Updating ancient techniques with new applications, Arielle DePinto’s output is precious. Best known for her hand-crocheted metal chainwork, all weighted clots and intricate knotting, the New York-based designer draws fabric effects from unyielding materials, each ornament adjusting to the wearer’s proportion, movement, even body temperature. Reading variably as artworks and accessories, her diverse formats (earrings, necklaces, bracelets, masks, headwear and footwear) reinforce the work’s broader appeal, her customers and collaborators ranging from the fashion-focused to fine art circles and beyond.
You grew up outside of Toronto but went to school at Concordia in Montreal, where you were initially focused on printmaking.
Right. At that point, I was really just excited to have facilities where I could learn to do whatever I wanted to do. I loved the challenge of working with all these complicated print methods, conquering the different processes. I was doing every kind of printing I could— litho, screen, intaglio— just making straight-up editions. I got into it enough that I eventually did a summer internship for this print studio called Derrière L’Étoile, which is actually what first brought me to New York. That’s where I realized that I hated printmaking. (laughs)
I mean, I liked doing the work, but I saw that I didn’t want to be a “master printer” or own a shop. At that same time, though, I fell in love with somebody who lived in Baltimore. So I set up another internship in town for the next summer, just to make sure I could go back.
Melissa Gagne, 2016
So your interests had started to shift.
Definitely. I knew I wanted to get more into textiles. I’d already been doing fiber structures, learned how to knit, print and dye—anything I could get my hands on. I knew I wasn’t into a lot of fiber art; I really wasn’t attracted to wool. But once I started working with chain, that was it. There was this immediate, tactile attraction. At the time, I was in Montreal, it was cold as hell, I was bored, watching movies, and I got really intent on figuring this new material out. So I developed this technique over the course of a few months, just working at home, and by the time I went back to New York for that second internship, I had a few pieces of jewelry finished.
At that point were you sketching things out, or were you finding your forms through the process of making them?
More through the process—although that’s changed a little, since I do have to sketch now when I’m developing things with other people. I usually have one or two girls helping me with production and development, where we’ll get together for a few days and try out new ideas. But in terms of finding the forms, it’s more about experimenting. Even now, when the time comes to make a new collection, it’s the same basic process: just sitting, watching YouTube videos, and seeing how things look when translated through this technique. There’s different aspects to test out—edging, different scalloping—and then I’ll have to see how it wears, how it degrades and if it adapts. It’s really a constant exploration.
Martin Thacker, 2008
Your pieces are designed to age, which I find really interesting. These inbuilt notions of adaptation and lifespans—all of that appeals to me, but I could also imagine it being counterintuitive for some of your customers.
Oh, yeah. The aging process definitely surprises, even upsets people who maybe aren’t as familiar with what I do. But that same aspect is ultimately what makes the work special, too. It’s why it’s coveted. Really, it’s just a perception thing. Most people want their purchases to remain as-is: if you buy white sneakers, you want them to stay white forever; if you buy a bracelet, you want it to keep its integrity. But with my stuff, it begins to change the second you start wearing it. That freaks some people out, but I feel like it’s the ultimate luxury, in a way—buying something where you don’t know how it’s going to turn out.
The pieces can be really lithe, forgiving, even fragile—which is surprising, given the medium. In achieving that effect, is your technique drawing on the materials’ inherent qualities? Or is it more about manipulating them?
I think of it as harnessing an attribute. I mean, I’m making a textile out of something that has no elasticity on its own; this is definitely not their intended purpose. But even with this new application, the metal keeps its basic traits. It’s totally subject to gravity; the pieces sag, the threads come out. Each piece really has a life of its own, and that’s something I choose to work with, not around. I feel like every time I try to lock something in, solder it or whatever, it looks really stupid—the pieces aren’t moving, in any sense of the word. So instead of trying to control things, I try to create structures that fall naturally and age gracefully. It’s definitely a system, but it’s open.
Asher Penn, 2011
You’re pretty specific in your choice of metals. How did that palette develop? How have you approached sourcing?
It’s the kind of thing where once you’ve figured out something works well, you stick with it. Like, I’ve been getting my stuff from the same factory since maybe 2010, so the quality’s been really consistent over time. But then, I also haven’t adapted any new materials that would make it worth it for me to get into a new full-on supplier relationship.
Well, it can be a hassle. For example, in my current collection, I integrated beads, but only in a small quantity—which made them tough to source, since most suppliers have a minimum for orders. It’s not like I needed 20 kilos of beads. You can develop one prototype and end up being totally held to the minimums of that particular style. It can make or break your season. So pursuing new materials is a tricky thing, more than people might realize. I don’t want these concerns to prevent me from trying something new, obviously, but it’d be easy for my whole life to be taken over, seeking out new materials and sources. It’s something I’m very mindful of.
Still, it seems like you’ve retained a sense of experimentation, especially in your collaborations with outside companies: LVMM, Simona Vanth, and so on.
