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In Conversation with Tess Giberson

Images by Samantha Casolari

Meet Tess Giberson in person and it’s immediately apparent that the designer is smart, funny, thoughtful and low-key. See her collection in person and it’s immediately apparent that she’s also something of a badass, with a strong subversive streak that asserts itself throughout her work, in ways that whisper rather than shout.

Take, for instance, her leggings from Fall 2010, which tweaked the ubiquitous trend by rendering them in an extra-long cashmere knit mesh that managed to be subtly sexy rather than obvious or vulgar. Fast forward to Spring 2011, when she offered a backless jacket and upside-down vest/skirt, both of which were as wearable as they were conceptual. And for this coming fall, Giberson, who studied fashion at Rhode Island School of Design and plied her trade at Calvin Klein and TSE before launching her own line—riffed on the idea of “collage” vis-à-vis shirt dresses finished with torn chiffon ruffles and a homespun crocheted jacket toughened up with skinny leather sleeves.

As with all of Giberson’s designs, these are pieces that look terrific from a distance but are best appreciated up-close-and-personal, when the wearer (or observer) gets to fully savor the details—a patchwork panel here, a trompe l’oeil vest there, an artfully placed strap designed to showcase a collarbone elsewhere—that elevate her work above the standard fashion fare.

Earlier this month, the 39-year-old New Hampshire native and her business partners (Domestic Operations Director Vickie See and Global Sourcing and Production Director Harriet Lau) opened a Tess Giberson flagship store on Crosby Street in Soho, where the designer’s clothing is sold alongside jewelry from her friend (and fellow RISD grad) Ninh Wysocan and books and CDs from her artist/musician pals. The space also boasts installations by Giberson’s husband (and frequent collaborator) Jon Widman and artist Carol Bove, whose art also featured heavily in Giberson’s Spring 2011 presentation at 303 Gallery (Giberson, a 2011 Fashion Next designer, showed her fall collection at The Box at Lincoln Center this past February).

Not surprisingly, Giberson’s work has also been exhibited at galleries in New York, Paris and Tokyo and in 2003, she was nominated for the Cooper Hewitt’s National Design Award.

Lauren David Peden: When did you know you wanted to be a fashion designer and when did you first fall in love with fashion?

Tess Giberson: My mom probably would say much earlier, but for me I knew it when I went to RISD. Originally I went to RISD because I thought I wanted to be a jewelry designer, and in the fall you start going to the studios to choose what your major will be. When I went to the apparel studio it was just instant—the smell, the look of the machinery… Everything about it was appealing to me.

Lauren: And had you been into fashion and clothing before?

Tess: Yeah, because I used to draw and it was all about the clothing. So when I was little, all the drawings I would do were almost all clothing; the people kind of were just the mannequins for it. But I was really detailed with the miniskirts, striped shirts—sort of like my ideal outfits.

Lauren: So did you study fashion design at RISD?

Tess: Yes. It was three years. RISD is four years, but you go into three years for your major. Everything about it I loved. I had gone to another school originally and taken some time off, so when I went to RISD I was already 21 so I was really focused on what I wanted to do. I was just completely obsessed with learning as much as I could while I was in school.

Lauren: I did the same thing, actually. I dropped out the first time and went back when I was 23. And having been out in the world, you’re like, “You know what…”

Tess: It makes you realize it’s so valuable being in school. You’re like “I love this; it’s not going to last very long!” (laughs). You don’t have any distractions except for just doing your work.

Lauren: When you graduated, how did your career go? I know you’ve been at Calvin Klein and TSE. But did you start with your own line?

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Tess: No. When I first got out of school, I was in New York for about two weeks and a freelance job came up at Calvin Klein. I just went and was doing boards and [being a] general assistant. I really liked the design director. He and I got a long very well.

Lauren: Was this Francisco [Costa] or before Francisco?

Tess: No, Robert Rigutto. It was the men’s collection. So it just happened; he wanted to keep me around and the sweater designer left. Even though I was right out of school, I’d been there for six months and he was like, “Hey I’ll train you. Do you want to be the sweater designer?” It was also probably because I was a bit older; I was 25. So I was just thrown right into it, which was great.

