Thirty-one floors above Seventh Avenue’s garmento grind sits a minimalist mecca of sunlight and cashmere—cashmere that reduces two saleswomen to baby talk. “Yummy” is their adjective of choice. As the creative director of the all-knit collection Inhabit, Susie Cho is the designer responsible for those scrumptious threads, which also include cottons, linens and wools. And for the past five years, she’s spun them into retail gold.
With that success comes a touch of irony: Despite her knit-specific vocab (tensions, gauges, a catalog of yarn varieties) and the impressive fruits of her loom (racks of slouchy cardigans, henleys, draped T-shirts, convertible tube dresses and ribbed leggings line Inhabit’s showroom walls), Cho can’t actually knit. “I’ve taken classes,” she says matter-of-factly. “But I don’t really know how to do it anymore.”
While she may not remember the basics of looping and stitching, Cho has managed a more complicated feat: turning basics into something novel. In other words, basics with a twist. It’s Inhabit’s principal concept, a simple but elusive one that’s all about nuance. Cho likens it to the constant hunt for the perfect white shirt. “There are five million choices,” she says. “We are lucky or unlucky enough to live in a world that has an option for anything. Why is one better than the other?”
Cho has seen enough sweaters in her day to have a clue. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, she freelanced and consulted for John Bartlett, DKNY Jeans and various contemporary labels looking to start knitwear divisions. In 1999 she landed the head design gig at Tsesay (TSE’s lower-priced collection), where she met Stacey Perlick, then TSE’s vice president of sales. Soon both Cho and Perlick were feeling restless. “We wanted to do knitwear that women would wear every day, staples that were the first thing you would pick up in your closet,” says Perlick, now Inhabit’s president of sales. “We liked what we saw in designer lines, the Belgian designers and the Japanese designers, but it was very high-priced. We wanted to do that in a more affordable way.”
So when Perlick, who had plenty of label-building experience—she helped launch a little company called Theory in 1997—found a manufacturer looking to build a line from the ground up, she had just the designer for it. “I loved Susie’s aesthetic, and I knew she could design something they would want,” says Perlick. “I wanted to give her the opportunity to have a more creative outlet.” In 2003 Perlick and Cho, along with CEO Vivian Koo, hit the ground running with Inhabit and haven’t stopped since.
With all the sweaters out there, it’s quite amazing that there was a knitwear niche left to be filled when Inhabit launched. But these ladies found it, and today Inhabit rules the cool and comfortable genre. “Back then, even now, there aren’t that many cool cashmere lines,” says Nevena Borissova, owner of Curve in New York and Los Angeles, who was one of the first retailers to place an order. “Inhabit was really ahead of the game with their shapes. They did the drape-front cardigan, which, I’m not kidding you, we’ve probably sold half a million dollars’ worth since they’ve started. It’s truly an affordable basic.” Classics, often items repeated season after season, such as the deep V-neck sweater with exposed seams or the draped cardigan, start at around $300. Some of the edgier fashion pieces, though, might not seem so affordable: A cashmere and silk boyfriend cardigan with a built-in scarf, for instance, fetches a heftier $1,000. It’s designs like these that give Cho the room to play. “I’m always looking to explore new ways of covering,” she says. “We all go to grab that little thing we can throw on, whether it’s some kind of wrap or interesting shrug or some kind of amorphous thing you put on.” In 2003 it was the poncho, an unexpected runaway hit. “It was random,” says Cho, who, dressed in artful layers of Inhabit—black tank tops, a cardigan and wrap-front pants—paired with jewelry by Philip Crangi, her best friend since their RISD days, is the embodiment of Inhabit’s slouchy-sophisticated ethos. “It was even random for me.”
She’s continued to push the limits of her novelty items, some of which—in particular a tube dress that converts into a sweater and practically requires a how-to demo—take Inhabit’s basics philosophy to the brink. Still, once on, the total effect is layered nonchalance. “That’s always been the underlying mood,” says Cho. “Nothing is ever forced. And it’s about the nuances. Everything is considered. What do we do with the cuff? What do we want to do with the neck trim? Do we want to open it a little extra here so that when she moves, she shows a little skin?”
And if she does, it’s all about understatement. From the muted palette made up of varying shades of gray, green, brown and black to Inhabit’s version of embellishment in ribbed cuffs, reversed seams or plays on proportion, nothing is brash—a fact that Perlick considers essential to the firm’s success. “We’re not trend driven,” she says. “We stick to our guns. We’ve gone through many seasons where stores wanted more in-your-face sex or more color and embellishment. One store wanted coins and s—, and we’re just not interested. We’ve stayed true to what we believe in, and that has been our saving grace.” And their clientele, both stockists and A-list—Inhabit has been anointed by Hollywood’s reigning king and queen of effortless cool, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who, according to Perlick, have placed personal orders—certainly seems to appreciate the collection’s consistency.
Cho and Perlick prefer to grow and change organically, even when it comes to organic clothing. Last spring, in a move they maintain was improbably unrelated to the ubiquitous green trend, Inhabit introduced an eco-friendly T-shirt collection after Cho happened upon the right cotton and the right people to produce it. “If I were going to branch into the idea of green, it needed to be green from beginning to end,” says Cho of the 10-piece line that, from the raw materials to the low-impact dyeing, is about as green as it gets.
As far as further expansion goes, Cho and company have tested the waters with some home items, but there are no plans for a store in the near future. For now, the focus remains Inhabit’s bread and butter: the stuff their customers live in. “What I love to hear the most,” says Cho, “is when they say, ‘I wear it every day.’”