Designing Woman -Winter 2014

by: Lindsay Pykosz

photography by: Cary Hazlegrove

“If you do something else, if you use your creativity in a different way, it sort of enhances when you go back to what you’re doing.”
Island textile designer Ezra Descarfino pulls one of her handmade, fully-fashioned dresses out of a box. The piece, part of a collection from her own label, is soft to the touch, a mixture of baby alpaca wool and silk, and features rich colors and intricate stitching.

The dress is one of many pieces Descarfino, a Nantucket native, has designed for her personal label that she started around 2011. But the clothing is actually made in Peru at a fair-trade knitting studio.

She is particularly drawn to the baby alpaca, or the first shear of the animal, for its comfortable feeling against the skin, like cashmere. It’s warmer than wool, but more lightweight and doesn’t itch.

“Peru, as far as textiles go, they’re masters,” Descarfino said. “They’ve been there for thousands of years. At 15, they’re textile masters, while we would be textile masters at 75. And I’m working with alpaca, and alpaca is indigenous to the Andes. There’s a lot of alpaca there, and it hangs as a beautiful lay. It lays like silk.”

The company Descarfino was previously working for also teamed up with textile workers in Peru, which is how she was introduced to Peruvian textiles and why that connection continued for her. She communicates with them entirely in Spanish.

“It’s neat because my Spanish is fabulous. We communicate instinctually,” she said. “We’ve already become friends in that way because I defer to them because they’re brilliant. They know what they’re doing. I’ll have a design idea, sketch it out and draw it out. I’ll send it off to them, e-mail them to take a look at it and talk about different techniques.”

Descarfino said the process typically begins with an idea flipping over and over in her mind for a couple of weeks. Sometimes, she’s a little afraid of the idea and how she’s going to make it work. But once she gets the courage, she begins the drawing process.

Some of the aspects she thinks about are what colors would work well with skin tones and what would make people feel the most beautiful, she said. Colors in art and colors in clothing are similar, but different, just as highlighting a body and highlighting a space are two different things, she added.

Designer Ezra Descarfino in of her own sweater designs.

“I start to be more committed to it and draw things out,” she said. “It feels really good to send it off to the knitters, and I wait for their feedback.”

Having the opportunity to work with a developing country is something that Descarfino said “feels really good,” and the textile workers are being paid a working wage, an amount off which they can live well, she said.

“I love designing, but the most important thing to me now is I have this,” she said. “I feel responsible for the knitters now and it’s neat. There’s one knitter who’s young, in her 20s, and she’s just so talented. It’s so fun. She’s trying to educate herself. It is a collaboration, and I think a lot of times that’s misunderstood about designers, that designers are doing all the work. But usually, it’s a pretty big collaboration.”

Descarfino recalled her time growing up on the island, during “the Nantucket ’60s art culture.” She said she was nurtured visually by the island, and was raised around artists and designers. Her mother made quilts, and her father was an architect.

She is also inspired by dance, and taught dancing when she lived in Venice for nine months. But she always returned to the type of art that allowed her to use her hands.

“If you do something else, if you use your creativity in a different way, it sort of enhances when you go back to what you’re doing,” she said.

When she was old enough to start working, that artistic influence started flowing out of her.

“I always sketched and drew, and I used to spend a lot of time at Janet Russo, an amazing boutique on Main Street,” Descarfino said. “She was a Nantucket/New York designer. I was always inspired by her pieces. She did these really beautiful cocktail dresses. Not so much Lilly Pulitzer-like, but they were colorful. Less beachy and more chic. She was a great inspiration to me growing up. I would be in there whenever I could.”

The clothing-design aspect of her artwork just came naturally to her, she said. She painted for a while, but it soon occurred to her that she was more proficient at design than art.

After living off-island for nearly six years, she decided to return to her roots with her son Ryley, 14.

“I came back for the summer with my son and he really wanted to stay,” she said. “I had never really lived away from Nantucket for more than six months at a time, and that was just traveling. That time I had been away for almost six years. I had the most amazing appreciation after being away. This is such a beautiful place. I can’t imagine anywhere else being home. Nantucket is such a nurturing place for an artist. Once you find your niche, they’ll take you in and guide you, for sure.”

Descarfino’s pieces are sold at Hepburn on Salem Street, where she will also be having a trunk show over Thanksgiving weekend. Island resident Abergavenny Whiteford has also been modeling her work since last summer.

“Tracy Berry, who owns Hepburn, has been wonderful. She’s been great to me,” Descarfino said.

Whenever she gets a chance, Descarfino travels to Peru to visit the women with whom she partners. Last

year on her travels, she saw textiles that were 2,000 years old.

“Last time, I pretty much spent most of my time with the knitters and in Lima, but the next time I would really like to go up to Arequipa because that is a beautiful city. There are so many beautiful places I would like to visit,” she said. “The ultimate dream is to bring my son on a surfing trip, but that would be more of a coastal trip.”

One of Descarfino’s major goals is to make women happy with her dress designs, and in order to do that, she said she has to remain flexible, openhearted and considerate of others. The more time she takes with a piece, the better the final result.

“The most important piece for me is that these designs are highly ethical, the production and everything that goes into it down to Aber modeling for me. She’s a beautiful, intelligent, healthy woman, and my knitters are treated well and I take my time, I listen to what the knitters have to say and listen to what the feedback at Hepburn is,” she said. “The most important thing as a designer, for me, is being really open to collaboration.” ///

Lindsay Pykosz is a Nantucket native and staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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