There is just something about fashion that makes us melt with joy. Just envision a slow-mo of us throwing clothes in the air, smiling larger than ever, with tears streaming down our faces. It’s basically an over-dramatized ’90s teen flick. So with that in mind, you could probably imagine how it went down when we feasted our eyes on Cienne NY. It was like long-lost lovers finally coming back together again after seven years. They were the Noah to our Alley — if they were a bird, we were a bird. Why is Cienne so special? Let us count the ways: There is no denying that they are made from high-quality fabrics; they’re smooth like butter. Each garment is carefully crafted and designed in New York and Cienne globally sources textiles from around the world, like Japan, India and Ethiopia — so you know these items are going to last. They are straight to consumer. None of this middle man/women stuff here. They care about their connection with their clients and want you to feel just as connected with their clothes.
Not only are the clothes completely stunning (can you tell how in love we are?), but the ladies are completely rad, too. Nicole Heim and Chelsea Healy are superstars and deeply passionate about their brand (just wait till you read the interview). They take pride in their product and want to spread the word that fashion can have a meaningful supply chain and be classic at the same time. They are inspired to do more with less with versatile silhouettes, which can be layered or worn completely alone. Here at TTS, we want to completely cover our bodies with their collection, and we have a damn good feeling you will too. Cienne started when Nicole went on a little trip to East Africa for 3 months. From there, she fell in love with Ethiopia and the craftsmanship of local textile weavers. After her return back to New York, she connected with long-time friend Chelsea (who has a decade long career as a concept, print, and apparel designer in corporate fashion) to help create what we know Cienne is to be now. But enough about us talking about the girls, let’s finally introduce you to them because girls who love messy hair and thirsty hearts are always a must to share with the world.
We were lucky enough to hang with Nicole (left) and Chelsea (right) at Nicole’s apartment to get the inside scoop on all things Cienne and their friendship. Annnd, we might have gotten some coffee, too. When a name like Cienne means a traditional Ethiopian cup of coffee, you just have to listen to your heart, and get a cup of joe.
Bold color or monochromatic?
Chelsea: Bold Color
Favorite piece from Cienne NY?
Chelsea: The Dylan Blazer/The Hardy Dress – preferably together
Nicole: The Hardy Dress And The Scottie Jumpsuit
Coffee or tea?
Favorite place in the world?
Chelsea: Sri Lanka
Summer or winter fashion?
Favorite artist at the moment?
Chelsea: Geoff McFetridge
Nicole: Yelle/Marcos Bonisson
Heels or sneakers?
Favorite NYC spot to chill?
Nicole: Upstairs at Haven’s Kitchen or NeueHouse
How did the two of you meet?
Chelsea: We met at the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2003. Right from the start, we had a mutual respect for each other’s work and an uncannily similar approach to creativity and presentation. I’m curious to know how many gallons of wine we have drank together over the past 12 years.
Nicole: We met at the Fashion Institute of Technology, when we were both 2 years into design school.
Your edited collections are minimal designs that place emphasis on unique fabrics, how do you choose the fabrics for each silhouette?
Nicole: We actually let the fabrics inform the silhouette, rather than the silhouette inform the fabric. The idea is that we look to a global marketplace, and source the world for its unique offering, whether that be a natural fiber, an age-old weaving technique, or a cultural aesthetic. Hand-spun silks from India, handwoven cottons from Ethiopia, textured crepes from Japan, handwoven alpacas from Peru; each fabric is not only beautiful, but it has an insanely special story behind it.
We bring all of our globally sourced fabrics to New York, where we use minimal design to place emphasis on our unique materials, rather than the latest trend or silhouette. In terms of silhouette…after years in the fashion industry, where we worked long hours, both Chelsea and myself wanted a collection that was wearable and versatile enough to travel and adapt with us as we moved through our long days.
Who is the Cienne NY girl?
Nicole: I think she’s a lot of things, but firstly, she’s aesthetically driven and has a strong sense of self. She also has high expectations, and wants quality pieces that are aesthetically in line with her style, but that also don’t compromise on values or ethics. She’s busy, ambitious, and creative, and respects a brand with a strong point of view.
Cienne NY’s pre-fall/fall collection is inspired by singer Françoise Hardy and photographer Peter Beard. What was it about their aesthetics that you gravitated toward to create a collection around?
Chelsea: As a brand, we are consistently inspired by people rather than things. Francois is the ultimate for Parisian style — classic, feminine, and sophisticated. She was part of the ‘ye-ye’ generation of the girls in the 1960s who embodied a naive sexiness — which is a fun concept for us to translate in our designs. She was also known for her sense of modesty, which gives her an aura of nonchalance that we can totally relate to.
