Columnist Maya Kotomori’s new mini-series of interviews with NYC-local craftspeople begins with a spotlight on the Park Slope designer, discussing her eponymous brand, fashion labor, and time as a luxury

When I meet designer Christine Alcalay in her eponymous store on 5th Avenue in Park Slope, she presents me with a hand-made two-piece summer suit. Its wool is a rich brown plaid. A gift, she says. I head into the dressing room and pull the sienna curtain behind me. In this privacy, I sit on the miniature teak steps built into the room’s right side, a nice detail, I think to myself, and brace myself before putting the outfit on. I can’t remember the last time I tried on clothes, loved them, and took them home with me. The suit’s wool warms my hands; it’s the nice mid-weight kind that’s used in those heavy blazers Elaine would wear in Seinfeld. The pattern reminds me of something you’d see on a storybook illustration of the Mad Hatter, a cocoa powder-colored plaid interwoven with threads of orange and yellow. I button the straight-leg trouser and fasten the little vest that accompanies it, and honestly, it’s hard for me to believe that I look good. As a woman whose waist-to-hip ratio is not typically respected by such silhouettes, when shopping IRL I’m usually relegated to depressing vintage romps through the LES where, maybe, I leave with a funny-looking accessory. I step out from behind the curtain, and Alcalay shakes her head the way you do when something is so good it’s bad. No words are said; she and I are both very pleased with her work.

British photographer Sze Tsung Leong once wrote, “Not only is shopping melting into everything, everything is melting into shopping,” as quoted by Lee Eisenberg in the second chapter of Shoptimism, a section he dedicates to the market manipulation behind supercenters, flagships, and the like. I think about how Alcalay’s store is just a store, not to imply it’s lackluster: Her shop exists completely outside this mass market landscape the book elucidates. Similarly to how they build cattle pens in circles to ease the animals into being processed into the plastic-wrapped choice cuts that line your local grocer, they build megastores with rounded edges so the steel roofing and industrial hundred-foot high racks make the bulk-quantity products feel friendly and thrifty rather than grotesque. The typical indie retailer is a mere off-shoot with different aesthetics: it’s curated and special-feeling, a Dr. Dog song is playing, the store staff is impeccably dressed and really nice to you while upselling $400 plastic earrings.

In Alcalay’s store, I’m delighted by the lack of capital-A Atmosphere that typically befalls “mindful” or “sustainable” hand-made clothing shops. Hers is a space with custom-everything, where, much like her clothing, mindfulness emerges in the smaller details: wide glass doors offer a window from her backroom workspace into the main storefront, with panes that match the jewelry cases housing very un-plastic rings and necklaces. The wallpaper prints are one-of-one, some of them translated into the lining fabric for some of the clothes in her collection, she tells me. Of all the stereotypes I could possibly think of for a Brooklyn boutique selling ’40s-inspired suiting for the modern woman, none of them could possibly apply to Christine Alcalay. Her store is a world, one built on her foundational skills as a seamstress with a critical point of view.

Maya Kotomori: Tell me about how you first learned about tailoring.

Christine Alcalay: It came with me being born. My mom and I came here when I was really little. We were, like, the last wave of boat-people who came from Vietnam. She knew how to sew a little bit, and when she got here, she was like, ‘Well, I guess I’ll start working in factories.’ She would bring me with her, and I would help her work. This was at the same time as I was learning English, so I was also learning all the words to describe the intricacies of fabrics and cutting and snipping.

One of my first experiences working with her, she sat me at the sewing machine and had me sew all the shoulder seams of a few of the garments that she was making. Instead of sewing them half an inch, I sewed them three quarters of an inch. And then I had this brilliant idea that instead of telling her, I would take a scissor and cut them all down to half an inch. The seams came out all jagged and terrible because you can’t do that, right? But I was a kid and I didn’t understand. I was like, What’s the big deal? And she started to explain all these things to me about how cutting them makes everything smaller, and then I got it. I was always my mom’s assistant. Through summers and after school from elementary all the way through high school—I went to the High School of Fashion Industries—I was sitting in there working with her.

Maya: That’s a high school in New York?

Christine: Yes. It’s on 24th Street, not far from FIT. I went to FIT classes during the weekend and after school programs while still in high school. But when it was time to go to college, I went to Parsons.

