Designer experiments, reinvents, hits stride again after returning to R.I.

Elana Carello of Elana Carello Sweaters – a Cranston designer who came back to the Ocean State from New York City about 10 years ago – is tweaking a winning formula.

The foundation of her success? Her past success – designing whimsical knit sweaters and sweater vests, but this time with a new strategic approach to reinvent her company in a tough industry, infusing it with new life.

Carello says working in fashion is like the movie, “The Devil Wears Prada.”

“I tell my students that that movie is a documentary,” she quipped.

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She always loved fashion.

“It was since I was a little girl and started to draw. I was heavily influenced by [‘That Girl’ actress] Marlo Thomas,” who wore the best of the 1960s and 1970s fashions, according to Carello.

But first the basics came into play. Knowing how a garment will be constructed is important in the design process, she said. Her mother taught her to sew, and sewing was taught in home-economics classes in school, offering Carello a better understanding on form and function.

“I’m very lucky,” Carello said. Her parents, a Cranston police major and a bookkeeper, had no familiarity with the world of fashion but were early supporters of her desire to get into the design field. “We would drive by RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] and they’d say, ‘You’ll go there one day.’ ”

She did, graduating in the 1980s with a bachelor’s degree in apparel design.

At one of her first jobs, Carello was taking on additional responsibilities at a design company when she first started designing sweaters. She was left to figure it out on her own.

“Do some sweaters,” she remembered being told. “I went through some old books and taught myself to create sweaters.”

This kind of resourcefulness, paired with determination, helped Carello advance in the competitive world of fashion.

She was in New York City for 20 years.

Carello found a mentor in a designer named Michael Seroy, who had his knit fashions in major magazines such as Vogue and Elle. She worked as his assistant, prepping for her initial hire-interview with him “like you wouldn’t believe,” she said. After the interview, she called every day.

Seroy, who became a father figure to Carello, later told her that her intentness was what won her the job.

After Seroy passed away in 1992, Carello sought to fill a void.

“Michael left a hole in the industry,” in terms of knits. “I had designed a lot of it with him and I wanted to continue.”

She worked for another designer but found their management style frustrating.

‘I went through some old books and taught myself to create sweaters.’
ELANA CARELLO, Elana Carello Sweaters owner

One day, Carello was told by this employer to cancel a photo shoot for a collection of sweaters she loved; they hadn’t made it into a line. Instead, Carello asked if the photographer would take a credit card and went about promoting the collection.

“That was the first day of my company,” she said. “I made my own postcards, hired a model, makeup person and paid the photographer myself.”

The sweaters were a hit.

She continued to work full time while getting her company off the ground, including work as a design director for a private-label company that would sell to other stores, which would then put their own labels in the garments.

By the 1990s, Elana Carello Sweaters were sold at retailers such as Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Saks and Black Market. Carello called it a “quick and immediate success.”

The sweaters were featured on shows such as “The Nanny,” “Oprah,” “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee” (and more recently worn by Mindy Kaling, star of “The Mindy Project,” first aired on Fox), to name just a few.

Carello remembers it as a time of long hours and good money doing work she loved.

Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

New York City’s fashion industry was heavily impacted. Carello’s company was very reliant on catalog business but demand had stalled.

Carello had her first child by then and was ready for a break. She took some time to raise her two daughters, who are now teenagers.

Now back in Rhode Island, Carello has created design classes for RISD Continuing Education, taught classes at Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass., and has created design summer camps and workshops.

In 2014, she relaunched new designs. But retail proved to be the wrong route this time, she said. Showroom rents were high and selling to specialty shops was problematic. “They would pay me last, as I was smallest,” she said.

A RISD alumni show in 2016 was a way Carello thought she could clear some sweaters out of inventory. Instead, the event sparked a whole new business structure.

“It shocked me; we did so well,” she said.

Previously manufactured in China, Carello’s sweaters are now made in the U.S. She’s found success in pop-up shops and artisan shows, such as the one at RISD, and has seen her numbers double from 2016 to 2017 as a result.

She now produces small runs of exclusive designs. This year she has new styles set to debut and plans to do shows in New York and New Jersey, as well as Rhode Island, to feed into her retail and online presence.

Advice from Carello for new designers?

“Don’t expect it to be easy. You have to really love it. Be tough, be resourceful,” she said. “Rely on instinct and keep a sense of humor.”