Theresa Williams Founders, Celsious

WRITING Phoebe Lemon

PHOTOGRAPHS Yekaterrina Guyada

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In part two of my ethnography, I discussed how fashion provides a means to express and communicate our character, morals, and personhood, and yet not everyone needs to be a dedicated fashionista to do so. Given that fashion is a distinctly personalized experience, in this final part I seek to understand how one’s individual relationship with fashion shapes how one assigns value, sentiment, and emotion to their clothes, and to what degree. What makes a piece special? What are the requirements to love it?

Within all of my conversations, I asked individuals broadly: “What do you look for when shopping?” The responses I received varied greatly. For example, I came to know Nancy, the woman who owns the factory where GRAMMAR’s garments are made, who has been working with the company for nearly a decade. We chat for the first time in her office, which seems to be chronically crowded with old Chinese New Year decorations and a hodgepodge of fabric scraps. Her office is situated in the back of the factory, which is really not a factory at all, but rather a singular floor filled front to back with long sewing tables, with a single wall reserved for storage. It’s difficult to believe that all the sewing for GRAMMAR and a number of other brands takes place here, and even more difficult to believe that this is the birthplace of ten years of friendship between Nancy and Althea.

Ironically, we spend the most of our time chatting over other things, bonding over our childhoods growing up with an immigrant parent. I tell her all the details of my adoption story, and in return she tells me of her unexpected journey towards taking over the factory that was first opened by her mother in the late 1970’s after immigrating from Shanghai. When we finally start talking about clothes, she puffs her chest and says bluntly “I guess I just like simple. I’m boring. You don’t have to put that in though.” Nancy, who is cynical and sarcastic much like myself, so I can’t help at laugh at the way she speaks with a hint of self-deprecation. She admits that although she owns the factory, her expertise was never in sewing, but instead pattern design. As a result, she pays close attention to the cut, fit, and quality of the fabric. “When I shop, I look for good workmanship, because I know how to look for it,” she says.

In another one of my meetings with Holly, who has worked directly in the industry, also notes how her expertise lends to a higher preference for quality and ethicality and aims to avoid fast fashion “99% of the time”. She shares, “I need to have confidence in the sourcing of material and craftsmanship, which I think is what GRAMMAR provides.” Though unlike Nancy, she does not like the boring and the simple, but is rather open to try new trends and experiment.

My coworker Sydney, also the right-hand woman of Althea, former theater kid, and romance novel enthusiast, expresses similar sentiment on sustainable fashion. “When I was growing up my mom opened one of the first natural foods stores, and this was during a time where there just wasn’t a lot of that. I felt like I’ve always been surrounded by the sustainability, ethicality dialogue since childhood, and I could very easily define to someone what that means in terms of food.”

She begins counting off her fingers with an open palm, “You know, terms like natural, organic, sustainable, etc., there are very clear and defined lines in the food industry, but not for fashion. I feel like me being at GRAMMAR and opening myself to this industry was really a way for me to explore and discover my own value systems through fashion.” Along with being conscious of the sourcing, Sydney shops with work in mind, often on the lookout for classic, minimal staples, though she also loves a good hunt for a vintage piece or a 70’s inspired silhouette. I recall one morning when she had shown me a mirror selfie of one of her going out outfits, consisting of a scarf tied as a top and a pair of ivory Gogo boots.

Of all the individuals I spoke with, many of them did mention how sustainability was important to them, though many did not. If anything, the range of responses I receive only emphasize the fact that regardless of stylistic choices, we rarely blindly buy. Instead, we all formulate a process that keeps us from pulling the same things out of the dirty laundry bin over and over. Interestingly, such a process involves a heavy amount of self-reflection and being critical of whether an item reflects the best version of ourselves. Namely, I found that in my conversations, the dialogue was never “I bought/wear/love it because it looks” a certain way. Rather, everyone I spoke with was far more invested in the conversation of “I bought/wear/love it because it makes me feel” a certain way, and this distinction is remarkably important.

Namely, Pam shares that one of her most sentimental pieces she owns is a GRAMMAR dress. In simple terms, she wears it because she “loves how beautiful the fabric is”. Though on a deeper level, she tells me, “I love it because, well, from the moment I put it on I just thought, I want to go dancing.” She holds her hands up to her face, looking up as if lost in her own daydream.

“I told my husband too, ‘You need to take me out dancing in this!’”. Pam also describes a French style laced blouse, another GRAMMAR skirt that are among her most cherished pieces, and instead of commenting on some physical aspect of the piece, such as the shape or color, she beams about the wondrous effects they have on her. “It feels like magic on me,” “it makes me feel like a million bucks,” and “it makes me want to go out into the world”, are just some of the phrases she uses.

