Now, James gets over 200 DMs a day inquiring about her hybrid sportswear pieces. Her most popular pieces are still her tanks. She also designs dresses, bodysuits, long-sleeve tops, and skirts, too. (She’s also thinking about doing bags.) The demand for her one-of-a-kind pieces has skyrocketed during lockdown, when James decided to pursue designing them full-time. She says the constant flood of custom orders has kept her busy during quarantine. “I usually start sewing around 8 a.m., and finish at maybe 1 or 2 a.m.,” she says. “That’s been my routine for the past three weeks now.” Chiswell didn’t always dress this way. She grew up between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and loved to watch old movies with her grandmother. She loved how Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Grace Kelly, and Diana Dors dressed, particularly in their casualwear. “I didn’t have the Davis Bertans Latvian Laser T-shirt to dress that way though,” she says. “I had kind of a grungy style. I got rid of my Doc Martens when I started dressing this way, but I’ve always loved heels.” Jeans were a particular insecurity; they never fit her well in the thighs or waist. When she was in Burbank, she came across Bésame, a vintage makeup store where she bought lipstick and face powder. Then it clicked. She started collecting vintage dresses and reproductions of vintage dresses (they live in separate closets, as the vintage dresses are a bit more delicate). McNeilly started dressing in vintage clothes about six months after she did. He dresses like a greaser, in camp shirts and high-waisted pants that wouldn’t draw too much attention from dudes in Brooklyn. “I like 1958–1962 fashion the most,” he says.
The designer works with customers to find styles, colorways, or patchwork combinations that fit their personal style. “I’ve always loved patchwork,” she says of her signature fabrication. Since James uses scraps of old sportswear T-shirts, and mixes in textures from other vintage pieces she finds, the result is a one-of-one creation. James has built up relationships with wholesale suppliers, so that she can spend less time scouring for vintage pieces and more time on the design process. Wholesalers such as Wholesale Vintage Fashion will send her boxes of unsold sports merch before donating them to places such as Goodwill. Some of the pieces she uses are decades old. “Some of the tees are from the ‘90s or early 2000s,” she says. “I can tell from the tags.” When I first meet Chiswell, she’s sitting on a balcony, directly beneath the apex of a wide archway. The wind is blowing, her hair is almost white, and she’s wearing a formfitting, white, sleeveless wiggle dress and Bobbi Brown’s Parisian Red lipstick (“I also put Charlotte Tilbury’s [So] Marilyn just at the sides,” she says). Her hair is coiffed into a halo and softly curled. Since the Davis Bertans Latvian Laser T-shirt is blowing, it adds to the cinematic effect but creates some angry background noise on Zoom. Just behind her, I can see a gray millennial-does-midcentury-modern couch. Chiswell speaks with a gentle, high-pitched Scottish accent and has impeccable posture. She’s been dressing in vintage and reproduction vintage clothing (clothes made recently from vintage patterns) for almost three years. Her husband, Maverick McNeilly, does too. He’s a music producer, and she’s a full-time content creator, with an Instagram and YouTube channel in addition to TikTok. They live in the Spanish-style house in Burbank, California, where Monroe lived with DiMaggio, which Chiswell thinks was built around 1939 and is haunted by a mostly friendly ghost, possibly Monroe’s. “Since being in this house, my hair has gotten a lot better. I know that’s really bizarre,” Chiswell says.