The French Fashion Brand That Only Insiders Know About
For a certain type of woman with rarefied taste, Rue Ambroise Thomas is not just a quiet Parisian dead-end street. Up on the first floor of number 7, unmarked from the outside, devotees of crisp cotton-poplin shirts and crewneck cashmere sweaters find a cozy mecca. Decorated with abstract ceramics and pared-down wooden furnishings, the atelier of the decade-old label Cristaseya feels more like an apartment than a store or studio.
“You’re never rushed, because it’s not a shop [where] someone is selling you something,” says Sarah de Mavaleix, a stylist and cofounder of The Skirt Chronicles, a Parisian style magazine. “You can just come and have tea and touch the most amazing knitwear.” New York designer and retailer Maryam Nassirzadeh likens the atelier to the kind of home that might be featured in the famed magazine The World of Interiors, with collections of the label’s ceramic collaborations lining the bench underneath tall front windows, propping doors open, or dotting straw accent carpets. “It just really embodies the world [of the brand],” she says.
Since 2013, Cristaseya has been quietly and carefully turning out roomy wardrobe staples like languid suits and sharp trench coats. Its pieces arrive not in the form of seasonal collections but in twice-yearly “editions.” The label offers more than ready-to-wear too, including jewelry, sculptures, and home goods, often made in collaboration with artisans from Greece and Italy.
But Cristaseya stands apart for more than its rich Italian fabrics and comfortable Japanese-influenced silhouettes. In an era dominated by global luxury brands and designer upstarts desperate to scale, Cristaseya’s restraint and rejection of trends and traditional retail models are almost revolutionary. This is not the type of brand to splurge on a celebrity ad campaign or be stocked in department stores. If you haven’t heard of Cristaseya before, it’s partially by design.
The brand evokes a feeling of intimacy, owing in large part to the tight-knit family behind it. Founder Cristina Casini and her husband, photographer Andrea Spotorno, lead it together, and the editions are inspired by their Italian culture and their travels. The label produces much of its knitwear at Casini’s mother’s factory, Maglierie Cristina, in the Italian province of Reggio Emilia, and its fabrics are often custom. Longtime collection director and designer Wonji Hong frequently models in the edition images, all shot by Spotorno. The small team creates its pieces not for a fantasy of a customer but for themselves.
As such, the label has cultivated a loyal following, and thanks to its genderless shapes, the collection is for not just women but anyone with the confidence to wear oversize layers and the curiosity to seek out something made with an almost obsessive consideration. It makes sense, then, that Cristaseya’s fans are the type of creative people—leading stylists, artists, directors, and designers—who are powerful arbiters of taste in a predigital sense. You won’t see Cristaseya tagged frequently on Instagram, but if you’re paying attention you’ll spot its pieces in the racks of guiding boutiques or hear it mentioned by a particularly sophisticated friend. That’s how filmmaker Sofia Coppola first learned about Cristaseya a few years ago. She was on a shoot with makeup artist Lucia Pica, who was wearing one of its sweaters, and was intrigued. “It’s so rare, nowadays, that there are brands that you can’t get everywhere,” says Coppola, who spent the pandemic lockdown in Cristaseya’s lightweight striped cotton pajama sets.
As a lifelong uniform dresser who favors men’s shirts, crewneck sweaters, and slacks, Coppola was immediately drawn to Cristaseya’s separates, and she says the line’s elegant loungewear is particularly suited to pandemic living or vacations. After initially buying the label online, Coppola finally visited the atelier in person during a trip to Paris last year. “The cut just feels relaxed and nice,” she says. “I love the matching sets because they feel like pajamas, but you can actually wear them out and look put together.”
One of Coppola’s friends, actor and director Rashida Jones, says the label became “a complete and utter fixation during lockdown.” Her favorite pieces from the brand also include the pajama sets, plus dresses made in the same breezy cotton fabric, as well as the thick denim jeans and wool sweaters.
