Greg Chait has the benison of the industry. His first-ever fashion week presentation tonight was the result of his CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award. And yet when he took the prize last November the response, by and large, was: Who?
Chait and his label, The Elder Statesman, were hardly household names. "I always try to stay in my lane," he shrugs, one of the mantras that crop up again and again in his conversation. What he means varies context to context, but in general, he's not looking to overextend. For him, luxury is synonymous with quality and with scarcity. The Elder Statesman didn't even start as a fashion business, really—it began with cashmere blankets, which he began to design and commission after collecting extensively. A Baja sweater in similarly luxurious cashmere followed, and piece by piece The Elder Statesman grew. (That said, it never strays too far from its roots: "I do a robust blanket business," Chait says.)
But as far as the label expands—it recently brought on both a part-time business adviser and a new designer, and relocated to Chait's L.A. from London to work on womenswear—it always starts at the yarn level. Put plainly, Chait is a cashmere wonk. It may be closer to the mark to call him a cashmere whisperer. He rhapsodizes about the merits of hand-spun yarns and handmade dyes: his charcoals made from charcoal, his blues from Iranian indigo. He's followed the trail around the world, sourcing producers from 300-year-old factories in Kashmir, family firms in Italy, and so on. (A foray into Afghan yarns is a current fascination, especially as it may assist in lowering the entry-level prices of his line; a visit there is being weighed, despite the necessity of armed guards and the assistance of the Department of Defense.) There are leather pieces in the line, like the cashmere-lined "denim" jacket in lambskin, and the buffalo-horn glasses he has handmade in Germany, but the alpha and the omega is knitwear: from sweaters and dresses all the way through complete tailoring.
There are plenty of great sweaters with wildflower intarsias for men and women, lounge pants, and on the more ambitious end of the spectrum, a sheath dress with an attached cape. But here is a case where the pictures don't tell the full story. The orange-and-purple "flannels" are woven in pashmina. Even the bandanas looped around necks and jammed into pockets are hand-panted pashmina cashmere. There's a sticker shock associated with seeing the Statesman in the real world, and a reason it's stocked selectively at boutiques like Maxfield and Isetan. But such is the price of "soul," another favorite Chaitism. It isn't purely aesthetic. There is something slightly uncanny about even the simplest floral sweater. Chait has it, too. Maybe it's knowing your materials so well you can price a cashmere sweater just by its weight in your hand, or wanting them to be touched and held so much that, after learning that models object to being petted in presentation scenarios, you commission a seven-foot-tall teddy bear to be made from your scraps so attendees can commune with the cashmere hands-on. It's enough to make you believe in the mystical possibilities of knit. The bear, too, will be preaching that gospel at its next stop: a children's hospital.