put it in a box and send it to you. It’s pretty straightforward. I do some wholesale, I do some consignment, I do some in-person sales and tabling at different events, but mostly it’s online sales, direct to customers.

REDDY-BEST: Mm-hmm, and then, so, for folks who might not have looked ever, or like, what kinds of products do you offer, and like what kinds of stuff, if I was going to go and like get something, what could I get and how much do those things cost, just kind of like a broad, spread, a brushstroke of like what, what do you make?

HELKUIK: Um, so I’m a clothing and accessories designer, but um, I don’t have as much clothing as I used to. Right now I’m focused more on accessories, and specifically mostly leather accessories. I make harnesses, I make chokers, and leather crowns. I make a lot of leather accessories and jewelry, but then I also offer pins, patches, tees. My products range between five dollars and then the most expensive is around $280 I think. I try to keep everything, even custom leather pieces, accessible.

REDDY-BEST:mm-hmm, mm-hmm, And then, do you think about, do you want to expand what you offer, do you have, like a dream of, you know, other things that you like want to make and offer, or do you feel, kind of set, like do you feel like it’s perfect, what do you think about that,

HELKUIK: um, well I never think anything is perfect because that is not how progress works. I would love to expand in some ways, but maybe rein some things in other ways, like now I offer a lot of colors, a lot of options, which I love, but I could see where people could get overwhelmed by all of the options. I’m also interested in non-wearables, like homegoods or more art pieces. It’s not where I’ve sold in the past, but it intrigues me.

REDDY-BEST: mm-hmm,

HELKUIK: I’d like to expand just a little bit, but mostly my expansion dream is, I’d like to expand my marketing. I want to be in more brick and mortar stores. I’d like to expand in those kind of ways. So my efforts can make more waves in more directions.

REDDY-BEST: Mmm, right. And then can you tell me about your role in the company, like what, what does it look like for you on a typical, or maybe there’s no typical day [hehehe]

HELKUIK: So every day is different. I am a sole proprietorship, so it’s just me.  A typical day would be, I wake up, check my email, try to make sure there’s no crazy emergencies for customers. You wouldn’t think there would be many leather harness emergencies but they exist and I take care of them. If I take care of emails, then I can sometimes do prototyping in the morning. That means picking out samples, or sourcing materials, and developing new products. I’ll do that, and then I’ll go through my order list and make each order. Then I’ll make sure to pack all my orders up, and make sure to get those ready and out the door. And then I like to work on any social media marketing things like editing photos, writing captions, drafting email newsletters or blog posts.

REDDY-BEST: Right, so it’s you, you are from to start and like all, every interface is, is you.

HELKUIK: I’m the owner, the designer, the marketer, um, the manager of operations, and creative director. I literally walk the totes of orders to my post office and pay for them myself. My partner does help me with my website, because I don’t know how to do tricky coding.

REDDY-BEST: Right?

HELKUIK: Other than that, it’s me.

REDDY-BEST: And then, that’s a lot, hehehehe,

HELKUIK: Yes I’m always super busy.

REDDY-BEST: Yes, yes, sometimes people say that, I’m like “wow,” I am, I am in awe of like, of like all of it you do, it’s so much. Hehem. Maybe hats, you know, it’s like, you have to like switch modes, hehehe

HELKUIK: That’s really a good thing. I hate to be bored.

REDDY-BEST: And then, and then, um, can you talk you’re uh, thinking more about the inspiration and design process for your, for the items that you make and produce, um, can you talk about some of the design processes that you go through and like, how do you go from like your initial ideas like, your concepts, then to like the final product ???? it, your inspirations is, do you think about um, just do the customers or the people buying ever give sug- what they want, or how does that kind of work for you

HELKUIK: Um, when I’m working on collections, I really like a, I want to say, a heavy-handed theme because I because I do like drama on the runway. I love the theatricality of that. So I’ve a done a collection that’s like, a dark circus theme, or I’ve done a collection that is all, that is all monochromatic looks where the models all together formed a rainbow. But that one was a challenge for myself. The purpose of that was to challenge me to use all color,  because before that I’d only done neutral. This really pushed to me to. My last collection was scout themed. I researched uniforms through history, and different accessories that are worn in scout troops, and the culture and all that. So I researched and then blended it all and spit out out in cool new way. I illustrate, pattern, prototype, and then I do the pattern-grading process, which is the um, hardest part for me.

