Like Diogenes looking for one honest man, Chait spent years scouring the globe in search of a single, perfect, cashmere blanket. He found blankets that were too small, too thin or too ordinary. Eventually, his cashmere quest led him to one conclusion: He needed to start at the beginning — with the yarn itself.
A friend introduced him to a company in the Pacific Northwest (he won't name the company or even the town), which custom-made him two 59-by-79-inch hand-knit blankets out of heavy-gauge, hand-spun cashmere yarn. The resulting blankets — which tipped the scales at 10 pounds apiece — made that first cashmere blanket look like a fistful of brown tissue paper by comparison. He had, in his estimation, created the ideal cashmere blanket.
Utilitarian yet luxurious
"With hand-spun yarn you can really control the thickness," he explains, "and the end result is something that looks really masculine and utilitarian but is this ultimate luxury."
In late 2007, Chait took them to Maxfield, whose buyers he knew from his Ksubi days, and sold both $6,000 blankets on the spot. "Then they said: 'How many do you think you can have by Christmas?'" Chait recalls. "I was able to get seven more blankets and a couple of these traditional toques."
At this point, Chait says, he hadn't even named his line. He chose the name the Elder Statesman, he says, as a homage to his older brother Paul, who had died in a 2004 shooting in Phoenix. "He was one of those kind of guys that everybody called 'the mayor,'" Chait said.
In early 2008 he decamped to a Paris hotel suite during Fashion Week and sold his fledgling collection of sweaters, hats and blankets to a handful of high-end accounts around the world including United Arrows in Tokyo, Barneys New York, A'Maree's of Newport Beach and the influential Susan boutique in San Francisco.
"It was such an excitement to see someone who was really excited and passionate about his product," recalls Susan's owner, Susan Foslien. "Honestly, it's what's missing in our industry — that spontaneous, infectious feeling. And what he does is authentic — I mean he makes his own damn yarn, come on! Everybody's sick of all that stuff that has no meaning."
Foslien described the Elder Statesman customer as "an intellectual. She's smart, she doesn't give a crap about who's wearing the latest Balenciaga dress because she's got 10 anyway, so it doesn't matter. She doesn't care about all that stuff we're supposed to care about.'"
Foslien sees the brand's relatively low profile as an asset. "Because it's a little bit hidden, people come into the store and put on one of his sweaters that's rather expensive, and they say: 'Oh, I'll take this.'"
Even as his business has grown to include some 60 retail accounts across the globe, including luxury boutiques stockists such as Louis Boston, Hostem in London and Boon the Shop in Seoul, Chait says he's worked hard to maintain stealth status and exclusivity. "I've been very careful about my distribution, I'm still just in Maxfield [in L.A] and L'Éclaireur in Paris, and I have just one online retailer — Mr. Porter for men and Net-a-Porter for women."
Tyro by tes
In November 2011, Chait added a smaller, more affordable capsule collection to the mix: an assortment of fingerless gloves, knit caps, scarves and zip-front hoodies that sells for between $150 and $695 (due, in part to substituting baby alpaca for the Mongolian cashmere and having the pieces hand-knit in Peru instead of the U.S.). That line, called Tyro by tes ("tyro" is a Latin word that means novice or beginner, and the "tes" is short for "the Elder Statesman") sells exclusively through Barneys New York.
In addition, he says he does a substantial custom business (the pillows and blankets in the SoHo House West Hollywood screening room are his) that accounts for 30% of sales — though, like much else about his business, he won't share, even in the broadest terms, what those sales are.
Kolb thinks the Elder Statesman can become a big luxury brand. "We're always looking at business potential as well as talent," Kolb said. "And having talked with Greg, having visited his studio and listened to his vision of how he wants to grow the Elder Statesman, I think played into his winning the [award].
"He's got money now, he can invest in staff, he's basically been a one-man show out there, so now in addition to [being in] these great men's stores he can invest in people power. I think that'll be helpful to him as he grows the business."
And that's exactly what Chait has been doing — starting with the hiring of a controller/chief financial officer the day after he won ("She literally started two days later," he says), interviewing designers by Week 2 ("I'm bringing someone in who is more technically trained than I am") and, by Week 3, opening his first factory, a 3,000-square-foot space in Culver City that will house hand looms and the production of one-off custom pieces.
Chait says he's excited to embark on his yearlong mentorship. He's been paired with Richard and Laurie Stark, whose Los Angeles based Chrome Hearts jewelry and accessories line shares a similar double helix of near nose-thumbing exclusivity and full-immersion lifestyle branding. And, Chait says, he's optimistic about the halo effect of winning the CFDA/Vogue award.
But don't expect Chait to make any radical departures from his super-stealth, slow-growth, ultra-luxe approach.
"I'm going to continue on the trajectory I'd already planned," he says. "This gives me a little more confidence, it creates a little more affirmation in the marketplace and it gives me the right opportunity to tell my story ... [but] I like the allure of a brand where you don't really know [much about it]. I like that quietness."