Unhinged

An Hour in the Life of Local Designer Joseph Aaron Segal

Erin Swanson
Posted
Hannah Abelow and Joseph Aaron Segal Photo by Erin Swanson

Who: Joseph Aaron Segal
What: Knitwear and apparel designer
Where: His studio, Harris Avenue, Providence
Why: I fricken-fracken love his kitty sweaters

When I contacted Joe a week or so prior to visiting his studio, I made sure to ask him to set aside a cat-eye ring for me – I just had to have one. And now I do. Joe is the brain behind Pretty Snake and the “crazy cat sweater.” If you haven’t glimpsed one of Joe’s innovative creations yet, you’re sure to soon. He’s already getting more orders than he can keep up with; after the holiday rush, he’d sold out of all of his cat sweaters and t-shirts. I’ve been coveting one for quite some time now and I was dying to see where and how they are manufactured.

Joe and his one employee, Hannah Abelow – who refers to herself as his “friendsistant” – met at RISD, where the fashion and textile designer received his MFA. (Joe currently teaches Machine Knitting and Industrial Knitting at RISD.) The pair work out of a loft housed inside a large artist-occupied warehouse, which boasts a run-down sensibility that any creative mind would extol. Half of the studio space is where all the knitting magic happens; the other is where the photo shoots go down.

It was as a grad student that Joe created his very first cat-focused garment – a knit sweater dress that he had never showed to anyone outside his RISD cohorts prior to our encounter. It’s stored in a giant plastic bin, amongst a multitude of experimental fabric swatches and projects that he worked on back in the day. (Joe sells his swatches at trade shows to companies such as Ralph Lauren Home.) “They want to see what’s possible,” Joe explains, “so I make them as crazy as possible.”

(The original "cat sweater" knit dress)

One of Segal's experimental fabcric swatches

(One of Segal's experimental fabric swatches)

Fast forward a bit, to the day when Joe turned his grad school project into the sweater that’s now become synonymous with his kitschy success: the official Cuckoo Kitty Sweater. His first was a thrifted piece onto which he heat set his infamous cat design and sewed on a few sets of vibrant cat-eyes. Presto, instant masterpiece.

(The writer models a kitty sweater)

(Hannah irons a kitty sweater)

While many of the Pretty Snake sweaters are still thrifted (meaning that most are one-of-a-kind creations), the designer also wholesales new sweaters so that he’s able to make multiples of particularly popular designs, such as the argyle “Official Watson and Sherlock Crazy Cat Jumper,” made famous by the BBC show Sherlock. There was another reason for making the shift from thrift to bulk. “Sizing is a big problem with thrifted sweaters,” Joe says. “It can be hard to find bigger sizes. Since we began purchasing new sweaters in bulk, the company has grown a lot.”

And with that growth has come new innovation. One recent upgrade is his new garment tags: “We heat set a crystal in the eye of the snake on each tag,” Joe explains. Another custom addition is the brand new hang tags that are affixed to every item of apparel. “The tags look great and they congratulate the buyer on owning a Pretty Snake item.” They also note that the item is made in Providence – important, as he ships them all over the world.

In addition to knitwear, Pretty Snake includes a jewelry line: earrings, necklaces and rings (like the one that now adorns my left middle finger). “My friend Kelly of I’m Your Present taught me to operate the laser cutter, which I use to make all the earrings and necklaces,” Joe says. Joe’s company, JAS Fashion Design, has also begun making winter accessories: zig-zag scarves and pom-pom hats.

(Some of Segal's earrings and necklaces)

(Segal models a zig-zag scarf)

Holiday novelty is not lost on Joe. “This Christmas we shipped out red felt Santa hat pins with every garment. The customer could pin the felt hats right onto the cats’ heads, making their sweaters more festive for the holiday.” He’s also manufactured several red Valentine’s Day tote bags, which are currently for sale online.

(Hannah models one of the new Valentine's Day totes)

(The writer models her new cat's-eye ring)

Pretty Snake will be holding a sale at the Biltmore for StyleWeek Providence (January 22-28). If you’re unable to make it, you can purchase Joe’s innovative garments and adornments online at his newly redesigned website.