Lynne Hiriak owns more sweaters than anyone you know. Being forced to wear sweaters almost every day during her formative years, it’s no surprise her personal collection currently hovers around 200. Throughout her professional career, Hiriak has become something of an expert on the garment, honing her specialty during her time as a knitwear director at Michael Kors, and sharing that knowledge as a consultant to labels like Derek Lam and Ralph Rucci. Outside of her consulting work, Hiriak runs Cardigan New York, her own boutique label specializing in knitwear and ready to wear pieces. A long time resident of New York City, she recently spoke with LASTBLOG about her love of sweaters, her experiences collaborating with major fashion labels and her evolving relationship with the city she calls home.
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LASTBLOG: What brought you to New York?
LH: Fashion school brought me to New York. Of course I always wanted to be in New York so I always knew it was not going to be an option to live anywhere else. I moved to Williamsburg about 14 years ago. I’ve actually lived in Williamsburg twice, and both times I’ve been like, ‘not really sure if I want to live here,’ but each time I moved into Williamsburg I was so happy that I was out of Manhattan. I did 10 years the first time, and then I moved back to the city for 2 years, and then I ended up running back to Williamsburg because I actually missed Brooklyn. It’s kind of amazing how it changed over just 2 years when I returned, but I’ve loved both iterations of my experiences living in Williamsburg.
LASTBLOG: From when to when was the first stint?
LH: The first stint was from about 2000 to 2010.
LASTBLOG: In your eyes, what’s different? What’s changed the most?
LH: Well in the first experience, there was basically one place to find good coffee and essentially one decent restaurant within a five block radius. It was definitely the place that my friends would not want to come and visit because it was too remote for them. But what I really loved about it is that I felt that I was on vacation as soon as I would get off the train. Definitely a much more isolated experience at that time which I didn’t realize I was seeking at that time. Obviously it was a more artistic and scrappy experience which was more interesting. There were a lot of creative people living in Williamsburg at the time, and that was quite inspirational. I actually lived in a loft with a very open door policy, interactive neighbors who were very diverse and that was pretty amazing.
When I returned to Williamsburg, it was clear the environment had changed. It changed so rapidly. There’s certainly a lot more restaurants and stores and there’s a lot more… everything. There’s a lot more people. Although the rents are higher, I will say that it still maintains an energetic charm that I think I was missing in Manhattan. It’s truly a real neighborhood that maintains the industrial charm from my first years. . It’s still the place where artistic and musical pursuits thrive so it hasn’t lost what made it interesting to come to in the first place.
“Ideas come more freely when I’m in open air. Designing has less limitations without the constrictions and distractions of the city.” – Lynne Hiriak
LASTBLOG: You mentioned that the first time you lived in Williamsburg there were all these inspiring people around. Where do you go for inspiration now? Is there anything that consistently inspires you every time?
LH: I go upstate a lot. I probably have more friends than I can count on two hands who are migrating upstate. The last ten years the inner hippie in me has been screaming to come out, so reconnecting with the woods and being inspired by nature has become really important to me. Growing up with nature is something that most of my generation did as children, and I simply lost connection with it when living in the concrete jungle of Manhattan. So I feel like the pursuit of living more simply with the earth is inspiring in itself. Ideas come more freely when I’m in open air. Designing has less limitations without the constrictions and distractions of the city.
LASTBLOG: Do you think that there’s a mentality to people who live in places like New York? Something that keeps them there, that keeps them from being able to live in the country, from being able to live that slowed down lifestyle?
LH: I think there are certain things… For example when I was younger there was definitely that feeling of, “I’m gonna miss out,” and I think everyone coming to New York from elsewhere tends have that feeling. You know, missing out on the big party, on the big event. I think that New York has this ability to really suck you in, and I mean that in a good way. It is energetic, and it does grab you, and it can be hard to let it go. When I travel, or especially when I am coming back from upstate, there’s always this sense of “do I really need to come back so soon? When’s the last utmost minute that I need to be back in town so that I can maximize my time elsewhere?” It used to be that I couldn’t wait to get back to New York. When I was back home in Pennsylvania, working summers during college, I was dying and yearning for New York. That feeling has shifted over the years.
I’ve always said “I could never leave New York” and I consider my self a die-hard New Yorker, but now I could see myself living somewhere else. It’s ironic, because in my 20’s, I traveled more than the average person for work. Even though I was able to explore so many other countries and had many opportunities internationally, I never had a desire to live anywhere else but New York because I thought New York was the center of the Universe. Perspectives change and we go back to our roots as we get older and I sometimes make fun of myself for not recognizing some of those obvious fundamentals.
