Studio Visit
Correll Correll, Fashion Designers

You can learn a lot about Daphne and Vera Correll’s clothing line, Correll Correll, just by looking at who they employ: No unpaid interns, for one. When their sunny Chinatown studio is at full production capacity — as it has been in the weeks leading up to their Ecco Domani Award–sponsored Fall/Winter 2012 presentation this Friday — it’s staffed almost entirely by proper assistants. It’s not really fair, Vera reasons, to get by on free labor when the labor itself is what sells the clothes. “They look precious because you can tell we spend a lot of time on them,” she says, pointing to a recent jacket made using one of their signature techniques, where more than 40 different kinds of yarns and vintage fabric strips are woven together into a textile befitting what Vera refers to as a “shepherd from the future.” Each of the jackets takes a day’s work to create, and the sisters can make 30 or 40 such garments in a season. “Our clothes go through so many levels of work, all this sewing and knitting, and people can see that,” she says.

There’s also something to be said for the type of assistants the Corrells hire, and why they do so much in-house production in the first place. Neither of them studied fashion — Vera has a photography degree from the Art Institute of Chicago, while her identical twin sister Daphne graduated from the Rietveld Academy’s graphic design department — and most of the people they employ went to art school. “Maybe because of that, they’re more open-minded in terms of what you can do with fabric,” says Vera. “They’re not trained to do things a certain way.” Which proves especially helpful while the sisters are slicing through delicate sweaters and then sewing over them as they unravel, or producing wildly textured and decidedly imperfect knits meant to mimic the appearance of fur — “things you’re not traditionally supposed to do,” she says. “That’s one of the difficulties in our production process: It’s about chaos and imperfection, and that’s difficult for a professional knitter. We do everything ourselves because it’s very hard to train skilled people to de-skill themselves in order to achieve the right look.”

Vera is quick to point out, though, that just because their more experimental pieces can look chaotic doesn’t mean they’re any less considered. Every variation in thickness, every asymmetry, and every seeming flaw in their designs is thought out and purposeful. “We always know exactly how we want things to go,” she says. “We get really obsessive compulsive about it.” Even the pair’s comparatively simple color-wheel shift dresses — which evolved from the unisex color-wheel t-shirts they launched their line with at Opening Ceremony back in 2006 — are meticulously choreographed by Daphne, who’s so serious about her hues she’ll often dye a swatch of fabric dozens of times before she finds the exact blue or black that she’s looking for. Her fanatacism about color forms part of the focus of the sisters’ new Fall/Winter collection, whose theme is opposites: gradients of contrasting shades, plus heavier fabrics paired with more delicate ones. They’re all ideas the sisters have played around with for the past five years, just pushed a bit further as part of their ongoing evolution into ever-more complex and experimental territories. It’s that inventiveness which won them the Domani award, and which makes their studio such an interesting place to visit. Sight Unseen documented their workspace this past summer.

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When they started in 2006, Correll Correll were known for their “color wheel” t-shirts made from slices of vintage tees, but their work has gotten more complex as the years have gone by. This type of knit, made from 40 different types of yarn knitted together, is now a signature as well. “If you use one thick yarn it looks very nice, but sort of flat,” says Vera. In fact, the sisters are obsessed with playing with depth and layering in their work. “It’s the core of what we do — the chunky yarns that we make ourselves, and that type of knit paired with delicate, flowing pieces,” says Daphne. That helped them form the theme of tomorrow’s Ecco Domani presentation: Opposites.

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The studio’s knitting machine is used for making samples. For intricate cold-weather pieces like the vest in the previous slide, or their super-chunky sweaters, the sisters will often do the complicated multi-strand knitting in-house, because of the artistry involved. Any back panels of plain knit will be made on the machine first and then outsourced for production to one of the professional knitters they work with. Their loose-weave warm-weather knits, which they often cut up and then sew back together, or patch together out of different colored panels, can be made with the machine as well.

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An example of one of those patchwork loose-weave knits, which Daphne notes is “more of a Vera piece.” The sisters actually never design together — they work towards a shared theme or color scheme for a given line, and then proceed separately on separate pieces. Vera, who was living in New York at the time, was the first to make the color-wheel tees; when Opening Ceremony invited her to build a line around them, she contracted the help of Daphne, who was living in Berlin. Now Daphne’s domain is color, accessories, chunky knits, and sourcing yarns while Vera works more on silk dresses, cut-and-sewn knits, and material experimentation.

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A year and a half ago, Daphne expanded the color-wheel t-shirt idea into a color wheel dress the sisters still make. There’s a silk version as well, but the jersey version is also made from vintage t-shirts, “because they fade so nicely and the colors look so great,” explains Vera. Daphne says she has her own internal logic about how the colors should be arranged for each piece, where the rules are strict, “but it’s also very subjective, very Daphne,” she says. “I love to have some kind of gradient, some kind of contrast, and it becomes all about balancing that, and always with a little bit of surprise.”

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The studio’s knitting table, piled high with the highlight colors for the Fall/Winter 2011 collection: royal blue, turquoise, orange. “Materials are always the starting point for us,” says Daphne, who is perpetually on the hunt for various types of yarn to help inspire new pieces. “Especially when I go to Germany or Peru, I always have my eyes open, looking for new colors and textures.” Only one variety is out of the question: “Chenille. It’s really gross — bad taste, weird, shiny,” she says. “Although I swear I have a feeling that in three years I’m going to make a piece out of it. I feel like I’m getting ready to take on the challenge.”

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Most of the yarn stores around New York, says Vera, know the sisters by now. “The yarn world is really awesome,” she says. “The Yarn Tree in Williamsburg, for example, sells alpaca from local farms.” The skein in this image is a metallic blue that never made it into any of the collections, though the sisters do use metallic colors from time to time. “For Fall/Winter 2009, I made gold metallic scarves and a whole gold and silver knit piece that I shaped into a hoodie. It kind of looked like a knight’s armor.”