REDDY-BEST: mm-hmm, mmm-hmm, and I should, one, could think it’s, it’s the sound’s like a teeny-tiny bit lower right, could you maybe move your computer a little bit closer to you? heehehhe

HELKUIK: I think I just have a quiet voice, too.

REDDY-BEST: yeah, I appreciate it.  Okay, and then um, then, um, so where do you typically get materials, do you source them locally? You don’t have to give specifics, but do you, you know, is there something about materials that you can tell us?

HELKUIK: Um, yeah, I kind of a large fabric collection, So a lot of times I can just use the fabrics from my collection. That only works if I’m doing a small number of pieces. If I’m doing a piece that will go online and be ordered as a made-to-order piece, I have to source a lot of material. My leather comes from a midwest, family owned, leather company.

REDDY-BEST: mm-hmm, and then, um, can you show us a few pieces from stuff,

HELKUIK: sure, um, I am wearing some, so I can show those.  Can you see my choker?

REDDY-BEST: yeah, uh huh,

HELKUIK: This harness, this is one of my favorites. If I wear this one, I get stopped by at least, 3 dozen people. People love this one. Um, and then I have this little necklace. It’s from the holidays right now, so it’s a little gingerbread man wearing a harness.

REDDY-BEST: I just saw that online, I thought that was so cute, hehehe

HELKUIK: It’s a fun one. So um, behind, me, if you can see that all right, um, I have a jacket that’s not online. I produced it for a portfolio piece. And I then I also have this harness I made for a runway collection with all these chains.

REDDY-BEST: Cool, and then, um, then, what has been the most, in your opinion, the successful for your brand so far and it can be kind of anything

HELKUIK: [coughs] um, I the most successful thing that I’ve found is the standardization of some products. If I had told myself that a couple of years ago, I would have just thought that sounded so boring, because I have a very creative brain. But being able to switch from totally one of a kind items, to things that literally hundreds of people can order and that I can reproduce over and over efficiently has changed my life and brand. Honestly, the simple little chokers are one of these products. I make them every day.

REDDY-BEST: mm-hmm, mm-hmm

HELKUIK: Also, leather suspenders, just, that’s like two products that if I only could carry two products, it would be those two, because I’ve made them so many I can make them in my sleep. And they always look good. Crowd-pleasers.

REDDY-BEST: mm-hmm, and then, what are you most proud of so far?

HELKUIK: I think I’m most proud that for two years I’ve shown at the Dapper Q runway event at New York Fashion Week. To be a fashion designer, New York Fashion Week is a goal. Even if people don’t know about fashion, they know of that. That’s been really exciting to show there and also to do it in an all queer setting.  That day is one of my favorites of the year.  I love being surrounded by queer stylists, photographers, models, and celebrate queerness in fashion.

REDDY-BEST: mm-hmm

HELKUIK: Dapper Q is really good at making sure marginalized people are in the spotlight but that’s not always the case in fashion. One way I use my privilege is to get access to fashion exposure. Just because I am a white, educated fashion designer, I can get in the door and I’m offered magazine articles, photoshoot spreads and runway opportunities. I take them and make sure to shine the spotlight I’m given on other people who also deserve it. I love being able to have the power to go, “This person, with this body, is beauty. And this person, with this body, is beauty, too.” I’m proud that I can use my privilege to expand the idea of beauty and have representation of many types of beauty in the fashion world. I’m very aware that visibility matters.

REDDY-BEST: mm-hmm, mm-hmm, and then, um, what were some initial, or were there any initial aspects of starting your brand that kind of surprised you?

HELKUIK: The thing that surprised me the most, still today, about working as a fashion designer, is that no one knows their measurements.

REDDY-BEST: [laughs]

HELKUIK: I couldn’t take on any projects unless it was local, because I’d have to go and measure someone before I could even start making anything.  Knowing my measurements is normal thing for me. This is my world, so just realizing that that’s not a normal thing, for people to realize, so I was kind of shocked. Since I know not everyone knows their measurements, I try to coach people through it online now.

REDDY-BEST: [laughs] and then, when I taught construction, we did like, I swear we spent like a whole week on measuring. I was like, “Y’all are gonna know how to measure,” and like, it was like, “you need to, we’re gonna practice measuring, like”

HELKUIK: They have no idea, if you get this wrong, everything I do is wrong.

