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Maker Moment: An interview with fashion designer Teresa Crowninshield

Posted by Melissa Massello  April 18, 2013 12:00 PM

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maker-moment-teresa-coats.jpg Teresa Crowninshield's collection of elegant coats and jackets are confections of cashmere and silk, just begging to be touched. A craft born from visiting China's silk markets, Teresa's pieces impress — even in presidential company. Before you try them on at CraftBoston this weekend, read up about Crown Coats:

What the first project you remember making?
When I was living in China as an English teacher (1999-2001), I would go to silk markets a lot. I started making sketches of designs and worked with local tailors to sew them up. My first memorable design was a silk smoking jacket with traditional frog buttons. I got some complements on that design, but most importantly there was something about the process and the result that revealed a lot of possibility for me. It may have been the first push moving me towards my own collection.

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Most successful project?
Our most successful design would have to be The Azurean Evening Coat, a cashmere overcoat with blue silk-covered buttons and a belt you can bow in the front or back. It’s the kind of coat that stops every kind of woman—from little girls to grandmothers. They just can’t pass by without stroking it and trying it on. It’s an elegant, timeless design, which is what we’re striving for at Teresa Crowninshield. Recently, at President Obama’s inauguration, a customer of ours wore the Azurean on stage with the President. It was a nice capper for that design.

Biggest fail?
As for failure, we’ve had our share, but I think the thing we were most wrong about was that you had to have a strict seasonal collection to be successful. Or that you needed to sell to boutiques or go wholesale to be successful. We did these things in the early years, but we learned that the only thing vitally important is to make compelling designs. When we started focusing entirely on making the designs we wanted, no matter their seasonal relevance or what seemed popular or in demand by boutique owners, we started having success. We’re now selling 10 times what we did in 2008, all while doing only the designs we want, when we want, and selling direct to customers.

What do you DIY the most?
I design through fabric draping and creating the paper pattern, working back and forth from the 2D to the 3D, making adjustments with the simplest of tools—paper, pencil, ruler, scissors. We don’t use computers in our design process. Only by drawing and shaping the curves by hand can you get a beautiful tailored look that actually fits a woman’s body.

Favorite tools or materials?
We use a lot of silk and cashmere for our collection. We love working in these natural fabrics. They have great drape, subtlety and depth. Recently my co-creator Gary traveled to Thailand to research new types of silk. After a lot of experimentation we’ve started using some amazing hand-woven silks. These fabrics are made by women in their homes using hand looms, traditional dyes and techniques. These silks are unbelievably rich and complex. We’re excited.

Has a project outcome ever surprised you?
We are constantly and pleasantly surprised in our design process. In fact, we work hard to create the conditions for surprise to emerge. We are very loose in our process. We ask a lot of questions, a lot of “what-ifs” and stay open for any possible answer. We’ve learned that staying a little agnostic about what the design has to be leads to many serendipitous results. Surprise is a great engine to drive new ideas.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Gary told me early on that if I really wanted to find joy in my work, and for my company to be financially viable, I would need to learn how to sew, how to make patterns, how production really works. A lot of people want to skip this stuff and hope that magically someone else will solve all these problems. But it’s a fantasy, a bad one that I used to have. It’s like a painter not understanding how to mix paint or use a brush. Someone needs to be the expert on the designs you’re making. You need to be that expert.

What’s your top tip for first timers?
Focus on the fundamentals. Train your eye. Train your hands. When I first started, I didn’t want to learn how to sew, how to drape or to become a pattern maker. It all seemed too nuts-and-bolts. I wanted to make a sketch and pass it off to someone to execute the design. But I realized that I was robbing myself of the pleasure of truly understanding my designs. When I focused on the fundamentals and all the aspects that go into a design, I got a sense of control over my vision. As my fundamentals have gotten more and more solid, the designs actually reflect the picture in my head. And that is what has enabled us to keep pushing our aesthetic and technical boundaries. It all starts with training your eyes and hands.

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Anything you DIY now that you never thought you would?
I never thought I’d be as deep into pattern engineering as I am, but I’m glad that I am. If something is not fitting a customer, in my mind’s eye I can see from the 3D form down to the 2D paper pattern and know exactly how to fix that problem. That’s a good feeling.

What won’t you ever DIY?
I don’t think we’ll ever go so far as to weave our own fabric, or raise silkworms for our own proprietary silk. But other than that, if you want to thrive, you’ve got to be ready to do just about anything.

When I’m not making stuff, I’m…
I’m pretty passionate about horses. I take dressage lessons here and also spend a lot of time at a dude ranch in Wyoming, riding Western style. I love the intuitive connection with horses and the epic beauty of big sky country. Otherwise I read a lot and work out. I find that when I’m doing these things in the right balance, the creativity really flows.

Thanks, Teresa!

Visit Teresa at the CraftBoston Spring show, Friday, April 19 through Sunday, April 21 at the Seaport World Trade Center, 200 Seaport Blvd, Boston.

~Tara

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the Authors

Melissa Massello is a newspaper journalist turned startup junkie and lifelong Bostonian who prides herself on her do-it-yourself attitude. From making her prom dress out More »
Tara Bellucci is a Boston-based writer that lives for fonts, food, and flea market finds. Whether decorating jars of her homemade jam for The Boston More »

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