January 14, 2010 § Leave a comment
Forever Yours: Elyse Allen Brings Tradition Back to Textiles
By Renata Espinosa
New York – Elyse Allen makes things that you cannot, and should not, ever throw out. A textile designer based in New York, Allen creates gorgeous, whimsical knits – hats, scarves, headbands, fingerless gloves – using the most luxurious Scottish cashmere yarns and embellished with Swarovski crystals. Functional accessories intended for Mother Nature’s cruelest, most frigid days and nights are rendered into something akin to a fuzzy, glittery jewel.
Allen’s knit accessories are highly wearable, yet crafted with art object-like considerations with the painstaking precision of, say, a Japanese sword. They look sumptuous; hold one in your hand to admire the perfect seams, the delicate picot edging or the carefully placed crystals, and you feel a talisman-like sense of power in them. Everything is done by hand, and everything is in the details. She uses yarns like a painter, blending various colors to create a custom color palette – Allen is a devotee of exuberant color – and there is delicate picot edging in nearly every item, taking an ordinary seam and elevating it. Hems can be turned up to reveal a surprise color. One hat, the Cosmos, features an elaborate constellation design on the ear flaps, and came to Elyse in a dream. To date, she is still the only person in her studio who can reproduce the complex pattern.
Allen studied sculpture and textile design at the Rhode Island School of Design and is a part of a growing movement of designers and artisans eschewing flavor-of-the-month trends and cheap production techniques in favor of operations devoted to finely crafted, smaller scale handmade products. They don’t skimp on materials, and have a hefty price tag to match, but they justify the expense by producing something made to withstand a lifetime of use.
Allen credits her foray into high-end textile design and knitting with her grandmother, an architect and painter who taught her how to knit, and to her great-grandfather, a textile designer and sewing machine part inventor who left Austria for the U.S. when he was 16 to escape an arranged marriage. From his mill in a small Pennsylvania town he left behind a legacy of well-made, beautifully constructed clothing and textiles.
“The story goes that the clothing was made so well, people could never throw anything away that he made that came from his mill,” said Allen. “They would wear something for twenty years, and it would be their favorite article of clothing. And when they finally stopped wearing it, they would just retire it to the closet. They couldn’t get rid of it. It was so beautiful.”
“He cared about making something to last, something that’s not disposable, and having pride in your work and making something with longevity, something that’s not just trendy,” she continued.
With anything that Allen makes, whether one of her luxurious seven-ply cashmere and Swarovski crystal knit hats or a metallic lambskin-backed pillow, she keeps that philosophy of longevity in mind.
“I want it to be made well and to feel great, and to not fall apart,” she said. “I want it to be something that I’m going to love for years. If I buy something, I want one thing that’s going to last, instead of buying five things of average quality.”
Allen’s sentiment is one that more and more recession and ecologically-minded consumers are adopting, seeking out quality over quantity. Retailers have taken note. Recently, mass merchant brand Eileen Fisher commissioned 1200 pairs of fingerless gloves from the Elyse Allen studio, Allen’s largest production to date. The gloves are a signature item she’s been producing for the past seven years, that evolved out of colorful nail studded wristbands Allen created for some friends of hers in an electronic band’s first big New York gig. They enlisted her to design something to spice up an otherwise un-flashy performance of “two geeky guys,” as Allen jokingly called them, twisting knobs and dials.
“After the show, I got a bunch of orders from his friends,” said Allen. “I thought, ‘Really, they want to wear those around?’ I thought for stage, it’s fun, but people were really, really into them.”
Now, even Bjork’s trumpet player owns the gloves to wear to perform on stage. But it was a gift of the gloves to Eileen Fisher by one her employees, a longtime fan and patron of Elyse Allen, that set the wheels in motion for a commission by the company. After six months of development, a version of the fingerless gloves debuted as part of Eileen Fisher’s winter 2009 collection in 42 stores, as well as the company’s Web site.
“I decided to work with a larger company that has principles that I believe in, that works with empowering women, and business, and has some green practices in their offices and their mills,” said Allen. “They’re really careful about the labor, where it’s coming from, where things are made. And their clothes are really accessible and easy – clothes for the smart, working woman.”
The project challenged Allen to find a production method that was efficient, both from a time and money perspective. “We didn’t want to cheapen it, but we wanted the price to be reasonable,” explained Allen.
Rather than use expensive cashmere, Allen opted for Merino wool, but she didn’t compromise when it came to using Swarovski crystals.
But with Allen’s own collection, no compromises or adjustments are made to the materials in order to make it less expensive. At a certain point, Allen decided that the same amount of time went into each item anyway, so it made more sense to use materials worthy of the time commitment.
“We use really fine materials,” said Allen. “I could get Korean crystals that are about a third of that price, but they look like glass. Most people wouldn’t know the difference, but I don’t care. I’m not going to change the quality so that I can sell more units.”
This resolute championing of quality has won Elyse Allen loyal fans. Case in point, they’ve clamored to buy Allen’s most expensive, and luxurious item, is a large, crystal-studded shawl/scarf that retails for $890. It’s inspired by the studded shawls from the Middle East owned by Allen’s great-grandmother – “They have this really amazing weight to them….so light and airy, but then you’d put them on and they’d weigh you down, almost like a leaded vest” – and they are as elegant and delicate and project that same strong look. “Women love it,” said Allen. “They feel powerful and beautiful.”
“I thought, oh no, they’re going to yell at me for making something so expensive, like, who do you think you are in this recession making $900 scarves,” said Allen. “But I didn’t get that at all. More like, ‘Yeah, well, there’s a lot of work in that.'” Her customers frequently purchase the scarf for black-tie affairs.
Ultimately, though, what makes Elyse Allen’s work so enticing is that it’s an accessible kind of luxury, the kind you can see yourself wearing every day.
“I’m a low-maintenance girl,” said Allen. “It’s got to be easy, comfortable, simple and work with a lot of different things. I can’t do a costume change, and carry my shoes in a bag…no, it’s got to be easy and wearable, and it has to last.”
Allen has started branching out into housewares, such as pillows, and is always experimenting with new designs, like a heavy blanket she knit using thick custom-knit cord and giant knitting needles carved for her by a friend. And she recently met with Stoll, a German company that manufactures knitting machines and is working to bridge artists and technicians and mills for more complicated projects that would be otherwise impossible to execute on a larger scale, because most mills don’t have the capability or interest in these less commercial undertakings.
“I’m trying, in my small way, to help regenerate that tradition in textiles, where people care about what they’re doing,” said Allen. “It’s not just a job, but your name is on it, it’s what you’re doing. Do you want to spend your time doing something you hate, because you make more profit? I don’t know, I just feel like that’s not the way to go about things. I don’t care what it is, if it’s making coffee, or designing something.”