“It’s casual in a Parisian way, which is very different than an L.A. way —and that is always what I’m aspiring to,” says Jones, describing the difference as an assured confidence. “In L.A., there’s a lot of wardrobe performance. And Cristaseya doesn’t have that.”
Cristaseya has remained under the radar, kind of like one of those hidden-gem restaurants that you don’t want to tell anyone about for fear that it gets too popular and the magic disappears. That’s how Casini likes it. The former stylist, who moved to Paris from Milan in 2005, is press shy and disinterested in the conventions of the fashion system.
“The aim has never been and will never be to make more and more money,” she says. Instead, it’s “to get to a safe financial point where we can all have a nice life and continue working with passion, traveling, going to the restaurants that we like, and having fun—me and all my team.” What that means is that Cristaseya has remained small and rare. While the label is no longer quite the “little secret” it was when de Mavaleix first discovered it, “it has that image still for me,” she says. The ethos remains.
Casini started Cristaseya a decade ago with a partner, Keiko Seya, who has since left the business. They were both stylists without any design experience, but they were bored by the never-ending stream of new trends accelerated by social media and fast fashion. They decided to create a label together that had a commitment to quality materials and shapes that could last in your closet for years.
From the beginning, they downplayed seasonality for “editions that last and all together make the ideal wardrobe of the Cristaseya woman,” Casini says. Initially, every prior edition was available alongside the current release. Now, pieces from previous editions can be special ordered, and the brand typically tweaks and rereleases its core pieces in every collection.
When Nassirzadeh first encountered Cristaseya about five years ago, it stood out because “it was just very pared down and really simple shapes and just really beautifully made.” She has carried the line in her namesake store in New York’s Lower East Side since and has watched the brand evolve as Casini continued to fill out its aesthetic world with the objects and accessories.
The current edition, the label’s 18th, includes many Cristaseya favorites, including oversize cotton shirts, caftans, pajama sets, bright knits, and Japanese washi-paper suits.
Everything starts from touching fabrics and materials, trying to imagine what they can be,” says Casini, describing her design approach as “coupe et forme,” or cut and shape.
“She has a very, very sharp eye for everything,” says Pica, who discovered Cristaseya through a mutual art-director friend about six years ago and loves the label’s shirt-and-trouser sets and sweaters, often buying multiples. (She has six different colors of a shirt Cristaseya released in collaboration with Naples tailor Salvatore Piccolo.) “That balance between sophistication and elegance, wearability and comfort and coolness, she does that really well,” continues Pica, adding that “every time I wear anything from the brand, somebody asks me what I’m wearing.” “They combine Italian handmade craftsmanship with a Japanese sensibility, which is very hard to find,” says Julie Gaither, a buyer at New York boutique Oroboro, which started selling Cristaseya in 2020 and, like Maryam Nassirzadeh’s store, is known for setting a style agenda for women with intellectual tastes. “The quality is impeccable, but there’s still such a strong narrative,” she says, noting that while the label’s pieces may appear simple, they always have a modern twist in the silhouette, cut, or color: “They may do a gorgeous knit caftan, but they will do it in an amazing persimmon.”
As a result, the label’s pieces are exceptionally rewearable, says de Mavaleix. “You really live in the garments, in the caftans, all summer, every day,” she says. “It’s the right fabric and the right cut. Everything is a bit baggy.”
Casini feels the label has connected with its audience because it’s clear that it “reflects the desires and passions of the real people behind it and that it’s not just another business-oriented brand.”
To that point, Cristaseya launched its e-commerce site just five years ago, and it had an unusual strategy: The website “opens” for business for only a few weeks at a time when editions land or when pieces from past editions are available. This guarded approach and small scale differentiate it from other designer labels with a similar commitment to quality and timelessness, like Lemaire and the Row.
“Everyone else is so much bigger and more commercial than them,” says Nassirzadeh. “What I love about them is that they’re retaining their aura and the air about them —remaining so small and special.”
The Christaseya online store is open now through March 21, 2022 and will reopen later this year.