Elisa Yip isn't scared of a challenge.
Like many of us, the NYC native turned Bellevue resident found her professional life thrown upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of wallowing at the sidelines and investing in a sourdough starter (not that there's anything wrong with that), she did something daring and completely unexpected.
"Here I'm crazy starting a luxury brand in the middle of a pandemic when everyone is losing their jobs," said Yip, Sskein's founder and creative director, with a characteristic laugh. "That happened to me. I lost my job at Nordstrom, but I had to do something. This was all I knew. It's been 20 plus years. I gave it a go, and it worked."
That luxury brand is Sskein (pronounced /skn/), and her sustainably sourced knitwear line launched a year ago. Starting with presales and trunk shows, Yip was able to put feelers out for interest locally. It only took her three of such trunk shows in the spring of 2020 to fundraise the entire production. She launched by October and was fulfilling orders in time for Christmas.
"Being inside the house for COVID, what do I want to wear?" Yip said of her initial inspiration for the collection. "I came up with four practical, comfortable pieces that you can wear interchangeably or separately and style with statement pieces you already have in your closet. The key was comfort and cozy. You want to be in it all day long. It gives enough coverage to be in a Zoom meeting. You can go out on a date night. It was very versatile."
Starting out, Yip was hired by Liz Claiborne as an assistant knitwear designer. Six years in, she went on assignment to Hong Kong, where she visited the factories and worked alongside the knitters, learning the craft and falling in love with the medium. However, she says she didn't learn about knitwear at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, where she was "only taught to cut fabric." It wasn't until she continued her fashion education at Polìmoda in Florence, Italy, that she began her knitwear journey, crediting her instant love for the medium thanks to the challenge of creating something "with just a piece of string [...] a bit of science and a bit of art."
Having spent time in some powerhouse fashion places like New York, Italy and Asia, Yip "drank the Kool-Aid," settling down in the Seattle area to be closer to relatives while she could start a family of her own. She worked with cashmere during her eight-year tenure at Nordstrom and came to the unsettling realization that it was no longer a luxury fiber. It was not sustainable either. As demand increased, the quality decreased, which is why she began to look for a better, softer, more sustainable material to use in her designs. That search led her to baby alpaca.
"The more I researched, the more I fell in love with it," Yip said of baby alpaca, which she sources from Peru for her collection. "It is warmer. It's silkier. It's water repellent. It traps heat that makes it warmer than cashmere. Why isn't anyone using alpaca? It hasn't gotten popular, that's why. I want to introduce that to America."
While Yip is marching forward with her current capsule — including a knitted jumpsuit the designer notes is the must-have piece for every closet — and working on future releases, like bottoms which, she joked, would no longer leave her models pantless. There is one more important element Sskein is pursuing: charity. The company has partnered with Mary's Place, timed with their No Child Sleeps Outside campaign. Sskein will donate one beanie for every beanie purchased now through February 2022 as part of their Our Beloved Beanie initiative.
"When we first started, we always knew we wanted to give back to the community," Yip said. "The bestselling item is our beanie because it is an accessible price [...] Mary's Place is so reputable, and they need help. Working with them as our first partnership is a great way to highlight that issue with our audience."
Yip hopes to sell out of 500 beanies allotted for the campaign with an estimated retail value of $25,000. The ribbed beanies are made of 100% baby alpaca wool, come in nine different colors and sell for $95. Though her company is hardly a year old, this isn't even her first foray into charity via Sskein. The company raised $1,500 last spring to help the Asian community following the uptick of AAPI hate crimes.
"I'm still trying to find ways to be better and making the planet better," Yip said. "I know that making garments is not the number one way to be sustainable. I'm trying to make a living but sustainably and to still give back [...] We're not just about making dollars. We want to help others as well."