“I decided I needed to be the architect of my own life” - Catskill Culture Club
Edition 18: An interview with Catherine Carnevale, knitwear designer & CEO of Eleven Six
by AJ Lee from Catskill Culture Club
Catherine Carnevale at work in the Fuller Building (image courtesy of Catherine Carnevale)
I have way too many sweaters*. Having grown up in the UK, where #sweaterweather is less a season and more a permanent state of mind, I am conditioned not to leave the house without one. Plus, having fallen in love with America largely through the lens of East Coast based movies — think Sally’s iconic red rollneck under corduroy when she re-meets a divorcing Harry and he delivers the ultimate back-handed compliment: “You know you might be the first attractive women I have not wanted to sleep with in my entire life”; or Cher’s slouchy cardigan juxtaposed with spectacular jet black curls in the final kitchen scene of Moonstruck — sweaters are burned in my brain as a core part of my wardrobe and psyche. In fact, on reflection, I retract my first statement; one can never have too many sweaters.
*Translation for UK readers: Sweaters in the US are what we would call jumpers in the UK, and span everything from hoodies to heavy knitwear. Jumpers means jumpsuits in the US, so if you say “I love your jumper” to someone during the winter here they look at you very strangely. It’s confusing; please try to keep up.
So it was that, in the first few months of living upstate in 2020, as the temperature fell and we committed to a winter spent wrapping up to build friendships outdoors without risk of infection, my eye was caught by a friend’s beautiful, bobbled sweater, and I asked where I could possibly get one similar. Soft, snuggly, yet sophisticated; it was my first introduction to the local knitwear brand, Eleven Six.
It turned out that the designer behind the brand, Catherine Carnevale, lives just down the road from me. So, when I ordered my own Alpaca creation from her site, Catherine dropped it off herself. Dressed impeccably in her own knitted pieces, with heeled boots and Carolyn Bessette-style swept back hair, young kids waiting patiently in the car, Catherine embodied the essence of what she set out to achieve with her brand: “Refined yet relaxed. Polished yet comfortable. As women we play many roles; but there’s no reason we should feel sloppy.”
Like me, Catherine is a British transplant who has fallen for the dramatic views and creative energy of the Catskills. She moved to Stone Ridge, NY from NYC around 7 years ago with her husband Nick, a fellow fashion veteran turned entrepreneur, both keen for a change of lifestyle after many years reaching the top of the heap in corporate fashion. Catherine’s resume includes stints at Calvin Klein and Club Monaco, where she was Senior Director of knitwear — flying regularly around the world in search of ideas and collaborators — when she quit to start her own venture.
After bumping into each other regularly in our role of “soccer mom” at Marbletown Town Park surrounded by muddy kids (me definitely leaning more towards the comfortable end of the spectrum than her, on every occasion), it was a joy to recently stop by and chat to Catherine in the peaceful oasis that is her newly opened store in the Fuller Building in Kingston, NY — a tastefully converted shirt factory that also houses Chronogram Magazine and culinary studio The Upstate Table alongside Eleven Six. I even put on some low heeled boots for the occasion.
As Catherine showed me around her latest collection and the carefully curated ceramics and art in the space, our conversation roamed over 70s style icons, shop floor jobs on the UK high street, lightbulb moments in Peru, local Catskill artists she loves and that time she was asked to add more sparkle to Kylie Minogue’s crotch-wear. I was putting away my laptop and gearing up to make some purchases when Catherine turned and said: “Really, what I get really excited about is making women feel great about themselves everyday.” And, I can confirm, she knows what she’s doing.
AJL: Catherine, this is such a pleasure and long overdue. Thank you for joining the Catskill Culture Club! Let’s start at the beginning — how did you find your way to knitwear design?
CC: I have always been making clothes. My mum made most of my clothes, my grandma was a knitter. I was playing with pins when I was one year old, and making clothes for my dolls.
I did my time on the shop floor at Dorothy Perkins and Jigsaw on the high street as a teenager. Then I studied knitwear at Saint Martins, and went from there to Brighton to do fashion textiles, which included a year in industry. Over the years I worked for a bunch of places including Whistles and a stint in Milan at a trend company. Oh, and I shouldn't forgot Julian McDonald — Kylie Minogue once sent me her thong for her tour collection because her crotch didn’t shine enough. I was happy to oblige!
For me, it has always been about fabric and texture. With knitwear, you’re creating a recipe, it’s very technical. Once I graduated it felt like there just weren’t enough opportunities in the UK; but our knitwear training there is so specialized that for businesses in the US, if they are doing sweaters, they are likely to get a Brit to do it.
In NYC, I worked in a number of places, starting at Anne Klein, Calvin Klein twice, and Club Monaco twice. My last role at Club Monaco was dynamic and far beyond the management of my design team. There was a lot of visual merchandising to roll out the monthly concepts into the stores, and I always loved the curation aspect. I knew I liked working hard but I knew I could channel that drive into doing something else myself.
AJL: Great segue. Tell me more about the epiphany moment you had in Peru that led to you creating Eleven Six.
CC: Nick had already jumped ship from corporate seven years prior opening Gasoline Alley Coffee. I was pregnant, and my mum had just passed; it’s an extreme thing realizing that life is short. So I decided to go back to this beautiful place in the Andes that I had been to with girlfriends before, and fallen in love with. I had to do some work while I was there and persuaded Nick to come join me.
