One part Picasso and another part mad scientist, Cynthia Surette uses her design expertise to give consumers across the world a hat that makes a statement.
With extensive fiber knowledge, thorough design experience, world-wide souring contacts and a 2010 Hat Life “Hattie” Award for the environment and snow industry category, Surette has been a perfect storm for the apparel, outerwear and knitwear categories for the past 25 years – 19 of which have been spent with the abstract-thinking Chaos. And not only does Surette head design for the Chaos brand here in the U.S., but for a reach of other brands that the Chaos team designs for around the world. This means multiple visions and a number of customer bases with varying cultural notes informing what’s in and what’s out.
“What is popular in Montreal may differ from San Diego or Japan or Europe,” Surette said to SGB. “But because we design and produce for many brands worldwide, we are able to analyze successes and failures in a more comprehensive, insulated way. That’s probably why our catalogues are so big.”
But just how big does a design have to be to satisfy a candy shop of tastes? Surette gave SGB a glimpse into the mind of an international design honcho, and the unique way Chaos turns big ideas to the perfect accessory.
First Things First, Why Hats? I have always loved accessories because accessories are always ahead of the trend curve. The beauty of accessories is that they are relatively inexpensive. Not everyone can replace their entire wardrobe every season, but they can easily update their entire look with the right hat or scarf or pair of gloves. Given my experience and high energy, the leap into accessories was a natural one for me. When the opportunity to work for a company with global interests presented itself to me, I jumped at the chance.
While Designing, What Do You See The End-User Doing? Our customer is active, whether in an urban or alpine setting. And they’re style conscious. Believe it or not, just as many Montrealers ride their bikes through snowstorms downtown as those hitting the slopes for fun. If you’re going to spend time outside and want to look great doing it, Chaos is it.
How Do You Anticipate What Consumers Will Want To Wear? Beauty is in the details. A while ago, I walked into the showroom to meet some customers and they were surprised to see me wearing a few pieces from our newest collection. I wondered, ‘Why would anyone create products they didn’t want to wear?’ Our whole Montreal team wears hats. It’s part of our corporate culture. Besides, we’re Canadian. It gets cold here. Very cold. I think we’re just conditioned to make the most of our climate and understand cold weather and what we, as active consumers, require of cold-weather products.
What About Consumers From Across The World Where Chaos Exports Some Of Its Designs? Chaos brand, but we also design for other brands around the world. That means our Montreal team has access to a tremendous amount of information. Most companies can only evaluate the performance of their own brands, which provides a limited view of a very large market. And the fact that Chaos is a global brand requires that we create an assortment of product with relevance in all of our markets.
“We can take almost any piece of art and translate it with greater accuracy that we ever have before. Dream it and we can knit it.” -Surette
We Checked Out The 2016 Chaos Line And The Designs Are Really Out-There. Do You See Hats As A Form Of Fabric Art? We take inspiration from many places. Since we have our own knitting facility in Montreal, we are uniquely positioned to experiment with knitting structures. I take photos everywhere I go. Sometimes, I’ll see unique stonework somewhere and think to myself, ‘I wonder if I can knit that. Then, I’ll run into the factory and ask one of our technicians to duplicate the structure. It’s hit and miss, of course, but we have fun trying.
So Designers Are A Mix Of Mad Scientist And Pablo Picasso? Our designers can drive our knit technicians crazy, but they appreciate our enthusiasm and respect for their expertise. When they are able to execute an idea that everyone said was impossible, they can’t help being excited too. For example, we recently acquired some new knitting machine capable of very intricate graphic work. We call them ‘Magic Machines,’ because the degree of detail they can achieve is, well, “magic.” We can take almost any piece of art and translate it with greater accuracy that we ever have before. Dream it and we can knit it. This technology is still in its infancy and can only get better. You will begin to see some of these statement pieces, or “hat art,” on the market this fall/winter.
“I take photos everywhere I go. Sometimes, I’ll see unique stonework somewhere and think to myself, ‘I wonder if I can knit that.’” -Surette
Where Does Performance Fit With Style? Performance comes in the fabric. We import our fabrics and yarns from all over the world. Many of the luxury yarns used in our Lux collection come from Italy. Consumers are more socially and environmentally aware than ever before, therefore, all of our wools are traceable and all our manufacturing partners must operate within the strict parameters we demand. Everything is about transparency nowadays. We also have a technical division called CTR (Chaos Thermal Regulation). Given our cold weather experience, we needed to address gaps we perceived in the outdoor performance/technical market. CTR has been hugely successful towards this goal.
Will Chaos Branch Out To Gloves, Underwear, Apparel, Etc.? It’s possible one day, but for now, our focus is on accessories.
— Jahla Seppanen is Associate Editor at SGB. Photos courtesy Chaos Hats