Ryan DeBonville: Portrait of the Knitwear Designer as a Young Man

Ryan DeBonville is knitting a zillion fantastic circle scarves in the kitchen of his flat in 16th Street. “I have to sit in here, because if I sit on my bed I’ll just start texting and looking at magazines.” That sounds fun! What magazines does the designer of the eponymous knitwear line like to distract himself with? “Whatever I can get my hands on. Vanity Fair is a really favorite one. That’s the least fashion-related one that I look at..”

Mr. DeBonville brews us both some gnarly-strong coffee so we can get super wired and talk about how the furniture in his kitchen came to be loaded with scarves hand-knit in deep, striking colors. “I’ve been up since five,” He apologizes. “I have two jobs – one at J Crew, one at my friend’s tanning salon. And those paychecks go right into yarn, pretty much. That stuff’s not cheap.”

Ryan started his first knitwear line in 2002, calling it Toni, “After Antonia, my grandmother’s name. She’s the one who got me started on all the fashion stuff. She picked me up at preschool and there was nothing to play with but these dolls, and she would have me pick out the fabric and sequins to go on them. I had a lot of Barbies as a kid!” Wait, your grandmother was fashion designing for dolls? “She would make these elaborate dolls to give to kids in the neighborhood. She was the woman with the gold and black braided headband and white hair. I used to tell kids in preschool that my grandmother was Cyndi Lauper!”

“I first did a knitwear line in 2002, without any planning. I made this oversize turtleneck sweater, and people kept asking me where I got it. The idea was, I remembered my mother coming home from Neiman’s with six knit cashmere turtleneck dresses with matching alligator pumps. It was my grandmother and those damn sweater dresses! My grandmother could knit so fast, and I’d get so frustrated. I ended up teaching myself from watching her. I still have people coming up to me telling me I’m not doing it right.”

“I sold my first scarf when I was fourteen, for ten dollars, to a classmate. I went to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising for a year when I was seventeen. I didn’t like it. I was really young. The first day of classes you had to sit down and say what you wanted to do with your degree, and every teacher said, ‘You’re lucky if you’re going to be a pattern maker for Dockers.’ Two of them said that! That was awful. That was totally and completely crushing – I survived High School to get to this?”

“In 2002 I started styling for photo shoots, and I made that turtleneck sweater. The company I was getting yarn from had a really nice purple I liked, so I bought all of it. I made a turtleneck, a poncho and a shrug. Purple was the huge look for fall that season. I had tried to shop them around, and that wound up not working out. I wound up having eighty pieces! I called Venus Superstar, and she took them and sold out of them in six months! But then I kind of hit a wall – I didn’t plan any further than that. It wasn’t feasible to be doing all those sweaters on my own.” How long does it take to knit a sweater, anyway? “A week – forty hours.”

“These are all circle scarves that the kids are crazy about.” No kidding! It’s nippy outside and I’m dying to smother myself in a pile of them! “I’m a big fall person,” Ryan says. “For fashion in general it’s my favorite season. Anything lighter drives me crazy.”

Speaking of being driven crazy, doesn’t it drive the enterprising designer completely mad to spend an incalcuable amount of hours knitting a bazillion cozy circles? “This time around I actually found a facility down in L.A. They’re actually pretty reasonable. That’s the missing link of eight years ago – there weren’t any facilities in the state. In house they can do design, they can do specs, they have knitters and looms. It’ll be interesting to try to work with them. I’m supposed to go see them early next year and see what they can do for me.”

It's like writing code . . . for scarves!

So, like, you design the scarves and then pass it on to the facility to churn them out? “I would do a whole sample myself, and write out the instructions down to the stitch, and how many skeins of yarn and that sort of thing.” How long does it take to create a whole pattern from scratch? “A pattern this complicated (as the the scarf above) would probably take four or five days to work out. It’s lot of counting and paying attention.” Counting and paying attention – two of my least favorite activities. I guess that’s why some people make fashion and others just write about it.