Lauren: How different is sweater designing than regular designing?

Tess: It’s just more specialized. It was a small team—there were five of us in the men’s collection so everybody did a little bit of everything. But I was fortunate that because that opening came up, I was able to really learn this [skill]. You know sweater designers, it’s just the technical details that are more specialized and learning about the stitches and gauges and all of that.

Lauren: And then from there you went where?

Tess: I was at Calvin for two years and it was a really good experience, especially being the first position [after school]. I think it really built my foundation because it’s so systematic and it’s like, you go to Calvin Klein and any floor you go on in the building, you know you’re at Calvin Klein. From the desks to the flowers to the paper clips. Everything is very organized, and I really love that. It appeals to me. But the process of how to put a good line together, working with the factories, everything; it was rigorous but also it was the Calvin way to do it. It was great training but after two years, I knew I wanted to do my own collection. And I just felt that I was still young enough to take that risk. I didn’t have a family, I didn’t have any financial obligations. I felt like I had to do it then instead of waiting too long. So I left and I freelanced for two years because I really wanted to have time to develop what my aesthetic was and to really experiment before putting it out there. So that’s what I did. I freelanced for different designers and I was doing show production—all things where I would go in, work intensely, and then be able to work in my studio. And then in 2001, I started my own collection.

Lauren: And how old were you?

Tess: I was 29. So I was still, you know, pre-babies [Tess has two children: six-year-old Ezra and three-year-old June].

Lauren: And what was the aesthetic of the first collection?

Tess: I really wanted to put a lot of handwork into it and to experiment with the materials, the fabrics. It actually had nothing to do with sweater designing. Even though I’d done that at Calvin, my own collection was more woven-based and I did my own patterns. And I did a lot by hand, more because that worked with the resources I had and so to get things that were really interesting, it was better to do it myself and to manipulate the fabrics and take it apart or build it up than to have to buy fabrics that were already embellished. And from that, I just started developing a vocabulary of this very intricate and conceptually focused collection. I had done that since college; I’ve always worked on things that were more about an idea, like a word.

Lauren: So what were some of the early collections?

Tess: The first collection was about protection. And it was just thinking about mark-making and talismans, and putting those pieces, those marks, into the clothing. So I had a jacket that had fragments, or strips, on the back that felt like a protective layer. And it was just experimenting with that idea through the collection. Then I did a series that was a three-part series dealing with community and the effects things have on each other. So the first one [Fall 2003] was called “Structure No. 1.” I had ten outfits and each model had an outfit on [top of] a white slip. I had this wooden structure—it was a circle of wood with poles on it—and each model came out and took off their clothes, took off the outer layers of the clothes and started building up the structure, making a shelter. So after each of the ten models had done that, they wrapped white fabric around it so it went from ten individual looks to a community of ten white slips. That’s an example of the way that I would work. But it was always important that even though it was concept-based, the clothing was very wearable because I always liked the practical side of it, too. And I did one [in Spring 2004] that was called “Each Touch is a Fasten.” That was ten models again and it went from white to black. Then each outfit would have a fabric or color that would connect to the next outfit. So through the ten looks, there was this gradation of fabric, texture, color and as the models came out, each would connect—like unfold something and actually connect it to the next—creating this whole chain. It kind of looked like a paper doll fold-out. It was about trying to find something that was a problem that I had to figure out how to do and show this through a presentation and still have wearable clothing. That was just the kind of thing that I loved to do.

Lauren: And then how did TSE come about?

Tess: TSE I think was a real blessing for me. I’d been doing my collection for five years and as much as I loved doing it, I was doing everything myself. And I wanted to do things on a bigger scale but because I was doing everything myself, it was limiting in what I could really do. Even though I was getting a lot of support and growing, I knew there was some big change I needed. I had just had my son, which is a good time for transitions (laughs). A friend of mine had been styling for TSE and she mentioned that they were looking for a new design director and passed my work along. It was really fast. I think it took about a month from when I found out about it; it all came together very quickly. And I said it was a blessing [because] it just gave me the perspective I needed to step aside from what I had gotten so close to doing; to step back from that for awhile. And when I was there I saw things on a bigger scale. I was able to work while thinking about different markets and I could still do the fashion shows and still work in a conceptual way. The shows weren’t conceptual in a way I was used to, but at least the process of building up a collection I could still do my way. I actually had a lot of freedom within my design room, so it was a really good experience. I grew a lot as a designer through that time. I started in 2005 and was there until 2008.

