Interview: Arielle de Pinto

Arielle DePinto’s signature output—precious-metal chainwork crocheted by hand, all weighted clots and intricate knotting—draws fabric effects from unyielding materials, each piece assuming the wearer’s proportion, movement, even body temperature. Reading variably as artworks and accessories, her line’s breadth of formats (earrings, necklaces, bracelets, masks, headwear, footwear) confirms its broader appeal, with customers and collaborators ranging from the fashion-focused to fine art circles and beyond. Though based out of a studio in Chinatown, our conversation found Arielle visiting her native Toronto, her brother’s childhood bedroom newly converted to a makeshift workspace.

So you grew up in North York, but you 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)

Why’s that?

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.

Still, 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; like, I really wasn’t attracted to wool, for example. But once I started working with chain, that was it. There was this immediate, tactile attraction. At that time, I was in Montreal, it was cold as hell, I was bored, watching movies, and I got really intent on figuring out this new material. So I developed my 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 always been 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.

To that last point: 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 also what makes the work special, and why it’s coveted. So it’s really 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 end up.

The pieces can be really lithe and forgiving, even fragile—which is surprising, given the medium. In creating that effect, are you drawing on the materials’ inherent qualities at all? 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 its 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 embrace. 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 controlling things, I try to create structures that fall naturally and age gracefully on their own. It’s definitely a system, but it’s open.

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, you stick with it. 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.

Why not?

Well, it can be a hassle. For example, in my last collection, I integrated beads, but only in a small quantity—which made them tough to source, since most suppliers have a minimum for orders, and it’s not like I needed 20 kilos of beads. You can develop one prototype and end up being totally held to it because you’ve spent your budget. 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 found ways to experiment, especially in your collaborations with outside companies: LVMM, Simona Vanth, and so on.

Definitely, and I’m hungry for more! I’m dying to work with different materials—but the thing is, I don’t want to have to finance it myself. Even with those collaborations, where I was able to try out new formats and work with other people on design and sourcing, the projects were usually self-financed. So now I want to pursue small contracts, do accessories or whatever. 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 setting 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 an 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.

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, using 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.

Do you have a clear sense of who’s buying your work?

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, the word comes up all the time, but it seems like you’d 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 really interesting to me. This is the first time I’ve integrated actual chainmail into my work, and it’s been fun making things with a more blatantly armor-y 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.

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 fluid quality. You can’t really escape that. But what’s interesting to me is that people speak about smaller pieces, like bracelets or earrings, in the same terms. 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.

Originally published in Sex Magazine , September 2017