Charlotte Hess is a bit of an enigma. You’d expect to find a highly creative, award-winning, bold, young designer like her to be climbing the ranks in some fashion-forward culture capital like New York, London, Paris, or Milan. Instead, the head designer behind the luxury knit label isobel & cleo has decided to set up shop here on this little island out in the Atlantic.
She sources yarns and materials from around the world, including on island at Flock and occasionally weaves raw wool from friends’ local sheep into her garments and designs on Nantucket. The designs themselves are entirely innovative. Some are slinky and form-fitting, while others are unabashedly oversized, woven, layered and textured with silk, handmade wool, mohair, organic cotton, alpaca, and even paper yarn.
Originally from Chicago, Charlotte began coming to Nantucket when she was in high school. She received her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later earned her Masters degree from The Glasgow School of Art, and held positions at Free People, Karen Walker, Nom*D, Salaam, and Blake Standard. Two years ago, she decided she wanted to stop moving around and settle somewhere. “Even though I’ve lived in several cities, I think I’m more of a rural country person at heart,” says Charlotte.
Basing her business on Nantucket was not initially part of the plan, but it became more appealing as she began taking into account how hard it is for young designers to get noticed in big fashion cities like New York and London. “I still think it’s hard on Nantucket,” says Charlotte, “but there’s obviously not as much competition for recognition here as there is in a place like New York City.” She also says she loves Nantucket “because of both its seclusion from, and accessibility to, the larger cities.”
Being a Nantucket castaway certainly hasn’t held Charlotte back in her career. In 2011, she won the Emerging Designers Competition at Charleston Fashion Week, and at the end of 2012, she became a finalist for the Ecco Domani Fashion Fund. “It was a huge honor to have made it that far, as previous winners have included Proenza Schouler, Tom Scott, Rodarte and Alexander Wang,” says Charlotte. This year, she plans to apply for the International Festival of Fashion and Photography’s renowned Hyères competition.
Charlotte’s interest in art and fashion began at an early age. Her mother had been a model and photographer’s assistant and later pursued a career at the Art Institute of Chicago, so Charlotte was exposed to creative and fashionable people throughout her childhood. She also credits her early Montessori education with helping her establish the hands-on exploratory style of learning that would lead to her passion for “sculpting” clothing by hand. “I just really love the tactile materiality of creating cloth from scratch as opposed to going to a store and buying yardage of fabrics. Plus, I also think that knitwear is more forgiving and can look more professional using far less specialized machinery than, for example, wovens,” says Charlotte.
For the first time, Charlotte is now designing her collections to follow the traditional fashion seasons. This is a shift from previous seasons, in which Charlotte put her energy into creating custom work regardless of the time of year. She’ll be presenting two collections a year: spring/summer and fall/winter.
The current collection was the first she’d actively designed for warmer seasons. “Normally I do a lot of research, consume loads of fashion magazines, music, movies, social media, blogs, et cetera, searching for inspiration. But this time around, I was more focused on wearability and functionality of a season I hadn’t designed into before,” she explains.
You can check out Charlotte’s creations at her studio upstairs on 2 Union Street and Scrub Oak on Nantucket or online at isobelandcleo.etsy.com. Her garments are also sold at Tamara’s Vieux Carre in Laguna Beach, CA; Made in Auckland, New Zealand; and the Glasgow School of the Arts Shop in Glasgow, Scotland.