Lauren: So you left there 2008 and re-launched your line in 2010?

Tess: When I first left, it was in January of 2008 and a friend of mine who was a friend of Vickie [See]’s introduced us, knowing that I really wanted to relaunch my collection and knowing that Vickie was looking to start something of her own. Because her family owned factories [in China] and she’s always worked doing product development and production within her family’s factories, though she wanted something that was hers. So when we met, we instantly connected and started working on the business plan right away. And we did this very, very detailed plan—wrote out the whole thing, had the visuals, it was… I’m still really proud of it! But then we started shopping around for investors and 2008 wasn’t really a good time (laughs). We pretty quickly realized it was not the best time so we just said, ‘Let’s wait on this a little bit.’ Meanwhile, I was just starting to do some freelancing. And then in 2009, Harriet [Lau], who I worked closely with at TSE (she was the director of production for the parent company), left after having been there for 20 years and she got in touch and asked if I wanted to start something. She’s based in Hong Kong and really specializes in knitwear. All these things came together to make it clear that I had to do this again. So Harriet and I started putting together very a small collection, just to get something together. We launched it in Fall 2010, and right after that collection I met back up with Vickie and we pretty much continued where we’d left off. And so the three of us are now partners, each offering our [unique] experience. Everyone knows what they’re doing and it’s a really good partnership.

Lauren: Is the collection all made in Hong Kong?

Tess: No. Knitwear is made in China and we’re actually moving all the wovens back, doing them domestically in New York, which is very exciting. Starting with Fall 2011, it’s all being produced in New York, which is a great thing. It’s what I believe in. We can control the quality more, and it’s just nice to bring it back home. And then outerwear is being produced in Vickie’s factories because they really specialize in that.

Lauren: And how has your aesthetic as a designer changed or evolved since the first time you had your own line to now?

Tess: It’s definitely changed. When I was doing it the first time, I think it reflected how I was dressing at the time. It was a bit… It was just a different time, I guess I’d say. I was younger and had a different aesthetic.

Lauren: So how has it changed?

Tess: The pieces are much stronger, more focused on tailoring. I really am thinking more about the woman who wears it: a strong, confident woman. So how to project yourself in a way that you’re strong but also sexy. And I guess I’m designing more for a woman now; before it was for a younger girl.

Lauren: As you had said earlier, your collections often begin with a word, like “shift” [Spring 2011] or “collage” [Fall 2011].

Tess: I always knew what I wanted to do for spring when I was working on fall. I usually work pretty far ahead with an idea because I want it to relate, so it’s always kind of feeding off of the season before and how it turns into the next collection.

Lauren: So how do Shift and Collage work together in your mind?

Tess: When I was working on Shift, it was the arrangement of the balance and it was also shifting the textures. And as I was working on some of those pieces, I was like, ‘Oh that looks really cool—that looks like a collage.’ So I started thinking I would really like to develop a collection just about collage. And there were a couple of pieces [in Shift] that made me think about collage.

Lauren: Which ones?

Tess: There was a pieced blazer that had Swiss dot, silk and wool. And then there was a striped-and-mesh sweater…I think you have it… that just made me think I’d love to develop a whole collection to push that idea a lot further.

Lauren: So for Collage, what would you say are the two pieces that you think achieved the idea the best?

Tess: I have to bring my head back to fall—I’m so deep into Spring 2012 right now (laughs). Some of the sweaters, actually. I did a lot of cutting things apart and then rearranging them. There’s a sweater that had a handknit that was mixed together with a medium weight sweater. So merging those two pieces together…

Lauren: Not the one that was crochet with leather sleeves?

