Take a passion for craftsmanship, combine it with the highest-quality cashmere and sprinkle it with Californian effortlessness, what do you get? The luxury cashmere knitwear brand: The Elder Statesman. Greg Chait, the creative mind behind the brand, welcomes us this week to his flagship store; a converted West Hollywood bungalow nested off Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Since launching with a series of blankets in 2007, there is now little that Greg hasn’t covered in cashmere. “There is something very instinctive about cashmere. Even at the youngest age my daughter could tell it was the good stuff.”
A couple of things make The Elder Statesman (the name refers to the idea ‘of earning status by merit’ but is also a homage to his late brother), unique in the fashion landscape. Using inventive techniques, his products are created with the utmost care. “The cashmere is either laundered or roughed up with a brush until it feels like felt. It is then dyed, hand-painted, or embroidered. The process can last 18 months” he explains. Greg knows the unique value of his yarn - that can cost up to $500. He owns his own production facility in Culver City which is filled with vintage looms manoeuvred by a team of experts from around the country that allows him to rationalise the high-end price point and give this unique, uneven, one-of-a-kind quality. Greg added to this a sense of Californian cool; “we are an Americana luxury brand” Greg smiles. His most famous designs are a nod to the classic West Coast Baja pullover but made out of the most delicate cashmere. The Elder Statesman latest capsule collection is a collaboration with High Snobiety, the influential online media brand. Each piece is a reference to their latest documentary: High End: The Regal-ization of Cannabis. Released on 4/20, the very limited editions of two sweaters and two beanies are destined to: “the elevated cannabis consumer”.
Thanks to an in-depth knowledge of the industry, Greg allowed himself to play with the rules and create a unique and meaningful business model. Rather than produce a set number of production, he designs a limited set of pieces, usually limited to 50 units, for each stockist. The retailers wouldn’t have to hold inventory, and he wouldn’t waste yarn.
How did he start in the fashion industry? “It was an accident,” he says. Greg got his first position touring with Whitney Houston. “It was, unfortunately, her last tour.” At the right place at the right time, he was welcomed in the inner circle: “I ended up having incredible exposure and important responsibilities.” After graduating, Greg went to Australia, and met the team behind the denim fashion label Tsubi. Back in LA, greg “hustled a job” at The Firm, the production and talent management company. At the right place at the right time. “That was the moment when models were still on the cover of magazines and tabloids were just starting. Paris Hilton was not Paris Hilton yet. They made the correlation between brand and talent, which is how the whole world works today. They were the guys who pioneered it, and I just happened to be there”. When his friends from Tsubi came to visit in Los Angeles, they asked him to help with the brand. “They left me the whole collection. I learned first person marketing versus third person marketing. I liked cold calling. We started, that way. We grew it from my living room.” The brand grew so much that they asked him to be a partner of the company. But that’s when he decided to start his own business... at the right place at the right time.
But successful businesses do not depend on luck. Greg’s career path shows incredible intuition and awareness. From a young age, following his instinct, he seems to be incredibly aware and conscious of his surroundings. The name Greg is derived from γρηγορος (Gregorios) which means "watchful, alert." That should have been the first hint.
From his first blanket to launching in the midst of the financial crisis, and the story behind his trademark beard: Welcome to Greg Chait’s Semaine.
Semaine: You said that your career path has been mostly been non-linear.
Greg: Yes it’s true. But it is linear in my mind and in my vibe. It all makes sense to me.
Semaine: Did you ever think you would own a fashion business?
Greg: No, I never thought. But, I somehow never thought I would live past 20.
Semaine: So you were not that interested in fashion?
Greg: Well, I realise in retrospect that I’ve always been into style, but I never knew about fashion. I think I had the first sense of it when I discovered Number (N)ine, the Japanese brand. I remember their shop on Washington Street in Tribeca, New York. I walked in, and it was one of the clearest moment of my life. I thought: “Oh, I like this!”. Their clothes were pretty basic, but they were done beautifully. I wanted to buy everything. I guess that is when I understood what people got out of Chanel. It takes a brand to resonate within you, to bring it in focus, if you were not brought up with it.
Semaine: What does style mean for you?
Greg: Style means for the individual - and it’s going to sound super cliché - whatever they are most comfortable in. It’s the right thing to wear depending on the occasion; I think there should be some ceremonial in life in the sense of ‘dressing up for the event’ but ultimately it is comfort.
Semaine: You started by designing blankets?
Greg: Yes, when I was working The Firm, we had Tom Ford as a client. His head of VIP became a really close friend of mine. He sent me a blanket: A brown cashmere blanket and I thought: ‘What the fuck is that!’. This was really good. From that day on, I was on a quest to find cashmere blankets. But I couldn’t find any. In the world, there must be somewhere where I could find what I was looking for, but I couldn’t. I saw an opportunity to make my own. That was it. L.A.’s Maxfield boutique snapped them up to sell almost the next day.
Semaine: Did you know anything about cashmere?
Greg: I just got it, figured out how it worked, and it came naturally.
Semaine: So how do you go about creating them?
Greg: Through the knitting and spinning guild up in DC I’ve got very lucky, I got to design yarn and be part of that process. I have been very involved since the launch. I’ve learned the job. And I am still learning. Someone asked me: “How do you do it, so it feels so different than anyone else?”. But it’s because it is different. There is not that much invested in the technology market around the industry. I’m not in Italy; I’m not in Scotland, I’m not in China for all that matters. I’m in LA and if I wanted to do it, I had to do some of the technology myself. I had to make it up, or at least half of it.
Semaine: Where does the cashmere come from?
