Friday, September 2, 2011

Feature on Nina Ganci--Collaboration partner

Interior long view of SKIF International in St. Louis
I took this shot about half way up the steps at one end of SKIF International, Nina Ganci's fashion factory and wholesale shop on "The Hill" in St. Louis.  Nina founded SKIF in 1994 after she returned from a year long odyssey in Milan and Paris.  Her European adventure afforded her the opportunity to work four months (unpaid!) in the atelier of Martin Margiela, an independent designer in Paris following a stint in Milan working for a man who installed fire sprinkler systems.  An odd combination of experiences to be sure, but they left an indelible impression on Nina.  Nina told me a story about hand stitching the cuffs on the jacket below for the designer in Paris.

Hand labor experience in the atelier

I first encountered Nina in my classroom at Notre Dame High School where I taught art for nearly two decades.  She and I talked recently about her high school years.  Both of us are fuzzy on details.  (Give me a break--it was the 80s!)  I remember asking about her "portfolio" (during her senior year) only to hear that she'd made a bonfire in the backyard over the summer and burned most if not all of the art she'd made to date.  I was shocked by the declaration but also in awe of her confidence.  She knew then what was of value and what needed purging and she is the same today.  I'm touched, however, that she still has the art award I presented to her, an odd bar of glass she coveted from my desk.  And one look around the riot of color and design, found objects, racks of colorful fashion, murals on wall and floor and still lifes everywhere convinces me that something else of the Notre Dame Art department rubbed off on Nina too.

One of many still lifes scattered around SKIF
After high school Nina studied at Webster University for a year, then attended FIT in New York on an off for three years.  She was initially interested in interior design but switched to fashion with the aim of becoming a designer.  She's worked hard to make that a reality. Recently she showed me some of her old sketches, made around the time the "gig in Paris" was coming to an end.  I was absolutely enchanted.

The dame (top right) with the hairy legs is a hoot!  I am taken with the shoes too.  I think these designs are as fresh today as when they were drawn.  Simply timeless.

I asked Nina what she got out of her experiences across the pond.  I wondered where she'd gotten her business sense.  From the sprinkler businessman, she explained, came her understanding of handling money.  I should add that when she first arrived in Milan, Nina fearlessly talked her way into a job involving knitting machines (for which she had no previous experience) that lasted all of two days. She could sew however, having learned at an early age from family.  So she began sending out resumes.   The Paris designer she described as "anti-marketing".  He was mysterious, never gave interviews.  But she credits her clothing design skills to those four months with Margiela where she came to appreciate the artisanal, handmade things and especially the raw edges that Margiela favored as seen below.  Perhaps the greatest lesson was how NOT to treat employees.   In Paris she was hired to "basically sew--by hand and machine, leather and recycled costumes.  No pay, no thanks, minimalist grunge".  

Martin Margiela fashions

Nina returned to St. Louis in 1993 with big ideas.  On a visit to the Gypsy Caravan, a huge open air flea market held yearly in St. Louis, she stumbled across and bought huge cones of mop yarn made in the USA.  (I asked, and yes, it is yarn for making mops!)  She acquired a knitting machine and video instructions and practiced for a couple of weeks.  (Remember those 2 days in Milan!)  She began turning out sweaters which friends snapped up.  Word began to spread.  A high school chum of Nina's modeled the sweaters for her in this album.

Early sweaters by Nina, modeled by Trina (Boyer) Barchi
Nina's vision was to start a huge company, create good jobs in St. Louis and to produce radically different clothing.  She opened a studio on Washington Avenue downtown and acquired 2 more knitting machines (for different weights of yarn) but for awhile she worked solo.  It soon became clear that to grow the business she would need representation in other cities.  She found reps in Chicago, New England and San Francisco and did a trade show in New York.  In 1996 she introduced a line of pants and shirts.  She had to have something to wear--she doesn't wear sweaters!

NY runway show, courtesy SKIF website
Today Nina has five in house employees at the headquarters on Marconi Street and subcontracts with 20 others who work out of their homes with their own knitting or sewing machines.  SKIF fashions are sold in over 125 boutiques around the USA and in Canada.  In 2009 Nina was given the St. Louis Business Journal's "Most Influential Business Woman" Award.  You can read about it here.

Gorgeaous blues on the rack--spring 2011
Ever changing displays keep the factory boutique fresh.  And unlike most designers, Nina holds no secrets--her factory/workshop/design center is also a showroom for the latest fashions and they are available for purchase at wholesale prices to anyone who comes in off the street.  She provides dressing rooms and a fabulous mirror/still life arrangement for your viewing pleasure.  When you visit you'll often hear the clatter of the knitting machines that are located on the second floor balcony that completely surrounds the main floor.

SKIF International office/shipping area
The nerve center of SKIF is this area just steps away from the racks of fashion.   Inventory and shipping are done here, orders taken and business conducted.  In house employees are masters of many jobs and do whatever needs doing on a daily basis.  But they will stop to help customers whenever the need arises. 

Sweaters drying--fresh from a very yellow dyepot


When I first approached Nina regarding the collaboration show, I naturally assumed that her contribution would encompass the tools of her trade.  But yarn was not on her mind.  Over the years she has surrounded herself with all sorts of found objects in the factory that are artfully arranged in the shop for all to enjoy.  Found things have also become design staples.  The block print used on the seersucker fabric I selected at the swap meet came from a sheet of carved plywood abandoned next to a dumpster.  Nina has been using it ever since to print fabric and sweaters.  You can find examples on her blog. 

As luck would have it, one of the items Jo Stealey brought from her studio for the collaboration swap meet were a set of vintage porcelain casters that Nina grabbed the first chance she had.  They were incorporated along with some paper bowls made by Jo into a mobile structure she appropriated from an artist friend and made her own.

Photo of opening by Andrew Dobson of Jacoby
At the opening last Friday, Nina (center), Melissa Cunningham (right) and Barb Farar are having a good time discussing one of Nina's mobiles.

Nina took fabric from me that she whipped into a great dress.  She also stitched shibori rusted silk onto stool cushions that are in the gallery to scoot around on.  She constructed another very large mobile and a felt and paper cone piece that hangs on the wall.  Pictures of those things will be included in a post about the show in general.

Nina's confidence, shrewd business sense, vision and creativity have ensured her success even through this damaged economy.   I've enjoyed getting reacquainted with her through this collaboration process and I can't thank her enough for her generosity in allowing SKIF to become the meeting place for the collaboration group--even supplying the computer on which we Skyped Erin Cork when she was in Virginia. 

Thank you Nina, best wishes for you and for SKIF!
Check out the SKIF website and Nina's blog.

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