In the world of fashion, an outside perspective is often needed to challenge conventional practices. A fresh outlook is just what Lilly Lampe and Alex Robins brought to their linen-focused brand Blluemade, which they founded in 2015. The husband-and-wife team were strongly entrenched in academia until just a few years ago, and didn’t initially plan on owning a clothing brand. But through their own explorations, the couple became engrossed with linen garments and decided to start their own company.
Based in Brooklyn, they source some of the best European linen available. The material they use is certified the Masters of Linen (meaning it’s produced entirely in Europe, from field to fabric) and meets OEKO-TEX’s 100 standard (denoting the fabric is made without environmentally harmful technology or chemicals, among other things). Blluemade makes garments for men and women that are immediately wearable and timeless, eschewing overt branding and trends. It’s fresh, exciting and luxurious — and far removed from the scratchy vacation-wear that many people envision when they think about the material.
To learn more about how the brand came to be and how an uncompromising focus on quality has served as a guide, we caught up with Lampe after she got back from a recent trip to Europe.
Q: What were you doing before starting Blluemade? What made you want to start the company?
A: Before we started Blluemade Alex earned his doctorate in Philosophy and was teaching philosophy full-time in Atlanta. I was teaching art history and working as a visiting art critic at area-universities and wrote art criticism, profiles, and features for national publications.
We fell in love with linen after years of backpacking and sweating through every summer. The older we got, the more professionalized our trips would become, and the more we needed clothing that wouldn’t be out of place in an art museum, studio visit, or exploring the streets of a city like Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong in July. And we needed clothing that would dry quickly — we’d learned the hard way that cotton doesn’t dry overnight, and performance fabrics felt inappropriate to our personal styles and professional needs.
I started making clothes for myself for these trips; these early pieces would become the prototypes for our first collection, which was all women’s. Alex, on the other hand, was buying linen clothes in large chain stores, and while my fabrics got softer and stronger and performed exactly as I’d read linen would, Alex’s were itchy, uncomfortable, and increasingly ill-fitting after each wash. This discrepancy led us down a rabbit hole of linen quality variance, which is something we still continue to research and investigate.
We were already familiar with the conversation around heritage clothing and denim, namely, the ethos behind many of the makers, the eye to history and traditional details, and the commitment to quality and typically local production. This had already started to inform our decisions as consumers; when we confronted the difference between the linen clothing we wanted and what was being made, we wondered if we could contribute to the conversation with the knowledge we were starting to build in linen.
Q: Do your professional experiences before starting the company influence decisions you’ve made since starting it?
A: It’s safe to say our backgrounds in research and critical thought inform a lot of our approach to what we do, from design and how we choose materials, to greater conversations regarding the business and industry. Alex in particular never stops requesting linen samples from all over the world so we can always be confident what we’re buying is the best. He also is keen to read any new or old writings on linen making, the trade, and audience for this material.
Q: What influences your designs?
A: Design-wise, we’re influenced by workwear and vintage clothing from all over the world. Vintage sailing jackets, naval coveralls, dungarees, 1920s tuxedo shirts, 1950s Hawaiian shirts and spread collars, Japanese boro fabrics and apparel, early Americana, clothing we wore as children; there are all these little stories and memories buried in each design. Sometimes it’s a seemingly straightforward translation of a vintage piece which we’ve reinterpreted with brand-new materials. Other times we’ll be confronted with a vintage garment that ties in so closely to something we’ve already designed that we realize there was some deep-buried nostalgia that was there all along.
Q: What drew you to linen?
A: Linen is a perfect fabric. It’s breathable, sustainable, ideal for hot and humid conditions, moisture-wicking, temperature regulating, it ages beautifully, and when well-cared for can last for generations. It’s the oldest man-made fabric. Mummies were wrapped in linen.
Q: Can you talk about where you source your product?
