When Greg Chait won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award in New York City last month, the man behind the Elder Statesman line of ultra-luxury cashmere knits — think $5,525 blankets, $1,890 belted cardigan sweaters and $380 ski caps — was practically unknown outside the fashion industry. And he was only slightly better known within it.
"That's because I don't talk unless I have something to say," Chait says, sitting behind the wooden table that doubles as a desk in his tiny West Hollywood office/atelier — the exact location of which he'd rather not divulge. "I want the stuff to speak for itself."
There are other reasons too. Among them are the label's relatively small distribution — it's carried by only about 60 retail accounts worldwide — and the fact that the 5-year-old brand is based in Los Angeles, far from New York City's fashion fishbowl.
In many ways, the Elder Statesman is the kind of brand that could only come from L.A. That's not just because this is the city that popularized women's cashmere track suits for everyday wear and where dudes can be seen rocking knit caps in 90-degree weather. It's also because it's similar to high-end craftsy/cottagey niche labels such as Rodarte, George Esquivel and Gregory Parkinson that have come out of Los Angeles the last few years.
The biggest reason Chait and the Elder Statesman have flown well below the radar has to do with the collection itself — a range of high-end, artisanal slouchwear that includes things like slubby, striped Baja hoodies crafted from hand-spun cashmere, plaid pashmina button-front workshirts, chunky knit Rasta caps, clingy long-sleeve T-shirts, simple sweater dresses and pullovers with intarsia palm tree designs.
All of it is made in the U.S. — mostly by a network of 20 to 30 hand knitters clustered in the L.A. area — from super-soft, hand-spun cashmere yarns that hail from far-flung places including Mongolia, India, Italy, Scotland and Peru. These are the kind of clothes that feel like a million bucks on the body, look like a modest 25 to 100 bucks from across the room but will easily set you back a month's rent.
It's such an understated approach to high-end covetables that calling it "stealth luxury" hardly does it justice. What Chait's created is nothing short of "black ops luxe."
Steven Kolb, chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (and one of the Fashion Fund judges) says that's part of the brand's appeal.
"It's a basic luxury item that, on first glance, could be anything," he says. "But when you take a closer look, you touch it, put it on, you appreciate the level of quality that went into it. That [the pieces] look like basics from a distance but have that subtle richness and specialness is what I think makes it appealing."
Now, thanks to winning the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award, Chait is firmly on the radar. The award program, now in its ninth year, was created by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Vogue magazine to incubate emerging talent, and its top honor includes a $300,000 cash prize and a yearlong industry mentorship. In addition, two runners-up (this year they were New York-based shoe designer Tabitha Simmons and L.A. jewelry designer Jennifer Meyer Maguire) each receive $100,000 and a year of business mentoring.
Here comes the spotlight
Beyond affording the opportunity to take a brand to the next level, the award brings with it all kinds of media exposure (the pages of Vogue magazine for example) and additional retail opportunities, such as the new CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund pop-up shops that are slated to open in five Nordstrom stores in February.
But exactly who is this bearded cipher? Where did he come from? And, in an era of fast fashion and cheap chic, where cashmere can be bought at Costco, how did this riddle wrapped in an enigma and shrouded in cashmere raise the bar and become the least-known darling of the fashion industry elite?
Currently living in Malibu with his fiancee (actress Laura Ramsey) and their 3-year-old daughter, the 34-year-old Chait (rhymes with "eight") was born in Toronto to South African expats. By the time he was 1, the family had relocated to Arizona. He credits a doctor father and artist mother with teaching him to be inquisitive and encouraging him to explore the world.
And explore he did, attending four colleges on two continents (and squeezing in a summer internship for Whitney Houston) before finishing at the University of Arizona, where he cobbled all his disparate credits together for a self-made major called "Communications for the Entertainment Industry."
After post-graduation plans to spend a year working (and surfing) in Australia were cut short, Chait moved to Los Angeles and landed a job at an on-the-rise artist and talent management company called the Firm.
His Down Under surfing safari ended up being key to his future career, though, since it was there he became friends with the founders of the Tsubi (later Ksubi) Australian denim brand.
After a visit to L.A., the Tsubi guys left him with a suitcase full of blue jeans, which he peddled around town. By 2004, he'd left the Firm and signed on full-time as CEO of Tsubi North America, a position he held for three years. (Along the way, he briefly dated Ashley Olsen, who with her twin sister Mary-Kate, was in the process of making her own foray into high-end fashion with the launch of the Row.)
In 2007, Chait sold his shares and left Ksubi (a trademark dispute had forced the label to change the spelling) amid a business restructuring. He planned to make a fleet of mobile juice trucks his next venture until fate intervened in the form of a cashmere blanket given to him by a friend.
"This is the blanket that started it all, this little fella," he says, smoothing a brown, 50-by-70-inch pashmina-thin blanket out on the desk with something approaching reverence. "This is what started my obsession with cashmere straight away."