Visit the GRAMMAR NYC pop-up. 2 Rivington Street, NY, NY. May 16 – May 20. 11AM to 9PM daily.
We know fast fashion is bad for the environment, but it’s also waged an all-out assault on quality, leaving us with closets of ill-fitting clothes that fall apart in a flash. Today, I talk about fighting to preserve quality in the fast fashion era with Althea Simons, a fellow quality hound and the designer behind Grammar, an up-and-coming NYC-based clothing brand that aspires to make the perfect white button-down shirts for women. Althea and I discuss what goes into making a seemingly simple white shirt and what consumers can do to recognize quality when they’re out shopping for clothes.
Elizabeth: You got the inspiration to start your brand Grammar in an unusual way. All of your clothes were destroyed in a fire in your building. Can you tell us about the experience of going out shopping and building your wardrobe from scratch?
Althea: My shopping strategy had always been that I would take a long time, and this is still true. I just I look for things that are very high quality at a price that I can afford. I only had the clothes on my back, and I needed something to wear immediately. I was living in Philadelphia at the time, so I found myself having to go to the stores that were there. And so it’s mostly fast fashion. I had to just go to UNIQLO and buy a few things so that I could have something to wear. And since then I’ve given all of that away because I don’t wear it, and I don’t like it. It’s not high quality, so it was just really frustrating.
Elizabeth: Many people think of UNIQLO as being good quality, so let’s dig a little bit more into what exactly wasn’t quite right in the clothes you bought. Like was it the fit, the sewing, the fabric?
Althea: I don’t want to hate on UNIQLO because as far as like those kinds of companies go they do have very high quality compared to other fast fashion brands. But it’s still fast fashion. They’re still producing in very high quantities for a very low price, and there’s only so much quality that you can get from that.
Elizabeth: What’s one simple thing that we can all do to either recognize quality when we’re out shopping or to increase our appreciation of quality?
Althea: I think that the first step is to just slow down and pay attention. People shop in such a frenzied way in terms of like I need something for this party tonight or to get a momentary pleasure from buying something. Slow down and pay attention. It’s about the experience. Touch the fabric and see if it feels good in your hand. When you put on something, don’t just think about what it looks like, think about how it feels, and do you feel good in it?
“You have a beautiful proof in mathematics or an elegant solution to a problem, and that’s what I’m going for. I’m looking for the perfect solution to the problem of a white shirt.” — Althea Simons, Grammar
Elizabeth: More generally, why is fast fashion having a negative impact on quality? What corners are these companies cutting?
Althea: I think there are two things happening. One is that companies and brands are trying to cut costs all over the place in order to increase their profitability. That takes away from the quality of the garment. So one example of this with fit is that a lot of companies have stopped using fit models, and [fit models] are hugely important. Fit models are not just there for you to see the garment on them; they tell you when things don’t feel right. And there are certain things that they point out that you maybe would have missed or forgotten.
Althea: You in your book Overdressed, you go into so many other examples of this in terms of the quality of the fabric and the sewing and the fabric starts pilling right away and there are all these different issues. I think that companies really start to not pay attention. But this is where my personal values come in. I won’t make something that’s not exceptional, and I think there’s a lack of reverence for the craft in a lot of cases.
Elizabeth: Fast fashion companies start with the price point they want to hit and design backward.
Althea: I mean it’s a really difficult business, and it’s expensive and it’s hard to sell stuff and at a certain point you do have to start thinking about your margins and your profitability. But I just think that product quality is not the place to compromise ever.
Elizabeth: Fast fashion seems to actively avoid making garments that need to be fitted. There’s no tailoring. There’s no structure, which means entire categories of clothing are disappearing from the marketplace.
Althea: This goes back to cost. If you make something drapey, you don’t even have to fit it. Everything has to be so fast that they’re cutting corners at every opportunity. If you’re not fitting something, something like a button-down shirt is really hard to make. Something that’s made out of jersey, the fit is not as important. Anything made with tee shirt fabric, whether it’s a dress or a t-shirt, it’ll fit a bunch of different people because it’s stretchy material. There’s nothing wrong with that if it’s loungewear, but I get very upset when I see people wearing that stuff on the street because it’s just not appropriate.
Elizabeth: Your goal with Grammar is to design the perfect button-down for women. What are the most important features that make a shirt like this work well?
Alathea: The cross shoulder is the most important part of the fit of a shirt. It’s basically all this sort of top area around your shoulders because that’s where most of the movement comes from when you’re wearing the shirt. So if you don’t have the right balance in the armhole and the chest and across the back it just feels really uncomfortable.
Althea: I think a lot of people are used to things that don’t fit properly and so they don’t know the difference, but once you wear something that really fits, it’s just like, Oh my God, this is so much better, it’s so much nicer. Because of fast fashion and because of this declining quality, we as humans have become used to a lower quality of life. We should all be able to have things that fit well.
Elizabeth: It’s hard to find the right language to talk about quality. How do you describe it?
Althea: It’s more elegant I think. Elegant and beautiful are words that I use a lot, and I think about those words in terms of mathematics because pattern-making and product development is a lot about a 16th of an inch here and a 16th of an inch there. You have a beautiful proof in mathematics or an elegant solution to a problem, and that’s what I’m going for. I’m looking for the perfect solution to the problem of a white shirt. It’s created to suit the human form and be comfortable to the wearer and elevate the human experience. It’s very nuanced, but it makes such a big difference.
Elizabeth: You have a really high standard of quality and appreciation for quality, where, where does that passion come from?
Althea: My parents. I think part of it is genetic, honestly. I have some OCD, like it’s like a little bit of a mental illness. [Laughs] But like everything, it’s nature and nurture and my parents are both designers. They met at architecture school. My dad has had his own [architecture] practice since I was a kid, and he would always be at home working, drawing and sketching. And architecture is very similar to fashion and design in that it’s about aesthetic, but it’s also about math and physics and understanding space and the human experience… The whole quality of life aspect I feel like really comes from my mom and the idea of why do something if it’s not exceptional?