So, there I was: in Peru, pregnant, and I decided I needed to be the architect of my own life. I asked myself, “What am I waiting for?” Something struck me, seeing the artisan craft people and the Alpaca yarn. I wanted to make thoughtful, conscious, crafted knitwear, and there is a limit to how special you can make something in a corporation, or know where your work is going. I figured I’d be more upset if I didn’t do it, so I needed to put fear aside.
That night the name for the brand was born: my birthday (the way we do it in the UK), and Oliver’s due date. I love the timelessness of numbers. Nick registered the company days after returning from the trip. I hate to use the slogan, but it really felt like “just do it.”
AJL: I am in awe of you taking that bet on yourself, and it has totally paid off: Eleven Six is a perfect encapsulation of that dream. You have developed such a beautiful yet wearable aesthetic. What or who are you inspired by as you design?
CC: My mother was such a smart woman, always head to toe in matching colors even when she was just going to the supermarket. A lot of it comes from her, just that instinct to put yourself together well. And I always loved Sonia Rykiel — that complete sweater dressing look from the 70s; big fan. So, I thought: Why can’t I create a put together, smart feeling in knitwear?
I love to take timeless inspiration, referencing vintage iconic pieces, and giving it a modern twist, say, playing with proportion. And I love texture. I also get a lot of inspiration from artists for color. The artist collaborations I do are meaningful for pattern inspiration, which can often kick off the palette for a collection.
Plus, my current lifestyle — as a mother, entrepreneur, playing so many roles — demands that I have a wardrobe that is wearable, versatile, timeless, with a little bit of novelty.
Artisans working on Catherine’s designs in Peru (image courtesy of Catherine Carnevale)
AJL: I know that before the pandemic you would go regularly to Peru to see the men and women who make your designs. Tell me more about your collaborators out there.
CC: The artisans we work with are knitwear wizards — with the right instructions they can do the heritage techniques with a modern design.
We work with three main vendors on the outskirts of Lima, who funnel work out to around 30-40 workshops. It’s always incredible going to the workshops, touching the heartbeat of the brand. My Spanish is rubbish but having a translator — they see me and hear me, I’m a mother, working around their family just like they are. It gives them independence, they have the balance to work sometimes at home when they need to. They are often very family-run workshops: the brother, mother, grandma all working together — often women doing the hand knitting and the men handling the machines. It’s usually a woman managing the operation.
AJL: How does the Catskills region influence your work, and which local artists do you admire?
CC: I feel very inspired by the energy in this area, this kind of movement we’re in: all the like minded people, often parents, making a move, and the busy, creative lifestyle. I love hiking here, it’s like therapy in places like Mohonk, or Minnewaska. To be honest, every time I drive over the hump in Buck Road in the morning and see the mountains, it’s so beautiful.
Also, the East Coast and the weather. I love making people feel warm and special and good about themselves, and good about giving back because they know their clothes are being made in an ethical way.
In terms of artists, so many. I really do love Corinne Robbins — her work is so inspired by nature but then regurgitated through memory; and her colors are amazing. Dana McClure is an incredible print maker; and I really like Theresa Drapkin, a print maker right here in the Fuller Building.
AJ Lee trying on the Eleven Six ‘Corinne Sweater’, a collaboration with artist Corinne Robbins (image by AJ Lee) [Editor’s note: I now own that sweater. Obviously.]
AJL: It’s almost the end of another uncertain and often exhausting year. What are the challenges you’ve faced and what are you excited about for the future?
CC: Biggest challenges? What everyone would say, probably: time and money. Being self funded, growing is so scary — we choose self funded because it’s simpler that way, but it’s challenging juggling with a family. Especially because that was the catalyst for doing my own thing — my mum was always around for us and I wanted the same for my kids, to set my own schedule and be with them as much as possible. Luckily, I was taught from corporate work to be a very efficient executor, so I think that training has come in handy.
Another challenge was that buzzword “supply chain issues”: the Alpaca shortage was quite tough this last season, just trying to get everyone their stock.
What am I excited for in the future? Hmmm. The store is a big catalyst for what could be — how this off the beaten track experience can evolve. I have a new collaboration coming out to the market with Koketit — last time we collaborated it flew out the store.
I’m also excited about our new give back initiative whereby we will donate a percentage of our profits back to the artisans in Peru to support their continuing education and ongoing welfare. I want to see how that can grow.
On, and Mens! More on that to come.
Thank you Catherine, for the warmth and beauty of your welcome and your designs. See you soon, looking chic no doubt.
Catherine, Nick and their children hiking Bonticou Crag scramble at the Mohonk preserve this Fall (image courtesy of Catherine Carnevale)
Catherine’s new collaboration with Koketit launched today and her store is a dreamworld for anyone looking for knitwear you want to wear all the time. Time for a gift to yourself?
This is the last installment of Catskill Culture Club in 2021, our inaugural year! It’s not always easy to squeeze everything into life, but having this outlet to celebrate creative minds and share snippets of my own story — and write something that is not watered down for a client — has been a huge source of joy for me, and I thank you all sincerely for reading and supporting. Thank you especially to all of those wonderful people who were willing to spend time with me and share their journeys and their magic: Casimir, Forsyth, Jess, Laurie, Spike, Jonathan (he had no choice), Christin, Alex, Eunice, Set, Brooke, Maba, Jimmy, Sarah, Nicole, Jen, Jai, and Catherine.
Luckily, there is a bottomless well of amazing artists here in the Hudson Valley and I am excited to meet more of them next year. So stay with us, and see you on the other side.