Local designer finds success, battles mental health

Courtesy of Stew Frick Frick is a Pittsburgh-based designer who has partnered with local bands to create distinctive merch.
Courtesy of Stew Frick
Frick is a Pittsburgh-based designer who has partnered with local bands to create distinctive merch.


By Sean Armstrong | Staff Writer

When many people hear the phrase fashion designer, they think of someone in high society who has his or her line of clothing unveiled at fashion shows in Milan, New York City or Paris. Stew Frick, a Pittsburgh native, is giving the term a new definition.

Frick is a newbie on the fashion scene, both worldwide and in the rather barren designer landscape here in Pittsburgh. However, his approach to fashion would be unusual in any city, as it stems from plenty of personal trauma, as well as multiple art forms.

Frick decided to try his hand at fashion after missing out on a performance by one of his favorite musicians, Julian Baker. He couldn’t buy any of the merchandise or even see Baker perform, so he decided to make his own shirts in lieu of the missed opportunity to buy anything at the show.

This led Frick to realize that he not only was capable of making his own clothes, but that he enjoyed it, too.

“One night I just realized I could do it,” said Frick, “I spent a long time trying to find myself, but I guess with customized clothing I always enjoyed looking at [it] and wishing for [something] really cool—like limited-edition type of clothing.”

After realizing that he can create fashionable clothes, he decided to ask local bands if they would let him design their merchandise. That led him to make clothes for artists like Elizabeth Harris, Distant Futures and eventually The Uptown Woods.

“The first time I sold anything for money was at a benefit show put on by Rchrd Prkr and my good friend Miles [Campbell], the singer for Rchrd Prkr,” said Frick. “They got linked up with an organization called Punk Talks who is like a mental health advocacy group for people in the music industry.”

Frick explained how he donated all the proceeds from his merchandise to Punk Talks. It wasn’t so much about making money for him as it was about selling something.

It was about getting his brand out there and supporting a cause he felt drawn to. In this case, that cause was a mental health advocacy group that, according to their website, “aims to provide free mental health assistance to bands, industry professionals and fans while also educating and raising mental health and self-care.”

A cause that also presents itself in his line of work. Frick’s main inspiration behind his painting, poetry and fashion is a jaw, a jaw that appears to him in hallucinations during some of his more intense episodes of psychotic depression. In his bedroom, he has a painting of it, and every time he has a creative block, whether that be a writing, designing or painting one, he just looks at it. Suddenly, the block is gone.

Still, that doesn’t mean the painting of the jaw solves all his creative problems. There is still a need to balance his various art forms as well as his other psychological condition: synesthesia.

“Synesthesia is a condition where information processing is automatically and consistently blended between two senses (e.g. ‘seeing sounds’)  or between senses and some other cognitive domain (e.g. seeing colors associated with particular letters).  In other words, synesthesia occurs when some physically present stimulus (e.g., the letter ‘A’) invokes the experience of another sensation (e.g., ‘blue’) that is not physically present,” said Duquesne University Professor Alex Kranjec.

While Frick has plenty of inspiration from various art forms and events in his life, it wasn’t until a local band approached him about creating a product for them that he truly entered the fashion scene. Before that, his main claim to fame as a designer was that charity event for Punk Talks.

The Uptown Woods, a local band based at Duquesne University, searched for anyone in the customized clothing scene that would be able to create a fashion line for their band. Nick Seyler, a high school friend of Frick, recommended The Uptown Woods seek out the niche designer.

This would later lead to a fashion release between Frick and The Uptown Woods at an event called Speak Freely Collection Drop, which was hosted at Threads on Carson in the South Side on July 15.

The collection drop featured a series of hats with a painted patch of the Pittsburgh skyline on it.

“Every hat is handmade by local artist Stew Frick. Stew paints each patch before sewing it to the hat,” the Speak Freely Collection Drop Facebook event page explains.  The manufacturing of each handmade product would fall to Frick alone. Some of the clothing orders from the store would be up to 60 hats that he would have to hand make without any help and without the resources of a traditional fashion designer.

“Pieces can vary incredibly widely in how long they take. I have a lot of limitations still just in terms of my resources. Because I’m making everything in my bedroom, I don’t have any kind of industrial work tables or mannequins or even anything like that,” Frick said. “Pieces, I would say, generally take me anywhere from 30 minutes to like 5 hours, sometimes, on really intricate ones.”

This event would later lead to an opportunity for Frick to make his own fashion line. This line would be called “The Sweetooth Collection” and would be released at the same store in conjunction with the same band.

However, this new fashion line would require Frick to delve more into his personal inspirations, mainly the jaw he sees during extreme episodes of his psychotic depression.

“The way I always think about it is — I’m entirely untrained in everything, I’ve never taken an art class, I didn’t study art, I didn’t study painting or sewing or anything like that,” Frick said. “But I can, like, take a little bit of love I have for everything and what I do have and put all of it together into one good cohesive piece.”

It isn’t any one aspect of how Frick produces his fashion that makes it unique, but a sum of them. Frick would not consider himself exceptional at painting, poetry or designing fashion, but it’s his ability to combine that allows him to be exceptional.

“Trying to write in paint, it produces some of my favorite writing, but it’s like very frustrating because it’s so much harder to alter and correct,” said Frick, “You can’t just backspace. Even if you want to go back over it again you gotta wait 45 minutes for it to dry properly.”

For Frick, the artistic limitations are helpful in condensing his various short poems into larger works that tell a complete picture of what he wants to say.

“[His style of fashion design] adds other limitations because the page size is unmoving. If I’m trying to write a line and it doesn’t fit on the back of a shirt too bad it just doesn’t fit on the back of a shirt and that could ruin the whole design,” said Frick. “You have to start getting creative with how you space things, how you spell things, stuff like that.”

Painting poetry on clothing acts as an editor for Frick in that it forces him to be more selective with his words. His synesthesia is what dictates other aspects of his fashion.

This has led Frick to make fashion where he sews patches to clothes to depict what an episode of synesthesia looks like to those who cannot experience it.

How the condition affects each person is slightly different, but in the case of Frick, it is mostly an auditory trigger. If he is listening to music or in rare instances a person’s voice he can start to see different colors in his vision induced by the sound in the room. Typically, there is one color that dominates his senses in that moment.

This has led him to discover his favorite color: magenta. It is a color he often experiences when hearing someone’s voice he feels very close to or in a moment he is enjoying.

“I always go out and buy paint and tell myself you gotta buy more white this time. You’re running out of white, you know you should and then I come back with 30 more shades of red and purple and just mix it all together,” said Frick.

Frick released his fashion line: The Sweetooth Collection at Threads on Carson on Nov. 11. His clothing is still available in the shop to buy or just check out for those interested. For more information about Frick and his fashion follow him on his regularly updated instagram account: stew_frick.