Tess: No, but that’s another one. But I didn’t show it; it was a piece that was just in the showroom. It was like I had taken a chunky handknit and I cut it apart and then I mixed it back together with a regular weight sweater. It was just playing with the merging of the two different pieces, and how they created a whole new balance. And then the crochet with leather…with that one, it was both the silhouette and also taking something organic [crochet] and mixing it with something more sleek [leather sleeves], and how you combine those two together.

Lauren: Walk me through your creative process. Does it start with the word and then does the word morph to the shapes and the fabrics, or is it different every time?

Tess: I usually always start with the words. I start with the word, I just kind of think about how I can show it, what kinds of things I might do with it. But it’s just purely about the words and talking about it and writing stuff down. And that’s why I like to start much earlier. I always work with my husband, too, in this part of it. We just talk about what the concept is and think about how we could actually show it.

Lauren: Is he a painter and a sculptor?

Tess: Painter, and he does installation. And since the very beginning, I’ve worked with him on the concepts of the collection because before I had my studio, we had a loft. I had my studio on one end and he had his studio on the other, so we’ve always worked really, really closely. He’s really a part of my whole process. We go through that and then I’ll pull together materials and think about the silhouettes and then I’ll start pulling those together. And at that point I’m pretty clear on what I want to do with it so it’s finding the right things to make that happen.

Lauren: So how long does the process usually take from inception to completion, because it seems much longer than most people…

Tess: Well it’s just much longer in terms of… I like to have some time to think about it before having to do anything with it. So it’s just having an idea that floats around for awhile. Then when I actually start putting it together, it’s usually a couple of months for gathering materials and then pulling through all of the development and then putting it to work. From start to finish, I guess it’s about five or six months, depending on whether it’s spring or fall and how much time we have.

Lauren: How many iterations does it go through; how many revisions? Does it sometimes turn out just exactly as it was in the beginning or does it go through many metamorphoses?

Tess: I think with my original collection, it was pretty much exactly how I imagined it. Probably because it was a smaller collection. I think I was always very clear from the start: this is how I’m showing it and then I would build up the collection to make that show. It’s different now because I’m also thinking about how to make a collection to sell, so there is a lot of…it changes. The idea stays the same but I also have the luxury now of not having to make it myself so I can be more critical. Whereas before if you’re making it, you’re more hesitant to be like, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to change that pattern’ (laughs). Now I can say, ‘I don’t like that, I actually want to do it this way.’ So there are a lot of surprises, which I think are really good and have made the collection a lot stronger. And having partners to support that, you know, it’s not just me; we work closely together on the whole process.

Lauren: And could you talk a little bit about collaboration? Because you work with artists a lot. You’ve worked with Jon, of course, and Carol Bove. How did that come about?

Tess: I think it’s because we had a very close group of friends that went to RISD. When I first moved to New York I felt like everyone we knew went to RISD.

Lauren: So who are some of the artists or people you went to school with that you’re still friends with?

Tess: Carol’s husband, Gordon Terry. Jenny Newman [Accessories Design Director at 3.1 Phillip Lim] who introduced me to Vickie, one of my best friends, Raphael… We were in apparel together and he’s actually the person from my class who I’ve stayed in touch with the most. I knew so many people that went to RISD that are here now.

Lauren: And Carol was one of them?

Tess: She went to NYU but she’s married to Gordon. I mean it’s not everyone that I collaborate with, but it was a really interesting group of people and it’s a great way to work because if you’re working with someone that you like and respect—you know you like their work—you can trust that something good will come out of it. So when I started doing my collections, we had a friend build a set for us and I just told him what it was about and he built something that was so much better than what I would’ve imagined. And I worked with Lindsey Adelman once doing lighting. She went to RISD and she’s a great lighting designer, and she did something that was just so cool for this early project I had done. So you realize you get so much more out of a project when you can collaborate with someone. And everyone gets something from it because what I’ve heard from people who have done the projects is, they have a good time because it’s not for them; it’s become something else. I just really like that way of working; it’s exciting seeing what comes out of it.

Lauren: And with Ninh [Wysocan], who did the jewelry?

Tess: Yes. She went to RISD, too (laughs). I feel like I’m always like, ‘RISD!’ You know it’s just when you have good experiences… Her husband, Erik, went there. He built the boxes in the front [Tess Giberson store] space. He was in architecture.

