For Greg Chait, being the founder of The Elder Statesman brand is more than a job, it’s a calling. Here he tells C about making clothes in the time-honored tradition and the importance of a product with soul
Photography by SAMI DRASIN
Fashion Direction by VANESSA SHOKRIAN
Words by MAX BERLINGER
GREG CHAIT wears THE ELDER STATESMAN Simple Crew sweater, $995 (other items his own).
In a previous life, when Greg Chait worked at the talent management company The Firm, he received a thank-you gift from a well-known luxury brand—a blanket. “It was just so elegant and cool,” he recalls one fall morning in The Elder Statesman’s warehouse-like studio near the Arts District. “I had never seen anything like it.”
Chait, now 44, was intrigued and began working with a weaver in the Pacific Northwest on a few plush, patterned blankets for himself. He had no global ambitions at the time. “I thought I was going to have the most incredible blanket collection in the world,” he says, his face newly clean-shaven after 17 years of sporting a prodigious beard which his 12-year-old daughter Dorothy had been adamantly opposed to shaving—until, one day, she wasn’t. “People treat me completely differently,” he adds with a ruminative, zen’d out energy. “They just talk to me more.”
But enough about beards, back to blankets. When the owner of the West Hollywood boutique Maxfield, where Chait was a customer, caught wind of his side project, he asked if he could sell a few, despite the fact that they were Chait’s personal samples without a brand or even a price. Chait figured why not? And, to his surprise, the next day they had all been sold.
“I thought, ‘Hm. That’s interesting,’” he says. Sure, he had “become obsessed with the fiber,” as he puts it, but he hadn’t realized that others, too, would intuitively recognize how inherently special an item made from hand-spun yarn is. Maxfield, meanwhile, asked how many more blankets he could make before Christmas.
The Elder Statesman’s recently refreshed West Hollywood boutique.
Those blankets gave birth to The Elder Statesman, Chait’s knitwear-centric fashion brand. Today, as it turns 15, it’s a full-blown lifestyle label, encompassing men’s and women’s clothing, accessories and home, including pillows, toys and, yup, those blankets. It has a whimsical, ever-so-slightly woo-woo aesthetic, with plenty of freewheeling tie-dye and spiritual imagery like yin-yangs, palm trees, mushrooms and starbursts. With cashmere sweaters starting at $695, it’s sold at some of the most prestigious luxury retailers in the world, including Bergdorf Goodman and Mr Porter, and The Elder Statesman has its own store in Los Angeles, a charming little beach bungalow off Melrose in West Hollywood, which just underwent a refresh this past summer throughout its garden spaces and exterior. It’s a simple wooden affair that’s the perfect mellow backdrop on which the fanciful product can live.
Yet the brand remains an outlier in a globalized industry of overseas production done at mass scale, of bloated marketing budgets and dizzying supply-chain logistics. He has built a fully integrated business, which is just corporate-speak for saying his office is under the same roof as the factory in which the sweaters are made—you know, like how clothes used to be made before everything got so, well, complicated. (The models in the C shoot are all his employees.)
The day we meet, two rows of yarn boxes stacked 6 feet high run down the center of the studio, creating a long hallway from the front of the building to the back. Chait’s office is a dark glass box on an upper level, and right outside lays an enormous, brightly colored knit snake on which a young employee sits hunched over a laptop. Connected to his office building is the factory. When we walk through, half-finished sweaters are on the handlooms, there are baker’s racks of dyed cashmere sweatpants and hoodies, and out back, two employees are dyeing under a tarp-covered tent. Most days, Chait says, the clothes are left to dry under the L.A. sun.
Dye master ARIEL Malmazada wears THE ELDER STATESMAN Zig Dye sweater, $1,695, and Classic Crop Pant, $995. Head linker TINA HONG CHEN wears Ultra Stripe Smoking Jacket, $2,290, and Classic Lounge Pant, $955. E-commerce assistant MICHAEL CAMPOS wears Jolly Stripe Crew sweater, $1,195, Heavy Shorts, $775, Ranger Beanie, $395, and OLIVER PEOPLES sunglasses.
Because of the way they’re made, each garment is unique; that’s no mistake, it’s core to the brand’s identity. In our increasingly industrialized and digitized world, clothes made by hand by trained craftspeople are becoming rarer and rarer. Restoring the humanity to a time-honored process is an act that’s held on a pedestal in the luxury clothing business, giving The Elder Statesman the edge over its competition.
“It’s a product with a soul,” Chait says when asked how a novice like himself was able to come out of the blue and capture the attention of Vogue’s Anna Wintour (he took home the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award in 2012) and some of the most prestigious retailers in the world. “I think that soul carries through.”
“I was always intending to do well, in whatever field I went into”
The 1,600-square-foot store at 607 Huntley Drive opened in 2014 but this year had a refresh, with warm alder wood finishing added throughout the exterior and a complete overhaul of its gardens.
