Fanny Singer and Mariah Nielson are practically Bay Area royalty.
The daughters of two famous Bay Area creatives—Singer, 33, calls chef Alice Waters mom, while Nielson, 37, is the daughter of Inverness-based sculptor J. B. Blunk—both women were attending graduate school in London for art history (Singer) and design history (Nielson) when they met at a party in 2012. Sparks flew. Four years and countless air miles later, the stylish pair is launching Permanent Collection, an exquisite line of vintage coats and handcrafted accessories that speaks to their Bay Area roots and European sense of sophistication.
While both women continued to pursue busy careers in the art world—Nielson was the chief curator at the Museum of Craft and Design from 2009 to 2011 and Singer assisted in the Tate Modern's 2014 Richard Hamilton exhibit, and most recently co-authored and illustrated Water's newest cookbook, My Pantry—the two friends decided to take on one of fashion's biggest problems: recreating the perfect vintage coat.
"We began working on exhibition projects together and found ourselves continuously complimenting each other's vintage pieces," recounts Singer.
Advised by fashion industry veterans such as Esprit founder Susie Buell, Nielson and Singer trekked to dozens of textile distributors in New York and London in search of material that would best approximate the feel and character of the original vintage garments they sought to reproduce. "We didn't feel like we needed to match the original textiles exactly because some of them contained synthetic materials and we're committed to using natural fibers," says Nielson. They settled on lightweight yet heavy-wearing fabrics such as double crepe wool and organic linen, dyed in luxurious shades of navy, slate, loden, and camel.
The Agnes coat, named after painter Agnes Martin. (Courtesy of Daniel Dent)
The debut collection is exceptionally focused, consisting of four coats (three of which come in two color options), a black and white wool blend scarf, a pair of Italian leather sandals in your choice of black or brown, and a set of white porcelain cups designed by Blunk between 1950 and 1990. Made in New York's Garment District, the coats are strikingly minimalist and versatile. The scarf, named after San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa, is custom-loomed in Japan; the shoes, handmade in Paris.
"We were thinking as holistically as possible about the entire contents of a woman's wardrobe, about what pieces would make up her most reliable, chic uniform," explains Nielson.
Detail shot of the wool blend Asawa scarf, loomed in Japan.(Courtesy of Daniel Dent)
But why focus on coats? "The perfect coat was something our friends felt to be most absent from their wardrobes and most difficult to buy new," says Nielson.
Based on their favorite vintage finds in Bay Area outlets like the Alameda Flea Market and the San Rafael Goodwill, the reproduced coats were subjected to rigorous testing to ensure that they possessed the right drape and feel. Nielson and Singer wore each piece assiduously, for months. Did the garments pill? Did they lose their shape? Would they develop the coveted patina of the vintage originals? "The word permanent is literally in our brand's name," Singers points out, laughing. "So we needed to make sure our coats would last forever and still look good."
Nielson took equal care in choosing where to cast the Blunk-designed cups that made her father famous. Working with Oakland's Atelier Dion, which produces custom ceramic pieces for local establishments such as Sightglass Coffee and Union Made, ensured that the cups would be cast by hand. Does this mean the chic duo will expand into homegoods soon? The ladies hint that we're likely to see bedding, handbags, jewelry and a wider range of apparel in upcoming seasons.
Blunk cups being cast in Oakland's Atelior Dion.(Courtesy of Daniel Dent)
But for now, you can equip yourself for winter in one of their cozy coats, available online, and coming soon to select SF boutiques including Hero Shop in the Tenderloin and General Store. Don't be surprised when women stop you on the street to ask where you got that "perfect coat." // Coats run $500-$1200, permanentcollection.com