A: We source our linen from Belgium for many reasons. When the flax plant is grown in ideal agricultural conditions (namely, Northern Ireland and the Flanders region of Belgium), it requires little to no additional water or pesticides to produce excellent materials for a quality cloth. The overcast, moderate climate of these areas produces tall and thin plants that reach towards the sun. The flax plant, like hemp and ramie, produces bast fiber, meaning the strands that comprise the resulting threads are made of long thin channels within the plant. These strands become the staple fibers of the thread. Unlike cotton which is measured in metrics like thread count, a linen thread will not be thinner or finer than the staple fiber, which means the agricultural conditions are vital to the final product. The length of the staple fibers has a large effect on the hand (industry term referring to the feel) of the final cloth.
In the areas I’ve previously noted, linen is a heritage product and as such, each step of the process is treated with care. The flax plant is harvested from the bottom of root to tip of the plant, resulting in staple fibers that are 20 to 24 inches long. In places like China and India where the hot climate produces a short, coarse fiber, the plant is cut at the base in order to save time, resulting in staple fibers of 2 to 4 inches. It’s at the meeting of staple fibers where the scratchy-feeling sometimes associated with linen occurs. It’s also what results in the “paper-bag effect” of wrinkly linen. Good linen has a covetable texture and a distinctive “rumple;” people in the industry say it’s the low-quality linen that wrinkles. Linen gets bad rap from the poor quality product that’s out there, but it can be so amazing when grown and processed with care.
There’s so much more I could say about how the 150-year old family-run mill we work with maintains 70 percent humidity in their weaving factory because that’s the ideal conditions for weaving linen, or get into the differences between wet and dry spun fiber, but already I’ve been too wordy.
Q: Where is the line produced?
A: We produce every garment in New York City’s historic Garment District. Local production was something we knew we wanted at the core of our brand, given how much it means to us as consumers, particularly in the unregulated global fashion industry. The Garment District has been a vital incubator for us; we have learned so much by having access and frequent conversations with the people we work with, and from the experience of spending so much time in the factories we work with week after week. We’ve come to really value the relationships we’ve built in the Garment District. We’ve publicly advocated for the Garment District against Mayor de Blasio’s attempts to remove the protective zoning; it’s allowed us and so many other emerging as well as established designers to start a business and learn from the ground up.
Local manufacturing not only provides valuable opportunities for learning, but we’ve seen first hand how vital it can be even for brands that produce overseas. There’s a large portion of work in the Garment District that involves fixing mistakes from large shipments returned from overseas factories. For companies that produce overseas against the tight deadlines of this industry, if a garment arrives stateside with serious flaws, there’s no time to send it back; these businesses rely on local factories to help them meet their deadlines and quality standards.
For us, producing locally isn’t just a passion; it’s also a commitment to quality and to doing things right the first time, rather than trying to save a buck and ending up in hot water. But at the same time, factories in New York have shrunk to the point where they can really only handle production in the hundreds. If and when we get to the thousands, we’ll likely be forced to start producing overseas. We’re not sure what the future holds, but for now, we are trying to keep things manageable inside the United States.
Q: What does the future have in store?
A: There’s so much I hesitate to put words to in terms of the future as so much is out of our control. But what I can say is that we’re branching out of linen to other natural fabrics! Linen is still central to what we do, but it’s been a wonderful surprise to have stores and customers approach us saying they love what we’re doing and love the linen we’re using, and that they’d love to see the designs translated into other fabrics.
We ourselves have been curious to expand our material choices, as we feel our choices shouldn’t be about creating arbitrary boundaries for ourselves. We’ve started buying luxurious silk-linen blends from Belgium as well as double-cloth Japanese cotton gauzes, and Japanese “typewriter” cloth, called so due to it’s tight weave. The typewriter cloth we buy is a combination of cotton, ramie, and linen, and it’s fascinating to see how these natural fibers perform when blended. We’ve also got leads on some incredible wools and hemps coming out of Japan.