For Taylor Johnston, a quote by Chuck Close sums up the inspiration behind Boston-based women’s workwear Gamine: “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.” As horticulturist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Johnston has never been afraid of getting down in the dirt. But when it came to finding jeans that were up for the challenge, she reached a crossroads. “Before I started Gamine, I saw there being two broad categories of women’s workwear: the high-end knockoffs that look like workwear but don’t stand up to the abuse and the industrial workwear options that fit terribly and are made of brown cotton duck.”
Having worked in nature for so long, it’s no surprise that Taylor Johnston framed the principles of Gamine in her love of nature. In fact, Johnston tells Ecouterre, “I am most moved by the intersection of beauty, simplicity, longevity, and purpose. I’m also quite inspired by the simplicity and elegance of honed manual work. It should come as no surprise that I feel so connected to the process of making workwear.”
How did you decide on the design and fit for Gamine’s first pair of denim?
So in thinking about the “problem” of women’s workwear, I started from first principles: why cotton duck? why the unflattering fit? I went through everything I thought was necessary, and removed all the excess: no branding, no excess pockets, no slick stitching. Just super classic, stripped-down American workwear.
It was really important to me that our dungarees didn’t merely imitate what was done during the heyday of women’s workwear, but built on that tradition. I didn’t want to feel like I was wearing a costume – I wanted it to feel native, yet modern.
The straight, lightly tapered leg was something I spent a lot of time refining – I kept asking, how close of a tailored slim, yet slouchy, fit can you get with raw 13 oz denim? I wanted a fit that felt like the best of street style and the best of the Old West; like you don’t question whether you can actually climb a tree, a mountain, or a barstool when you wear these dungarees.
I added the “cinch strap” as a wink and a nod to the art and tradition of American workwear, but also because I hate how saggy jeans feel after wearing them daily and washing infrequently. It also works well for creating the perfect tailored fit since women come in all shapes and sizes.
What was it about L.C. Manufacturing Co. that made you trust they would be able to create Gamine’s first pair of denim the way you envisioned them?
Putting aside what denim we used, I had to think about the machinery used to create industrial strength, elegant, single needle stitches.
Aside from the technical side of garment construction, I wanted to work with a manufacturer that treated its employees well. On a basic human level, I can relate to working with my hands and I want to know that the people whose work is woven into the very fabric of our garments are treated with respect.
How important was it to you that Gamine create workwear that would withstand continued use?
I believe we should “buy less and buy better,” so it’s essential that each pair of jeans is built to stand up to abuse and get better with age. Bill Cunningham, whom I worked with at the Gardner Museum, famously wears a uniform of khaki pants, white T-shirts, and blue French workwear jackets. There’s something so appealing about having a uniform that feels like you can bypass all the cool and just dig in directly to what a person is about. It’s humbling to be around people that strip down to this idea of just getting up everything to try to do great work.
One of the most important things we did in creating this dungaree is using the best native denim we could get our hands on. We went straight to the source: Cone’s White Oak Mill in North Carolina and got a 13-ouunce raw, redline selvage denim that fingerprints beautifully.
There is something super beautiful about the way the color Indigo wears and how individual that is. I see a connection to my trade and my clothing and I’m super proud to wear those fades.
I think the American-made movement tends to feel a bit dogmatic these days. Less attention is given to the “why” with clothing; there are brilliant artisans and manufacturers around the globe.
That said, there are two big reasons we make our products domestically. First, we wanted to be true to the tradition of American workwear and make something that truly reflects the honor and character of the American worker. Everything from the thread, zipper, buckles, and denim in our dungarees is made in the U.S.A.
Second, we wanted to find a factory that treated its workers fairly. We recognized early on that many of the skilled craftspeople at L.C. King have worked with the factory for decades. And further, to be able to support the history and workers at L.C. King gives us a great deal of pride. It’s really important to me that we are a part of a community of designers who recognize the importance of voting with your checkbook.
Are you hoping to expand Gamine to include additional pieces?
Things are going kind of crazy right now—we are hearing from women all over the world—so much encouragement, gratitude, and good vibes.
We believe in a few key principles that guide our decisions in building out our line: First, don’t add to the waste pile: make things that don’t exist, but should, and do it in a way that treads lightly and empowers people.
Second, go natural. I have this fond memory of living in Denmark and getting ready to ride my bike to a friend’s house. It was snowing super-hard so I wore my waterproof tech jacket. I was a total black sheep. Everyone was wearing long wool coats: elegant, but also functional. It really made an impression and it’s why we work so hard to use natural materials in everything we do.
We are currently beta testing another fit of our dungarees and building some pretty incredible overalls using vintage workwear textiles. Stay tuned!