The Uncontainable Nina Ganci: A Conversation on the Necessity of Individual Style

“I shouldn’t even use that ‘f’ word,” Nina Ganci says. “To me, it’s kind of redundant, and it doesn’t really say much of anything. The word is overused.”

The “f ” word Nina Ganci’s talking about is fashion. As designer and owner of St. Louis’ SKIF International, she has made a career at the cutting edge of style.

Ganci has built a brand anchored in extraordinary knitwear. But what’s catapulted SKIF into the closets of Hollywood stars like Lily Tomlin isn’t about Ganci’s keen eye for color, texture and drape. Or, at least, that’s what she insists.

“It’s not about my concept on what clothing should look like,” she says. “It’s more about what is important for something to do on a human figure, a body.”

Or to put it another way: for SKIF, the design process isn’t really complete until another designer enters the room. And that designer is you.

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Ganci has been turning the fashion world inside out since SKIF was founded in 1994. That’s shortly after she had the realization that the clothes available to buy in her native St. Louis weren’t cutting it. “I absolutely had to make my own clothes, because I didn’t want to wear anything that was in the store,” she says. “I knew that clothing had to change. And it has changed a lot since then—all for the better. I love that everybody has his or her own look, and it’s so easily accessible and everybody’s jumping in. It’s not like, ‘Too much is too much’; it’s like, ‘More is better.’”

The notion that individual style is not just desirable but an actual, urgent necessity for modern life feels essential to SKIF’s identity as a brand. The name “SKIF” itself is an acronym for “Sweaters Knitted for Freedom,” and the SKIF website is peppered with quotes that bring to mind what inspired the designs (“… the privilege of making a difference, of introducing an element of unpredictability into the order of things. It is this, I believe, that makes us free.” –Alessandro Benetton). The photographed models don’t stand statuesque in their poses; they are photographed in motion, crouching and snarling and leaping and arching backwards across armchairs. Sometimes a little white dog wanders into the shot.

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And then there are the clothes themselves. Hand-painted blouses in airy fabrics that seem to float across the body like mist over water. Touchable knits with Rorschach-blotch patterns that make you curious to decode the personality of the wearer. Crushed velvet, blue camouflage, African wax prints, a riot of colors and patterns that Ganci pairs together in thrilling ways. No garment is cinched in. No fabric is too stiff. There’s nothing that restricts the way the wearer can live and move. You’re even encouraged to wear pieces upside down, backwards, to transform a sweater into a shrug by flipping the head hole behind you if that’s the mood you’re in.

“I don’t want to have to be altered to fit into an outfit,” Ganci says. “I want the outfit to fit me … That’s why we say at SKIF that you’re the sweater designer: because it’s your body that makes it look a certain way.”

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While Ganci started out making clothes for herself, she’s evolved into a designer who’s far more inspired by other bodies, other personalities and, to some extent, other worlds. It’s not surprising that her original ambition was not to design just clothes but whole environments—she says she switched to fashion from the interior-design program at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York simply because she “couldn’t draft”—or that she still brings such a broad-minded, open sensibility to her garments. After graduating from FIT, she journeyed to Japan, Italy and France, working in the industry and meeting as many inspiring people as she could, before settling back in St. Louis and founding SKIF.

Like her clothing itself, Ganci says her leap to becoming a business owner wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of collaboration. “When I first started, everybody at SKIF was from another country except for me,” Ganci says. “[Their help] really made it possible for me to have a company. It was mostly young women coming to St. Louis to learn English, from all over South America and Russia and Bosnia and Vietnam, and then there was a girl from Paris, a girl from Argentina … there were all kinds of people from all over the world.”

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While most of the SKIF team is a bit more local these days, she’s kept the “International” part of the name in homage to their beginnings. (And her own: Ganci’s parents are both from Italy.) When you walk into the virtually unmarked building nestled in St. Louis’ The Hill neighborhood and are introduced to SKIF’s expansive headquarters, you can feel a sense of cultural and creative exchange permeating the room. The boutique sales floor and the production studio flow into each other; a glorious bohemian mess of garment racks and overflowing sample boxes on one side of the room, heaps of Technicolor fabric and thrumming knitting machines on the other. The walls are covered with visual art made by Ganci’s friends, the fitting rooms hung with signed posters from creatives she’s outfitted (Cibo Matto’s effusive thank-you note from 1999 is particularly eye-catching).

