Greg Chait Is Changing the Way the Fashion World Thinks About Luxury
Greg Chait has a theory about why people like cashmere. “When something is that soft and feels that amazing, we just know that it’s good,” he says, wearing a heather-gray crew neck from the Elder Statesman, his upscale line of cashmere sweaters, blankets, and accessories.
Chait, who lives in Malibu, Calif., says his 4-year-old daughter, Dorothy, often swaddles herself in Elder Statesman products lying around the house. “Even a 4-year-old can tell it’s good.”
He pushes his hair from his forehead and strokes his full, rabbinical beard. “I would venture to say that 99 percent of people in the world like the taste of doughnuts.” He keeps going, his cashmere-as-doughnut theory morphing into a monologue. “You’re a liar if you don’t say that a doughnut tastes good. I mean, it’s probably embedded in our DNA to be able to recognize things like that.”
Chait is an inveterate pontificator. In one Los Angeles travel video for the luxury e-commerce website Mr Porter, which sells Elder Statesman sweaters, Chait declares that the city’s sprawling, disparate neighborhoods allow visitors to “dip in and out of your different modalities.” Within five minutes of meeting for the first time, he says, “I feel into the future, but I don’t totally see into the future.”
Chait, 36, started the Elder Statesman in 2008 because he wanted an “awesome” blanket. Soon after, he offered men’s sweaters, then women’s, and eventually a whole line for both. (And children, too: A cashmere teddy bear costs $500.) Chait says he dreamed up a line of 12 styles in his Venice Beach apartment, then went to Paris during Fall Fashion Week and got orders from some of the best stores in the world, including L.A.’s Maxfield and Barneys New York. He insists it really was that easy: “I had, like, a bitchin’ collection there. You know what I mean?”
Now almost every item in his line is made by hand in a factory he owns behind his office in Culver City. His team often spins the yarn itself, using cashmere wool imported from Afghanistan or Mongolia that costs as much as $500 a kilogram. The cashmere is either laundered or roughed up with a brush until it feels like felt, then dyed, tie-dyed, or embroidered as part of a process that can last 18 months. Sweaters start at just under $1,000, with his popular Baja-style hoodie selling for twice that. Blankets go for as much as $7,000; a springtime beanie is $275.
The Elder Statesman’s headquarters, which Chait moved to in 2014, is in two giant, multilevel white cubes tucked behind a strip mall just south of the city center. Chait sits at a long, Scandinavian-style desk on the top floor. The room’s only adornment is a cream-colored blanket that was made by flying top Italian cashmere to Guatemala. There, local villagers loomed it using traditional techniques in their homes. It’s comfortable and durable enough to sleep on.
Chait has a way of making his enterprise seem thrown together, as if sourcing premium European cashmere and working with Latin American craftsmen requires little strenuous effort. That California ease is both a put-on—success doesn’t just materialize with good looks and cool glasses—and vital to the Elder Statesman’s image. Its sweaters are unbranded; you’d never be able to tell someone was wearing one, let alone that the garment cost several thousand dollars, unless you were told.
This sort of informal nonfashion has emerged as the decade’s biggest clothing trend. For men, crew necks have become appropriate officewear even beyond Silicon Valley, and an Elder Statesman knit can work as an investment piece in place of a new suit. “The look is comfortable,” says Rafael de Cardenas, an L.A. architect. “The sweaters look like they’re for regular guys, but then people feel my arm and are, like, whoa.”
Many of the pieces are unisex, and sales are split evenly between genders. For women, too, this “effortless chic” vibe is in, thanks to labels such as the Row, designed by the Olsen twins, and LVMH’s Céline, which has prospered since it was reinvigorated in the past few years under designer Phoebe Philo. Both lines, making loose gray knits, long black jersey skirts, and pale silk camisoles—essentially four-figure invisibility cloaks—are coveted by women with means.
Chait was early to spot the return of simplicity. But it was 2008, as the economy was crashing, and Chait didn’t want his items to languish on sale racks. His sweaters require a lot of upfront material costs, so he accidentally developed a new model for a fashion business. Rather than produce a set number of styles eight months before they appeared in stores, he decided to work with his accounts to create a limited assortment for each individual boutique. The retailers wouldn’t have to hold inventory, he wouldn’t waste yarn, and he could finish items just weeks before they were needed on the sales floor. If a certain item was selling out at a particular location, he and his team would pull all-nighters to make more.
The unintended effect of the strategy was that it gave his products true exclusivity. As Chait says, “You’re going to have a different experience with the Elder Statesman, whether you go to Barneys in New York or Hostem in London.” Although he’s currently focused on creating pieces that work at scale across all stores—you’ll find a white surfer’s hoodie worldwide—most of the sweaters are limited to 50 or so units. That would be considered a sample run at a larger competitor like Burberry or Ralph Lauren.
Other niche brands, such as Christopher Kane and the French line Exemplaire (tag line: “Bring cashmere up to date”), have begun following Chait’s knitwear-as-collectible example. So Chait has started offering more customization directly to individual customers. “When I went to Paris my first season, a woman goes, ‘Pay attention to private customers. Your business is perfect for that,’ ” Chait says. Now they make up more than 20 percent of his annual sales. Since you can’t exactly tailor the fit of cashmere—it will eventually stretch out—appointments typically involve working with customers to choose color combinations, patterns, and barely noticeable details.
