Studio Visit: Lorraine Kirke of Geminola

The former interior designer dyes and upcycles vintage dresses for her boutique, all from her West Village home

Throughout the first floor of Lorraine Kirke’s West Village apartment, dresses are squeezed into every imaginable nook and cranny—hung on antique cabinets and the stair railing, filling up multiple rooms—which are complemented by paintings (mostly portraits of women) that fill up nearly any remaining space. It’s as if a costume designer’s wardrobe exploded on set. “We’ve heard ‘brothel’ as well,” laughs Kirke. This is where some women will meet with Kirke to find a unique outfit for that special event, or even their wedding.

Complete with a British accent, Kirke may be the fairy godmother of vintage dresses; the way she—along with her assistant Elaine Chun and two seamstresses—transforms fabrics, tablecloths and even shower curtains from the past into modern day frocks is pretty magical. She named her project Geminola after her four children (Greg, Jemima, Domino and Lola) and her boutique a few blocks away has been a West Village staple since it opened its doors in 2004. The shop isn’t for the faint-hearted: Be prepared for a lot of tulle, lace and bright colors.

Kirke is often associated with her prominent family members; husband Simon drums for British rock group Bad Company, daughter Jemima plays the free-spirited Jessa in the HBO series Girls, niece Charlotte Dellal designs Charlotte Olympia shoes—the list goes on. Geminola, however, is all hers—from vision to completion. Her passion has taken over her home, from the basement where fabrics are dyed using only the Tribeca-based Aljo dyes, to the front room, where they’re then cut and sewn into new patterns designed by Kirke. Each style (named after a girl) comes in different fabrics; so if you like the cut but aren’t so happy with the color, it’s simple to find the dress in another fabric. With the vintage textiles often limited to just a couple of yards, each dress is usually a one-off design.

“I lived in England until ’95 and came here with my children. I’ve always done interiors and in the early ’90s I made suede and leather clothes in England. [Here], I was more into doing it out of my own house because we just moved, and I didn’t like any fabrics I found,” describes Kirke. “So I started dyeing my own and then I realized that the fabrics that I was putting on beds and curtains would make neat dresses. And that’s how I started; making dresses out of old, vintage lace.”

“And then I found a little store, which I walked past, which had been closed for years, on Perry Street. It used to be an art gallery back in the ’50s. I just kept going and going, suddenly, one day this realtor said, ‘I think I can get you in there.’ And that’s how we got our store.”

Kirke scours flea markets and stores, keeping an eye out for gems whether she’s in the US or the South of France. “We basically upscale and recycle. We only use old fabrics, basically pieces I love,” she explains. “I don’t smuggle things. But you know what I did, I came in from England last week and I had a huge bag which was breaking. The guys asks, ‘How long have you been gone for?’ And I said, ‘Four days,’ and he looked at me, and luckily two of my daughters were with me. I said ‘It’s all our stuff together!’ I just went through customs with all that stuff—it was just fabrics and fabrics. I come here with bundles of things that need washing and fixing, and ends up in something nice.”

Geminola has remained true to its roots over the last decade; aside from opening a website, Kirke also added a children’s section so she could also dress her new grandchildren. “We’ve been really true to ourself. I’m still doing the same thing. When I shop or when I find things—I just touch,” says Kirke. “That’s why maybe we’re not a very good online business—you see, I can’t buy a good dress online (and I shouldn’t be saying that because that’s what the future is all about) but I can’t, because I have to touch it. Also I’ll never go to the post office and return it, just wouldn’t do that; life’s too short. I also don’t like shopping in the middle of the night; I’d rather read a book.”

What can one learn from a single touch? “I have a story,” Kirke says. “My daughter’s little boy came to stay the other night and I gave him a little vintage shirt and socks. He’s four years old and he said, ‘This is so soft, Yaya.’ And I think it’s really important that it feels good.”

Kirke gives an example of contemporary coats of today: “They have beautiful cuts but you feel like you can’t move in them because they’re so hard and stiff. It’s a fashion thing. People will do anything to be in fashion—I won’t. I’m not going to wear something because it’s like a brand or a label unless it’s comfortable and soft. And I think soft is sexy. And you’re not sexy when you’re standing like this and you’re itching. So I’m all about how it feels.”

Geminola is located at 41 Perry Street in Manhattan and appointments can be made at Kirke’s personal studio. View sample offerings from their online store. Dresses range from $95-695. For the holiday season, Kirke has collaborated with Love Me Organics to create custom-scented candles in vintage tins she has been collecting; they are currently available at the Geminola store and range from $150-195.

Photos by Nara Shin