LASTBLOG: Do you remember what the moment was when that clicked?
LH: It was when I was having a conversation with a friend and I just said, “You know, I just want to make my essential oil blends. My end game is doing yoga, collecting crystals, making my oils, living near a river or ocean and I want to be that old content lady who’s living in 80º weather all the time.” My friend basically said, “so, you know you can’t live here. You would have to move.” Obviously I would have to move. Yet at the same time that never was obvious because it was always just a fantasy to live a simpler life where every day is sunny.
“Yes! So I consider myself the sweater fixer.” – Lynne Hiriak
LASTBLOG: Before starting Cardigan, you worked for the likes of Michael Kors, Derek Lam, Lela Rose, and Thakoon. How does collaboration at these offices compare to collaboration at Cardigan?
LH: At Michael Kors I was an employee, so that was my previous corporate life. Michael was great because I would work with him directly, and Michael is very accessible to his team. Over 5 years I learned a great deal about merchandising and design from Michael and the amazing team at that company. It was a very close knit environment at the time and everyday was a collaborative effort. Working at MK informed much about how I currently process and run my design team for my own business.
After I left Michael, I knew another full-time job just wasn’t going to satisfy me. I was already pretty satisfied at MK. I felt like I needed to expand my range of design experience that didn’t necessarily involve climbing up the corporate ladder. So I started a consulting business, because naturally one thing I was good at was sweaters. I started the consulting business almost 10 years ago so I’ve definitely evolved and matured from just being a very good designer, to helping others run their businesses and help problem solve. What’s great about consulting is that I not only consult for other brands, sometimes I consult for designers. They offer two different dynamics in terms of collaborative efforts. Do you ever watch Scandal?
LASTBLOG: I’ve seen like 2 episodes.
LH: So, I consider myself… what is the the lead character? Kerry Washington.
LASTBLOG: She’s like a “fixer.”
LH: Yes! So I consider myself the sweater fixer. So sometimes I help designers or brands design, sometimes, I help product develop. But many times what I really do is help them them with the big picture of their sweater business. I help streamline their categories, problem solve costing or manufacturing issues, etc.
If I am collaborating with them, obviously the designer or the brand has their own concepts, and what I really do is help enable and actualize their concepts or designs. I consider myself more of the fixer and an architect of their vision. I usually create the map of the process so that I can help demystify the technical aspects. So just to set an example: if Ralph Rucci’s team was feeling something that was say, architectural, because they’ve been influenced by a particular building, then my job is to help the design team evoke the mood that they are looking for, and translate it in the form of a sweater whether it was offering material recommendations or sharing with them all the possibilities of how to get to their vision in 3 dimensional form . Designing and developing sweaters actually involves a lot of mathematical problem solving, whether it comes to yarn and yarn counts, and putting that together on machine sizes. The most amazing part is to create something on a 3 dimensional level from just a piece of string.
In terms of the actual creative process, it’s been amazing to collaborate, because every person/team has a different way they approach design, I’m privileged to be able to experience these different point of views and creative styles and glean a lot of information and learn a lot of lessons. There’s no right way to approach anything, which is something I’ve learned over the last 10 years. Every way can be the right way. With sweater design, because yarns react differently. Every day factors such as the temperature can effect yarn and design or tension of yarn can effect the end result. I definitely feel like it’s always a work in progress, and that sometimes the worst things you would think could happen to a sweater actually become amazing and become the focal point of a whole new collection. I encourage my clients to understand that the end results may not possibly be what they originally intended due to technical limitations but that it’s an organic process and the serendipitous results can truly be spectacular.
Sweaters are definitely more malleable so require a more malleable mind. Ironically, there are times when my team and I will review client’s swatches and we’ll think it really needs tweaking and is so far from the original product that we are not inclined to show it. But sometimes when we do show it, the client is like “I love it!” because it suits whatever imagery they have in their mind. They’re not looking at it from a technical perspective like we are, they’re looking at it from a very tactile perspective, or they’re more interested in the visual appeal about the way sweater looks. So my team and I also learn our own lessons about open-mindedness and our clients remind us to stay flexible.
The process itself is almost always different for each client. Each client definitely has a personality, so it’s also a very great study in psychoanalysis. It’s a great challenge to anticipate your client’s needs. It’s fun, and it’s key to be able to think like your client. My clients bring out the best in me. I often feel like I do a better job for them than for my own collections because I’m not hemmed in by my own rules and I generally keep a more open mind for them.
