The silver linen trousers aren’t right. Stina Sayre walks around her sales assistant Laura Entner, who at this moment is the living mannequin for the offending trousers. Stina, who is impeccably dressed in one of her chocolate brown long shearling vests draped over a navy tissue long-sleeved tee and perfectly tailored navy wide-legged corduroys (she calls them jeans), pinches and pulls the fabric, fretting out loud. “It’s always the butt that’s a problem,” she says with a sigh. “The butt and the thighs. Everyone’s are different. I’ve done this, I don’t know, seven times with these pants.”
The Swedish-born Stina, a Vineyard Haven designer and owner of a Main street store that carries her own line of women’s clothing, will do the pants seven more times if needed to get them right. They are the basis for several different styles for her spring and fall collections. And she is using linen, an unforgiving fabric, to expose any possible problems or errors in the design.
It calls to mind her upbringing in Sweden where all sixth grade students learn how to sew a pair of pants. “In Sweden, we believe that we should bring our children up so that they are self-reliant — they can sew, cook, clean, care for themselves,” she explains. Her cell phone rings. Stina steps away to talk to her friend Pheobe Styron about the launch party for her spring line, which she is calling Silver Marin. They talk numbers, food (“nothing too messy”) and shades of gray tissue paper for wrapping. “A medium gray. Yes, maybe gray tissue with white. That’d be cool. But not a darker gray. That’s too harsh,” Stina says.
Creative clothing designer, retailer, mother, athlete, activist — Stina has much to manage in a day. Her elegant Vineyard Haven Main street store is stocked with clothes, jewelry and shoes that all must be inventoried, tagged, ironed, folded, styled, hung or stored properly and sold. Along with the merchandise, there is a staff to manage, shoppers to talk to and floors to clean. Then there is her atelier (design studio and business) to attend to, located in the back half of her store.
Here, amid yards of fabric, predominantly earthy hues occasionally shot through with the occasional orange or citrusy yellow or stripe, two sewing machines, two large work tables, racks of clothing and a small light-filled office, she runs a fashion house, Stina Sayre Design. What began a few short years ago as a one-woman enterprise has grown into a small army scattered across southeastern Massachusetts. Business consultant Krista Elliott Riley is learning to handle orders and stock forms as well as the larger question of how Stina wants to grow; pattern maker Bill Santos does his work in Dartmouth; longtime seamstress and friend Katarina Wynne is in Wareham; seamstress Rebecca Comito is on Island. There are two factories in Fall River, fabric companies, zipper companies and button companies to deal with, photographs to review for her online store, sales orders and returns to process from the online store, and of course bills to pay to keep it all going. And then there is her design work, which requires inspiration and time away from the business to see new things and challenge herself — and to draft ideas.
“It takes me at least an hour just to settle my brain from all of this and get into the mode,” she says with a small gesture around the store.
Stina’s clothes are clean, occasionally edgy, and always elegant with loose lines that give shape to a body rather than drape over a body. She admires the designers Rick Owens and Haider Ackerman’s work. “They are both incredible. When I go on my fabric buying trips to New York, I will spend an entire day at Barneys, looking at their designs and other really high-end designs. I study the construction of a jacket, the detailing on dresses and pants. I learn so much.” But her designs are often inspired by a fabric. “Generally, I see a fabric and it tells me what I’ll do with it,” she says. “Every fabric behaves differently. So every pattern changes for every fabric. Some fabric is stretchy in one direction.” She stretches some blue and white striped fabric. “See, this moves more vertically than horizontally. It’s a nightmare.” She grabs a shirt out of a box. “See this? I’ve been making this shirt for a long time. I switched fabric sources. These came back from the factory and look.” She shows a seam that looks fragile and is poked with tiny holes. “It turns out that we were using the wrong-sized needle. This miscommunication or assumption that I could use the same needle cost me about $2,000.”
