Prior to The Sartorialist I owned a showroom that specialized in young womenswear designer collections. I represented designers like James Coviello, Peter Som, and Shelly Steffee; all of whom continue to be an important voices in New York’s design scene. When I first opened the showroom in 1999 there was such an optimistic feeling in the air. Every new designer felt they had a chance to make it really big, and several did (at least for a while), like Miguel Adrover, Daryl K., and Zac Posen. Then 9/11 hit and the bottom just fell out overnight. Since then it has just been different; opening a new design house felt a lot more risky. Recently a few young women’s designers have shown the talent for staying around awhile, like Proenza Schouler and Derek Lam, but it still isn’t the same.
Surprisingly, where I have felt that air of confidence is in menswear, and even more surprisingly, New York menswear. Maybe ,in part, that helped the creation of this blog. I’ve met and profiled several of these young menswear designers, and I’m so impressed with the unique vision each one has for themselves, and how they plan to develop a profitable business.
In meeting so many designers through my showroom, I learned a few things: prices can be adjusted, assortments can be refined, distribution can be managed, and fit can be altered, but vision, real vision, for a unique product cannot be faked, either you’ve got one or you don’t.
I kept thinking about vision after I met Derrick Miller, the creative director for the super hot shoe collection Barker Black. I didn’t get the sense he had grown up dreaming of creating a shoe collection, but when two investors bought out a traditional and very old English shoe manufacturer, they started looking for someone to help them revamp the image. Through a typical series of twists and turns they ended up meeting with Derrick, who at the time happened to be working at Polo (all American designers have to graduate from R.L.U., it seems like). When the opportunity presented itself, Derrick took the proverbial ball (or in this case shoe) and ran with it. He quickly redesigned the entire collection of ugly English shoes into a line of really, really cool ugly English shoes. He incorporated an authentic crowned skull and crossbones logo that he had found while doing his design research, and upgraded everything in the make and design of the shoes. One of the original details that he did keep, and seems quite amused with, is the funny little bump at the toe cap of the shoe. He has also complemented the shoes with his own, very personal, take on colorful ties and pocket squares. Now this is where the vision comes in; most designers would be thrilled to have the quick success Derrick has had, but he is just getting started.
Derrick gave me a quick preview of the new prototypes for the Barker Black clothing line. It looks really good; I begged, but no photos yet. It is a perfect extension of the brand. It’s modern but classic, suit based, and it fits into this new school of American design in that the overall fit is slim and the jackets are a little shorter, but there are enough specific design details that give it a very distinctive look. I can only imagine, that once he finished the design for the very first shoe he knew exactly what the entire look would be. The vision also shows up in how intelligently he talks about expanding the brand; which stores he does and doesn’t think he can be successful in, and how he chooses to promote the brand( no ads, no fashion shows, yet). It sounds so basic but you would be surprise by how many designers begin companies without these basic concepts in place.
To get a first hand look at Derrick’s work the first Barker Black store opened last October, it is a perfect jewel box of a space in one of Manhattan’s coolest neighborhoods, Nolita. Using old upside-down shoe lasts (from the Barker Black factory) for the display of the shoes was a stroke of genius.
I really can’t think of another designer that literally started at the bottom and worked his way up the customers body.
With designers like Barker Black, Thom Browne, Michael Bastian, Cloak, and Duckie Brown there is enough young talent in New York menswear right now to create a really special moment. Like the Belgians of the 90′s and the Japanese of the 80′s, for retailers to have a group to buy into and present as a movement in their stores will actually make it easier for these individual designers to succeed. I can’t wait to see how this whole thing plays out.