I think sweaters are such a mystery to many designers, and I really try to demystify that experience, but also keep the experience very collaborative, and let them join in. There are some consultants and some businesses that don’t want to let you see the magic behind the curtain, they just want you to see the finished product and not give full transparency. I really try to inform my clients of every single thing. I want my client to understand the process, so if a garment comes in and it’s $400 to make, they completely understand and appreciate all the work that went into making that $400 garment.
LASTBLOG: You mentioned that Sweaters are such a mystery to people. Why do you think that is?
LH: I think because it’s a design process that starts with the actual piece of yarn, as opposed to other categories or other forms of design that start with a roll of fabric. With a yarn it’s a lot more difficult to understand what the final product could be. If you look at a string, you don’t realize that that string makes up all clothes, or I should say that all clothes are made up of string or yarn. With the sweater process it always starts with the yarn, and you make that into whatever fabric you want it to turn into. You are essentially an engineer. So I think that’s why it’s a mystery, but also because of all the machinery and because it’s a pretty technical field. You have to educate and immerse yourself in the world of knits. It’s less technical in the wovens’ world to have a bolt of fabric and say, “oh I want to make it into a shirt.”. But with a yarn you’re like, “Oh, I want to make this into a fair isle, four colored sweater,” and you’ve got one yarn in 4 colors. Where do you start? You have to actually know machinery, or have an excellent knowledge or understanding of machinery in order to create and make a sweater because you have to knit the fabric first. So, that’s why it’s more layered.
“… it’s always pretty amazing to experience different forms of inspiration. At the beginning of the process some people want to bring me a garment, some people want to sketch me an idea, some people want to show me a mood board, or some people bring you some old sock they’ve found and want you to reinterpret it into a sweater.” – Lynne Hiriak
LASTBLOG: What do you see as the value of Collaboration?
LH: I love collaborations because I get a perspective and point of view of the design process. For example, everybody has a different way of doing research or being inspired, so it’s always pretty amazing to experience different forms of inspiration. At the beginning of the process some people want to bring me a garment, some people want to sketch me an idea, some people want to show me a mood board, or some people bring you some old sock they’ve found and want you to reinterpret it into a sweater. You really get really random forms of inspiration. Some people will just send you an image, a concept image, some people will just give you a word. Every designer or company has a different process, so it’s also interesting to see how creativity gets filtered through each different type of process. I think it’s extremely enjoyable to learn, especially when someone offers me a new approach. I’m intrigued. I also just think it’s very nice sometimes to not think about your own product, and not get in your own head about what should be right or wrong. It’s really nice to collaborate with other people and allow them to drive the design process.. There are some clients where I’m totally wowed by what happens in the end, but when they first came in for a meeting I thought it was a little underwhelming because they weren’t very clear with their ideas, or I have to change things 10 times because we haven’t achieved our common vision. But at the end it finally clicks and you’re like, “oh, I get it,” and you realize that that client is actually quite a genius. Sometimes my team and I will assess or analyze how we performed our job that season after we’ve handed over some samples to a client. There are some clients who have not given us much clarity throughout the process so we are unsure if our end results are satisfying. Thankfully, those end up being the clients that end up being the most. And it makes my team and I understand that sometimes we think too linearly and it helps us work more clearly for the following season.
LASTBLOG: What kind of tools do you use for collaboration?
LH: Aside from using Dropbox, we all sit in the same room which is key to communicating. My team and I have a very systemized form of how we work with each client. The paperwork part is quite simple and quite smooth, so there’s less time with “who did what?” There’s more conversation about the actual product itself. We’ll sit amongst ourselves and troubleshoot a client’s issues, or the questions that they have. Or, let’s say there’s a potential disaster, how do we mitigate that disaster? So we spend more time doing that, and less time on the line plans or the charts, the paperwork. We like to have fun guessing what the client’s reaction is going to be. We feel like we’re really spot on if we can completely predict the client’s reaction, so we like to test ourselves. We really do try to get to know our clients and anticipate their needs, so discussing reactions, understanding their habits is key.
LASTBLOG: Can you talk a little bit about your creative process? How do you take something from idea to execution?
LH: My creative process is quite straightforward. Part of it came from the corporate world, in terms of pulling tear sheets, getting inspiration from magazines – now of course there’s also online inspiration. I’m [also] big vintage shopper, I’ve always liked to collect vintage.
Color comes next. If there’s a particular color that I’m particularly feeling that season… For my own line, my own brand, I’m always gravitating towards navy and red, but then I always enhance it with my favorite color for that season.
