Art

The Designer Duo Behind Gauntlett Cheng: ‘It’s All Completely a Labor of Love’

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Fashion designers Jenny Cheng and Ester Gauntlett’s studio sits at the end of a somewhat-dead street in Williamsburg, about twenty feet from the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. When Gauntlett opens the giant metal door at street level, she’s wearing a heather gray t-shirt and pale yellow knitted skirt; the outfit looks far too heavy for today, one of the hottest days of summer. “I’m so sorry,” she says to me as we wait for the elevator, “but we don’t have air conditioning in the studio.”

Upstairs there’s a steady whir of the sewing machine. Fabrics flung about. Swatches taped to the wall. Cheng hovers over knitting machine at the back wall of the studio. She’s just as affable and welcoming as Gauntlett, equally as apologetic about the heat. Cheng is tall and pretty, a light perspiration over her face, wearing a simple cotton sundress with stripes. It’s practically an advertisement for F.I.T. students looking to quit their day job and follow their dreams. Come to our bare-bones studio, we’re waiting for you.

“It’s really harmonious,” Gauntlett says, nodding earnestly, like it’s not boiling in here, and as if they’re not under a ridiculous amount of pressure around putting together their next collection to show at this year’s fashion week.

Their ease comes as a surprise. This label, Gauntlett Cheng — formerly Moses Gauntlett Cheng — has had a great big spotlight on its work throughout just two years of existence. They were recipients of the VFiles award, from the fashion collective and SoHo store of the same name that mentors young designers. Their 2016 collection appeared in VFiles’s NYFW show last year. It was a hit. Press came heaping on. “Their aesthetic has a tender, hand-spun quality, infused with flirtatiousness like a downtown kid’s dressing-up box,” wrote Veronica So in Dazed. They’ve been in the influential Australian fashion pub Oyster Magazine. They’ve been in Vogue.

And yet, neither of these women are even mildly irritable on a sweltering day in New York City. Because, come on, no one smiles in this kind of heat, especially with zero air conditioning.

But there’s even more. They sold 140 pieces to the downtown shop Opening Ceremony, all of which sold out. Kim Kardashian was rumored to have worn their clothes. (It’s true, I learn later – Cheng has photo proof on her phone). Laverne Cox showed up on CBS’s The Talk in their white polyester stretch wrap top. Last month, Rihanna wore a custom Gauntlett Cheng du-rag in her performance at the VMA’s. By young-designer standards, they’ve more than made it.

In practice, it’s a bit different. Cheng hand-knitted their last collection (they got an intern for this one). They work full time jobs, Gauntlett as a retail consultant at Aesop and Cheng as a freelance knitter. Their Fall 2017 collection, they tell me, is inspired by this struggle. “People see that you have your clothes at Opening Ceremony, but they don’t see that you’ve been sitting in your hot studio for two months making it all yourself,” says Gauntlett. “Jenny and I still haven’t been able to take a single cent from the business. It’s all completely a labor of love.”

“Like a double life,” adds Cheng.

It’s impossible to ignore the paradox, that despite the level of success these women have had, they are stuck sweltering in a studio in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the summer talking about being broke. I can’t help but come to the conclusion that Gauntlett and Cheng are, all at once, on the precipice of something huge, while also slightly drowning.

There’s a fabled story, from their Dazed interview, about the genesis of Moses Gauntlett Cheng. It goes like this: They’re in the back of a taxi, headed to filmmaker John Waters’s birthday party, and a magical moment materializes in the cab where they, poof, decide to launch a clothing line.

Here’s what actually happened: Gauntlett, Cheng and their former co-designer, David Moses, met at a casting for the New York-based line Eckhaus Latta. Gauntlett was interning there at the time; so was Cheng, who was also making samples for them. Moses was assisting Hari Nef, who was then Eckhaus Latta’s casting director. Moses asked Cheng to teach him how to knit. A little bit later, he said, “Hey, let’s start a label,” the way you might say, “Hey, let’s get a drink.” A show was the next logical step, and soon enough, Moses, Gauntlett, and Cheng were running at breakneck speed. “We were,” as they told me, “kind of naïve.”

