Greg Chait the very wearable lightness of being
“You know, some people can just pick up a tennis racquet and play tennis, where I picked up a cashmere blanket and inherently understood it. That was my bizarre gift that I was given.”
Four threads, one weave:
Late in the 13th century, the Italian wanderer Marco Polo was traveling through the highlands of Mongolia when he entered a cave and found a herd of wild goats that had been domesticated. The animals were of a species known as Capra Hircus, which ranged throughout Mongolia, the Himalayas, and the Tibetan highlands. The animals, known as Pashmina goats, lived above 13,000 feet and routinely encountered temperatures 40 below zero. Thus, the Pashmina possessed a thick wool coat formed of extraordinarily long hairs, rightfully prized by the mountain folk for its ability to form a fabric both luxuriously soft and lightweight while providing miraculous warmth.
In the latter half of the 16th Century, something unusual occurred in an England rife with warring among its elites: a man rose to power not because of his inherited titles, but due to his merit. William Pitt had a voice that could bring a crowd to a standstill, and with it, he unified his nation and helped launch a world empire. “Confidence is a plant of slow growth in an aged bosom,” he said late in his career, in which he would twice serve as Prime Minister and become known as “the Great Commoner.” After his son likewise rose to prominence, Pitt was called Pitt the Elder, or more simply, the Elder Statesman.
In the late 18th Century, shawls made from the wool of the Pashmina goat in Kashmir, India created a craze across Europe. It began when the general in charge of the French campaign in Egypt sent a shawl to his wife in Paris. Soon, upper-class women throughout the continent were clamoring for “kashmir.” Empress Josephine grew so obsessed that she obtained hundreds of shawls made of what came to be known as cashmere.
In the first years of the 21st Century, a bushy-bearded young man in California grew likewise obsessed. Greg Chait had been given a cashmere blanket as a gift from a friend. Soon he could sleep only under the cover of cashmere, yet when he went looking for more cashmere blankets, he made a discovery: they were extraordinarily hard to find. His search began in the most wildly eclectic purveyor of excellence he knew of, Maxfield, and over the next five years circled the globe. “I traveled around the world and looked for cashmere blankets,” Chait recalls. “I couldn’t really find them. So, I started developing a concept for this blanket I wanted, in my head.” Chait is one of those wanderers, like Marco Polo, who possesses the unusual twin gifts of exactitude and ease. He found his way to a group of old-fashioned artisans in the Pacific Northwest, and with the fine cashmere he brought with him, left with two hand-woven cashmere blankets of the softest and most beautiful quality he’d encountered in all his questing. Chait arrived back at Maxfield with the blankets and a simple question: what did he have here? “I had made these blankets for myself and I thought maybe they’d be interesting,” Chait says.
Ever meticulous, Chait tied up his blankets nicely in bureau cloth and took his time folding them, then put them in a bag and walked into Maxfield. He’d come to know one of the guys who worked there and just wanted an opinion, but right after he arrived, Maxfield founder Tommy Perse walked by and saw the bag on the counter. He stuck his hand in and felt the softness within.
“Oh, cashmere,” Perse said. “I’ll be in this meeting.”
Oh god, Chait thought, it’s over before it even began. “Because he’s Tommy,” he says. “A tough reputation. A good reputation, but tough.”
Chait laid the blankets out. The men from Maxfield admired them and told Chait they’d never seen anything quite like these cashmere blankets.
“Amazing,” Chait said. “I just kind of came up with them.”
“Do you want us to sell them?” Tommy asked.
“These are mine,” Chait said. “I can make more, I think. I just wanted to see what you thought.”
“Do you want me to sell them, or not?”
“Well, yeah. Okay. Fine.”
The blankets, unlabeled, sold the next day. Tommy asked how many more could be made before Christmas, and just like that, Chait was in the cashmere business. As he searched for a name for his new company, he kept thinking of his late older brother, Paul, who had been known as “the mayor” among friends for his justness and sense of fairness. Chait was talking to a friend when the term “elder statesman” came up, and he immediately knew that was the name he’d been looking for.
“There’s the political connection to Paul, the mayor, but it also means someone who holds a high rank in society but is generally revered by all. In other words, it means earning your place by merit,” Chait says. “So I figured every piece we made at The Elder Statesman had to have that level…Like one piece, without a label, had to sit on its own in the best stores in the world next to the best things in the world and be able to stand on its own. The experience with Tommy and Maxfield definitely helped the name make sense to me.”
This all occurred in 2007. The Elder Statesman has since grown, in breadth and depth. That first collection, in addition to blankets, included a Baja sweater, of the hooded kind usually available in beach trinket shops. As he’d done with the simplicity of his blankets, Chait took an established form and applied deep craft, artfulness, and the angelic softness of the finest handspun cashmere on the planet.
“It’s all kind of from the heart, with a lot of follow-through,” Chait told KCRW’s Elvis Mitchell last year. “So, when I first made that sweater…it does come from the beach, because it’s a Baja sweater, which I wore my whole life, which you got from any kind of novelty shop and it used to say ‘Corona’ on it. These have been around; I didn’t invent the thing. But I started making these blankets, and I got really lucky in my first experience in the makers I was working with, in that they were spinning the yarn….I got to understand what yarn profile can do for the end product right away, my first experience. That was just dumb luck. I was able to look at something from a yarn perspective.”
From a yarn perspective, Cashmere is lightness with substance. Shakespeare’s jokers said the heaviest things. To say that Chait keeps things simple is also to say he seeks the substance of those things. He wanted a soft blanket; he learned how to make one. He wanted to sell those blankets; he made a sweater so he could go into boutiques with some semblance of a fashion line (“I really wanted you to buy my blankets,” he told Mitchell. “It was a Trojan Horse.”). He wondered how to expand The Elder Statesman beyond his immediate environs; he asked his friends at Maxfield, who told him to go to Paris. He flew to Paris and came home with accounts in the city’s finest boutiques. He wanted to make sure every item ever produced by his company was of the highest quality; he built a factory next door to his office. The key to this whole string of somewhat unlikely decisions is each begins with a kernel of love and coheres around a pure devotion to quality. None involved compromise.
An interviewer once asked him to describe cashmere in three words. “I want it,” he responded.
“You do things because you want to, or you have to,” Chait says. “That’s it. If you don’t compromise, there’s not a lot of ‘have to.’ It’s mostly because you want to, right?”
The Elder Statesman gained international recognition in 2012 when Chait won the Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund award, which included a significant cash prize and a mentorship of Chait’s choosing. He chose Richard Stark of Chrome Hearts, who, like him, built his business with utter deliberateness. By now, The Elder Statesman is a globally renowned lifestyle brand that includes a full array of clothing and home design. Not everything The Elder Statesman produces is cashmere, but everything comes from lessons learned from cashmere.
“I think when something is quality, I love it when it’s distilled down to its pure form,” Chait says. “When I discovered proper good cashmere and I touched it, it set something off in me. You know, some people can just pick up a tennis racquet and play tennis, where I picked up a cashmere blanket and inherently understood it. That was my bizarre gift that I was given.