Ganci is particularly proud of the fact that SKIF devotes some of its space to incubating other designers. In a corner of the store they call Launch, Michael Drummond of “Project Runway” fame, among others, displays his work. Drummond also has a studio at SKIF, and he and many of the designers often collaborate with Ganci.

“Birds of a feather flock together,” Ganci laughs. “We just kind of naturally are drawn to one another and appreciate each other’s work, and we see how we can symbiotically work with one another.”

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Ganci’s flock isn’t contained within the four walls of SKIF’s studio, either. She cites local restaurant owners as a particular inspiration—she even traveled to Morocco with a group of them recently, which resulted in a partnership with a Moroccan shoemaker who will be the first non-U.S.-based maker to contribute to her line. Other muses include local artist friends and her models (not all of them professionals; St. Louisans might be surprised to see waiters from local favorite Milque Toast decked out in the menswear line). And that’s not even to mention the inspiration she finds among the multi-disciplinary performers involved in the Artica outdoor art festival, which has gained a reputation as St. Louis’ answer to Burning Man. Ganci is a co-director.

“I’m just very fortunately surrounded by very groovy people who do all kinds of things, from building giant statues that they burn, to dancers, to performers and clowns and things,” she says.

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But Ganci’s deeply personal approach to design isn’t always an easy sell in the capital-f Fashion world, which is sometimes slow to recognize that a particular voice is setting next year’s trend rather than commit- ting today’s faux pas. Even her customers sometimes take a minute to catch on. “Sometimes I’ll just make the garment because I’ll see it will look amazing on a particular person, and it’ll end up in the collection because we all love it when we see it finished,” Ganci says. “But then we take it to market, and we don’t get a really warm response. And we all think, ‘What’s wrong with everybody? Why don’t they love this?’”

Ganci’s response? The market will come around.

“Often, a year later, those looks are, like, the number-one seller,” she laughs. “So it’s about timing; it’s about commitment to a style or a look and, sometimes, being patient to see what people say about it in time.” And if the market is still slow to respond, SKIF adapts—or not. “Sometimes, there are ideas we’ll have, and I won’t care what people say,” Nina says. “I just want to have it in the line just to look at it, because it makes everything else look good. For example, African fabric: My customers don’t seem to think that’s a cool idea, but I really don’t care. I want to see that color and vibrancy mix in my collection.”

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That tension—between what the customer wants and what the maker wants to create, between the realities of keeping a business viable and following the uncontainable pull of your own inspiration—is very real for a business like SKIF. But when asked about the difficulties of keeping a global business successful while still making daring, one-of-kind garments, Ganci, again, turns the question inside out.

“It’s easy,” she says. “If you want an item that doesn’t have any personality and could be made by anyone, go to one of the chain stores and buy it for a whole lot less. Since I can’t afford to make a garment for a low price point, I have to offer unique hand touches that other methods of making clothes can’t even imagine doing. I don’t look at numbers. I look at garments.”

The idea that creating unique, hand-touched work is not just an asset to a business but a necessity to survive both creatively and professionally—that’s rare in an industry that’s obsessed with volume and margins. Makers like Ganci may be slowly changing culture—and the future of fashion might be more interesting for it.

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When asked what she sees for the future of SKIF itself, Ganci has a fascinating answer. She remembers the final evening of the Artica festival, when the crowd gathered around a huge wooden sculpture called “Our Lady of Artica,” a womanly shape with enormous wings reaching into the dark. And then they set the sculpture on fire and watched her burn together.

“And I just thought, ‘That is where the word fashion could come into use,’” Ganci says. “The effigy was so glorious and just huge, and when she was on fire, the people all just kind of faded into the ground layer. I thought, if everybody had on wings—or hats that were three feet tall—I thought … that’s where the experiment of fashion needs to blow up and become real, become useful. This fitting in, and being gray, and wearing things that make me look like everyone else, so that they don’t think I’m not like everyone else, has got to come to an end.”

Photography by Attilio D’Agostino.

This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 4, available now.

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