Paloma Elsesser Finds Out Why Everyone’s Wearing Thistles
There’s a fine line between going incognito and making a statement, particularly when it comes to rocking bold, black-lensed sunglasses. But for Thistle Brown, the stylist-turned founder of the hot new brand Thistles, it’s okay to do both. After launching his first collection of Onassis-inspired sunglasses with a celebratory cocktail at a crowded MNZ storefront in New York’s lower east side late last month (Maryam Nassir Zadeh is an old friend and collaborator), the New Zealand-born designer got on a Zoom call with bestie, the supermodel Paloma Elsesser, to discuss the inspo behind his first drop, and the key to creating sunglasses that look good on almost everyone.
PALOMA ELSESSER: Hello?
THISTLE BROWN: Hi babe. How are ya? You arrived.
ELSESSER: She’s back. Sorry. I’m like, so bad at Zoom.
BROWN: No, you’re fine. Wait, I saw your sister [Ama Elsesser] at the launch. She looked fab! I said to her, “I’ve never seen you in a heel before.” She was like, “Yeah, it’s new me.”
ELSESSER: New me, bitch. The girls are getting more femme. We’re reverting back to the feminine lifestyle.
BROWN: I love that for us all, to be honest.
ELSESSER: I feel like I’ll have a lot of time to spend dressing old. What’s the rush? We’re only young for so long, so we should dress hot and fun and feminine.
BROWN: Yeah, and I especially like skin. I’m like, “Get this out!”
ELSESSER: Skin out. So, first of all, I’m like so fucking proud of you. It’s actually crazy. I’m so sad I wasn’t there for the launch, but it looked so, so cute. How are you feeling?
BROWN: I feel good. People really turned up, the people that I love the most. Usually when I do a project, I see it in print or on a billboard or whatever and I’m like, “Okay, it’s done. It’s out in the ether.” But this is the first thing I’ve made where it’s just the beginning. At the launch there was obviously adrenaline, but the next day I was like, “Wait a minute, I gotta get up and work.”
ELSESSER: No one wants to work these days. [Laughs]
BROWN: [Laughs] It was so cozy and cute and there were so many people that I hadn’t seen for a while. It was just a melting pot of love and encouragement and I felt very blessed. It’s been nearly 10 years since I’ve been here, so it feels like it was just the right time to do it.
ELSESSER: One hundred percent. I actually met you through your OG New Zealand girls.
ELSESSER: Shout out to Pratt, angel of the world. We were all starting out at that time. This was almost eight years ago. It was a really crazy time to reflect and be like, “We’re doing it.” Tell me more about going from being in styling to a girl who wears many hats.
BROWN: [Laughs] She’s verse, she’s versatile.
ELSESSER: [Laughs] That is one thing we would say.
BROWN: The Ursula of downtown—
ELSESSER: The tentacles. When did you feel like eyewear was the moment for you?
BROWN: You know my first ever job in New York, I worked at an optometrist in Greenwich Village.
BROWN: Yeah, before I met Maryam [Nassir Zadeh].
ELSESSER: Oh my god.
BROWN: I cut out all of the lenses, I dip dyed them. I’d mouth the acetate and click in these big prescriptions for the locals. And so it kind of is ironic that it’s come full circle.
ELSESSER: Very full circle. Hello?
BROWN: But I think also going back to that family and that intimacy with my relationships and friendships—I grew up on literally a tiny island on the other side of the world as an only child. So my relationships mean so much to me because I didn’t really grow up with that. I always make time for my friends, but I also value them and lift them up. And I feel like my friends do that with me. Whether we’re going through a breakup or making a brand or doing a fashion show or doing a shoot, it’s like—the right friends give you a slice of life.
ELSESSER: Mhmm. I think what people don’t often recognize is that, despite the polished careers that we all have, we come from a scrappiness. And that scrappiness still exists. I think one of the hardest parts of evolving into higher echelons of our career is that, at least for me, I still have the default feeling of being a scrappy newcomer all the time.
BROWN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ELSESSER: That also comes with bringing your friends together. It still feels natural to be like, “Of course I’m going to shoot my friends. Of course when I have an event it’s at a longtime collaborator’s space and all of our community is going to show up. And it doesn’t have to feel like some weird press moment.”
