Meet BC member, Althea Simons, fashion designer and founder of @grammarnyc. Working from our Bushwick location, Althea can focus on developing the elegant, minimalist philosophy that makes up her collection. Made in NYC with 100% organic cotton, she really does make the perfect white shirt.
Photography: Ben Lamberty
BC: You make the “perfect button-down”, what led you to develop this?
At its most basic, Grammar is about creating the most essential pieces in your wardrobe. The white shirt is the epitome of the Grammar concept. It is versatile, smart, iconic, powerful and feminine, and it looks good on everyone. From a design perspective, it is something with an established kit of parts: the collar, the cuff, the yoke, etc., that I could play with, utilize or disregard, yielding infinite possibilities.
When my apartment building burned down in 2016, I lost all of my stuff and I couldn’t replace my collection of white shirts. Finding a really good white shirt – one that is interesting and special and fits well – was incredibly difficult! They are difficult to make, so many brands simply avoid them and others will make them one season but not the next. I knew that I was not the only white shirt fiend out there, so making perfect white shirts on a consistent basis seemed like a good business opportunity.
BC: Grammar was built with sustainability in mind, has “sustainable fashion” influenced your design approach?
It has always been my intention and purpose to create a sustainable fashion brand; sustainability and quality are fundamentally a part of my value system. Grammar isn’t simply about a trend toward sustainability, just as it isn’t about fashion trends. The requirements I’ve placed on the brand and myself make my job more difficult, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Despite the growing consumer demand for sustainable clothing, there are still very few options offered to designers on the supply side. It took me 8 months to find an organic cotton poplin that suited my need for sustainability and my design requirements. I was persistent: I went to every fabric trade show; I contacted factories and sales representatives around the world; I ordered dozens of samples until I found a mill that could make what I wanted. The mill I work with in India produces our fabric especially for Grammar; it is not something they offer to the general public.
One of the main problems with the fashion industry is the endless churn of new trends and discarded clothes; the average American throws away 80 pounds of clothing per year, all of which ends up in landfill. I design pieces that are timeless, and we produce them to last a lifetime. Grammar is about essentials – our shirts remain relevant, stylish, and wearable season after season, year after year.
BC: Tell us about where you shirts are made.
The shirts are made in the Garment District in Manhattan. I love working directly with the people who make the clothes. I have personal relationships with the artisans and business owners we work with. There is nothing better than the community and shared sense of accomplishment I feel with our manufacturing partners. The people I work with are experts in their field and they have so much to teach us about their craft. I love to ask questions and get into the weeds of the work, and I’m truly humbled by their knowledge and experience.
In 1960, 95% of the clothing sold in the U.S. was made in New York’s Garment District; now only 3% of our clothing is produced here. Most clothing production has been outsourced to third-world countries, accounting for almost one hundred thousand lost manufacturing jobs in the United States over the same period. Manufacturing jobs are a key to the American Dream. Many of the men and women who work at our factory are immigrants with poor English speaking skills; these are some of the few skilled, well-paying jobs that exist for them in New York that allow them to create a better life for themselves and their families. One of the things that makes our city so magical is that it is truly a melting pot; people from all walks of life in the same city working together to make the world a better place. We need a middle class to maintain that magic.
BC: What would you tell someone who is on the fence about investing in an expensive white button down shirt?
I can’t speak for every white shirt, but a Grammar white shirt makes your life better.
I design shirts for women to feel comfortable because when we are comfortable we are confident, and when we are confident we approach our day and our life as the best version of ourselves. To be comfortable, your clothing has to fit properly. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are used to wearing clothes that don’t fit, but when you wear something that really fits it makes your life so much better. Because of fast fashion and the resulting general decline in quality, we as humans have become used to a lower quality of life. I always tell people to try on the shirts - you can really feel the difference when the shirt is on your body. We all deserve to have things that fit well.
To me good design means you don’t notice the shirt, it becomes a part of you in a very natural way. It becomes an intimate object that you turn to again and again when you want to feel confident. There is a concept in the sustainable fashion world called “cost per wear.” If you wear your shirt 100 times, which is how I design them to be worn, the cost per wear goes down to $2-3 per wear. Compare that to fast fashion – your $5 tee-shirt that falls apart after one wear doesn’t sound so good!
Fashion and clothing touch upon every level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, from physiological to self-actualization and transcendence. In that sense what we wear is one of the most important and intimate decisions we each make as individuals, and implies every relationship and encounter we have with each other. What we wear and what we buy is important; these decisions should be treated with reverence.
BC: What’s the best way to get red wine out of a white shirt?
The best way to remove any stain is to rinse it immediately so it doesn’t set. I have been known to take my shirt off completely (in the restroom) to rinse a stain. You don’t have to get it out completely - it will come out in the wash as long as you rinse it. Contrary to popular belief, white cotton is one of the easiest things to clean because it can handle pretty much any cleaning method and it doesn’t bleed!
BC Your office at our Bushwick location is so cute- do you have any advice for someone trying to elevate their office space?
Thank you! I was lucky to get one of the offices with a beautiful raw wall; it helps to have a great space to start with. I try to surround myself with things that inspire me and keep me grounded in what the brand represents. This might be controversial, but I don’t mind a little clutter!
BC What's the best piece of advice you ever received?
Listen to yourself.
BC Can you describe yourself in three words?
Conscientious Designer Entrepreneur
BC Bushwick lunch spot rec?
I like to cook and so I usually bring my lunch from home, but I love Leaf and will occasionally succumb to the charms of Chipotle.
BC Do you have a favorite nook or area to work at Bond Collective Bushwick?
It changes! When I’m working alone I love to be in the smaller office surrounded by my mood boards and samples, but when I’m working with my team we like to post up at the tall tables on the second floor. I also love the booths on the third floor, and when it’s nice out we always go up to the roof!
Shop Grammar from their Instagram or website and receive 20% all orders. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, they’ll be donating $50 from every order to NYC Fund for Public Health’s Epidemic Fund, which provides support for the Health Department’s life-saving work to combat the ongoing epidemic. Their critical response to emergency needs includes the following:
Expanding mental health resources for New Yorkers struggling with stress and anxiety
Supporting capacity and infrastructure for response efforts and immediate needs as they evolve
Maintaining effective communications , including combating the spread of misinformation and stigma
Supporting a buddy program to call isolated older adults and people with disabilities to check in
Ensuring that vulnerable New Yorkers have access to the care and programs they need