If you're looking for a role model then you can't find a better one than Rachel Fleit. From writing and producing her own films, to co-founding the luxurious women's fashion label Honor, to finding time each day for the cult fitness regime Physique 57. Rachel is one bird we all want to be like one day.
Tell us about growing up in New York …
I was born in Manhattan on a cold night in January 1981, and we lived around 1st Ave and 23rd St. When I was 3 my dad got a job on Long Island so we moved to Stony Brook, which is an hour east.
I had this unexpected suburban upbringing. My parents had no plans to move to the suburbs but my dad got his dream job. My childhood was always like “I have to get back to New York”. My parents would still get their hair cut in the city, and I would wander around the West Village. I really romanticized it. Every time we would go home through the Queens Midtown Tunnel I would say “if we still lived here we’d be home by now”. I just needed to get back here. I knew this was my home.
I was thinking about going to NYU for college but I really wanted to be a theater major, not performance but production. There were only two programs in the whole country, one was in Chicago and the other was in Ithaca, New York. I opted to go to Ithaca even though it was delaying my return to Manhattan.
The summer after my freshman year I got an internship in the city, so I got my first place in New York. That was the summer of 1999. My first place was a therapists office.
What? Go on …
I couldn’t afford the NYU dorms that they have for interns. My parents gave me a budget and I found this place through someone’s cousin’s friend. They owned a brownstone in Chelsea, and on each floor there was a therapists office.
By day the therapists worked there, and by night (this is totally illegal) they rented it out to students, interns and travelers. We would have to restore our “bedroom” back to a therapists office by the morning.
Super illegal! What about all their patients papers, did they leave that lying around?
Some of them did. I remember there was this Israeli guy who was traveling, it was night time and I was walking around (it was very communal) and he said to me “Rachel, Rachel I can’t read it when it’s connected”. He had seen the therapists notes and he had written in script. It was so creepy and really against the rules. It just goes to show you how badly I wanted to live here, but I stayed there the whole summer.
It actually worked out great because I had an internship at a theater and I’d have to leave by 9am and wouldn’t get back until 7pm.
Was there a bed?
There was a sofa. During the day we kept our stuff in a locked closet.
Since then I have literally lived in over 15 apartments in New York, maybe even more if I think about it. When I came back I lived on the Upper East Side for two summers, then a summer in Ithaca, which was really magical.
My first apartment in New York for real (when I was back full time) was the summer of 2002. My friend was living on Ludlow Street between Grand and Hester, back then it was really not chic. She was like “I’m renting this place from a song writer”, he wrote the song “This Kiss", which was sung by Faith Hill.
(Singing) This kiss, this kissssss …. unstoppable!
My friend was saying that he was never there, and there were 3 bedrooms. She talked to her other roommate and they decided I could totally live there in his room.
In his bedroom?
Yes, and if and when he came back I would just have to sleep somewhere else. I was like “alright”. I had already gotten a job so I really needed a place to stay.
I was there for 1 month and he came into the apartment unannounced and I was in his bed. It was another one of these shady situations.
So I ended up spending the summer on my friend Ben’s couch. He is one of my best friends, he played Ginsburg on Mad Men.
He’s done well! Well done!
I slept on his futon for 2 months before finding an apartment with a girlfriend of mine. We lived on East 4th Street between A and B. I really consider that my first apartment as an adult in New York. I had my name on the lease.
Then I lived in Tribeca, and then Prospect Heights (near where I live now). After that I was in Williamsburg and for a brief time I lived in LA.
I’m forgetting the best apartment! I lived in Times Square.
For 1 year. My friends owned the building, and it was in the back of this “hold out” building.
You know there are these big skyscrapers and then these tiny little buildings. They’re really valuable because a developer would have to pay a lot of money to get the property. There was a studio apartment in the back of this building and it was newly renovated and so cheap!
I said earlier I have good apartment karma. Up until this current apartment I didn’t pay more than $800 a month in rent and I lived by myself for 5 of those years.
WHAT!? That is insane. You have super good vibes apartment wise. What do you think about all those neighborhoods? They are all very distinct.
I totally don’t miss living in the East Village. I spend so much time there anyway. Weirdly, I miss the Upper East Side. It was so quiet and sweet. It felt like my grandmother could be there, there was something comforting about that.
I hate Williamsburg.
Yes. It is the worst. It is unfortunate.
Most of my friends have been kicked out of Williamsburg because of the prices.
I feel that I haven’t been here long enough to comment on the fact that it’s changing so much but it is!
Now it’s cheaper to live in the East Village than in Williamsburg.
We’ve veered wildly away from this interview, I suppose we should talk about work!
I started Honor with Giovanna Randall. I went to school with her, and we kept running into each other. She was studying opera in college, I was studying theater. Then she went to Columbia to become a doctor.
I would run into her and she would have all these bags of fabric from Mood Fabrics. I was like “so you’re going to become a doctor, but you’re carrying these bags of fabric?”
Seems a little out of left field …
Later I was producing movies and fundraising events, but always on the production side of things. We started to hang out a little bit, and she decided to get her associates degree at FIT and become a designer. She was telling me about how she really wanted to start a brand.
About a year later I was looking for a job, and she said “come work for me, I’ll pay you to come and help me start the business”.
I wasn’t really sure what was next for me. I knew I really wanted to write and direct movies, and what happened was I started to do that while helping to start this business at the same time.