This was their honeymoon stage. “The first collection was kind of an exploration about corporate life and domestic life coming together,” says Gauntlett. They were interested in the similarities of a pair of pajamas and, say, a suit. They took an inspirational trip to Rhinebeck, three city kids in Upstate New York, just to watch how wool was made. There were no money struggles, no stress. Their look — summed up in an ensemble of a felted cropped sweater with faux moth holes and a matching skirt — was “a twisted kind of normal,” Gauntlett says. “They deliver awkward silhouettes, improper cut-outs of the body and knits that fold peculiarly,” Matthew Linde, director of Centre For Style, told me via email. A bastardized mutation of classics, a concept they still adhere to now. A misfit glamour, Linde explains. “It seems there is an immediacy to their work, a sort of ‘go for it’ method.” It was something of a fantasy.

Much has changed since then, but probably the most noticeable shift is that the name “Moses” has been dropped from the label. He left in the middle of last season and is now part of another New York brand, Vaquera. It’s not uncommon for labels to break up. But it’s still a big shift. The trio were industry darlings. There are pictures of the three of them snuggling all over the internet. Now they’re a duo. Gauntlett Cheng.

I ask them how it’s going without Moses and both of the women smile coyly as women do when a man leaves a situation and you no longer have to manage him.

“It’s good for everybody. There’s no animosity,” says Gauntlett. Then her tone changes. “It was unexpected.”

What about the celebrity connections? Google Moses and you’ll find he’s friends with Lily-Rose Depp and Zoe Bleu Sidel, Rosanna Arquette’s daughter.

“He’s a great PR person,” says Cheng.

“Yeah, a great PR girl,” Gauntlett laughs.

And this is all they want to say about Moses, who declined to be interviewed for this article. 

There’s a relaxed moment as they speak about the transition from three to two. They lost David, but they gained themselves. Their 2017 collection feels like a departure from that carefree, fantasy aesthetic they started with. This season is more rigid and fraught, drawn from a New York corporate vibe.

“Both of us work day jobs to kind of support this label as well and it’s more about maybe our fake corporate aspirations, you know?” says Gauntlett. “This season we’re coming at it harsher. We’re making clothes about not having money. There’s always going to be a little tension in that.” It does not deter them, though. “They’re very, like, we want to make this stuff and we’re going to do it at any cost,” says Liz Collins, an artist and designer who was also one of Cheng’s advisor’s at RISD. Collins sees their hard work and commitment to their design as an age-old tale of being a young creative in New York. “I see Jenny busting ass, you know. Hobbling it together, like we all do.”

There’s a harsh-femme sensibility in this collection. “A sexy, power woman-type silhouette,” Cheng says. Which makes sense – two women run the label now. It should feel female-dominated. One outfit, a white, silky wrap dress, is a take off on a Diane Von Furstenberg classic. On the wall above the sewing machine hangs a line board, which is made up of 4-inch by 4-inch cards with sketches of the collection. Gauntlett fingers a soft fabric swatch. It has a very Sigourney Weaver-Working Girl feel. The white material is covered with miniscule black monograms that read MGC (for Moses Gauntlett Cheng), GC (for Gauntlett Cheng) and S.O.S.

Why S.O.S? “After our sales meeting,” at VFiles, Cheng laughs, “we were like, ‘Help!’ ”

We get up from the couch where we’ve been sitting, unsticking our shirts from sweaty bellies. They walk me through their side of the studio floor; the rest is split between a hairdresser and another designer. Soon this will change: By the end of August, they’ll be moving – the owners are kicking all the artists out and building fancy Williamsburg condos. The new Gauntlett Cheng studio will be in Chinatown.

I press them about the future, realizing slowly that I probably sound like an anxious mother. But Cheng, who is sitting on the production table, swinging her legs, matches my nerves with a calming presence. “In terms of the times and what we’re going through,” Cheng says, “It’s always changing. Our ideas for each season are always changing.” They both seem to have digested the fact that chaos is part of the creative process. Everything they’ve been working towards, the excitement around the upcoming show, the no sleep till NYFW, the new design aesthetic – all of it is universal for the struggling artist. Or maybe it’s something bigger.

“The kind of people that we work with, that changes a little bit each season,” says Gauntlett, her cheeks are shimmering now, or maybe it’s just the dewy sweat from the heat. “But this time, it feels like the we’re all going through something together.”

“With your business?” I ask.

Gauntlett sighs and thinks about it. She smiles. “With the world in general.”

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