Greg: We work a lot in those regions and in Mongolia. I’ve done a project with the Diné nation, which is a Navajo nation, where they spin yarn mixed with wool. It depends... but it is always a very high quality. And I can say that because it is measurable.
Semaine: The Elder Statesman runs a Culver City factory with workers knitting on vintage looms. You have a really strong relationship with the people who work in your factory.
Greg: Yes. For sure. I work with some very talented people. 50 people work with us. I think it’s a beautiful place. In four months, we are moving. We keep outgrowing our space. This one has been specifically built for us. I am so excited.
Semaine: Some of it is also done in Mexico?
Greg: I’ll make things where it’s best made. Weaving is a different technique to knitting. Weaving can be done industrially or by hand but it’s pretty much a dead art in America. One day I was in Central America with a friend looking for this denim jacket. We were looking at what artisans were doing in the most remote part of the world. I entered this house where they were weaving. I looked at their yarn and I thought it could work. They had never seen cashmere. It sounded crazy, but it worked: It was beautiful.
Semaine: How does the design process work?
Greg: I'm most proud of this process we have created, it’s like a playground. We have people in the art department and we have designers but they are designing within a process. We have guard rails that I have put up, and they are firm, but we are product people. We design all the time.
Semaine: I’ve read that you let the items dry in the Californian sun.
Greg: Yes, that’s my kind of technology. There are three hundred days of sun. It is practical and it works for us in the way we dye and dry. There’s something that the sun does that you just can’t replicate as part of the finishing process. We are a true Americana luxury brand.
Semaine: The legend goes that you went to your first Paris Fashion Week without having booked any meetings.
Greg: Well, I thought: where would you go to buy stuff? You go to Paris. I was hoping to meet like-minded people. So I didn’t have any appointments set. It’s true. I went there. But long story short, when I went to Paris, we were not shipping when I came home we were shipping.
Semaine: Indeed you did. A week later, you had picked up a dozen retail accounts, including retailers such as Barneys, Colette and l’Eclaireur. You also won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Award in 2012, how did that change your business?
Greg: I come from a place where you had to make a lot out of a little. David who was my boss at The Firm always said you could make a loaf out of a crumb. Why not? It’s there. The CFDA was an incredible opportunity. You get six months of very incredibly talented, historical people’s attention on your business. And I couldn’t believe the incredible value of getting advice, and critical advice, from Anna Wintour, or from Andrew Rosen, or Mark Holgate. Fuck, I set up so many meetings. I needed to make sure that I got to sit with each one of them and try to get as much time out of it as possible. There were guidelines, but I broke them, broke the system.
Semaine: You launched at the time of the financial crisis which impacted fashion. Not only economically but also aesthetically in a way it promoted a certain sense of simplicity against the ostentatious. It was the time of Celine and The Row…
Greg: I launched my brand in 2008. It will be ten years in October. As I was about to ship my first collections, banks started closing their doors. Within weeks people started losing their homes, and it felt like the world was ending. So I called Jay Bell from Barneys and I said: ‘Look this is bigger than you or me, you guys still want this stuff?’. I had come to terms with the idea that this could all stop. That was life, I was young, I could decide to do something else. But they said it was ok, and then they sold out. It was the most expensive stuff I had ever sold.
Semaine: But it was understanding luxury...
Greg: Yes, there were no logos. Some people still wanted to shop and their sweater budget was not affected. It was something they could buy which was still luxury. They enjoyed the style. I was just sitting in the right place at the right time. I didn’t plan it, but it just so happened that my model worked at that time and I was able to chase the business. I also live really simply. I am a surfer!
Semaine: You already had a very different business model.
Greg: My model was I didn’t like things going on sale too much, nor homogeneity: having everything the same at every store in Switzerland or North Carolina. I like this concept of me holding the inventory and ship as they need it. If we have a sweater that a million people want to buy. I’m cool with that but pushing an agenda of saturating a market is also something that shits me.
Semaine: Can you maintain this sense of exclusivity when you are becoming more prominent, more established?
Greg: I believe in the customer experience, and then good is good.
Semaine: Did you find it important to open a physical shop?
Greg: A brand universe is amazing but we have a nomadic nature and our products are the real content. We put a lot of work into them. The yarn has been produced with the utmost care. It’s been knit with the utmost care. Colours have been hand painted. Put in the right place people are going to appreciate it. That allows for me to go to markets whether it’s short-term, long-term, and do some sort of retail play, whether it’s for a day a month a week, a year.
Semaine: You do a lot of bespoke.
Greg: Yes, tons and we always will. That will always be part of the core of my business.
Semaine: What is the most ridiculous thing someone has ever asked you to do?
Greg: I will never call it ridiculous. I’ve said no to some things but what is the craziest thing we have done? Maybe covered an entire screening room in St Moritz with cashmere, in a burgundy-grey knit. We covered everything: floors, ceiling, walls... and in this case, if the architect didn’t like it, I would have been out of business. There are a thousand moments when I’ve put it all on the line. But that’s part of being a small company. Trying to play this game you have to be brave.
Semaine: Can I please ask you about your beard? Is it somehow a trademark?
Greg: I’ve had it in some various form since I was 21ish. At the end of my Australia trip, I went to Indonesia for a month. I was living outside and there were no mirrors and no electricity. So, I came home with a beard. It has been shorter and I have already cut a moustache in, but I have never taken a razor to my face since I was 21.
Semaine: Where do you see your brand in a few years?
Greg: I see more creativity, more products, maybe an art residence. I am into making things, so I want to continue making shit.
By Marie Winckler for Semaine.