Sean McNanney, designer and interior decorator, owns the tiny store SAVED on Irving Place from which he sells his wonderful and unusual cashmere blankets, all enlivened by his own edgy designs. A family connection takes him to Mongolia every year where he oversees the production of his work at first hand, observing the cashmere harvest and working with his step-cousins on navigating Mongolian society. “Basically everyone is related … my cousin is like, “If we need a color we’ll call other people and trade colors. We’ll give them some of our yellow if we can have some of your blue.”
So you’ve been here in Williamsburg since 2004 and I was wondering if you still get the same pleasure from living in this area as you perhaps did back then?
Sometimes … like today, walking to Whole Foods—it was nice to go to Whole Foods and I’m glad it’s here and although today it was kind of quiet. I didn’t see [the usual] tourists or people who come here for six months from Europe, but I miss the old ladies. Once in a while I see them.
[Sian] Yeah—I saw a couple of old ladies on the way here and I thought, “That’s nice. They have old people here!”
Most of them [when I first came] were in their late 70s or early 80s and every morning they came out in their housedresses on their little block. This wider area is Polish, but this little pocket was more Ukranian.
[Lesley] I live just up the street—have you seen that lady on North 11th? She collects bottles every day and feeds a huge flock of pigeons each morning. But she actually owns the whole block, including The Bedford restaurant.
There’s one here! She also collects cans and bottles and you would think she’s having a really hard time but she owns that whole block over there! I think it’s having survived a war—nothing can go to waste. And my neighbor keeps pigeons on the roof here. They do it with their friends for gambling—they race them. I’m still surprised by how much this neighborhood has changed and it’s still not done. It looks like Las Vegas or Miami.
So talking of the past, everything you have in here is pretty much from the past—are you very nostalgic?
I like … things that are different and unique and well made. It’s a better value because antiques are not that in.
Well, you’re young and we’re not—we wonder what your friends make of this style. We keep saying we think antiques, color and maximalism are coming back but what do your friends like?
They’re like, “Oh, it’s European!” or, “This feels like somewhere else!” or “How do you clean it?” It interesting because with the article in The New York Times, which they posted on their Instagram, some people were like, “It’s horrible! Ugly! So much stuff!” But all my inspiration is here.
I think a polarized reaction is bound to happen if it’s on Instagram. You spent some time in Tokyo—what were you doing there?
I really like Japanese culture and then I was offered a job in modeling. It was in 1999 when you could make a lot of money doing that in Japan. But a year was plenty.
What do you like about Japanese culture?
I like how they’re so in the future but also in the past. They just take everything in the world and make it a little bit better.
Tell us about working for Ralph Lauren Home.
That was my first corporate job so it was an experience. Going into the elevator at 625 Madison every morning and everyone is perfect. I got a good education in where to get everything made and where to get the best. We built sets because it’s cheaper than going on location so we built Downton Abbey at the Starrett-Lehigh building. We would break down the set and send all the props to the stores around the country. I was sourcing it all. And there’s a huge, huge warehouse full of props. The warehouse sale is really good!
It’s sounds like a lot fun but I guess it stopped being fun after a while.
You do get to do all these crazy sets but then it has to be “Ralph Lauren.” And I’m not Ralph Lauren and I didn’t want to get trained to that. It’s very specific and everyone wants to work there for 30 years and to look the part and you really want the house in the Hamptons and a classic six on the Upper East Side.
I’m also really curious about the textiles and going so regularly to Mongolia. Can you tell us about how you got going with all of that?
I used to have shop downstairs called Sage—it’s now Hotel Delmano. The store was kind of like this apartment and we had a clothing line and lots of jewelry and all the big buyers came—it was still when Williamsburg was “undiscovered.” Julianne Moore was a big customer. Then my father married a woman from Mongolia whose family is in the cashmere business. Some members of her family raise cashmere goats as well as camels and yaks. Anyway, they were raising the rent of the shop so we closed and I thought I should just start a line of blankets. What I like about blankets is that you don’t have to follow the fashion calendar.
So did you go to Mongolia with your designs?
Yes. They had a whole workshop but they were making very simple things. We started to work with them. I had to like, convince them to do what I wanted to do. I really had to be there.
What is Mongolia like?
It took a while for me to really enjoy it because it’s just … there’s really nothing. The city is from the Soviet era but it is growing. There are areas where the streets have no names because they’re building and building. There’s a lot of money there, too. They have a lot of gold and minerals that are used in medicine or in computers.
Have you stayed in the yurts and things like that?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. At first I found it difficult to relax because of coming from New York and then all, of a sudden, there’s nothing, just two thousand goats and a little house. It reminds me of a car commercial—nothing and mountains. The people are very nice and they eat a lot of meat but it’s very delicious because it’s all grass-fed.
How do get along with your stepmother’s family?
Basically everyone is related … my cousin is like, “If we need a color we’ll call other people and trade colors. We’ll give them some of our yellow if we can have some of your blue.” It is like $25 000 to dye one vat of product.
Can you tell us some more about the process?
I’ll go at cashmere harvest time, which is end of May, beginning of June. That’s when they comb all the cashmere goats. It’s like a dog comb they use. You have to hold the goat down and comb it.
What do they call it—the hair?
It’s called “down.” The best cashmere is ten times warmer than wool. The best part is the down from under the jaw and Mongolian cashmere is the best quality.
Is social media completely key now to sales and keeping a business going?
Instagram really is—and it’s great for meeting people. I was in a little shop in Paris and they said, “Oh, we follow you on Instagram!”
This is a strange era for retail—how do feel about the threat to bricks and mortar from online shopping?
I always like having a store. [The store is called SAVED and is located at 72 Irving Place in Gramercy] I still think people want a store. I like buying all the extra things to display the blankets and the environment and the story. My store is very tiny, like a little jewel box. It’s kind of like a destination store but surprisingly people just walk by. It’s a little posh pocket—and there’s also the best pre-school nearby so all the moms walk by.
Who doesn’t want a cashmere blanket from Mongolia for Christmas?