Meet The Designer Who's Bringing The Slow-Food Movement To Fashion

For a person who's spent nearly a decade designing, sewing, shilling, and promoting other labels, it's no wonder that Chris Gelinas knows exactly what he wants for himself. After spending time at brands as diverse as Marc Jacobs, Proenza Schouler, Balenciaga, and Theory, Gelinas left to pursue his own line, CG, which has already garnered him a Peroni 2013 Young Designer Award and a spot as an LVMH award finalist. He's a designer whose star is rising as rapidly as they come, but Gelinas himself is taking it slow.
Gelinas does "luxury" in the kind of way described in storybooks. He's involved in each step of the process (including creating the otherworldly textiles he's become known for), manufactures domestically, produces small collections, and, up until recently, sells directly to consumers by inviting them to visit his "atelier" — a small studio in the Garment District that sits right next to a factory sewing room. Though he's missing a leather smock and dormice to help him hem skirts at night, Gelinas is making it work, and has developed a small but loyal following of women who'd rather spend a lot of money on one skirt that'll last forever than many skirts that'll last for just a season. It's a model that's been wholly embraced by the food and service industry, but "slow fashion" is still a concept that feels at odds with the need-it-now, 10-trends-a-second culture that currently exists within fashion.
For Gelinas, that's not a problem. He's showing his third collection at NYFW this week, and it's a continuation of his approach to a more responsible, more conscientious way to celebrate clothing. We sat down with the young designer to talk about his most recent collection, the (surprisingly) boring ways that designers actually seek out inspiration, and the existential crises that keep him up at night.
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For a lot of up and coming indie designers, it’s easier than ever to create a brand, but harder than ever to create a viable business. The space is so saturated that success is itself an expensive undertaking.
“It’s absolutely crazy. I was watching this BBC documentary about McQueen, and I was shocked at how he just threw his shows together... He would just choose a venue, some random place in East London, and it wasn’t this big production like, 'You have to do this big production and it’s gonna cost you $15,000.' There was just such a cool energy about it. It’s easy to romanticize, but I don’t think it exists today. You just have to be more strategic now, because it costs so much money.”

Is it easier for you since you have a background in business?
“Yeah, I went to school for business. My brain kind of has to switch back and forth between my business brain and creative brain…"

Do you feel like it's really two separate brains?
“For me it is. Just because I’m such a visual person, I can’t help but always have some type of visual drive whenever I’m looking at something. But then at the end of the day, I’m just trying to be as pragmatic as possible. Where I’d like to get carried away on an idea, sometimes you just have to rein it in, or conversely, you just have to know when to get carried away if it’s the right concept and right energy.”
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Some designers are so singularly focused on their artistic strengths that they have blinders on when it comes to PR, business, merchandising, and so on. You've had experience in all those fields; does that give you an edge?
“Yeah, I definitely draw on past experiences each day to navigate it. I’m glad I’ve been able to see inside a lot of those [areas], not necessarily in-depth, but enough to know how to navigate them, or at least try to. And, I also try to surround myself with enough honest people that will always rein it in or always have an opinion. My big thing is deferring to experts like Stephanie Siu-Wai Kirtley, who’s my sales director. She and I have known each other for three or four years. We met at Balenciaga. She's been working with me since November, but she just recently in the last month started full-time, which is really great. And, just to have a female perspective in the room is so great, and she has a style that I really admire. She's just really, to me, that perfect CG woman. And, she's a mom. She works. She has a social life. I love seeing how she dresses and what she wears.”

Has working with a woman influenced how you're dressing women?
“She's really great at mixing an outfit, and she always looks so spot-on, stylish, and chic, and you might assume that it's all beautiful Balenciaga pieces, but she just mixes all these beautiful vintage finds and Zara shirts or pants. I'm in the business of making luxurious clothes, and the way they're crafted, and the materials they are made with, but I think style depends on the girl who eventually puts them together. I like the idea that [my line] isn't about wearing one look head-to-toe."
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There's this idea that designers begin their process with a specific piece of creative inspiration, like a song or an old photograph. But, it often comes from a less exciting, more technical place. Is that the case for you?
"Totally. Inspiration can start from something as mundane as how a garment is positioned on a hanger, because that's happened to me. This season specifically, the jump-off point was this exhibit at the DIA Museum in downtown Detroit, with all these Japanese samurai clothing and traditional costumes. There was this beautiful chest plate there in the softest leather that was embellished with all these bright-colored cords. I found this really cool, technical cotton that was bonded to jersey. It looked like it could be a UPS cotton uniform or something. And then, that kind of got my brain thinking of these two contrasts, of something made for work and for performance. This season, I’m really about movement — the clothes are just draped to move to the way the girl walks. It’s gonna completely transform faith in each step."

