The Soft Sell

Design | Jun 2016 | BY Maxwell Williams

That is the trick that I will never tell,” Greg Chait says. He’s just been asked how he gets the cashmere sweaters for his nine-year-old label, The Elder Statesman, so much softer than your average cashmere sweater. “It’s the same thing as asking the guy from Dior, ‘How did you get these this color?’ That’s the trick. Because everybody who works in cashmere is buying the raw materials from the same place, the trick comes in the chemistry.”

Chait is dressed in a popping red-striped sweater, a brand-new creation for the cruise collection that will hit stores soon. He offers an arm for me to feel it, and it is indeed the sort of warming soft you might expect from a gentle hug. “Honestly, the thing that makes me the happiest—what we have, and you can’t copy it—is that there’s soul,” he says. “And we’re not the only company that has a product with soul in it, but there’s an optimism in what we do. You can’t put that on a spreadsheet. Cashmere is comforting, and then when you add soul to it, it just makes it that much better.”

When he discusses the line, there’s a certain Californian surfer impression that Chait is aware of. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, it’s a hippie surf brand,’” he says. “Well, it’s not. It’s free-spirited but at the same time it’s elegant. I luckily have incredibly stylish clients who wear my clothes very well and actually show me, a lot of times, how it can be worn. I have a vision, but I don’t try to put that entirely on my customer. I don’t think that’s wise.”

Chait’s journey towards The Elder Statesman began in 2001, when he was working at an artist management company. A colleague gifted him with a cashmere blanket, and he immediately fell in love with the fluffy textile made from the fur of cashmere goats found in Mongolia, Nepal and the Kashmir region of India and Pakistan. “I didn’t sleep under a sheet for five years after that,” he says with a laugh. “I just started buying cashmere blankets. I traveled the world, and I was going to stores all the time, and I was like, ‘Where do I find this stuff?’”

Soon, his frustration at not being able to find the exact items and quality spurred him to make his own blankets. Maxfield’s owner, Tommy Perse, got ahold of one of Chait’s blankets and immediately made a large order. “Tommy said, ‘We’d like to sell these,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t even have a company.’ This was in 2007.”

But he was having a tough time coming up with a name. While conversing in a car with a friend, she muttered the phrase “the elder statesman.” It stuck with him, and when he started to research the phrase, he realized it had a pretty interesting history. “It has political connotations, because it was coined after these two prime ministers in England, the Pitts, a father and a son,” he says. “They would refer to them as Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger, and then it became the Elder Statesman. It became a colloquialism over time.”

The name was also a tribute to his brother, who died while Chait was living in Los Angeles. “My brother’s nickname amongst his friends was ‘The Mayor,’” he says.

Greg Chait

Greg Chait. Portrait by Jeremy Liebman.

The company was an almost immediate hit, despite entering the market during the economic downturn of 2008. The durability and craft of The Elder Statesman was exactly the type of strong product people could be convinced to purchase. He kept building, creating an unusual model of custom knitwear, to the point of selling different exclusive items to many of the stores he was carried in worldwide. “If we make 1,000 sweaters, 600 of them will be a one-of-a-kind,” Chait says. “A big part of my business is people making custom stuff for themselves. You can come in and say, ‘Hey, I want a cashmere flamingo,’ and we will go, ‘Well, how big? Sure.’”
This quickly led to a necessity to start his own factory in a tiny Venice Beach space with one knitter and one cutter. Though he was still relatively unknown, in 2012 Chait won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award—a $300,000 prize that comes with a mentorship. He opted to get advice from another self-sufficient homegrown California lifestyle brand: Chrome Hearts. Eventually, the husband-and-wife duo behind Chrome Hearts, Richard and Laurie Lynn Stark, became minority owners of The Elder Statesman. With a trusting investor backing him, Chait has been able to grow into a large factory taking up two buildings on one block in the quickly developing Culver City industrial neighborhood—but they’ve already run out of space. “We need more people and more machines,” he says. “But we don’t really have anywhere to put them. So I’m about to buy all the machines and put them in my conference room. It’ll look cool, though. I love production.”

The new devices will sit next to a “sweater-punching machine” made by Los Angeles artist duo the Haas Brothers for The Elder Statesman’s 2014 Fall collection presentation at New York Fashion Week. “Instead of models, we sent latex dummies down a runway hanging from a dry cleaning belt that we set up in a space,” says Chait. “And we had strobe lights, so if you looked through the window, it looked like it was the end of the runway. And then we had a sweater-punching machine in the front window. That was the first thing we ever did together, and we still do stuff together all the time.”

Working with the Haas Brothers—Nikolai Haas modeled the Spring/Summer ’16 collection—fits in with the aesthetic of The Elder Statesman, who was selected to make scarves, T-shirts and blankets for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Wear LACMA collection back in 2013. But Chait doesn’t go so far as to classify himself as an artist, nor does he think he qualifies as a fashion designer. “I’m in product,” he says. “I like making great products. I guess it’s closer to ‘design.’ We touch on both worlds but are in our own lane.”

The Elder Statesman’s classic, artisan appeal and outsider status make for a unique brand, but it’s the products themselves that speak volumes. A pile of fluffy sweaters sits by the door, ready to be packaged and sent out, and there’s no possible way to refrain from reaching out and pushing your hand into the clouds of cashmere. That’s the beauty of The Elder Statesman: We don’t need Chait to tell us the trick of how he gets them that soft—we just need him to keep doing what he’s doing.

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