Lauren: Oh, I love it. So tell me about the installations that Carol did for the spring presentation? Was that based on Shift or did it just happen to work?

Tess: I told her what the collection was about and then she found elements that made sense with that. I didn’t tell her at all what to do. I just told her what it was about, we went to her studio and just chose things that made sense, and then she just put the whole thing together.

Lauren: That’s very cool.

Tess: I love what she did. I mean, I really love her work.

Lauren: And for fall, you took a sort of different approach.

Tess: You know, showing in Lincoln Center was an opportunity that came up [through Fashion Next] and I thought it would be good to try to do something in that kind of environment. I mean the environment was just sort of a blank and I was focusing more on the looks and an abstracted arrangement with the set. I worked with a friend of ours because he’d done a lot of things in that space, so he knew [how to work with] the black backdrop, which is a little tricky. Timing was a real issue because we only had two hours. I’m used to being able to go in the night before and have some time to arrange things. So it was just figuring out within that how to make it work back to Collage.

Lauren: And did it refer back to Collage?

Tess: It didn’t because the idea of it was taking these metal planes—we had these big metal sheets—and arranging it and having this white bench and the black walls. Originally we wanted to have a much more complex set, but that wouldn’t have worked in that space. The original idea that Jon was going to do would have been amazing in a big white room, but in a black space that was pretty small. We had to sort of abstract that original idea.

Lauren: And tell me about opening the store.

Tess: It’s very exciting for us. Well, we had the space—we had our showroom in the front—and then we started the renovation. At the time I was still working from my studio home (laughs). When Vickie and I met back up, she had just gotten the space so we were talking about how the studio could be in the back and the store could be in the front. It just made sense since we had the space so we started the renovation last November. It was actually really fast and we finished it in January. But we wanted to wait to officially open the store [until May] because I needed to be in the space before I knew what I wanted to put into it. So we did the showroom in February and then we moved the spring collection in the beginning of March. And over that next month and a half, we really got to feel what we wanted, You know, where do we want the mirror, just things like that. We weren’t working with an architect for that. It’s hard to know until you’re in the space what makes the most sense. And with the jewelry too, I knew I wanted jewelry but I didn’t even know where I wanted to display it. So now we’re actually going to create a display case. Jon’s doing that right now.

Lauren: So what were the characteristics of the space that you knew you wanted going in?

Tess: To maintain some of the original environment because it’s a really old building. This was the original ceiling and we uncovered it and found this beautiful wood ceiling and the brick wall. Then painting it white but not completely covering it—we actually just primed it, I wanted to keep it so it wasn’t too perfect because I like where you have the character—it’s clean but it’s not too perfect. We wanted to keep a little bit of the rawness, and then the floors have a very clean, light and airy feeling. And we also wanted to keep the flow; the openness to the front to the back.

Lauren: Yes, I see you didn’t bring the wall all the way up.

Tess: Yes, we kept that open and it’s just nice how your eye carries through. And then as far as the rest, [we wanted] everything flexible so we can move it around the space. Every season, I want to do something with another person and have it work with the collection. I just feel like it’s important to work around that so…I’m just working out what we’re doing for fall but things need to be able to shift around whatever that presentation is.

Lauren: So what did you for spring?

Tess: Spring is with Carol. It was sort of a continuation of what we did for the show but because the space is a lot smaller, we’re still working with what makes sense for the space. It’s been really nice to work here; it has really good energy.

Lauren: Any other collaborations or anything coming up that you want to talk about?

Tess: We’re definitely doing sunglasses for spring 2012, which will be really fun.

Lauren: And what stores are you wholesaling to now?

Tess: Barneys, Ron Herman, Joan Shepp, Weathervane… We’re in 25 stores now and this coming spring we’ll be expanding to Europe. So we’re on track; it all goes back to our business plan. I have to say it’s really nice because we had this laid out and it’s great to have worked out the original plan and to see that things are coming together how we were projecting it is good. I like that—I like organization—so it’s great!

Lauren David Peden is editor of The Fashion Informer and contributing editor at Rue La La. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, Surface, Time Out, SHOWstudio, Plastique, UK and many other publications.


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