Everything in Cathryn Collins's packed, posh little showroom tells an interesting story: The cowhide rugs ($395) artfully arranged on the floor were found on a farm near Bogotá, Colombia; the amethyst-and-amber crosses, fluorite-and-freshwater pearl drop earrings ($300-$925), and jewel-handled handbags on the center table are by Grazia Vozza, a designer Collins discovered while vacationing in Capri; the strikingly simple satin flats were made in two styles for Collins when she was in Italy. Both flats were inspired by her travels, one a sandal called Capri and the other a pointed slipper called Marrakech ($125 each). Folded on the shelves are incredible shawls, which, when unfurled, reveal embroidery so fine—similar to the craftsmanship of 18th-century Kashmiri shawls—it looks as if it were painted on. "On a trip to Delhi, I met these two extraordinary young women who had been hired by the Indian government to revive the textile trade in Jammu and Kashmir," Collins explains, noting that they now make shawls for her as well.
Shopping here (by appointment only) is like exploring the closet, albeit the extremely well-edited closet, of one of the world's great women of style. "The logic behind all this stuff is that these are the things I wanted but could never find," Collins says. First on that list was a perfectly fitted and finely woven cashmere twinset. "It's incredibly difficult to find fabulous-quality sweaters that have shape but aren't too trendy," she says. Collins, and many like her, grew accustomed to rifling through their mothers' attics or the shelves of antique-clothing dealers, looking for vintage specimens by Dalton, Braemar, and Pringle.
Now similarly frustrated shoppers visit Collins's showroom to buy the trim little Italian-knit cashmere sweaters she sells under the label I PEZZI DIPINTI (Italian for "painted pieces"). Her knitwear's high, fitted armholes achieve a tailored effect reminiscent of dressmaker cashmere from the fifties. But while vintage knitwear can appear dowdy, Collins's pieces have a contemporary edge thanks to narrow, extralong sleeves and hook-and-eye closures instead of buttons (her signature). "They're not prissy," she says, pointing out that every style, from the barely there, one-ply spaghetti-strap camisole ($225) to an eight-ply turtleneck ($750), hugs the wearer in all the right places, keeping her equally warm and stylish. To this mix, Collins recently added a version for men: a thick ribbed, zippered mock turtleneck ($975) with a similarly flattering cut.
A Harvard graduate with an MBA from Columbia, Collins calls to mind Elsa Schiaparelli, the indefatigable couturiere who began her business in 1927 in the same way—by creating a single must-have sweater. Collins also happens to be her own best model. Standing beside her desk (piled high with magazines, orders, and invitations) she is a vision of effortless chic, wearing two sweaters in the same shade of loden green: a cardigan, fastened halfway up, over a sleeveless V-neck tank worn with camouflage trousers and brown Manolo Blahnik crocodile slingbacks.
But as well edited as her tiny space is, Collins's focus is not limited to fashion. Three large photographs dominate her desk—part of a series of reprints she commissioned of work by Dirga Man Chitrakar, Nepal's court photographer in the early 20th century. The photos, produced from original negatives by Chitrakar's grandson, were exhibited and sold in 1999 to benefit the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, whose mission is to safeguard Nepal's threatened architectural heritage (toward which Collins donates a portion of her sales).
Not one of the pieces she sells in her studio is available in stores, so customers travel from as far as Mexico and Italy for Collins's goods. "I have clients who wear only couture and my sweaters," she says. "They buy twenty per season, plus duplicates for their two or three homes." Every October Collins sends out invitations (to clients, their friends, and those who make a concerted effort to call and get on the list) for a private three-day sale she holds at Manhattan's Regency Hotel. The famous and anonymous alike gladly line up, mingle, and enjoy coffee and croissants in the morning (wine and Champagne in the evening), as they survey the entire contents (even the rugs) of the I PEZZI DIPINTI bazaar a-go-go. This year Collins has begun to take the show on the road, with invitation-only events in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Millbrook, New York.
"My clients," Collins says, "are an amazingly loyal group. I love bringing them beautiful things even they haven't seen anyplace else."
At 270 Lafayette St.; 212-941-9966.
By her own admission, Cathryn Collins is a world-class shopper. Below, a few of her favorite stops en route.
A Détacher for Dillen's custom leather bags. At 262 Mott St., New York; 212-625-3380.
Geminola for vintage clothing. At 41 Perry St., New York; 212-675-1994.
La Maison du Chocolat for dark chocolate-covered almonds. At 1018 Madison Ave., New York; 212-744-7117.
Zezé for flowers. At 398 East 52nd St., New York; 212-753-7767.
Michael Trapp for antiques. At 7 River Rd., West Cornwall, CT; 860-672-6098.
Benneton Graveur for stationery. At 75 Blvd. Malesherbes, Paris; 33-1/43-87-57-39.
Bentleys for antique silver and crystal. At 204 Walton St., London; 44-207/7584-7770.
Amazonite for vintage jewelry. At 94 Blvd. El Mansour Eddahbi, Marrakech, Morocco; 212-44/449-926.
Rajasthan Fabrics & Arts for textiles. At Laxman Dawra, Jaipur, India; 91-141/260-1432.