BROWN: I mean, I don’t want to choose my customer. I never want to make a product that feels inaccessible. It can feel aspirational for sure, but still familiar. And we worked so hard to make a shape that really fits all sorts of faces. And I hope that anyone is inspired by the images that we’re making, and the sunglasses we produced. It’s not about it being an elitist move on my end.
BROWN: Obviously there’s an allure with fashion because there’s the cool kids club or whatever. It’s cafeteria culture at its finest—but it doesn’t have to operate that way. If I’m making something, I want it to be there for anyone that feels like they can pick it up and roam with it or wear it.
ELSESSER: You are representative of this very modern version of downtown New York. That also means you can be a sexy queer boy from a small fucking town in New Zealand and create that community and do that within a decade. And if that kid is watching from thousands of miles away—they might not be able to move to New York right now, but they might be able to pick up your sunglasses and have that feeling and be a part of the community without even having to be there.
BROWN: Absolutely. I think also that was one thing about why sunglasses felt the right object to tap into first. I remember growing up in New Zealand, I would’ve had to wait eight months to get a magazine like Self Service or whatever. You always felt out of touch. But I like the idea that a sunglass is an object that can kind of travel on its own. It can be lost and found.
ELSESSER: I love that. Was there any specific inspiration behind the shapes and the colors and the mold?
BROWN: We started with one shape to release with, and obviously that will develop. But I think touches of old New York people were the starting point of the brand. I remember being obsessed with these images of Greta Garbo when she retired and left and became this recluse uptown. And there were these amazing paparazzi shots of her going about her day. From the outside looking in, it felt very mysterious and glam and alluring. I think the first shape is a riff on that old world, on an Onassis-style lens. But then we combined different elements that I know work well on a different array of people. There’s a little bit of Sonic Youth—I mean, it’s kind of what we’re all nostalgic for in the way of old New York or old London or Paris or whatever. There was one thing about this shape though. I really wanted to make sure that it could cover your eyebrows if you wanted it to.
BROWN: You can wear them at the end of your nose and expose your eyebrows. But my friend was like, “A lot of people really suit sunglasses when you don’t see the eyebrow.” It frames your face in a certain way.
ELSESSER: I love that so much. We also spoke about the idea of anonymity. We’re fraught with how to keep it modern, but also how to keep it timeless, and I feel like you’ve really encapsulated that. And speaking to an experience of visibility that we all have right now, it’s a very frenetic zone. What does it mean to create your own anonymity in a moment? What does it mean to pop your Thistles on and be able to create your own world in a simple, simple item?
BROWN: I think what’s so cool about eyewear is that it’s really an anchor to one’s outfit. They could wear my sunglasses and be wearing a ball gown and it’s their outfit. And those sunglasses anchor that or amplify it to a certain degree to make it feel a little timeless and classic, but it doesn’t need to be the main character of the outfit. I felt like Maryam used to do that with her shoes. You could wear a shoe of hers and it could almost turn into her outfit. That’s the power of accessories.
BROWN: And the most precious part of your body for most people is their face. So you gotta do it right.
ELSESSER: Yeah. Well, we’ll finish it off and keep it cute. What’s next for Thistles?
BROWN: We are releasing a new style very, very soon. And that’s really exciting. It’s a different shape, but still sticking to the codes of the brand. And then we will be releasing something in fall. For now I want to focus on eyewear. I want to keep it simple and concise. And then eventually, who knows, maybe there’s space for us to evolve into clothing. I just need to make sure that the voice sounds good from the start.
ELSESSER: Well, I think that’s one thing that you are incredible at. You do everything so intentionally and with so much heart. And so I’m very excited and know that whatever it is, it’s going to be beautiful. I’m so proud of you. I love you so much.
BROWN: Love you P. Thank you so much for being a true sis.
ELSESSER: My god, of course. No matter what, and for years and decades to come, we’ll always support each other. That’s what I’m so grateful for.
BROWN: Yeah, you’re not going anywhere, babe. Neither am I.