Usually for me great design or great ideas are themeless in a sense, and they are timeless. I try to keep my creative process simple, try not to complicate it. A lot of people I know really have a inefficient and complicated process- but then, at the end of the day, they end up with a black and white outfit, where you’re like, “Oh, ok. Not sure why you needed to create 12,000 boards, 8 months, torturous nights doing research and develop all this stuff so you could design a black and white outfit.” But for some people that is the process they feel comfortable with. They might need to get informed by the whole world, and that reinforces the idea that they still love black and white.
“The process itself is almost always different for each client. Each client definitely has a personality, so it’s also a very great study in psychoanalysis.” – Lynne Hiriak
LASTBLOG: You definitely have a very eclectic knowledge of sweaters, not only the styles but their history; every aspect from the yarn to the stitches and patterns. I know your love of cardigans goes back to your school days, but what was the point when you start researching this, sort of obsessing over it in a way?
In my early career, which I call my corporate career, I had learned how to do sweaters and cut-and-sew. Basically I specialized without trying to specialize, it just so happened that that is what I fell into. As I was doing those categories I realized that sweaters was something that I was inherently good at, and I actually understood it. I didn’t quite understand why other people intimidated by sweaters. it was a thing that naturally came to me. It was less difficult or challenging for me to learn it.
I’m not a woman who wears suits. I don’t wear fussy or starchy clothes, and I think there’s a simplicity to sweaters and an ease to it. That’s always been my approach with how I wear a sweater or what kind of sweater I wear. I just think that how you create it from the very beginning is actually very interesting. It’s unusual, and the more you get involved in it, the more you learn that there’s so much more you can learn or create. There really are sweater geniuses out there where you’re just like, “whoa, I don’t even have the brain to conceptualize that.” I think that there’s a lot more spatial problem solving in sweaters that make them interesting. It’s definitely a texture focused process.
LASTBLOG: For you personally, or more generally?
LH: For me personally, and also just the techniques. There are sweater masters out there, or people who are very advanced at creating crazy, zany and complicated sweaters. I will never even be able to conceptualize as well as them, but I would most likely be able to technically solve how to knit them and analyze the technical aspects. That’s what I love about sweaters, you can get a little more dimensional with it, with the creativity. There are still designs out there where I’m just like, “How did they do that?” I have a deep respect for them because it definitely requires an advanced brain for some of those well-designed ideas.
LASTBLOG: Do you tend to gravitate towards designs that you haven’t seen before?
LH: No, I’m an old-school gal. I like them classic. Classic Cables, classic marls. I like stripes. I am a lover of a good twisted classic however. I love a manipulated cable, or an interesting stripe with texture. The one thing that does intrigue me is new yarns and yarn innovations. So maybe it will be a polyamide wrapped yarn but it’s made in a cable,- that’s what I’m interested in. Or maybe there’s an interesting synthetic metallic yarn, but maybe they do it in a striped crew-neck. I like mixing in elements of the modern, and that’s more the technologies of yarn, and yarn making, and yarn creation, that’s fascinating. I’m not about to do an asymmetrical, three-armed, wrapped thing.
LASTBLOG: I read somewhere that you wanted to design airline uniforms.
LH: Yes! Well, that’s one of my goals.
LASTBLOG: Any steps towards this?
LH: Not yet, but when I’m ready I’m definitely going to approach Richard Branson. He’s one of my idols. Hopefully Virgin airlines will want me one day.
LASTBLOG: What would your airline uniform look like?
LH: I think it would involve jumpers, because he’s a big jumper guy.
LASTBLOG: Can you talk about any upcoming projects your working on? Anything that is particularly exciting to you?
LH: There is a potential of working with a large Japanese retailer. We started doing a few little things like socks, so we’re looking into doing some larger things with them, which is interesting because it’s not just sweaters. It’s been interesting as it’s always nice to collaborate on other product besides sweaters and I love working with the Japanese. There is such integrity with their approach to design and their reverence for the process is inspiring. . Hopefully that will turn into something more expansive in the next year. Consulting clients are ever changing so it’s always exciting to see who comes through the door next. Also, we’ve been working with J Crew. That’s been extremely rewarding.. J Crew has a section called “In Good Company,” so basically they curate brands that they love that they feel resonate with their own brand. We’re actually on the website currently with 3 styles sold out already. So we’ve been continuing that excitement for Fall, with new product being featured in August.
IMAGES FROM CARDIGAN’S FALL 2014 LOOKBOOK