Peter Beard brings in a sense of grit and edge — his work and use of materials were super rebellious. We felt that this masculine vibe was important to show in our collection because in masculinity, you can better enhance your femininity. And that is a juxtaposition that Cienne will always play with.
Nicole: This was definitely a jumping off point for our Pre-Fall/Fall collections, but Francoise Hardy and Peter Beard will continue to live with us as brand influences. Francoise Hardy represents femininity and gentleness, and the music of her and Jaques Dutronc are pretty much on repeat around our studio. In juxtaposition, Peter Beard represents masculinity and wildness, and his photography and collages mix monochromatic with color, Africa with New York.
How would you describe your style? Is it similar to the Cienne design?
Chelsea: I think my personality has greatly influenced my personal style. I like to not take style too seriously and to have fun with it. The bolder the better! I think Cienne’s style is uniquely Cienne, but I like to make sure that I would want to wear everything in the collection, that is important to me — I would never put anything out there that wasn’t up to my own personal standards.
Nicole: Yes and no. I never wanted Cienne to be about us, it’s much bigger than that. There are certainly aspect of my aesthetic that influence design — clean lines, plays on proportion, graphic aspects — but style wise, Cienne is a mashup of many different parts and that gives her a style all her own.
Cienne’s design philosophy focuses on the connection between contrast and complement. Can you tell us what your design process is like?
Nicole: Everything starts with the fabric, but we’re also very big on mood and we have a strong set of philosophies that we stick to. Phrases like ‘bold not busy’ and ‘quality not luxury’ are phrases we constantly hold ourselves to.
Fabric sourcing and development happens almost simultaneously with seasonal concepts. I head up creative direction, and anything goes. I gravitate mostly towards abstract ideas and societal subjects that we all can relate to in our own individual way — like movement or time. I go into the crazy creative zone, and think about how Cienne as a woman deals with these topics. Much of it connects to something someone on the team is personally going through, or the stage we’re experiencing as a brand. Everything is connected to a human emotion or experience. I also tie in art and mood references, like tribal influences from Ethiopia or poetry fragments from the Basquiat Notebooks, plus fabrics swatches and any product ideas. Then, Chelsea and her team take it and go to town.
Are there any other global artisans you are hoping to connect with in the near future?
Nicole: I’m a pretty curious person, and I have a profound admiration for diverse ways of life and learning about new cultures…so basically no region is off limits! We’re introducing alpaca from Peru for Spring 2016 which I’m ecstatic about, and I’m really interested in working with artisans in Mexico and West Africa. I really want to explore more of Africa as its where our brand roots lie.
What inspires you when helping to choose textiles and designs?
Chelsea: It all starts with the fabric — which is my favorite part. We love building a concept around a fabric or a stripe or a print. We either design our own stripes and patterns or model them off of antique textiles, because we love the idea of breathing new life into something from the past. The most important part here is color, the Cienne brand was built on color so that influences everything we do. We then start translating the fabrics and concept into tangible designs. Creating garments from abstract ideas is exciting, and the smallest detail can influence countless sketches. There is a ton of editing, adding, re-sketching, until we feel perfectly balanced and perfectly Cienne. We put a lot of thought into proportion and outfitting — we like to play the part; where would you wear this? What would you wear this with? Would you die for this shape? Everything is relevant. So much of the beauty also happens in our fittings — some of our shapes look simple but every pattern line and seam is obsessed over, ever stitch is precise.
Cienne directly delivers to the consumer without a middle man/woman. Why do you feel it’s so important to connect with the consumer on an intimate level?
Nicole: I’m pretty passionate about this one! Business wise, I’ve always worked for vertically integrated brands and loved the end-to-end process. As a designer, you’re at the beginning of creating a vision and designing a product, and watching that idea travel all the way to the customer way very special to me. So in many ways, going direct to consumer was intuitive to me, but more importantly, this model really supported my mission and vision to Cienne.
I wanted to be human-centric in all areas of the business — from how we create with artisans to how we engage with customers. I wanted to create a connection at every point in the process. I wanted to share the real human stories behind our fabrics and design process. I wanted our voice to be real, for our customers to feel like they were talking to their best friend; and I wanted to deliver unparalleled quality and fit. None of this could have happened without going straight to the girls on the other end.
What inspires the both of you?
Chelsea: I really appreciate beauty. I am inspired by color and art, especially pop art from the 1960’s. American history has always intrigued me — I love revisiting moments in time. Being wrapped up in a good book. My mother’s vintage clothing. All things New York. Travel. Seeing how people live in different areas of the world. But outside of the tangible things, I am also inspired by living a full life — one abundant in humor, adversities, heartbreak, and all the things in between that make you a better and stronger person.