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A big, hollow, sparkly plastic knitting needle, which makes a chunky stitch with thick yarns and a super-loose one with thinner yarns.

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A sweater from Fall/Winter 2011, which incorporates quite a bit of mohair. "I was working with a lot of blues, and then Vera kind of took the blue story and wanted to create that bridge between blue and red,” says Daphne. “That’s what we’re doing for our new season, figuring out how the two colors can go together, despite being on opposite sides of the spectrum.”

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The sisters’ tool wall is all pretty run of the mill, except for the black gloves on the top row, which they use for dyeing. “We experiment a lot — either dyeing a fabric, or a whole garment, or just the edge or sleeve of a garment. A lot of it, though, is really just creating our own colors, especially for sample making. I’m very picky about color. If it’s not the right blue, it needs to go back in the dye bath, again and again and again. Sometimes to nail a color takes me forever. The process is so unpredictable because some fabrics take a lot of dye while others don’t, and when you start mixing black and blue to get a dark blue, some fabrics soak up more of one than the other.” In addition to finding the perfect gradient transitions between contrasting colors, one of the techniques Daphne is known for is creating pieces out of various shades of black (or white).

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Two looks from Correll Correll's Spring/Summer 2012 collection, with a gradient-dyed chiffon skirt on the right.

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“They dyeing is a lot of fun,” Daphne continues, “but sometimes it gets to be a little too physical. When we do bigger fabrics in the dye pot, for example, the fabric gets so heavy with water, and then my body starts hurting, and I need a massage. But other than that it’s a lot of fun. We do so many different things — dyeing, weaving, crocheting, macrame, regular patternmaking — that our studio feels a little bit like a playground sometimes.” Pictured: Various scissors displayed on the sisters’ patternmaking table.

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Also on the patternmaking table, boxes full of threads for sewing patchwork knits together, the colors of which often need to match the yarns themselves — hence the large volume.

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Behind the nearby sewing machines, a view of Chinatown, where the studio is located and where the sisters source a lot of their more utilitarian needs. “There are a couple of places that do machine repairs, and you can buy parts for needles and bobbins. Plus a place that does rivets,” says Daphne. “In the Lower East Side there are textile and tailoring shops, and couple stores we go to on a regular basis that are still amazing for supplies and notions and stuff like that. The little bit of industry remaining from back in the day, we try to use as much of it as we can.”

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The sisters tend to horde materials, which provide the starting points for their ideas. On shelves, and in stacks of storage boxes, they keep samples of yarns, fabrics, and jersey swatches in every hue imaginable. “Our process is we start with the material and play with it, and while we’re doing that, we conceptualize the design,” says Vera. “It’s not like we design on paper. We let the material give us the information we need to decide where to go with a design; the qualities are inherent in the material we’re using.”

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In addition to recycling old t-shirts into their collections, they’ve also been known to use old leather belts and climbing ropes. Daphne in particular — she spent most of last summer back in Berlin, where the sisters are originally from, working on a series of bags for F/W 2011. “The first bags I did used a lot of mesh and ropes, materials I was fascinated by,” she says, pointing to the example pictured here. “I love leather, but I don’t want to make leather bags for environmental reasons. So this is about using recycled materials, and I was inspired by these heavy mesh shopping bags my parents bought when they traveled to South America and Bolivia in the 1970s. They bought two and kept them; they’re so beautiful.”

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A related project: limited-edition shoes Daphne made from belts, ropes, threads, rubber soles, and “whatever strange, high-tech things I could find,” she says. “I love those high-tech sneakers and hiking shoes, and this project was kind of an ode to those. I did a tiny production for a Japanese client, but the fit and the quality are so important, so it was complicated. I hope to do something more with this eventually, but I need to figure out how to make them very durable first.”

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Hanging on the wall, a one-off bracelet Daphne made using similar techniques but with gold strands woven through the ropes and strings. “It becomes this one piece of merged materials,” she says.

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The sisters have also been experimenting with larger blankets made using their techniques. They’ve sold a few by special order, but “they’re very expensive and very time consuming to make,” says Daphne. “It’s all single threads, stitched one to the next.”

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A potential inspiration? This furry toy sheep Vera got in Chiapas, Mexico, which sits on top of the sisters’ bookshelf. Below it lie books about the likes of Palestinian garment-making, the history of dress, and fabrics made by craft artists.

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Two tiny woven sweaters Daphne bought while on a trip to Peru, each no more than four inches tall.

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This tattered rope could easily be mistaken for a Correll Correll experiment, but it’s actually a gift Daphne received from a friend. “It’s an old Japanese recycled thing that’s probably 100 years old,” she says. “It’s one of the most fantastic gifts I’ve ever gotten. It’s the most perfect object ever, in my opinion.”

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Another spot-on gift from a friend, this one most likely from India. “It’s also made from recycled fabrics, cottons,” says Daphne. “It’s new — I’ve seen it in a couple of places in New York, but I don’t exactly know who makes it or where it comes from. I’ve also seen it used for a bench, to make the seat.”

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A candid photo of Vera, taken while trying to capture a mess of totes hanging behind a door in their studio (these bags bought, rather than made, by the sisters). Though the two of them are identical twins with the same color and length of hair, Vera wears bangs while Daphne does not, which proves extremely helpful when you run into one of them.

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Daphne wasn't at the studio the day we visited, so she's missing from the portrait, though we did spot a small homage to her on the wall, on the right side of this photo: A print of the Daphne and Apollo statue in the Villa Borghese in Rome.