Clothing is becoming so much more about ability and agility, whether that means designs that literally emphasize a freer range of movement or transition easily from day to night. It's incredibly empowering. But, sometimes, male designers focus on a woman's aspirational lifestyle rather than her real life, which can lead to clothes that just don't feel good on.
“That’s such a good point. Male designers sometimes need to step out of the bubble and just listen and see and react to what modern women really need. This idea of ergonomics and movement has become the underlying investigation of what I’m doing. I was in the LVMH finals in Paris in May. A few designers, Riccardo Tisci and Raf Simons, mentioned the different tucking techniques and elastic stitching and all these insets that I was doing; I was taking non-stretch fabrics and giving them stretch. And then I stepped back after that and thought, That’s true! I always think about movement and how this woman’s gonna sit in this skirt or walk around comfortably, or let’s move this zipper around her back so she has more options. All these little details and a lot of interior structure, and people don’t necessarily see, but when she puts it on, all of a sudden she stands a little taller and she feels a little different. That’s what my clothes are really about.”
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Recently in T, Cathy Horyn pointed out that, these days, luxury is less about one-of-a-kind showpieces to wear once a decade, and more about incredibly well-made everyday items. You make very expensive clothes and design for a luxury consumer; what are your design priorities?
“I generally don’t like to think of anything as just for show, because I think it’s really sad to put so much time and energy into something that you don’t believe can truly exist in the real world. Some things are more functional than others, like a good pair of pants you’re gonna wear once a week or every day if you want to, and it will be worth the investment. Last season, we had this sculptural sweatshirt that was screen-printed by hand in like five screens. It’s basically a piece of art. I don’t know if you'll want to roll around the grass in it, but the point is that you certainly can. It's like any old sweatshirt, but it also has other elements of beauty that made it so special.

"And, listen — I’ve never dry cleaned anything. Every once in a while when I make a splurge on something, I always think about whether or not I can throw it in the washing machine or iron it. If not? It's not worth it. That's luxury to me — having an ease with clothes. If you feel like you have to be too pristine, then it’s not worth it.”

You're constantly innovating the textiles you work with. Why put in all this work?
“I just love textiles. I love working with the mills. I spent the first couple months of each development just focusing on the fabrics. I have a lot of really great friends who have been working in the industry for as long as 20 years. Recently, I bounced an idea off them where I found this material that they use to put under roofing. I was like, ‘This is so funny, because it has this really beautiful grid print on it, and it’s the most beautiful blue, but they put such beautiful design into something that’s going under shingles. It's ridiculous. But, I loved it so much, I worked with this mill in Italy to develop a beautiful silk version. It's luxe construction-site material. I’m fortunate enough to work with some of the smaller mills that are really excited to work with developments. Each season they’ll propose a ton of fabrics. And, you can either buy off of those fabrics, or you can take those and redevelop them. I usually try to do a 60/40; I try and develop more than I take from what they’ve already done.”

That’s ambitious!
“It is! It takes a lot of work, and that’s definitely the most ambitious in the beginning, 'cause there’s so much back and forth, but the nice thing is, for the first time, I’m the one making a decision. So, you can just cut that lead time in half, if I see it and it’s exactly what I want. I try to be as decisive as I can because I don’t have endless budget, so it’s just a lot of back and forth with mills, and it is ambitious because it takes a lot of time, but I think it’s hopefully what sets the collection apart, and it’s what I enjoy the most.”
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You're like the fashion equivalent of slow food: You’re not putting out eight collections a year, and you're selling to the consumer in a personal setting. Does this change anything?
“No. To me, the direct client end of the business is the most exciting and interesting, because it’s a real, one-to-one conversation with the women that are wearing my clothes, and I get so much more when women can come try on the samples, and I can see their reactions. I emailed one of my clients and said 'I hope you liked the pieces.' And, she responded to say, ‘I’m already wearing it for the second time this week.’ To me, that just made my day more than an amazing magazine credit. Seeing the women falling in love with my pieces is what keeps driving me."

You’ve already won an award despite only having been around for two seasons, and you’re in wholesale in a year, and have had so much coverage. Are you scared at all, or are you just amped by the success?
“I need to step back a little more. Every once in a while, one of my friends will shake me and say, 'Stop and appreciate this second,' which is great, and I’m so grateful for it. I had no expectations starting this, I just did it because I’ve been thinking about this for so long, so everything exceeds my expectations because I didn’t have any. And, I’m grateful for everything. But, I think spending time at Marc Jacobs, at Proenza when they were still quite small, and then going to a house like Balenciaga, which has a heritage behind it and mega-infrastructure, and then going to Theory, which has this exponential infrastructure — it’s such a well oiled machine. I feel like I was able to see companies with different stages of growth with different resources.

“Not that I’ve witnessed it at any company I was at, but I have a huge apprehension for rapid growth. I really don’t want to get too big. Not that that’s even an option, but I just never wanna exceed my abilities. I would never want to jeopardize some of the key things that are important to me: quality, craft, and that exclusivity factor, too. Also, when you have certain convictions towards elements of quality like domestic production and fabrics, there will always come a time when cost or the ability to make more money all overshadow what these kinds of ideas are. And, I hope I will always try and stay true to that.”
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You’ve always done things a little differently, but the industry is this giant machine, and sometimes you still have to play by its rules. What rules would you change, if you could?
“I think everyone is sort of frustrated by the calendar. Pre-collections are amazing, but it’s crazy that they went from resort collections, which is truly about this idea of a small collection geared towards the ease of travel, and all of a sudden they are full-blown shows. Pre-fall was just a delivery that happened, and now it's a giant monster unto itself. I get that retailers always want new things on the floor, but I just think it’s a shame that people’s attention spans are so short these days. We’re just trained to refresh every 15 seconds, and well-made clothes can’t be refreshed like an Instagram feed. They take time to develop, and for me it’s a frustrating thing to feel the pressure to produce stuff for the sake of stuff, because that’s one thing we definitely don’t need. I had these existential crises recently where I asked, Am I just putting more stuff in the world? Does the world need another designer? Maybe not. But, I felt like I have a strong vision that was worth expressing. Is there a shortage of clothing options? Of course not. There’s never been more options, but I think there aren't enough options with integrity and conviction and craft. My clothes aren't just there for the sake of stuff.”