REDDY-BEST: Even the tiny bit, I’m like, it has to be really perfect. [laughs] and then, um, what, do you feel like you have any struggles in relation to the brand, um, if yes, what were or are some of the things that are, that you view as some of the struggles with continuing,

HELKUIK: um, well right now I’m kind of at this stop/stuck point where I’m kind of cruising through like the process I described as like my design process from collection to collection but being the sole producer of every garment, I think it’s inhibiting flow. um, I have like control problems, so moving into production, I’m not even sure if it’s what I want to do. Even if I wanted to move anything into manufacturing, there’s so many hurdles, like financial barriers, before I could get there. So just, the struggle I’m having is, being true to my brand and finding a good medium ground flow of creativity, sales and production that feels right and sustainable.

REDDY-BEST: And then, um, what types of um, feedback do you get in relation to your brand?

HELKUIK: Um, after runway shows, a lot of the feedback is about my model casting. I hear the comment over and over, “I’ve never seen someone with my body type on the runway before.” Because representation matters. Even something simple like putting a five two model on the runway. Five foot two typically has no place in fashion, but people notice if you invite it onto your runway.

REDDY-BEST: Right, right. And then um, do you ever, have negative feedback from folks? Or who are in, you know either within, or with, or sort of outside, not to create that binary, ’cause you know, it can be fluid, um but, within the queer LGBTQ plus community?

HELKUIK: yeah um, so, the feedback I get that some people who are outside the community, outside enough where their only feedback is “I don’t even understand” or “who is this even for? Who would wear this?” That feedback is still useful though. I’m just like, “Cool, then I’m clearly not doing it for you. You wouldn’t wear this. We can move on.” Like, that doesn’t bother me. I live in the Midwest, so I get that all the time, it’s fine. The feedback I do pay attention to is from within the queer community, and uh, it’s been kind of a wild ride. People love to be honest with me, so I hear a lot of opinions, um, so I’ll hear things like, “Oh, you’re aesthetic is too femme, or your aesthetic is not femme enough” or um, “Your brand is too sexual.” or “your brand is not sexual enough,” so that was really confusing to hear, just opposites, of the same thing, I don’t know what to do with that, but then I realized, this is actually great feedback. I don’t want to be the queer spokesperson for fashion.  I actually want to have lots of designers flood the industry and instead of one voice, I’d love a chorus of voices. So, I actually like that negative feedback, especially when I get the opposite feedback, because I know I’m not connecting with everyone on every level. I shouldn’t have to, I don’t want to. But, I am connecting with some people.  And when I see other queer designers, sometimes I connect with something with their work and other times I’m like, “I don’t get what you’re doing, it’s not for me” so, the feedback is fine. It’s good and healthy to know, okay I’m not taking over. All voices can sing.

REDDY-BEST: And then, um, do you um, you talk about how you initially funded, um, your brand or anything about sort of finances, do you feel comfortable talking about that.

HELKUIK: Oh sure, so I’m self-funded.  I started with, approximately zero dollars. I worked 4-5 jobs, and I saved up and then every time I had a chance to do runway or get into an event, I would have some funds for it. So it was very slow growth and I just definitely dumped a lot of income into it and grew slowly and organically. So my four goals were to make any money with my business, so I did that a long time ago. At first I was making no money, then I made money. My second goal is to break even, so my business could be self-sustaining. Next my goal was to make enough money so I could pay myself.  And that’s where I am right now, I’m paying myself. Next I want to break even, make money, and then have it be my sole income. And of course I have a fifth bonus goal, that I can produce events and sponsor events and be a community organizer on like a higher level. But right now you know, I just want it to be my only job. I do have a day job and I’m pretty open about that. I’m a small business owner, with a day job. I work at a children’s theater by day and I make leather body harnesses by night. It’s an interesting balance.

REDDY-BEST: And then, um, those are great goals, I loved that.  It interesting because um, I feel like you know, even it reminds of like Tomboy X who, who they like sponsor and you know they’re kind of at,I feel like, they , it kind of reminds me of their kind of vision, when it comes out, you’ll kind of see that, you know what I mean, it’s like they are they are doing that right, they’re sponsoring like large events that are like queer focused

HELKUIK: Yeah, I mean they’re known for their community support and not just for being an underwear brand. I love that. I always love to think bigger than where I am.

REDDY-BEST: Mm-hm mm-hm, and then um, can you talk about um, your consideration of sustainability or ethical business models and what that kind of means to you in relation to your brand and how you kind of thing about that, and incorporate those kinds of ideas.