Nicole: On a high level, being heart-led is something that continuously inspires me. It’s amazing what can happen when we are true to ourselves and come from that place. But I grew up in California so I am hugely drawn to nature and water. I moved to New York City almost a decade ago, and fell in love with the grittiness and creative culture here. I’ve been blessed to travel extensively, experiencing some incredibly beautiful cultures in far-flung areas of the world, and it’s left me with a profound passion for exotic adventures and the road less traveled. I’d be lost without music, books, and all things design, and I’m pretty fascinated by business.
What do you feel was the biggest challenge in creating Cienne NY?
Nicole: You have to be relentless in your desire to create, and passionately driven by the belief in what you’re doing. You have to be delusional enough to think that your ideas hold value, and safe through the vulnerability that’s attached to that.
In the beginning, you’re in a world of unknowns, and it takes a lot to get up everyday and continue to trek toward uncertainty. A very wise woman in my life once told me to ‘dance with my fear’, and it’s been some of the best advice I’ve ever received! The minute you step into your fear, it starts to dissolve.
How do you feel both of your aesthetics complement the collection?
Chelsea: I am pretty consistent with the things I gravitate towards: Short hemlines, a little bit of skin, bold print and pattern, and beautifully simplistic silhouettes. I don’t like to look too put together and always appreciate something a little off-beat. I like to bring those attributes into our designs, and then mix in Nicole’s aesthetic, and you have something uniquely Cienne.
Nicole: I’m hugely drawn to linear elements, impeccable yet flawed design, and creatively that conveys emotion. I love taking a complex subject and visually communicating its many nuances. From our branding to our product to our voice, I see every brand expression as an opportunity to communicate aesthetically.
How does working in New York + globally sourcing the materials all around the world influence the collection?
Nicole: New York has this ambitious and fast-paced buzz, and you have access to almost anything you can dream of. In the developing world, things move at a much slower pace and resources are very limited. Both are so beautiful in their own right, and have so much talent to offer. New York pattern-makers and manufacturing gives our collection the perfect fit and finishing, while dynamic fabrics make our pieces like nothing else around.
Before Cienne, you traveled to Africa for three months, besides the creation of Cienne, how else has the trip influenced your life?
Nicole: I’ve spent a large part of my life traveling, both personally and professionally, but this trip was really different. I was on this wild journey in search of finding fulfillment from my life, and I gave it everything I had. I was on the ground for 3 months — alone and with few resources — volunteering and researching through East Africa. The majority of my time was spent in the mountains of Ethiopia with the non-profit charity: water. I was completely immersed in the culture; trekking 20-30 kilometers a day in search of remote water projects, with nothing but a translator, a 4×4 vehicle, and a GPS unit. Villagers took me into their homes, stuffed me with injera and coffee, and blessed me over and over again. I was so in awe of the beauty, kindness, and strength of the people. Despite the adversity they face, the communities showered me with all that they had.
A few weeks in, I made a commitment to use my skills towards something that would give back in a long-term way, and not just in a few months that I was planning on volunteering. Soon after, I saw a husband and wife in a remote village prepping their textile looms in the same way that they had for centuries. I had a bit of a textile background, so I was enamored by the fabric tradition and process, and how important it is to the Ethiopian culture. Later in my trip, I learned that Cienne — a name that already held meaning for me — is a traditional Ethiopian coffee cup in the Amharic language. I took it as a sign, and I’ve been on a mission ever since.
What story are you looking to tell through the fall/winter collections?
Nicole: I don’t think there’s one single story, but rather a multitude of stories that are interconnected to make one. It’s a story of Cienne, as she travels in and out of various ideas, locales and seasons; questioning, growing, and creating new ways of dreaming and doing.
After working for Victoria’s Secret for 10 years, what was it about Cienne NY that made you want to take the plunge in this adventure?
Chelsea: I had so much faith in Nicole as a person and Nicole’s vision for Cienne. That is what made me take the plunge. I knew we could build something really beautiful together. Coming out of a huge corporation like Victoria’s Secret, which has all the resources in the world, I was eager to break the mold and take on a new challenge. It also was a lot about personal growth and seeing things differently, but most of all, I wanted to create beautiful garments that could tell a story and we could feel proud of. Nothing goes out there that we haven’t given our whole heart.
Where do you see the future of Cienne NY?
Nicole: Right now, I’m really concentrating on listening to what’s resonating with people, so that we can grow and adapt and constantly improve. I never want to stop questioning or ideating on how we can do things better; I want to creatively take risks, and strive to solve problems in the world that deserve attention.
More literally, I see us continuing to tell stories of culture and connection, featuring a country we work with each season. I’m also really focused on the off-line elements. I’m most interested in creating unique experiences, and getting out from behind the computer to connect with people. The opportunities to do that are endless!
Photography by Vanessa Granda