Definitely, and I’m hungry for more! I’m dying to experiment with different materials—but the thing is, I don’t want to have to finance it myself. Even with those collaborations, where I’ve been able to try out new formats and even work with other people on design and sourcing, the projects were usually self-financed. So now I want to pursue small contracts, do accessories. I’d love to work with a bigger label—not full-time or anything, just on a project basis. The other thing is that for the past five or six years, I’ve really been strapped for time, developing collections while making changes to the internal structure of the business. Every season, I say, “OK, I’m going to take this month off and just try out new things,” or, “I’m going to set aside X amount of time each week”—but season after season, it just doesn’t happen. There’s always been something major to address. At this point, even just to set a day aside is really difficult. So I don’t know if the answer is to take a whole season off, or apply for a residency where I really have to work that way, or what. Because at the end of the day, what is this for? I mean, the inspiration side’s never worried me—given the opportunity, I always find new ideas. Like last season, [stylist] Halley Wollens asked me to do jewelry for Vejas, so I did a bunch of new things for that, and it was great. So it’s like, just ask me! Give me a deadline, a purpose, a structure to work with, and I’m totally there. I’m so used to high-intensity production, it’s like a fucking waterfall when I’m given the chance to work that way. But for whatever reason, trying to do that for myself these past few years hasn’t been so easy.
Heji Shin, 2010
Is it fair to say that the crocheted chain’s your signature technique to date?
Has it been to your advantage being known for a particular method? Has it ever felt like a limitation, be it creatively or even in terms of market expectations?
At the end of the day, it’s just my language. I think I have a particular approach to making things—even when it’s not crocheting, there’s always some wabi-sabi that’s going to be there. In terms of physical limitations, the nature of the material does make it hard to add elements of greater weight to the pieces. It also requires a lot of experimentation before I can adapt it to something new—and even then, it can be hard to predict how the chain will respond. Those are constraints, I guess, but that’s also how I’ve chosen to set things up. When it comes time to start on a new collection, I just want to sit down and start working with my hands. Tactility is how I get my inspiration. So there can be challenges, but for whatever reason, I’m ten years into it, and I’m still totally driven by trying to harness this stuff, adapting different shapes and silhouettes and hardware. I do also think it’s been limiting in business—in terms of ecommerce, for example. I do pretty well presenting things on my own, but my work doesn’t really fit so obviously into other platforms. Like, I was working with this department store, and they had this rigid policy, where they were like, “We take great pride in our customer service. Everything we put up on our website has to look exactly like what they’re going to get.” And I just said, “Well, there’s no way that’s going to happen with these pieces—that’s sort of the point.” That kind of thing can be rough, but I’m finding ways around it.
Margaret Haines, 2009
Do you have a clear sense of who’s buying your pieces?
Sort of. I don’t always see the final customer, but when I’ve tried to analyze my own data, I know they’re primarily women, between the ages of 35 and 70—which I assume is because most 20-year-olds can’t afford it—and they’re all over the place geographically. It’s not any more specific than that. I just feel like basic attraction is basic attraction. My main customers definitely have to be open-minded and interested in the techniques involved. But at the same time, what I put out may be specific and niche, but it’s also very classic, and that’s part of why it has wide appeal. Not necessarily mass appeal, but certainly broader than “avant-garde jewelry” or whatever.
You have a collection of chainmail pieces being released by the Metropolitan Museum in September. You characterized the set as “armor,” which caught my attention. In reading coverage of your work, that word comes up all the time, but it seems like you’ve sort of resisted that label to date.
Yeah, I have. I mean, I really do love chainmail. I love any kind of liquid, body-adapted metal. So when the Met approached me to design a collection based on the chainmail in armor suits, it sounded like an interesting project. This is the first time I’ve integrated actual chainmail into my work, and it’s been fun making work with a more blatantly armory feel. But in general, I’ve stayed away from that idea in my own marketing. I just feel like it could make the work seem like a one-liner.
Julia Burlingham, 2014
Equating draped chain with a hauberk or whatever.
Right. It’s more literal with some of the pieces than others—like the tops or the masks, you could obviously draw a connection, since it’s about the weight, the hang, the liquid quality of metal. You can’t really escape that. But people speak about smaller pieces, like bracelets or earrings, in the same terms, which is what’s interesting to me. I’ve had a lot of customers tell me that their bracelet or ring is their power piece, which I really like. To me, that’s the whole idea: it’s not just the technique, it’s about how you feel when you wear it.
Sort of a broad final question: What was the last really fun thing you did?
Well, this is a long time ago, but the first thing that came to mind is when I was living in Montreal and DJing all the time. That was incredibly fun. There were some particular parties where it was just, like, perfect. I’ve never been the kind of person who likes to go to a bar, sit there and talk. There always has to be some activity, and DJing was the best of both. I’d always loved music, but I never had any outlet for it; I never had the inclination to be in a band or anything. So to be DJing, setting the mood for different settings, I was able to present myself differently, make friends in a different way. I really loved that. And obviously, there have been great things since then—like when I went to Jamaica with my friend a few years ago, where we just rode across the country in dollar taxis, or when I went surfing in Puerto Rico last year. But honestly, being so busy with work, I haven’t been going out too much recently. There was a time where, to balance things after working so hard, I’d feel like I had to go out all the time and be really social, but I’ve sort of shifted from that. I know it sounds goofy, but I’ve actually gotten more into meditation. That’s led to some amazing moments that felt like landmarks, but they’ve all been internal. I’ve dedicated myself to that in a pretty full-on way, and it’s become this inspirational, driving force. I mean, I’m still a social person—I’m still chatty if you put me in the right environment. But that’s not something I’m relying on anymore, which is actually really empowering.