HELKUIK: I usually hesistate to talk about sustainability because I do use leather and that just a huge red flag for people. But I can address it in the way that I’ve made it feel okay for myself. So leather and the leather industry is bad for the planet. No one is going to say it’s not. But cotton is also terrible for the planet. And so is polyester, and dyeing fabric, and fashion manufacturing in general. Anyway, everything is bad for the environment and if you can just find a way to reduce your carbon footprint, or just be responsible for what you make. That’s like the best option for this industry. But, I do make a high-quality product that’s going to last, so that’s my way of being sustainable. Slow-fashion. For example, I have a pair of high quality leather boots that I’ve been wearing for over 15 years. Or instead I could buy cheap synthetic boots, but have to replace them every year or two. So with my harnesses that’s how I’ve come to terms with working with leather, a faux pas for some. I only buy the amount of material I need, I make each product to your requests, the harnesses will last and last. I make just a small number that are going to exactly the people that want them and will wear and wear and wear them. Slow fashion.

REDDY-BEST: And then, um, can you talk about your customers, like how do uh, how do you think that people find out about your brand,  sometimes I know people are like necessarily sure, um but like, “how do my customers find out? I wonder about that.” but um, how do you think that they you know they purchase, it seems like they purchase online, I think you kind of already mentioned that, um, or by reaching out at like, if you table or you might go to events or things like that. Do you that there are other ways that folks find out about you, or do you primarily use one avenue for…

HELKUIK: I think there’s like a couple ways that people find me. Social media is one especially because everything is so shareable. Word of mouth in the real world is another way. My customers are quite loyal. They love wearing their pieces and they’ll tell people who it’s from. That’s the best gift you can give a small maker brand. Don’t keep me a secret.

REDDY-BEST: And then um, then who is buying, what kinds of folks buy from you, or like express interest, like is it a wide range is it do you kind of have an idea of the kinds of folks?

HELKUIK: Um, it’s a wider range than people think. My ideal customer that I hold as my target market customer is like, very fashion adventurous. They are really into putting together a full look. They are selfie queens, and they like to be seen. That is definitely the person I stage as my brand type, but actually who I sell to, is all over the map. Mostly my customers want to feel special and adventurous with their accessories. Typically I don’t have really wealthy customers. They let me know they’re saving up their money to buy their dream harness or crown. But it’s a really exciting day when they can purchase that thing that they’ve been starting at. It’d be a treat to have loads of wealthy customers, but knowing that my work is the special something that someone has been saving for is a humbling experience. It’s an honor to make those pieces.

REDDY-BEST: And then, um, so when people, I am assuming um, when people interact with your brand it’s you, on like social media, like you’re the – you’re interacting like with everybody hehe

HELKUIK: I’m the one behind the email, the Facebook comments, the Instagram, stories, it’s all me. Sometimes my interactions with customers are just a straightforward buy/make/ship type but sometimes I’ll be consulted on looks. I have queens who come to me for their looks so they’ll send photos of dresses or leotards and wigs and we’ll come up a set of harnesses to coordinate. I’ve helped alot of people order custom sets of suspenders for weddings parties too. I’ve had the chance to be part of so many special moments from drag pageants to wedding days.

REDDY-BEST: mm-hmm, and then, when you think about the shopping experiences for the, for your customers, what kind of experience do you want them to have and what do you want them, when they come to you in this brand that you’ve created, what are you like hoping for

HELKUIK: I want people to feel special when they shop with my brand. I’m aware that my items are considered luxury items, not necessities or anything. I want the experience to reflect that. Each piece is made for that specific customer. Each item is wrapped up nicely by hand and shipped out with care. My customers are very special to me and the pieces they order are special too.

REDDY-BEST: mm-hmm, and then, so those are the formal questions, is there any, I always ask in the end, um, is there anything that we forgot to ask that would be important to know about your brand, your own background, or your story in relation to the brand, any that, you know, because we’re you know we try to think of, but you know all the questions, but sometimes, we’re not, we don’t know, and so is there something that we missed?

HELKUIK: um, I don’t think so, I mean probably, because I have a lot of words in me but I can’t think of any specifically, [laughs].

REDDY-BEST: Okay, so let me

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21st Century Queer Fashion Brands by Kelly L. Reddy-Best & Dana Goodin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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