“It gives you room to be more creative, and you get to say you designed your sweater,” says Tiina Laakkonen, owner of an eponymous boutique in the Hamptons that hosts trunk shows for Chait. She began carrying his line three years ago, after falling for one of his sweaters, and has since seen most of her customers obsess over the knits at her store. “It’s very sweet to see the 80-year-old men who love these sweaters,” she says. In the fall, Chait made a collection dipped in indigo sold only at Laakkonen’s boutique; many women who buy them return on the days Chait is there to do custom orders. “Greg is supercasual, so the whole thing feels relaxed,” Laakkonen says. And for some fans it’s not even about the products themselves. “Basically, ladies come and meet their idol—their cashmere rock star.”
“About 80 percent of our customers are return customers,” Chait says. “Some are once a year. Some are once a month. Certain times once a week. We’ve had very few nonrepeats.”
It’s not really accurate to call Chait a fashion designer. He doesn’t sketch or sew or drape fabrics. He’s more a buyer of products he would like to sell. The Elder Statesman’s first blanket was made by a crafting collective in rural Canada. He told them he wanted something utilitarian and luxurious; the result, made of hand-spun brown cashmere, came back at almost 10 pounds. Now Chait has seven full-time employees involved in day-to-day designing to execute his visions. “I’m more involved on the decisions that matter as opposed to the minutiae,” he says.
Chait also takes on home-design projects. He was once asked to wallpaper an entire room in a St. Moritz mansion—the ceiling and walls, but not the floor—in a burgundy-gray knit. It took more than a month to make the fabric. He had to figure out how to lay it out and stitch it together while he was thousands of miles away, with only the renderings of the chalet as guidance. “The architect was pretty frightening to work with,” he says. “I don’t get intimidated a lot, but I was like, Oh, s---, this lady will send this back if it’s even an inch off, and I have no idea what I’m doing.” It came together in the end. “It’s crazy, because the people who live in the house will probably never touch it,” he adds. “But it’s pretty cozy.”
Chait grew up in Paradise Valley, Ariz., the son of a prominent surgeon and a stay-at-home mom. While in school at the University of Arizona, he was a tour intern for Whitney Houston; the diva took a liking to him after a family friend introduced the two. In 2005, when Chait was 27, some Australian friends left him a suitcase full of jeans and asked him to look after their sales in the U.S. The line—originally called Tsubi and later renamed Ksubi—thrived as skinny jeans became the dominant denim category. In 2007, Chait sold the U.S. rights to an investor and used his payout to start the Elder Statesman. The company’s name is a reference to Chait’s older brother, who was killed in 2004 by a former friend high on meth. It also nods to the idea, as Chait explains it, “of earning status by merit.”
It took two years for Chait to make a profit. In 2012 he emerged—seemingly out of nowhere—to win the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Prize, which awards $300,000 and business mentoring to an up-and-coming designer. With that money, and an investment from the founder of L.A. jewelry brand Chrome Hearts, Chait was able to build his factory. “We’re moving factories into a neighborhood that used to be all factories,” he says, as we wind through cactuses and empty parking lots to see his staff of 37 at work.
Owning your own production facility is a clever way to rationalize a fashion line’s high costs. It makes the Elder Statesman seem even more artisanal when the majority of small brands must outsource production to China. Los Angeles is teeming with apparel factories, but Chait’s feels more like an art studio. It’s full of vintage machines that he sources on EBay. He uses them because they give his wares an uneven, one-of-a-kind quality. Even his sales staff has to learn how they work. And rather than pay his freelance employees, many of whom are immigrants, by the piece, he offers them a weekly wage and health insurance. “When you’re working with such an expensive raw material, you have some room to pay more for labor,” he says.
In November, Chait opened his first store, hidden off shop-heavy Melrose Avenue in a bungalow with neon lights and skeins of cashmere displayed like jewelry in a glass case. There are a few racks to browse, replenished as his team has time to create new stuff. He hopes it becomes the place to which new customers travel to find out how big the brand is. On opening night, “you saw the city’s cool crowd—cool as in no movie stars—wearing Chait’s expensive but understated cashmere sweaters like they’re sweatshirts while eating tacos and beer,” wrote Dirk Standen, editor of Style.com. “It’s the definition of the good life circa 2015, which is another way of saying that Chait has the makings of a global lifestyle brand.”
The store’s walls are stark white, full of windows, with little art or other décor. The only color appears in the blankets and sweaters that line the shelves. The design scheme is the same as Chait’s office, ditto his Malibu bungalow. His sunny California aesthetic pervades everything he touches. Recently, Chait’s become fascinated with vintage automobiles. Last March, he bought a ’64 Chevy Impala, an update of the boxy sedan immortalized in the Beach Boys’ single 409. He’s now on the hunt for a ’65 Buick Riviera. Old cars, he says, inspire the clothing he creates.
Nonfashion brands, noticing Chait’s ability to get rich folks jazzed about simple cashmere sweaters, have begun asking him to consult on projects for restaurants and hotels—cashmere walls, napkins, aprons, and more—plus other items that have nothing to do with fabric at all. Last year a tequila company hired him to help redesign its packaging. “It’s how we carry ourselves. People come to people for their taste level,” he says. “I like looking at industries where our way of doing things can effect change.”
He’s also become obsessed with private aviation projects. “It is the most luxurious thing you can possibly do in the world,” he begins. “But there are parts of it that are really underserviced.” The staff should be more accommodating, the food more delicious, the seats more comfortable. “Literally, there’s nothing to spend more money on, so it’s pretty interesting to be involved in those worlds.” Chait often thinks about the new ways people might blow tons of cash. “And—oh yeah,” he adds. “Now there’s space travel!”