Written and photographed by me. Originally published on my blog, The Note Passer.
“The way I live my life right now is trying to just buy less.” Fashion designer Christina De Smet and I sit talking in her charmingly sparse apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn which she shares with her fiancé, Dermot, and cat, Miles. We've been friends for years after a chance meeting at the event of a mutual friend. She and I frequently meet at boutiques one coolness level above mine—looking, but rarely buying. A seasoned designer, De Smet speaks candidly with me about the the state of the fashion industry, educating consumers, and how she hit upon her unorthodox method of production.
Her eponymous line debuted last May and discreetly rolls out just one new piece per month, a modus operandi meant to uncouple consumers from wanton consumerism. “You talk to friends and they are like, ‘I’m going out tonight. I’ve got to get a new top,’ and I’m like ‘Why? Why do you have to buy a new top to wear? Why can’t you get something out of your closet and restyle it a different way?’” She explains, “If you buy something—for instance the wrap dress that we have in silk charmeuse—if you put a little t-shirt under it, you can wear it to the office on any given day, and then you can put it with heels and earrings and put your hair up and wear it to a wedding. I think people would be more impressed that you wore the same dress and made it look great two different ways.”
THE WAY BACK
At 31, De Smet can remember the emergence of the fast fashion industry in the early aughts but says she didn't realize its implications on the environment and consumer mentality until she entered the New York fashion industry in 2007. Growing up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan (a suburb of Detroit), De Smet spent summers with her artistically inclined grandparents drawing, painting, and sewing custom clothes for herself. She says, “I've always been interested in fashion. I would make clothes for my dolls, dress up my cat, and I spent a lot of time scouring estate sales with my mom, looking for forgotten items that I could breathe new life into.” Her first trip to France was at ten years old and she later lived there while studying abroad. Reminiscing, she reveals, “I couldn't get over the fact that French women looked so put together wearing the best basics: jeans and a t-shirt. It was the nineties after all. I remember trying to adopt the look then, but I never felt like I mastered it until I was in my twenties.”
De Smet began her fashion blog, DESMITTEN, in 2008 as a creative outlet during her years designing for a mass market retailer and says those two endeavors opened her eyes to the growing troubles of the industry. “I was getting really disheartened by all of the consumerism and waste. When I quit my corporate job, I was trying to be really good about buying just five pieces a season and it really made me make considered choices about buying pieces that I can wear now, or when I’m pregnant, or when I’m 40 or 50 years old—things made in good quality fabrics that I’d want to wear for that long, and that I know would wash well and wear well.” Going back to 2014 on her blog, she has championed a method of shopping called the “Five Piece French Wardrobe” which allows for the purchase five pieces per season. On top of this methodology, she was designing and sewing one piece per month for a collection called Project de, an exercise which primed her for the production of her own line.
When I ask her about finding inspiration for her collection, she chuckles before she answers. Instead of the latest runway looks or street styles, De Smet draws from Cheap and Chic, a book first published in 1975. She reveals, “I reference it quite often when I am developing the next collection. It goes into the classics, second-string classics, antiques, sports clothes, work clothes, and how to mix them up. I turn to this and see how I can reinterpret some of those classics for the modern-day woman.” In direct opposition to the fast fashion mentality of buy-and-toss, De Smet curates the pieces in her collection as ruthlessly as Taylor Swift selects her girl gang members. “I probably develop 24 pieces each season,” she explains, “and then I edit down to see what works together. Essentially, it’s not only about each piece being great but about each piece working well with other pieces in the collection, or other pieces that you already own.” She also embraces versatility and conscious detailing over the current trend of shapeless minimalism. Many pieces in the collection offer multiple ways to wear them: a sleeve pleated and tight at the wrist or belled and flared, or a wrap dress to the front or to the back so people won’t even realize it’s the same one.
An egalitarian shopper, De Smet hunts down her signature minimal style everywhere from thrift stores, to The Real Real, to the real designer. I trust her fashion advice implicitly and have been known to frantically text her dressing room photos with just four words: should I buy this? I ask her what piece she reaches for again and again in her closet. “I have two,” she confesses. A pair of cropped high-waisted ReDone jeans made from vintage Levis, and a striped, collarless, long sleeve shirt by The Row bought on The Real Real. “I wear it tucked into those jeans or over my bathing suit or under a blazer and it’s just one of those versatile styles that I know no matter what I wear it with, it looks cool.” De Smet comes clean that it wasn’t always this way for her. “I’m definitely more minimalist and more classic than I was ten years ago when I moved here.” Working in the fashion industry, she felt like she had to look the part and “keep up” with the trends. Now, she says, stepping out of that never-ending cycle is a relief. “I can look in my closet and just put two pieces on and I know that I’m going to look good and I don’t have to worry about if this is ‘in’ this is ‘not in.’ If you feel good in your clothes, then you look good. It exudes from you. I don’t think it’s about being trendy.”
While bespoke and direct-to-consumer models are certainly growing trends, De Smet is actually putting herself at a disadvantage in order to curb waste in production. Lower production numbers mean premium costs for her since the factory is not guaranteed minimums. The same is true for her meticulously chosen fabrics, which she does not purchase until an order is placed. “There’s something to be said about the fact that the fabrics are always available,” she explains. “It shows the longevity and the popularity of the fabric. And I’m never sitting on excess goods that might end up in the trash.” Production of a piece culminates in the garment district in midtown Manhattan. Working in the fashion industry for years has ingrained in De Smet a devotion to the NYC garment district that is both sanguine and admirable. She recalls the layoffs of sample rooms, pattern makers, and even development teams during her corporate days. “I feel like if I can help keep it alive, I think it’s important just based on the people that I’ve made relationships with. I hope to see them grow and get bigger and better and bring industry back to the city because it was here for so long and now everything is going away.”
This sense of duty and purpose punctuates De Smet’s speech. Not only does she want to reduce waste while increasing quality and homegrown production, but she also aspires to elevate the business of shopping itself. Her website resembles that of an artist more than a retailer. “I’m trying to present something in a different way—we’re doing videos now that are a little more artistic in the way you view the clothes, just to get people interested,” she says. Each new piece usually comes in two different fabrics—one more casual, the other more dressy—and is available for one year from its release date. The production process is very personalized and takes about 4-6 weeks. There’s a video on the website to help you measure yourself and figure out what size you wear. Once you make your order, De Smet buys the fabric, has it made in your size in the garment district, and ships it out to you. She explains, “I’m just hoping to give women another option for investing in pieces and investing in themselves a little bit. To say, this is made for you.”
What can we expect from De Smet going forward? “Right now, I’m really loving the wrap pant, which is coming out next spring because it’s refreshing to have a new silhouette—it’s a more relaxed silhouette—because we've been so skinny for so long,” she says. “It’s cute and it offers a few different ways to wear it.” She is confident in her ability to weather the inevitable changes coming to the fashion industry, be it 3D printing (“I think it’s really cool and I would love to see the evolution of that.”) or repurposing materials. “That’s going back to what I’m offering, there’s not going to be two of them exactly alike. I hope that, even if I change one person’s view on how they should shop, I think that that’s really important. I want to educate consumers and offer great pieces for people that are looking to build lasting wardrobes.”