So . . . patterns take four to five days to create, sweaters take forty hours to knit, the yarn isn’t cheap, and we live in a culture where people are used to paying nothing for cheap, disposable clothes made in countries with lousy labor practices. How does that affect hustling young designers like Mr. DeBonville? “Pricing is really difficult. Really, $45 is the basic circle scarf. The ones with hoods are $60. Then you have J Crew selling a hand-knit cashmere sweater for $190. If you went down to the yarn store to get that cashmere, you’d probably pay $120. For a basic sweater, if you were really fast, you’d probably have to sell if for $400.” What’s the trick to getting people to pay a real-life price for these labor-intensive homemade beauties? Branding, my friends. It’s not just an esoteric sex practice from the 90s – it’s how you market your wares. “If I’m going to charge what I’m going to charge, and I don’t have those production capabilities, I have to brand. And what that looks like is taking really cool pictures of chicks with tattoos hanging out at Four Barrel – sort of selling a story.” Well, Mr. DeBonville I’d love to be your model! You don’t have to be so coy about it!

“You know what I do when I’m knitting? I pull up style.com and watch slide shows of fashion shows. Sometimes I’ll put on Pandora. Any Goldfrapp stuff or Hole’s new record has been the default since I was – Jesus – thirteen? Hole and knitting don’t seem to go together, but they do for me.”

What’s it like to be designing in San Francisco? “It’s hard. It’s really hard. There’s the whole perception that it’s all about New York and L.A. And I think to a certain extent it is. There’s a lot more resources there. I think people in San Francisco – you’ve really got to want it. And I don’t really want to do anything else, so I’m going to figure it out.”

“I’m having a trunk show December 5th at the Blue Muse Bar on Gough and Grove.” That’s in Hayes Valley, and it’s from 6-9. “There’s going to be cocktails and appetizers and another jewelry person.” That sounds so fun, let’s all go! If you don’t live in San Francisco and you want to get your greedy mitts on one of his pieces, check out his Etsy shop or his Facebook page.

As for moi, I’ll be sitting at Four Barrel in my extra-awesome, extra-long army green circle scarf, waiting to get discovered.

About Michelle Tea

I chanted "I am a fashion magnet" in the shower and subsequently found a Gianni Versace - era Versace skirt at Buffalo Exchange for $17. Once I got a beyond-my-means Fendi purse for free and sat staring at it, crying. Also cried at Olivier Theyskens' last show for Nina Ricci in Paris. Other things that make me cry: a good lip synch; my emotions. I have stolen two Jeremy Scott swag items from two Jeremy Scott events I was not quite invited to. Sometimes I want to age into Patti Smith, sometimes Baby Jane Hudson. I frequently dream I am in a magic thrift store where I can have whatever I want. I regret not buying the Alexander Wang purse when it was half price at Barney's. Like a delusional guy at a strip club, I feel special when the people who work at Barney's remember me. Having a Leo rising gives me big hair and a need for attention. My favorite designers right now are Alexander Wang, Philip Lim, Proenza Schouler, Vivienne Westwood, Viktor Rolf, Rick Owens, Rodarte, Helmut Lang and Surface to Air. I was once shamed by an employee of a high-end department store for pronouncing 'Rodarte' incorrectly.

4 comments

  1. Michael von Braithwaite

    Did you see that project in Esopus Magazine where a curator had knitwear designers across the country make a garment by picking up where the last knitwear designer left off? Exquisite Corpse for knitwear! Anyway, I want one of his sweaters. They look so cozy! And I love brightly colored sweaters.

  2. philip b

    beautiful work

  3. Jenna-vive

    His work looks amazing, and he is *A*dorable. I want one of his scarves, I want I want I want!!❤

  4. Pingback: RYAN DEBONVILLE ON COMMITTING TO KNITTING | STYLEQUAKE

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