Sydney too, shares with me, “When I’m wearing an outfit that makes me feel good, those are my good days—when I feel like I can accomplish anything.” As someone who is incredibly in tune with the changes of her emotions and mental state, she always wants to be mindful of honoring how she’s feeling “in that moment” with her outfits.

It became clear that to enjoy and appreciate a piece of clothing, one must not only like the way it looks, but also how it feels, both physically and emotionally. To love something is to love the way that we feel in it, to feel like the best version of ourselves, our identity, and our character. It is only when an item can represent us in the fullest, most genuine way that we can begin to have a meaningful connection to it. Furthermore, the connections an individual builds with their clothing and their significance are measured not by the aesthetic quality of the garment, but rather the emotions, memories, and hau it possesses, which cannot be identified by a color, a price, a material, or any adjective, really. Instead, they are measured by something far more complex than that. As Althea proposes, “it’s hard to describe,” but can perhaps only be described through stories.

Of such stories, both Holly and Sydney describe garments that have been passed down from their mothers, things that don’t quite have the financial weight to be called an heirloom, but are emblems of familial ties, nonetheless. Holly tells of an embroidered crop top that once belonged to her mother in the early seventies; she says, “I love being able to imagine my mom wearing something that I now wear.”

Sydney also has many pieces in her closet that were passed down by her mother. I grew to love this funky, slate gray, almost satin like vest that Sydney would frequently wear to the office, only to find out later that it was the same vest that her mother wore at the rehearsal dinner of her wedding. For Sydney, wearing something that was once worn on the day of such a cherished, life changing event, feels almost as though she holds the power to keeping that memory alive.

What’s more, the notion of sentimental, valuable clothing can go beyond the bounds of blood; they may also be emblems of friendship and bonding between two people, with Holly and Althea being but of one instant of this phenomenon. Holly is not only Althea’s best friend, who has accompanied her throughout childhood, university, and their later adult lives, but she is also Althea[s main source of emotional and creative support when it comes to her business. In her words, she has been “a sounding board” for the brand since before it even had its name. She has witnessed its expansion from a single line of white shirts to a range of collections that it has today, having owned many older pieces, as well as recent pieces like the flannel and the Agent, which she wears all the time.

As Holly reminisces about her friendship, she asserts, “GRAMMAR pieces represent the mind, creativity, and craftsmanship of my best friend.” Further, she admits that while not all pieces match her style, and that she won’t be wearing the brand every day, nonetheless she argues, “They’re still so special because when I wear them, it’s like having my best friend with me wherever I go.” On one such occasion, Holly wore the Agent to her interview with Dior, where she now works. Wearing the shirt during such a critical moment in her career, Holly thought to herself, “Althea’s got my back!”

She speaks of these pieces as if they were Althea herself, providing her with the utmost care and support, guiding her through both the obstacles and accomplishments. How remarkable, how a simple vest or blouse, objects that are seemingly so inanimate, can become so humanized through their wearers, almost as if they had a life of their own. Shown to illustrate the most vulnerable and intimate of bonds, we cannot help but wonder whether anything can truly be just an object on a shelf.

Hence, more than being able to articulate the positive ways that clothing makes an individual feel, to love something is also to be able to say, “it reminds me of...”, or “it makes me think of...”. It is the ability to remember its origins, with attentiveness to not necessarily the item itself, but the time, place, mood, and event(s) associated with how one came to own it. In other words, to possess love for clothing means to possess a meaningful memory or story. Indeed, such stories can be as concise as the passing down of an object between mother and daughter, as described above; however, in other cases, these objects might merely be excerpts of a story far more complex.

For example, Althea retells me the story of the Alliteration dress, a design that holds a special place in her heart, which became molded through the special history of how the design came to be. It was one of my final days at the office, and I sit with Althea and Sydney behind our tiny marble table, talking about business and talking about life. A pseudo meeting and pseudo social hour, the only thing missing was a glass of white wine from Althea’s wine fridge. She and Sydney take turns narrating, and I sit in anticipation, notepad placed firmly in my lap.

“The original design was actually with sleeves,” Sydney explains.

“Right, and then one day I just decided to cut the sleeves off, and I just kept wearing it around and I couldn’t stop. I ended up liking it so much that—” “So now this is the design we sell, and it did really well—better than the shirt version that has sleeves,” interjects Sydney, referring to the.

Althea continues, describing how she often wears the sample versions of her pieces around the office and at home before they are finalized and released. Intentionally making all her samples in her size, Althea believes that knowing how something feels on herself body is so critical to the design’s integrity. Hence, that day in the studio wearing the old version of the Alliteration, something was just feeling, well, off, until a pair of fabric scissors had been introduced.

