In Stitches

Liz Collins and Gary Graham Get Ready for Fashion Week

Just when everything seems to be going ok, an unpredictable snafu can throw a young designer for a loop. For Gary Graham, it was a certain linen and silk blouse that shrank down two sizes when it was washed. "They were all returned. Something like that and all of a sudden you're in the negative." For knitwear artist Liz Collins, the quest for a top-loading washing machine nearly proved her undoing. "I didn't know it would be hard to find top-loading machines near my new apartment in Brooklyn. I do a lot of deliberate shrinking by stopping the cycle in the middle, and I assumed there would be a top-loader in one of the laundromats on Myrtle Avenue." She giggles. "If people only knew the sweater they bought in Barneys once hung in my bathroom."

Or worse. Gary says he had a sample that got thrown away in the garbage. "Well," he admits, "it was easily mistaken for a rag. I had to go and pull it out of the trash in the middle of the night." Liz consoles him: "But that's what's charming about being an independent designer—the hands-on experience."

It's a brilliantly bright day, and I'm sitting at Odeon with Gary and Liz, who, having survived the above tragedies unscathed, are teaming up for a joint show on September 20, during fashion week. They'll be showing their own spring 2003 collections, and then they'll have 10 things they designed together—a line they're calling Griz, from the first two letters of Gary's last name and the last two of Liz's first.

Though they've been friends for just under a year, their work shares a certain hands-on, handwrought sensibility. Gary, who is sporting a Hanes T-shirt and a military haircut, says his distressed, rough-edged clothes are sort of "homespun goth." Liz takes a deep breath and describes her spidery clothing as "aggressively feminine, innovative knits that are made in unique textile construction with the highest quality material, engineered to have holes in strategic places."

Today, Liz is wearing an aggressively feminine blouse that she says is "basically an architecture project, a knit tube top attached to a silk chiffon square with a hole cut at the neck." A green frog tattoo is visible through the chiffon; Liz squirms when she's asked about froggie, a souvenir from younger days. "I've thought of giving him a cigarette or blood dripping from his mouth or something."

Though it's too warm to wear it, Gary is showing off his cocoon jacket, a style Liz refers to as a "caterpillar robot" coat. In any case, it has a giant collar and is made of cotton duck with a quilted lining; Gary says it's "a big rectangle with two holes for sleeves that's garment-dyed, which means that the whole coat is stuck in a boiling vat of dye."

Most fashion designers have outsize egos that would get in the way of showing together—I mean, a Calvin-Donna show?—but Gary and Liz think it'll be fun. "We wanted to do something purely raw and spontaneous," Gary tells me. "Last week we decided to design something together—we started at 7 p.m. Friday night and worked till 7 a.m. Saturday. We made a beautiful coat."

But cigarette-smoking frogs and all-nighters notwithstanding, fashion is a cold, hard business. Both Liz and Gary admit that they've had to learn a lot, and quickly, about production. "I spend a lot of time in development, late at night, working alone," Liz says. "It's interruptive to stop the flow of ideas and do calculations, but if you don't do that you're in big trouble. If you have an order for a hundred sweaters and each takes five ounces of silk, you better stop and do the math."

It appears that this pair has in fact done the math, since five minutes later they're chatting about net 30, which means that stores have to pay in full within 30 days of delivery, and something called 8-percent-10, where the store gets an 8 percent discount if it pays within 10 days. They've clearly learned the lessons that have bedeviled other young designers. "There's trust," Liz tells me, her Swarovski crystal necklace flashing over the square top, "but there are also contracts involved."

"We're artists, but we're business owners," Gary says, describing a background that includes training at the Art Institute of Chicago and a job working with Julie Taymor on Lion King costumes. He's now based at Shack, a store in Tribeca where he started as a design assistant. "I do have a backer—a very conservative one." And no, it's not his dad, though Liz admits that "from time to time my parents bail me out. This is my three-year anniversary of officially having a business. I actually started designing when I was studying textiles in the masters program at RISD. I spent hours playing on the knitting machine. If you look at graduate-school tuition money as a business investment, that was $40,000 invested. Two years ago I got a large grant from the state of Rhode Island. I spent it quickly on a fashion show and a research-and-development trip to Japan." I laugh and compare her to Donna Karan, notorious for trolling the globe with a huge staff and buying thousands of dollars worth of items for inspiration. Liz sighs. "Well, anyway, my r&d trips are over. There's plenty to see in New York."

Knowing that Gary and Liz cut their own patterns and worry themselves sick over every sample, I ask Gary what he would do if Kal Ruttenstein ordered 500 caterpillar-robot coats.

"Kal who?" The fashion director of Bloomingdale's. "Yeah, I'd make 'em. I don't think they'd sell, though." Liz says she did once make 500 sweaters—not all the same one—for Barneys. "We cranked them out—six knitters in the Providence studio I used to have. When it was over they all quit."

"But you know," Gary admits reluctantly, "factory doesn't have to mean bad. And it has to be in my future. I cannot sit down with an investor and say, 'I'm going to make everything by hand for the rest of my life.' " Though they're leery of growing too big too quickly, Gary surprises me by admitting that he harbors an affection for H&M, whose trendy disposable clothes are about as far from Gary's road warrior-angel confections as you can get. "It would be very interesting to do something for them. I wouldn't do it under my name or label, but 60-40 I would do it." For Liz, mass-market aspirations revolve around home goods: "Target, Pottery Barn, IKEA. I'd like to do window treatments."

So, when you're running a business on a shoestring, why dump a ton of dough on a fashion show, an event that Gary calls "an absurd Fellini extravaganza"? "My stuff on a rack can look like dirty laundry," he says. "When you put it on a model it makes more sense. Besides, it's important to have your fantasy. Fashion is fast! It's live! So many people are involved and you want them in the audience. It's a fun celebration!" Liz nods. "If you don't have a show you miss the adrenaline rush of seeing your work as a group; the whole story up there all at once."

"It's our artistic medium," Gary says, forgetting for the moment all about stuff like 8-percent-10. "It's a celebration and it's about rejoicing and it's so beautiful."

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