Chait lives a compelling version of the California Dream. Based in what’s essentially the world’s most glamorous trailer park in Malibu, he resides close to the ocean so he can surf every day. But the surfing lifestyle, he says, holds many solutions for life on land—especially running a business, or starting one in the shadow of a recession, as he did in 2008, or pushing through the punishing challenges of an ongoing pandemic (more on that later).
“It’s probably the greatest metaphor for life,” he says of surfing. “Every wave is a little different; you’re in the moment, you can get absolutely destroyed at a moment’s notice, but also the next wave could be the best wave of your life. The more hectic it is in the ocean and the more relaxed you are, the better. And with running a business or having a complicated life, if you can find a way to be as relaxed as possible, you’re actually going to make better decisions and it’s going to be a more elegant experience.”
Chait’s career is dappled with kismet, like the time he went to work for Whitney Houston because his resume happened to be on the top of a nearby stack, or how, early in The Elder Statesman’s development, he booked a ticket to Italy, happened upon a factory with a sign that said “Cashmere” on the front and that’s how he learned how to buy high-quality yarn.
The first time he went to Paris Fashion Week, he figured he’d just show up. While waiting for his room at the hip Hotel Costes, he sat in the lobby sipping coffee and struck up a conversation with the owners of the revered Newport Beach luxury boutique A’maree’s. “I had pulled out a tear sheet of [theirs] from a magazine and said, ‘I’ve been looking for you!’” Chait had brought three men’s sweaters with him in addition to the blankets. “But I left with orders from 12 women’s stores. You can’t make this shit up!” he adds. It was almost as if some invisible, cashmere-gloved hand were leading him toward where he needed to be.
But writing it all off as luck would also be underselling Chait, who grew up in Arizona, the son of a doctor and an artist. It’s telling that Chait used to read the biographies of successful people, like David Geffen, analyzing how they were able to achieve so much. “I was always intending to do well, in whatever field I went into,” he says. And, of course, it takes a huge amount of grit and drive to build a successful operation like his with no formal training or experience, and especially to remain so dedicated to making as much as he can in-house, when so many others would just offload that work for pennies on the dollar and much less of a headache.
It’s this very setup that served him better than most during the pandemic, while many other businesses were dealing with factory closures across the globe. In January 2020, a close friend, the Australian-born Margaret Zhang (now the editor-in-chief of China’s edition of Vogue) told him of a deadly, highly contagious disease circulating there. Chait heeded her warning, and as COVID-19 started spreading to the West, causing mass lockdowns, he loaded up his looms and linking machines into cars, sending them into the homes of around 40 employees across the city. “We had people dropping off the yarn and different pieces across the city, out front, because we were definitely concerned about people’s health and safety,” he says. “But people were also worried about their livelihoods. … We never stopped producing.”
From left: Retail relations manager BEAU BIGLOW wears THE ELDER STATESMAN Italy Smoking Jacket, $2,195. Vice president of sales CHINA MOSS wears Gingham Long Decon Jacket, $2,495, GARRET LEIGHT sunglasses, $385. GREG CHAIT wears Simple Crew sweater, $995. MICHAEL CAMPOS wears Jolly Stripe Crew, $1,195, Heavy Shorts, $775, Ranger Beanie, $395, Yosemite Socks, $215, VINCE shoes, $275, and OLIVER PEOPLES sunglasses. TINA HONG CHEN wears Ultra Stripe Smoking Jacket, $2,290, and Classic Lounge Pant, $955, Yosemite Socks, $215, ALL SAINTS sandals, $101, VINCE T-shirt, $80, OLIVER PEOPLES sunglasses. ARIEL MALMAZADA wears Zig Dye sweater, $1,695, and Classic Crop Pant, $995. All other items stylist’s own. elder-statesman.com.
For his Resort 2021 collection, Chait used the same sort of problem-solving for his lookbook, which was photographed on employees like Michael, his wholesale director; Benjamin, his senior knitter; Ariel, who oversees dyeing; and Tina, the head of linking. Even Dorothy made a cameo. It was, in part, a love letter to the people who kept the brand humming in the face of adversity.
Still, talk with Chait long enough and you’ll eventually come back to talking about what he lovingly calls “the fiber.” His fascination struck early and hard. “I often think that it would be more interesting and cooler if I just picked up guitar,” he says. “But sometimes a thing comes along and just hits you and you’re like, I get it.”
That’s because, while a signature of a The Elder Statesman piece is its loopy, vibrant design and cozy, cocooning shape, what really sets it apart is how it feels on your body. “You know, coming to fashion without any formal training, I got to the fiber and the yarn in my own way,” Chait says. “I realized from day one that it’s the key for what I wanted to do, which, at the time, was make blankets, and blankets are all about weight and texture. I was fascinated by the process.
“After 15 years, I’ll be walking around the factory, walking outside and just seeing things drying in the sun, and it just looks so cool,” he continues. “I mean, it just doesn’t get old for me. It feels like it’s the first time. It’s pretty freaking cool.”
Glam by VIVIANNE RAUDSEPP at The Wall Group.
Location: ELSEWHERE IN TOPANGA, elsewherecalifornia.com.
Feature image: The Elder Statesman’s signature hand-spun knitwear.
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of C Magazine.
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