Her husband Nevin Sayre ducks into the store to say hello. They met in Barbados in the 1980s while both were on the professional windsurfing tour. Over the course of the next few years, they ran into each other again and again. “There was a strong connection, but he was based on Martha’s Vineyard and I was in Sweden,” she recalls. Then in 1985 while in Europe for the World Cup in France, they surrendered to fate. As Nevin tells it later that night over dinner at their Vineyard Haven home: “That year Stina was sponsored by BMW — her car had her name on it — she was pretty hot stuff.” Stina laughs and recalls wondering: “Can I really be with the son of a bishop?” Nevin is the son of the late Very Rev. Francis B. Sayre Jr., who was not a bishop but was former dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
But in the end both agree that the relationship was cemented due to weather conditions that year: there was no wind. “For 12 days everyone hung out and waited for wind. If there had been wind, it’s unlikely that we’d be together today,” Stina says.
Stina retired from world cup sailing in 1989 and traveled with Nevin while he continued to tour. And that is how her life as a clothing designer began. “I wanted something to do, so I brought a knitting machine along with me. It was kind of big, maybe the size of a shallow steamer trunk. But for us, travelling with 13 giant bags of windsurfing gear already, it was no big deal. It was just another bag.” On these trips, Stina began making what she called guilt sweaters. “The men felt so guilty. Here they were off in some amazing place windsurfing all day while their wives were home with the kids. I made them something to bring home.” As she reflects on her early career, she searches for the pattern for the silver linen pants. Laura, Krista and Kristy follow, asking questions. She helps with a return, defines the color of a shirt, solves a tag issue and signs some paperwork that Krista needs to get to a lawyer.
An hour or so later, she finds two sets of patterns for the pants and heads to her drafting table, which is about eight feet square and has a giant white fabric cutting mat with one-inch-square marks on it. “I have to figure out which version each of these patterns are. As I said, I’ve done this too many times with this block.” To the untrained eye, there is barely a difference between one block and the other. Stina finds the right one and says, “Now we fix the butt.”
A long series of interruptions follow: friends stop by the shop to say hello, more administrative problems. Forty-five minutes later, Stina heads back to the pants. But rather than being drained by this extensive multi-tasking, she seems energized by it.
She pops on a pair of reading glasses, rolls out a fresh sheet of paper, pauses and says: “I’m really lucky to get to do this. I love what I do.” She lays the earlier pant pattern on top of the paper and begins to trace the old design, making minute changes.
She steps back and nods to herself. “Kristy, can you use a mat cutter? My shoulder just can’t take me pressing that hard.” Stina’s right shoulder has been hurting her for weeks. She’s been to the doctor and is waiting for results. She thinks it might be a rotator cuff injury from swimming. Kristy comes over and begins to cut. “Do you need a ruler?” Stina asks. Kristy shakes her head. When done, she looks at her work and sees that she has made a slight divot on one part of the pant leg. Kristy shakes her head. “I guess I should have used a ruler. I’m sorry.” Stina nods. “That’s okay. I’ve got it.” With surgical precision, she begins the painstaking process of fixing the error. It takes about 30 minutes. When she is done, she remarks, “I should have just done the whole thing over again. It would have taken less time. Laura, if these aren’t perfect, hang me up. This is the last time.” Stina pauses and sighs, “But I guess one can’t be perfect all the time. You can’t insult the gods.”
It’s the end of the day and while Stina may have put a pause in her pursuit of perfection as fashion designer, her roles as a mother and pro-choice advocate kick into high gear. Following a casual family meal (son Rasmus cooks for himself and his dad while Stina eats a boiled egg, salad, pickled herring and a potato with lots of butter; daughter Solvig is away at Eckerd College pursuing her Olympic windsurfing dreams), Stina hosts a meeting for Friends of Family Planning Martha’s Vineyard. A group of women arrive in the warm Sayre home, kicking off snowy shoes, welcomed by Stina’s laughter. “Yes, and now let’s change the world.”