Brew Your Own -- Tools from Susan Khalje
One class and one meal with Couture Extrordinare, Susan Khalje
In my experience, there are two types of artists in this world.
There are the conceptualists. The ones who wield their arms about and plan together over cold Starbucks coffee in shiny conference rooms. They tend to be the ones who make money.
Then there are the hands-on creators. These are the ones with greasy hair and difficult, or to be kind, whymsical, dispositions and a preference to work on their own. Their coffee might be cold too, but they probably brewed their own.
Some artists do both. Take a textile designer I met at Converse. He is a tidy professional by day, but is quick to get his hands covered in paint the moment he steps out of his car and into his garage studio at home at the end of the day.
In my personal development as an artist, I’ve had the opportunity to work under both creative types, and it’s helped me navigate a direction I’d like to foster for my own career. The only problem is that it’s drawn a sharp line between what I feel I should be versus what I know, deep down, I want to be.
Last Saturday I met Susan Khalje, one of the nation’s most renowned couture seamstresses and clothier.
A mutual friend of ours, Marla Kazall, who is also an accomplished sewing professional, invited me to attend a couture hand-sewing class that Susan was teaching here in Portland.
At nine a.m. Marla and I sat in one of four tables of eight. We held our needles, muslin scraps, and scissors ready for action. Susan was wearing a black Yves Saint laurent T shirt, a crisp black blazer, and a perfectly straight cropped haircut set off by black round glasses.
I’d read enough about Susan to know that between her T.V. show that ran in the nineties and all of the work she’s done in the couture world in Paris, she’s kind of a big deal.
But she didn’t speak down to us from a wooden podium. She’s a mom. She came instead from table to table showing us each step as individuals the way a mother might teach her children.
She started the class off with several hand stitches suitable for hems before moving on to lace-work, the couture zipper, covered snaps, and a decorative technique called fagoting.
Susan had brought a handful of mostly-done couture garments so we could study the construction. Many of the techniques we learned in the class could be found tacking down side seams, hems, and zippers. It gave us real-life examples of when/why to use certain stitches.
It was incredible to peek under the lining of a guipurelace skirt and see the layering method of linings and hundreds of stitches that made the difference between a garment and an article of pure craftsmanship.
Marla and I didn’t get drool on any of them, I promise.
The ladies at my table knew each other fairly well from being a part of the American Sewing Guild and doing other classes together. They chatted as they stitched, swapping pro tips and gossip. They inquired about basting thread and they inquired about each other’s children. “What is your Amy up to these days?” It took me back to how I imagine quilting groups from my great grandmother’s era to be, and gave me a glimpse into something very special that’s been nearly lost.
Before I knew it, the seven hours had gone by, a pile of samplers were completed at our sides, and it was time to go home.
I’d learned a lot that day. But what I would learn the most from came later.
On Tuesday night, Marla arranged for the two of us to go to dinner with Susan near the hotel where Susan was giving other classes throughout the week.
I fussed over what to wear. It had to be something I'd made, obviously, but most of my own pieces were still in New York or lost in the many moves. "Wear the black wool dress with the scalloped neckline," Mom offered. Yes, that one. Mom saves the day again. But I have five minutes. Maybe it will be cooler if I add a tie between the darts....
Here was my chance to talk to the most accomplished seamstress I’d ever met. I’d been thinking of questions to ask her for about a month, but when we sat down to dinner I couldn’t remember a single one. I’d prepared to ask her about linings and sleeves and a particularly difficult project I am working on, but when it came right to it we mostly talked about life.
It’s been a rocky few months for me, and I’ve had to re-evaluate a lot of things. All of my hopes, dreams, plans, everything. It doesn’t help when you’ve had a good blow to the noggin to make you feel like you’ve got an egg beater scrambling around in your brain most of the time, but I’m sure I’m not the only 19-year-old questioning what I want to do with my life. I knew that if there was anyone to give me some experience-based feedback on the matter it was Susan. I explained about leaving New York and the college of my dreams after my brain injury in February.
I asked her if she honestly thought there is a market for custom, couture, gowns in today’s fast-fashion/fast-everything world. “Absolutely,” She said. “Especially for brides. They’re always going to need to feel like the center of the universe.”
Then I shyly asked her what she thought of me returning to the Fashion Institute of Technology in the fall.
“You don’t need to spend your time and money learning how to CAD and make tech-packs,” She said. “FIT will pump you out to go work at Calvin Klein or soemthing, and I can tell by looking at you that corporate fashion is not where you want to be.”
That’s when I knew the conversation was about to get good.
She told me her own story about her start. She received her training at the Chez Cez et Bez couture salon in New York in the 70’s when the garment district was at the height of it’s splendor. That’s when she got in the door with a 7th Avenue company and decided corporate fashion wasn’t her cup of tea either.
When her children were small she decided to go her own way. Their family was settled in Baltimore, so she was still in the range of NY’s garment district while being able to work from home.
Before fashion was in the picture, Susan received her college degree being trained as a classical pianist. Attention to detail seems to have always come naturally to her, but throughout our conversation I could see that did not exclude the area of business.
She told me about a photographer she once met who was so well known he only had to shoot three weddings a year to make a living. Five percent of his time went toward those weddings, and the other ninety five percent went toward public relations.
“PR is a major aspect of any business,” she said. And then she went on to share several of her own tips and tricks for getting your brand out in nontraditional ways. “You don’t have to have a lot of clients,” she explained. If you have a few good ones that will come back, or a handful of brides who will tell their friends about you, you’ll have enough work to keep you busy.
I wrote down dozens of ways that she came up with to expand her own PR, but they were all simple combinations of work ethic and creativity that ended quite well for her.
“You have to be in control,” she said. “Remember that you’re doing this for you, or you’re going to end up resenting it.”
I’d ask her a question and she’d fire away with passion for her work, and complete confidence in every word. Marla would add in her own advice from time to time as another expert with 35+ years in the field, and I felt so honored that they would share all of that with me.
“They best way for you to learn is by doing,” Susan said. “You’ll learn more from making a gown for dear Aunt Betty with scoliosis than you’ll learn in a semester at school.
I asked about where I need to go in order to make it work. Paris? New York? Portland? “There are people who can afford custom clothing in most cities,” she said. “You can do this about anywhere if you’re willing to work hard, and I can see that you’re not afraid of that.”
So that was my meeting with Susan Khalje. I’ve already used several of the techniques from Saturday’s class in the orders I’m working on now. I learned so much. I could have asked her sewing questions for hours at our Tuesday dinner, but I’m so glad that I didn’t.
Susan is far from greasy-haired and difficult as an artist, but she does prefer to work alone. When it comes to life, she brews her own. I’ve always felt like I was the “wrong kind of artist. Like I should want to wear shiny shoes and sip Starbucks coffee. Or at least want to want those things. But the truth is, I don’t.
You don’t ever need permission to be yourself, but when the right person says you can do something you're a little unsure about, it really makes you feel like, wow, you’re right, I can!
Will I go back to New York, FIT, everything I thought I’d be doing right now? Last week I would have said yes out of a sense of obligation to who I was before a wine bottle fractured my skull. But maybe this uncomfortable life-pause is what I need to rethink a few things. At this point all I know is that I have 2 wedding gowns to finish and a job at a vintage shop, repairing 50’s and 60’s garments. A month ago I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to create again, so I'm very thankful to be working again.
The tools Susan gave me over one meal were ones I plan to hold on to for the rest of my life —wherever it takes me. Tools for both taking charge and letting go, of confidence and passion, and a way to just “do” what you want to do, greasy hair and “whimsical” disposition or not.