The formerly San Francisco-based designer Susan Hengst may have just opened her first NYC-based boutique, but she's no stranger to the city's garment district, where she had been producing her line of gorgeously-draped silky lightweight dresses and separates since 2004.
Here she talks to us about bringing her entire operation—herself, her studio, and her store—to New York, and how, despite her most recent collection being inspired by the life cycle of a butterfly, her goal is to create garments that transcend seasons.
Thread: Tell us a little about the early days of your line.
Susan Hengst: The early days consisted of a few pieces hanging in a very big and empty store. I found the store space and started the line simultaneously. I opened the store with a business partner who made menswear—at the end of 1999. We called it hrm boutique after his brand. I took the next few years to perfect the fit and define the style of Hengst. In that store I made the patterns and did everything on site, all the machines and tables were in the back where the customers could see the process. In 2004, When I felt the line was ready to be launched, I bought out my business partner, changed the name of the store to House of Hengst and brought most of my production to NYC.
Why did you move production from San Francisco to New York?
I had already started coming here every few months for materials since the selection was very limited in SF. The garment district has everything right there. It's a little more expensive than California but the convenience, production system and quality standards are higher because it is more competitive. Also shipping materials coast to coast was costly and wasteful.
Why did you finally decide to move your store (and yourself to New York)?
I am still very hands-on. That's why I moved my studio right into the factory where I can be there with it, and also why I moved the store—because I need to be near it, at least for now. I rely on a direct link to my customers. I sort of channel their comments and lifestyles into what they, and I, all want and need.
How has SF style inspired your designs here in New York?
[San Francisco] is known as a very casual town, but the I found the fashion sense there very inspiring. I think what I get when I blend these two amazing cities is the idea of wearing exquisite designer clothing in a very un-precious way. Like my "Dusk til Dawn" dress for instance, in silk charmeuse and chiffon. Women have gotten married in that dress and also wore it to work, to the beach, wherever. And you can wash it! That's my vision.
What was your recent collection inspired by? What are you working on for fall?
I had a single hydrangea flower with me the whole time in my studio and all of the colors of the collection were in that one flower. That collection was about butterflies but more so about the process of becoming a butterfly. There is the sheer Chrysalis dress that is meant to be worn over other colors and patterns so you see it through like a butterfly inside the cocoon. Fall consists of bold graphic shapes paired with soft layers in hues of the night sky and earth, with slashes of electric colors.
There seems to be a seasonless quality running throughout your line.
Something I've been working towards since the beginning is a continuous line where the seasons blend into each other seamlessly. Producing for my SF and NY customers for the same season, but for such different climates, I learned how fabrics react with body temperature and how a few choice items in lightweight silk, cotton and cashmere can be your entire winter wardrobe. The sheer dresses from summer can be layered up in the fall and winter with leggings, cashmere shawls, silk sashes and soft knit hats.
Do you plan to open more stores in the near future?
I'd love to branch out and open more stores in NY and maybe Europe. Perhaps in the Netherlands where my parents are from. For the past two years I've been producing menswear as well, exclusively for my SF store. I'm taking my time to refine it and when it's ready, I'll open the men's store. After all Hengst is the Dutch word for "stallion."