Maya: Was it always your plan to be a designer?

Christine: Honestly, it was a little bit of a struggle going from high school to being like I’m going to college, which way do I want to go? I was always really into history, and politics for a while too. But it felt very incomplete. I felt like my mom and I had not finished the work we were supposed to do. It was a struggle, because I watched her work so hard for so long. That’s when I realized what I wanted to do was very different, because what she was doing was manual labor for small and large companies. I felt like it was like my job to continue that legacy into a different space in fashion.

Maya: Fashion and labor is being talked about a lot more now. Do you have any particular feelings about that, having watched your mom develop a talent she shared with you while working for these larger companies?

Christine: I’m very focused on the New York City Garment District having grown up there and working around the people who have made this industry possible. I feel like their stories have not been told. I don’t necessarily feel like the conditions in the New York City Garment District are that much better than a lot of different places [globally]. They’ve just been accepted. There are stories of people who have come to this country who are undocumented, who may not be making the same amount of money, but they are literally the people holding the Garment District together. And I have such respect for people who come to this country without the paperwork, without the guarantee that they’re going to succeed, the guarantee that they’re going to have food or know how to speak the language—and still do it. That’s the story of the Garment District. I get very emotional thinking about it because it’s not too far off for me. Their story is my story.

Maya: It’s ironic in a way, the idea that a person could be labeled ‘illegal’ by the state, and then a lot of the times, have to work under illegal conditions to be able to survive in a system that tells people that they aren’t real because of lack of paperwork.

Christine: That’s how our industry works, and pretty much how every industry works. The people will have to stay quiet to work. I’ve also seen a lot of these people thrive and build their own companies eventually, it just takes a lot longer because you have to fight for your paper, you have to fight for your home.

Maya: Have you seen the Brandy Melville documentary? No spoilers, but it weaves a very important perspective of the global fashion industry specifically in Ghana—which contains the majority of the world’s fabric refuse—in with Brandy. How do you feel about Brandy Melville as a brand with its business model and all of that?

Christine: It’s interesting. I’ve walked in several times because I have teenage kids and I’m kind of fascinated by the way that they have created a company where like everything is one size, which, from a production point of view, is kind of genius. The more practical side of your clothing actually fitting human beings? I’m not really sure. I don’t know enough about it to really say anything. I just know that if I didn’t have to shop there, I wouldn’t.

Maya: Your brand is the complete opposite of that as it isn’t factory made. On the Christine ethos: How did starting your brand come from your own personal perspective on clothing?

Christine: As I was saying, it’s always been in my blood. I think the thing that really launched it for me as a brand was COVID. I just felt completely useless, and it made me question everything that I do and why I do it. Besides the collection, I also have two other stores on Seventh Avenue that are multi-brand. When the pandemic happened, everyone just disappeared, and I was there by myself with two stores full of clothing, plus my own collection that I was trying to sell. I asked myself, Why are you doing this? Why do you buy these brands? Why are you designing? Like, what is our purpose here, besides just putting more clothing on earth?

After thinking about that for a while, I just felt like if I was going to continue to do this, I had to do it in a way that’s really mindful. There was a need for that kind of clothing that makes you feel really good because it requires patterning and tailoring and all the details that go into it. I’m designing to solve a problem for myself.

“I’ve always been working and trying to figure out what I’m missing or what’s missing from my world in order to be able to communicate that through clothing.”

Maya: Say more! How did you start your first store?

Christine: I guess I’ve always been working and trying to figure out what I’m missing or what’s missing from my world in order to be able to communicate that through clothing. When I graduated high school, I didn’t want to be on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. I knew how these companies work and I didn’t want to be just a little piece in [the industry]. The part I didn’t really understand was customer service, so I started working in retail. I did that all through college, and really sharpened those skills. I wanted to get into the nuanced part of why people buy things in terms of atmosphere, music, arrangement, and the energy of a space. Once I graduated college, I got a couple of job offers from different companies. And I was like, This is just not it. I can’t do it this way.