The two tell me that to this day, they speculate that all the time Althea spent wearing the sample—all the love and effort she infused into it, raw-edge shoulders and all, is the main reasons it did so well. Though its evolution somewhat unorthodox and unexpected, it had become one of GRAMMAR’s top selling pieces, and one of Althea and Sydney’s favorite stories to tell. As they recount all the details, giggling and interrupting each other, blurting out random pieces in no chronological order, I can almost feel their same love.

The Alliteration dress is cherished and loved by GRAMMAR for its success and sales, but more than that, it serves as an artifact for what it means for our clothes to have value. I argue that value—as well as meaning and sentiment—is far more emotional than it will ever be physical or economical. Further, I Of course, to be able to love what we wear entails a certain value, or sentiment attached, but ultimately, I argue that value—as well as meaning and sentiment—is far more emotional than it will ever be physical or economical. Althea’s emotional investment and her dedication to the feeling and experience of her designs, translates to her ability to turn a few meters of thread and fabric not only into a beautiful piece of fashion, but into something that feels thoughtful, complete, and even alive. In this way, it is only when our clothes have been integrated within larger, interpersonal networks of friendship, romance, and other emotional exchanges that they can carry any special value, and in turn, capable of being loved.

During my entire summer with GRAMMAR, having gone through countless interviews, conversations, and fieldtrips, a question that arose time and time again was whether I was working in fashion. I suppose people assumed that I was, and I often had to break the news that my purpose was more research than business. I also could not be but honest with my participants and politely explain that GRAMMAR’s aesthetic and minimal fashion could never be me. And yet, that is not to say that I could never see myself learning to utterly adore what GRAMMAR offered.

remember one of my first days in the office, where my first task was completing inventory of all the pieces in the studio. Sydney and I sit cross legged on the floor, flipping through box after box of neatly folded shirts and dresses, with only the hum of the AC unit and the scratch of my pen against the clipboard as our background music. When we finish, Althea checks over our work, pulling a Feminine Dress here and a Conjunction there off the rack, double checking things labelled “damaged,” scribbling notes on the side of the clipboard. She examines a few more pieces, desperately praying that I am not seen as incompetent. We eventually come across a Gerund dress in Chambray blue whose back stitching is far too messy to be counted. Althea pulls it off our spare rack, holding it up to me, and says, “Phoebe, why don’t you try this on?”

I take a second look at the dress and wonder how it will possibly be able to flatter me. The dress is beautiful, I do not deny, but structured fabrics are not my personal favorite, and collars are usually not my friend. Despite my reservations, I meander to the makeshift dressing room—a piece of pale, yellow fabric hooked over a cable that crosses the corner of the studio. When I step out, I’m greeted with beaming expressions as bright as the sun outside from both Sydney and Althea. I look at myself in the mirror and can’t help but smile too. I adjust the collar and run my fingers across the top button’s glossy surface. “Are you sure the color is good on me? Is it too long?” I ask honestly. “No, no, no. I think you look great, Honey,” Althea reassures. “Yeah, it really suits you,” Sydney encourages.

I turn to the mirror again, and although the dress is a size too big and far too plain for my usual taste, somehow it does fit, and I begin to imagine ways I would accessorize it. The fabric kisses my skin like the day’s soft summer breeze. I feel free. Unconstrained. Beautiful.

Suddenly I am overwhelmed by flashbacks of dress shopping with my mother for my first 8th grade dance. Humorously chaotic, vulnerable, and intimate, conversations in the dressing room feel like the epitome of girlhood. This wholesome interaction, seemed to have become the catalyzer for the friendship that would ensure, my love for Althea and Sydney, and my attachment to GRAMMAR. Thus, though the Gerund would never be a piece I pull from the rack on my own, it did not matter, for I knew in that moment that I would love it anyway.

Since the dress was gifted to me, I’ve found ways to wear it in my own way, which have only allowed me to see its beauty that much more. I ditch the sash entirely, embracing the shapeless silhouette, and keep most of the top buttons open; I cuff the sleeves and wear platformed shoes to make up for the longer hem and layer a series of chunky shell necklaces on top. Now as I write this, preparing to fly across two continents back to my home in Shanghai, half typing, half rolling sweaters into my suitcase, I set aside my new Gerund dress, anticipating packing it with me. Although I’ll no longer have the need for casual corporate wear, and the colors of fall are already starting to settle in, how could I not?

If anything, my time at GRAMMAR has done quite the opposite of convert me to a minimalist connoisseur but affirmed my title as an unabashed lover of things, a fanatic of trinkets, and a collector of junk. Moreover, my findings invite me to argue that to some extent, we all are, whether we wish to admit it to ourselves or not. This power that we hold, to personify the things that will never speak a word, is not one that should be taken for granted. It’s magic that we ought to make use of, because as Althea says, “the more meaning our things have, the more meaningful our lives are”.

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