Making Cashmere Cool
By Degen Pener
Portrait by David Mushegain
For someone who makes some of the most comfortable cashmere sweaters on the planet—and plenty of other soft luxurious items, including blankets and accessories, that make you want to curl up and never leave the house—you’d think Greg Chait would be a homebody. To the contrary, the Los Angeles-based designer behind the Elder Statesman lifestyle brand says he’s been on 70 airplanes in the first seven months of 2015 alone. That’s what happens in an increasingly global fashion industry when you have an 8-year-old company with a cult following that’s now sold in more than 80 stores worldwide, and you’re constantly on the lookout for the latest and finest yarns because you’ve recently built your own in-house factory.
But it’s also what happens when you are a free-spirited, instinct-driven creative-type like Chait. “I might be in Italy next week. I don’t know,” says the handsome, amiable 37 year old, who sports a bushy black beard and stylish glasses. A recent schedule included Normandy to attend a wedding, Istanbul for a trunk show, Ibiza (“stayed there for 40 hours”), Paris for three days of meetings and two business trips to New York (with 48 hours home in L.A. in between.) “That’s how fast it all moves. I love the spontaneity of it,” says Chait. Some nights, when he gets back to LAX airport late and has an early morning appointment at his headquarters in Culver City, he’ll just sleep on a floor mat in his office—with an Elder Statesman blanket, of course. “I’m not precious,” he says. “I don’t need to go home just to go home. I don’t get the point.”
Chait’s brand of cashmere—almost his entire line is cashmere—is informed by that same kind of no-rules energy. He’s taken the traditional wool fabric and made it feel like a bitchin’ denizen of Malibu, from patchwork quilt ponchos and tie-dye pullovers to woven cashmere overalls and cozy knitted smoking jackets. Fashion consultant Katherine Ross, who has worked with such brands as Prada and Balenciaga (and is the wife of LACMA Director Michael Govan), says she was first drawn to the brand by a sweater Chait designed with palm trees on it that “epitomized this kind of wonderful thing I love about California style, which is hip without being trendy and has a sense of ease and real integrity.
Chait—who grew up in a suburb of Phoenix and early on had no ambitions to be a designer—lives that life himself. He recently bought a 1960s trailer home in Malibu that he’s fixed up, though not too much; he didn’t want to diminish the retro vibe. “If there’s a wave, I surf. I hang out with friends. Run, chill,” he says. His weekend house (his main home is in Beverly Hills), he admits is slightly tilted ever since a massive dance party on July 4th. “I may just leave it like that to always remind me of that party,” he says.
But hand-in-hand with his good-vibes demeanor, Chait—who won the coveted CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund’s $300,000 prize and a year of business mentoring in 2012—has built a remarkable business with a vertical infrastructure and backing from luxury L.A.-based jewelry and apparel brand Chrome Hearts. During a tour of his offices and factory, which have close to 40 employees, he proudly shows off where hundreds of spools of the finest-quality yarn are kept, the artisans (who have full health insurance and are paid a salary as opposed to by the piece), the handlooms and the fulfillment office. Even the parking lot is in use; a few recently dyed pieces are drying in the California sunshine. Having everything all under one roof allows him the spontaneity he lives for. “If I have an idea, I have the facilities to make it happen quite quickly,” says Chait, who recently opened his first store on a small side street in West Hollywood.
If an art project comes his way, he’ll jump on it. Around 20 percent of his business is custom; mainstay items like his striped sweaters can be personalized with up to hundreds of color combinations. Chait works so closely with stores that each order is almost a capsule collection in itself. In Bal Harbour, he’s available at The Webster, with whom he did a collaborative collection last year of tees imprinted with the names of cities located near the Coachella music festival.
Ross, who often pairs Chait’s sweaters with say, a Louis Vuitton skirt, says the label isn’t just for the bohemian. “It’s a real luxury brand,” she says. L.A-based jewelry designer Jennifer Meyer, who met Chait when they competed for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund prize, is also a fan. “I have my own company and the majority of the gifts I give are Elder Statesman,” she says. “It’s the most beautiful cashmere.”
So while it may be impossible to know where Chait is on any particular day—he says he doesn’t have an assistant who handles his calendar because “their head would explode”—finding the craftsmanship and quality in his clothes is always a given. “The idea is to have something that has a soul,” says the designer. “It’s hard to copy soul, you know?”