The Lingua Franca founder on creating hand-embroidered cashmere at the pace of social media.
By Tamara Abraham
On how Lingua Franca started by accident
“I suffer from anxiety, and after the birth of my second son, it really ratcheted up. I was running Guest of a Guest and going to therapy, and my therapist mentioned one day, ‘You should try doing something with your hands — you’re online all day long.’ My grandmother had taught me to embroider when I was in 3rd grade, and I hadn’t done it since then, but that weekend I took some thread and a needle out to Montauk, and while my kids were playing, I picked up an old sweater and wrote ‘Booyah’ across it. I took a photo of the shirt and put it on Instagram and joked, ‘Send me your sweaters, I’ll do yours!’ I ended up getting dozens of DMs, it was definitely the most responses I’ve ever gotten on an Instagram.
“So that summer — we launched a sweater line in the summer — we just did vintage Pringle sweaters and sold them out of the Crow’s Nest in Montauk. It was just a fun thing that turned into something that a lot of stores started DM-ing me on Instagram to buy.”
On hip-hop lyrics
“Hip hop is sort of the lingua franca of our time — this common language, that a woman on the Upper East Side knows the same Drake lyrics as a kid living in a different country. My kids learn hip hop songs in kindergarten — it’s the culture now.
“I loved the idea that cashmere is this really delicate thing that you don’t traditionally destroy with words and embroidery, and take it one step further and make it kind of harsh hip hop terms. It really spoke to me.”
Rachelle in a sweater embroidered with the names of trailblazing women for International Women's Day. Photo: Lindsey Belle.
Dannijo co-founder Danielle Snyder in Lingua Franca's 'Love Trumps Hate' sweater.
On social responsibility
“We’re at almost half a million dollars so far and it’s been so incredible. I had no intention of doing that, or even becoming political at all. When Trump became President, we were still just doing hip hop lyrics, but we’d started hiring a lot of embroiderers, this amazing mix of women from all over. And then [Trump] tried to pass the travel ban. I walked into my office and I had three of my embroiderers huddled in a corner and one was crying — she had no idea if she would ever see her parents again, who were still in Iran. It was just this moment where I was like, fuck no. That is a problem for me. I suggested she stitch ‘I Miss Barack’ on a sweater, to make her feel better. We put it on Instagram, which was kind of a risky move, but I was caught up in this moment, swept up with disgust, and it went viral. I mean viral. We weren’t doing personal orders, we still didn’t have a website. I decided, anything beyond what we would make on wholesale, let’s donate to somebody affected by Trump, and it just became its own thing.”
On stitching at the speed of Twitter
“Because everything is made to order and done by hand, we're in this really interesting place, where every time anything happens in culture or in the media, or in the White House, we can react very quickly to it and put it up on Instagram. We did a ‘Covfefe’ one, we did a ‘Stable Genius’ sweater. It’s really fun for me to be able to be able to interact and play on culture in that capacity. Because there is something so meaningful about having it hand-stitched on a cashmere sweater, as opposed to screen-printed on a T-shirt.
“Lingua Franca, the brand, I don’t see as a fashion company at all. I want it to become this umbrella for a really interesting company that’s starting conversations and playing off the dialogue the zeitgeist is talking about.”
Rachelle in her 'I've Got This' sweater with sons Dashiell (left) and Maxwell (right). Photo: Yumi Matsuo.
On how Trump has been good for America
“I think Trump has been a beautiful gift to our country — no one, including myself, has been more [politically] engaged. I had never marched, never paid attention to politics at all, and now I’m super-engaged, hyper aware of what’s happening. It’s also made us more aware of people we might have forgotten in our country who shouldn’t be forgotten.
“We have a couple of students [working at Lingua Franca] who are in their early 20s and it’s really interesting to hear about the way they see the world. It’s also why I’m not as afraid of what’s happened. I’m seeing the generation behind us and I’m really inspired. Everybody’s saying, ‘What can I do? I’m one person,’ but you can do a lot as one person. It’s really cool to feel like our company has a seat at the table of what’s happening right now, because it’s really exciting. It’s an exciting time for art, it’s an exciting time for creative voices and it’s fun and exciting to feel part of it.”
On her muse
“I like taking inspiration from older women who have shaped my perspective. My mother-in-law, Janet, is definitely our muse. She’s the oldest women’s surfer, and she surfed in cashmere before wetsuits were invented.
“She was a single mom and the very definition of a feminist – though she never really claimed herself as one, she just kind of went on doing her own thing. She was the only woman surfing in the ‘60s with all these men, but she didn’t make a huge deal out of it, she just went out and did it. I think there are scores of women like her, who have quietly been breaking down these barriers and that’s what we’ve been celebrating from day one.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.