Chicago-born Charlotte Hess may be one of the most educated knitwear designers around. She holds two undergrad degrees, from Grinnell College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, plus a master’s of design and textiles from Scotland’s Glasgow School of Art. In between, she interned for two years in New Zealand.
She chose her niche wisely. “Specializing in knitwear made it a lot easier for me to get positions,” says the designer. “I don’t think a lot of people know how to knit, and even fewer know how to machine knit.”
Hess moved to Aspen about a year and a half ago and set up a studio in the Red Brick Center for the Arts last fall. From there, she designs women’s sweaters, hats, and scarves for her company Isobel and Cleo (named after her mother and grandmother, neither of whom, ironically, knits). Made primarily of merino, cashmere, cotton, silk, or alpaca, the styles range from big, chunky knits to graphic patterns.
Hess formally launched the brand on Nantucket, where she was living after a stint designing for Free People. “My goal was not necessarily to start a fashion label, but to make a name for myself,” she says. “At the beginning, I thought, ‘I’m just going to knit stuff that I like.’ It was really making custom pieces for clients that wanted something unique.”
After winning a competition at the prestigious Charleston Fashion Week, however, an investor came knocking. “One of the conditions was to open a retail store,” explains Hess. “I grew the business from just me to opening a store and having 10 employees the first year.”
After closing the store when she moved to Aspen—retail management not being in her long-term game plan—Hess now has one full-time employee and three independent contractors, all of whom knit. “It’s been a total game changer,” she says of her Red Brick studio. “I’m back on track.”
Currently, Isobel and Cleo wholesales to some 50 retailers across the country, as well as a few internationally. (In Aspen, Res Ipsa carries the line.) Customers can also buy through the website, and Hess still produces custom pieces. Recently, she designed two scarves commissioned by the Nantucket Whaling Museum for its shop. Combining knitting with education—it seems to be a common thread for Hess.