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Kaya in the head office, "almost everything we create is made here in NYC."
Helena Stuart started Only Hearts 33 years ago with her first innovative theme shop on Columbus Avenue in New York City.
11 years ago Kaya joined the company after a brief but successful career as a pastry chef. Today they work as a team on what they call inner outerwear (TM 1981) which includes underwear, dresses and more. All of the clothes Only Hearts sells are designed and made in the garment district in Manhattan.
Helena is wearing a one-off sample, pale pink, crepe de chine mini dress, with a drawstring neckline carefully tied to allow it to slip off now and again and reveal two spaghetti straps. On anyone else this would be negligence; with Helena it’s deliberate and necessary as well as stylishly sexy.
Kaya is wearing a little cami with a long skirt that trails on the floor. Both covered by a full-length apron. She’s cooking. Her long, loose curls are piled high with a certain carelessness in a permanent position of just-about-to-fall-down. This is her look. Both have bare feet as these are Kaya’s house rules and the interview is at her home over dinner which she is cooking.
How have things changed since Kaya joined the company?
We do more fashion. Kaya, would you say that?
I don't think we do more fashion; fashion’s just changed with the times. My contribution is another way of looking at things. When Helena started, the concept only fit in a lingerie department – there was no context or category for what we do until she created one. And still it took about 20 years for inner-outerwear to trickle down to the mainstream!
I’ve always been fascinated by the layer that touches your skin. So much attention to detail in these garments, so much delicacy! It’s a pity not to show, or even hint at it..
Helena’s taste can sometimes push the boundaries of provocation, and I tend more towards classic conservatism…from her I’ve really learned how to loosen up, like show a little collar bone!
Do you mean about how you dress or the way you dress other people?
Helena & Kaya:
It's just my perspective. I can only relate to this work through what I want to put on my body.
When you're working are you (just) dressing yourselves?
Kaya: I have to start there because that's the only way I understand what I'm looking for, what I want, and from there I think about my customer and her needs for the season.
Was it always like this from the start?
Helena: Well, yes. I started on this path, making the clothes I wanted to wear, because I couldn’t find them anywhere. else: Kaya: Helena coined the term Inner Outerwear to describe this idea of layering season-less bits of silk and lace. It’s really the basis of the way we dress and the way we think about dressing. What’s underneath, what’s closest to your body, is meant to show a little.
A key aspect of layering, and something we’re well known for, is the perfect underpinning. The right camisole will make or break an outfit. It’s also important that my clothes are soft and comfortable enough to fall asleep in!
That’s my mother. She falls asleep in her clothes all the time!
I’ve always dressed this way, in layers; having mostly the same things in my closet, adding a few pieces here and there like accessories. I don't throw things away and I hate the idea – it actually upsets me – to think that every season you're supposed to have a new silhouette and a new style.
So we think more about adding to your wardrobe…
How did you start?
My mother, in Italy where I grew up, would have people come to our home and make clothes for us. Even at a young age I knew what I wanted, and how I wanted my clothes to fit. My mother also modeled in Milan; she would do runway shows with me and my sisters waiting backstage. I think that’s where I discovered I liked it behind the scenes, where the work went on.
How was it growing up with this hippy mom who made clothes?
I remember being at fashion shows at Studio 54 in the early 80’s – some of the models were my baby sitters - it was fun.
I would make miniature versions of what I was doing, or sometimes things would just shrink to her size.. stretch fabrics are unpredictable!
That lace catsuit I used to wear in kindergarten under a denim miniskirt!
Kaya puts food on the table and explains what we’re about to eat: all sorts of vegetables from the greenmarket where she knows the names of the farmers who made our meal; she tells me about garlic scapes, shelling peas, and the seasoned sheep’s milk yoghurt to counterbalance a frittata full of wild greens, lily bulbs, and toasted millet just to give it ‘a little bite’…
About these catsuits?
I always had strong opinions about how I ought to dress. It must have been a real pain because I’d never let anyone dress me!
I remember my mother saying how impossible it was to take her shopping. She never liked anything in the stores.
There’s a 30 year difference to your ages - tell me how that plays out in what you design and make?
I don’t think it’s much of an age thing – we have the same idea in mind – to make a woman look and feel great.
It’s often Helena that is the young one between the 2 of us! But what's ultimately interesting is where we meet.
Back to how you started…how did the hearts come about?
I’ve been a collector of hearts since childhood. I’ve always been intrigued by the heart shape; It’s so versatile, so enduring. I was naturally drawn to it as a symbol. And after years of collecting I had quite a selection of gifts, antique jewelry, folk art, etc that became the stock when I opened my first shop on Columbus ave.
So when did you realize that not everything you made / sold had to have a heart on it?
It was great to be the first theme shop – but after a while it became more of a mood inspiration than literally ‘only hearts’.
Why do you carry on making things in New York City?
Just as I thought it was important to have a shop in the neighborhood I chose to live (the Upper West Side), I think it’s important to be near the manufacturing of what I design. I’m very sensitive to making a designed garment that is fairly priced and ethically produced. I believe strongly that I should support my employees, contractors, and my customers in this way. Many people who work for me have been with the company 20 years or more.
How have you stamped your identity on this brand Kaya?
I haven’t. And I don’t think I need to.
Kaya takes away the dishes
Well, I think you do by the way, in the little things. It’s in the subtle details…
Kaya puts a chocolate mousse in a heart-shaped mould on the table.
Tell me it's not fattening
Well, there’s no butter or heavy cream..
What's in it?
Olive oil! Oh and a little bit of whisky.
How do you still look relevant and not look trashy?
Personal boundaries help! But our look is rather soft..
It's styling too. It's taking what we make, which is a sort of quiet-sexy, sensual, and adapting it to your personality and body type. I'm not interested in telling you exactly how to dress but about giving you more…
…options. Getting dressed should be fun!
Helena on her deck at home in NYC.
Everything at Only Hearts is made in our workshop in New York City and has been since the beginning. We design where we sew and ship!
Helena and Kaya in our NYC design studio
Selecting fabric in our NYC workshop; Helena and Kaya get to work on the next collection!
From the design studio to on set, Helena and Kaya are involved in every aspect of Only Hearts