I continued to work in retail, and I met my first business partner, Marlene. We hit it off immediately, and she looked at me one day and asked, ‘I’m in Brooklyn, I’ve got a little bit of money, why don’t we open up a store together?’ And I thought she was crazy! But we sat down one day in an Italian restaurant, her and her husband and my husband and I. And we decided to open up a little store! It was this teeny little shop in Park Slope right off the Seventh Avenue stop on Berkeley. It was tiny, and it didn’t have any heat. It was like Sex in the City times, and I was making little laptop covers out of scrap fabrics, and a couple of coats. People loved it. Each time someone would buy something, I would be like You like it?! The feeling of… What is it called when you feel like you’re never good enough?

Maya: Imposter syndrome.

Christine: Yes. Because I thought that if they knew it was me, they wouldn’t want it. For a while I would make things on the side because I didn’t have enough time to really push them or show them anywhere—my focus was the boutique. So I spent a long time growing the shops and really mastered retail, and after 13 years of doing that with my collection on the side, Marlene retired and I bought out her side of the business. I knew that if I didn’t grow the business, we would die. That’s when I was able to open my men’s shop, and finally create a space for myself in the back where I could design while overseeing everything [in the store]. I was there for two years, and that’s when COVID hit. I moved out of the space after COVID and to my staff I was like Guys, I love you all. But I’ve got a mission. We need to be able to grow each side of the business, the multibrand and my brand, differently. And it started with me. It feels full circle.

I think as a creative, sometimes it can feel very lonely in your head when you’re doing your own thing. Being in this space has been so inspiring. I don’t need to gather that creative energy anymore. It kind of just sits in me and waits for the right time to come out. But it’s my customer—who she is and who she has become—that’s extremely inspiring.

Maya: Who do you think she is now?

Christine: She is an incredibly soft, but also powerful person. There’s a power to softness; that’s what I’ve really learned in the past couple of years. Even in my design. I kept designing for this person that I didn’t know. And I was like, Oh, she wants to be a badass. Then I realized that a lot of other things that she wanted, I also want too, but maybe not immediately. A lot of the things that I design I don’t wear until a year or two later. It’s almost like I’m forecasting who I’d like to be in the future.

Maya: I remember when we first met, you mentioned that textiles are super important to you. Where do you think your relationship to material comes from? How do you think you give consumers that distinctly Christine—experience not just through tailoring or fitting, but also through the materials you choose?

Christine: I’m a really tactile person. When I go fabric shopping, I tend to close my eyes before I look at fabrics, then look at the colors and textures. These garments are on your skin. If it doesn’t feel good, it’s definitely not gonna look good, because you’re not going to feel so great. Fabrics, I would say, are the most important to designing because they’re also the only place where there are [scientific] advances with garment-making. A skirt is a skirt, right? You can make it bigger and smaller and fuller and rounder but it’s really the fabric and the technology that makes that silhouette possible. If you look at designers from the ’40s, ’50s, or ’60s, it was technique that made each garment different. Now that we’re so reliant on new textiles, you notice that the technique is slowly falling off. It makes the choice all the more important.

Maya: And you want both—textile and mindful techniques. Do you deem technique in the modern age, like what you do preserving these artisanal skills from like the ’40s and ’50s, the new luxury?

Christine: I think that time is luxury. Anything that has to do with taking your time is luxury to me, like when I have the luxury to sit down and really focus on something and not have to be rushed away. Luxury to me is really about the total amount of time that’s put into things.

I find a lot more luxury in artisanal things that are getting sewn on the side of the road somewhere like in Europe, or like the man hand-cobbling a shoe. But there is something so luxurious about walking into an Hermès and having that kind of experience. But that kind of luxury again, has to do with time: the time the retail worker spends on you in that store, the rolled hem on their scarves. It’s always that time.

Maya: What is one thing about your personal philosophy either as a person, as a designer that you feel is most salient in your design?

Christine: I think the most prevalent thing in my life and in my design is the idea of always moving forward with no regret. I know that sounds really corny, but I mean it. Like, looking at what you do, accepting it for what it is, and then moving forward from it. You’ll see in my clothes, each time that I do something, even if I hate something, I’m never going to look at it and go, Well, I shouldn’t have done that. I did it. Maybe it wasn’t great, but I did it. So I learn from each collection from each experience. And maybe that means that I took a little bit of a scenic route, but it’s been really beautiful.