As my role changed from a start-up person to more of a creative, I started to do the things that I’ve always done …. producing things. I produce the photo-shoots, the runway shows, the fashion films we do for campaigns. My job really shifted back to what I’ve always done but in the fashion world.
When you took that step, I’m sure that was never on your mind, that you would be doing the same thing. What was that step like? Were you just like “fuck it, let’s see what happens?”
Exactly. Everything I’ve ever done in my life I’ve never done before. That hasn’t been my trajectory. It was a little bit scary at first. You know that quote “wherever you go, there you are”?
I love that.
If I started working in advertising, it would still be me there. My personality is such that I can get from point A to point Z rather quickly and efficiently. It’s just the way my brain works.
It was scary, but it was just learning a different vocabulary. Learning who the players were in the game, how to get stuff done, and who to call to get stuff done.
So how long have you been working with Honor?
6 years in July.
What do you see in the future?
It’s so funny, it really feels like a moment of questioning for me. I’m trying to think about what’s next. I will always be involved with Honor, but I do want to start making my own creative projects happen. That’s writing and directing films. I’ve really been working towards that. I do that on the side.
So you’re writing scripts?
I have a feature I’m working on, and two shorts, and a couple of small fashion/art films that I’m working on.
What themes do you like to explore?
I’m always interested in relationships … romantic, platonic, family. I think my writing is not really plot driven, but character driven. I’m really working to create conflict in this feature I’m working on.
Do you need that to make a feature?
No, just to tell the story properly. It makes it much more interesting if there is dramatic conflict. We don’t know that as a viewer at the time, but the best movies if you look at them, every scene needs to have conflict. There needs to be a turn if that makes sense … something needs to shift.
What’s the next step?
It’s interesting, I could take the scripts to an agent to help me, or I could just raise the money myself and take it to festivals.
I am a producer, so I need to find someone who I can hand the baton to because I could raise the money myself for the film but then once it gets to creative time I have to completely give over my production reign to someone else. You can’t do both. You can’t be wondering when catering is going to arrive. Directing a movie takes all of your energy.
How are you balancing all of these projects?
My schedule is the bane of my existence. It’s pretty full on. I do quite a bit of exercise, I’m an avid Physique 57 person. It’s like ballet barre, but really hard core. I do that 6-7 days a week.
What the hell? So when do you get up?
Anytime between 6.30am and 7.30am.
Do you drink alcohol?
Ahhhhhh, this makes sense! We were talking about this at lunch (we had a beverage over lunch). People must be able to get stuff done because they don’t drink. This is how you get stuff done!
I hate to stop. It just wasn’t working. When I was 27 I thought, “you know what, if I remove this from my life it’s going to be better”. And it has.
But what about socially?
I just have seltzer. I know it seems crazy, but I do all the same things. I go to bars, shows, crazy parties. It was just the time in my life when I looked at what I had accomplished, and I looked at what I wanted to accomplish and I thought, this is getting in the way.
Did you enjoy drinking though?
Damn it! This is a self help time for us.
I don’t miss it.
It makes perfect sense, especially with all you’ve accomplished.
So I wake up, do my exercise. I run to the office, and have a full day there. The Honor offices are near Flatiron. Normally I’ll have dinner with friends, or go and see something after work.
I love cooking, but I don’t do much of it in the city. One of the awesome things I did last year was I bought a small beach cottage in East Hampton. That’s where I get my balance. It’s so quiet, it’s in nature and by the beach. I cook up a storm there.
I say my schedule is a problem because I’ll book a breakfast meeting, a lunch, a dinner. Then I’ll go to openings, parties or to a show. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to try and do less. A friend recently pointed out to me that I’m not doing a very good job.
I love to travel and I wish that I could do more.
Let’s do some personal style questions! You have amazing style. You mentioned a lot of your stuff is second hand.
It is, but I don’t believe you can buy proper vintage clothes in New York City. I think it’s the worst place to go vintage shopping because it’s totally overpriced. I work in designer women’s wear, and I totally value extremely well made clothing. However, most clothes are not well made. I would personally never spend that kind of money on my clothes.
I’m also obsessed with the hunt. To me the perfect shopping trip is to go somewhere upstate, or Paris, or Ohio. West Palm Beach, Florida is where my grandmother used to live. I would go and get amazing stuff there. I live for out of town vintage shopping.
Any recommendations for eating out in New York?
I could go on for another hour about food. I almost don’t want to say it out loud, but down the street is the best sushi. The place is called Geido. After a long day my friends and I discovered the “chef’s tasting menu”. When you do that anywhere in Manhattan it can be anywhere from $65 to $150 a person. At Geido it’s $35 a person, you can get a sushi platter the size of my torso.
If I want to have a fancy power lunch I go to the Nomad Hotel. It’s brilliant.
For ramen there is this new place called Cocoron, really good!
When I want to have a really decadent meal I love going to Il Buco Alimentari.
I actually want to ask you our advice question. If you could step outside of yourself and give yourself advice at this stage of your life, what would it be?
I would tell myself that I need to be in my power. I deserve more in all areas in my life, and I have power. I should not take anything less than the best in all aspects … in the way that I’m treated in relationships, any relationship, at work …
Last question! What do you think about when you think about New York?
Home, through and through. It feels like I really belong here, I feel like I’m celebrated in this town. I can walk around the East Village and run into 10 people I know, that is the coolest thing. It feels like a tiny little village. I love it.