By Regina Connell.
What is value, when it comes to clothing? What is worth paying for, what is not?
There’s an old model, which is retail (offline or on; big chains or indie boutiques), that tries to define this. It’s full of waste and middlemen, where designers make less than you think, and makers make even less.
Then there’s emerging models, where designers go direct and you buy through their stores or more likely online, based on what you’re seeing on Instagram or Snapchat. Then there’s Everlane, where transparency rules and you see what things “truly” cost. Everlane’s model isn’t bad and if what you value over anything else is cost and reasonable quality for basic goods, it’s pretty good.
I gotta say: I have higher standards than anything on offer. Clothes need to need to fit. They need to feel really, really good. They need to transmit who I am (or want to be) because for me and a lot of women, clothing is an extension of my own creativity and ideas. And I need to feel good about them.
For me, it doesn’t come from buying the coolest insta-trend, it doesn’t come from a big, anonymous supply chain, transparent or not, high-end or not. It doesn’t come online.
I want to think there’s a better, more infinitely satisfying way: a place where you’re known, where clothing is inspired by you, where fit on the body and in your life, style, and psyche are paramount, where you can make suggestions, where short runs mean not everyone else will be wearing what you wear, where you have at least a sense of who actually made the clothing. Where clothing is what it should be: personal. Value lies in feeling 100% wonderful about what I’m wearing.
Where to find this? Of course there’s high-fashion designer couture, but let’s just take that off the table, shall we? In the men’s world, it’s the tailor, though there’s a dwindling number of them. But in the women’s world, there’s… what?
I’d been pondering this model, and fretting that there wasn’t anyone out there doing this, when I realized there was someone who created clothing of clothing of value and character: someone I’d known forever, someone who’s defied the odds and stayed in this game for over 20 years, someone who may be the model for what works in clothing, retail, and the whole business of luxury.
Diana Slavin runs a small, eponymous clothing store and atelier on San Francisco’s Claude Lane. Her work is the modern equivalent of the classic European dress-making/men’s haberdashery tradition, where every detail counts, where clothes are personal again. It’s not bespoke clothing, or custom, but nor is it getting something tailored after you’ve bought it from some mass market retailer.
At a time when it’s all the rage in retail to break down the walls between making and selling, Diana’s been doing it for years. The store is front of house, with designing, cutting and sewing operations in the next. Kristen, who also works with customers, is herself part of the design team. It’s all very direct, very hands-on. No middleman. No big, fancy ad campaigns.
Diana’s designs are austerely romantic, ranging from rigorously tailored power woman-warrior gear (with flair) to a super-girly, beguiling tulle skirts that can be worn on their own or under another skirt, to super-slouchy deconstructed chinos; the palette is muted; the textiles are the best of Italian, French, Japanese. The little flourishes—a curved seam or a perfectly capped sleeve here, the hint of a ruffle there, and maybe an extra panel for a bit of volume and edge over there—show a mastery of cut, proportion, and construction. Everything’s made in the Bay Area, in small runs.
The clothes are self-possessed: they do not make big political, cultural, or design statements; they do not follow the strictures of “what’s cool” (thank god). But that doesn’t mean they have to be bland or boring. I once spent a week in NY visiting design editors, and halfway through realized that I’d basically packed an entire wardrobe of Diana pieces bought over the years. But hey, it worked: I could hold my own with a crowd of eagle-eyed design types, all without selling out to a “look” or a trend. These. Clothes. Just. Work.
But why? Because it’s not just about a look: frankly, looks are what fashion’s all about. You can get “the look” in lots of places. And it’s not just about the design. It’s about the coming together of the design and the individual who is wearing the clothes.
And that is about a love of the details. So it’s not entirely surprising that Diana—daughter of a fine artist father and a seamstress mother who taught her to sew, was a math major in college. Of course, she was probably the one math major embroidering jeans and jackets for her friends, the only one deconstructing old dresses from flea markets and selling them. Retailers fell in love. She then made a line for San Francisco’s legendary MAC, and finally, opened her own store. That was 25 years ago.
So what are details, beyond the design? It’s about fit whether it’s on the body, or for the personality. (Try doing that online, try doing that with a “name” designer, or with the one-smock-fits-all look.) “I love to watch people play, to feel their way into feeling “right” in something through fit. In many ways, they complete my designs, and I learn so much from them,” says Diana.
On the more technical side, “Fit is really an essential part of our work, part and parcel of design. We know what we were going for in the design, we know how the fabrics hang and drape, and we know our clients. It all has to come together to work.”
But style is also part of the service proposition. The thing about an item of clothing is that its magic and potential is only unlocked when it’s worn, in the real world not the runway. Because of their refinement, Diana’s clothes could fall into “classic with a twist” territory. “That’s where I naturally go,” laughs Diana.
But Kristen, with more of a rocker sensibility, edges things up, turning something from subtle to street with the extra inch in length, the advice to roll not hem the pants, to pair those pants with the slouchy cards, or the right Roberto del Carlo moto boots or cultish Common Projects sneaks (which Diana was one of the first to stock in San Francisco). Kristen and Diana often find themselves providing styling advice via email but also in-store where customers schlep in shoes, Zara T’s, Comme des Garcons skirts, and more. It’s all grist for the mill.
No, this does not come cheap (though it’s surprisingly less expensive than standard designer). And it shouldn’t. It costs to pay people to make things well out of good materials; it costs to do all that painstaking fitting; and the incalculable but very real costs of knowledge.
But there’s also no whiff of elitism in the way Diana and Kristen run the store: it feels more like a hangout than a transaction of any kind.
Yes, this is old-fashioned. It is slow. It is certainly not “scalable” (though I actually have some ideas). And while Diana and her team are great designers, their real gift is about how their design comes together with the woman. And that is different from what’s going on now in this mass blast culture, but also where real value and real luxury live.
It’s time we rethink the way we think about clothes, and how we relate to them. It’s time we demand something more, or find what we already have.
Website: Diana Slavin