We spent a week this summer invading the offices and going inside the minds of six American menswear heroes. In our fourth installment, Michael Bastian discusses BB guns, making moms cry, and rebelling against expectations.
What inspired your Fall ’13 collection?
The fall collection had three or four different influences. The main one was the American painter Andrew Wyeth, and kind of his darker vision of Maine, where he was based. With every collection, you start with one thing, and then it’s like a snowball—it just picks up more stuff as you go through the six months of developing it. This idea of Red-winged Blackbirds crept in. I just think they’re so beautiful, and we started digging into the mythology of it.
Red-winged Blackbird—is that a specific species of bird?
Have you seen them? I don’t think they have them in the west. They’re shore birds, and the Native Americans interpreted them as this kind of gatekeeper in a way, because they were always on the edge of the water. So to them, the bird symbolized the last thing you saw before you entered into a new world. Or welcomed you into this world. It was perfect, because we felt, as a company, that we were kind of transitioning into something new.
Something new—like what?
It’s funny, because we [get grouped] in with the ‘preppy’ designers—and yeah, I guess I’m basically a preppy guy, but there’s gotta be more to American menswear than just preppy. So that’s what we were exploring with this collection. So the bird crept in, and then this idea of kind of American Gothic crept in, and—if you look at the collection in its entirety, it just, to me, feels a little darker, a little moodier, a little more introspective than we’re normally known for.
Do you feel like you were rebelling against the quote-unquote ‘preppy’ genre at large?
I was. I wanted to show the world that there’s more to me, and this brand, than, you know, classic northeastern preppy. Where preppy has gone is not exactly anything I’m really in favor of. It’s kind of become a reference of a reference of a reference.
What, to you, is the original preppy reference? The source material.
The original preppy that I grew up with—well, let me start here. I’m from way up north. Upstate New York. And this is all like woods, and hunting. My vision of preppy was more like backwoods preppy—the old Shetland sweaters with the holes in the elbow, and down vests, and work boots. It wasn’t so precious. It was like how real guys dressed, rather than, you know, this weird country club version of it, which I don’t really subscribe to.
Did you go hunting as a kid?
I tried hunting, let’s put it that way. I didn’t have it in me to kill something, so…But if you grow up there, it’s all around you—and motorcycles, and snowmobiles, and trucks, and bows and arrows and BB guns. That’s what it’s like growing up in the country.
Was your dad a snappy dresser?
My dad was a history teacher in upstate New York, in a public high school, and I would look at how he dressed, how his friends dressed. These real guys who would wear a flannel shirt, with—this is what my dad always wore—like a navy knit tie, five-pocket cords, navy blazer, and like a down vest over it. And like, some knit hat that my grandma made, cool work boots—and he’d hop in his Jeep and go to work. That’s how he and all of his friends dressed, and I always just thought, wow, this is great. They didn’t think about it too much. Maybe they cared on the front-end of the process—they bought really good stuff, but then they wore the hell out of it. And they would wear it for years. They’re probably still wearing some of it.
Would you say that your dad is one of your top style icons ever?
He really finds this funny that I even reference it, because he’s so not a fashion guy. But I just think there’s something about that innate style that I responded to—and he has that, and his friends have that.
Did you always have an interest in clothes and style?
I did. I just never thought it would be my job. It was more like a hobby. I was one of those weird little kids who had a GQ subscription at age 13. It was hard getting access to clothes up there, though, in upstate New York. This is like apple-orchard country up there, right on Lake Ontario. Um, plus you’re a little kid. You don’t have a job.
The way your dad dressed—were those the same kind of clothes you were wanting to wear, when you were 13 and reading GQ?
No. You know…No. Because here I am reading GQ, and I’m looking at all these amazing clothes, and thinking about New York City, and going out to clubs and stuff like that. At the time, I didn’t appreciate what I was seeing. It’s only later when, I think, as you develop your style, you go through these phases. So I went through my punk phase, my mod phase, my club-kid phase—then I got into like, my designer phase, and for a while I was a big Helmut Lang guy. And then I was working at [a major department store], and I was a big Jil Sander guy.
You kind of have to go through all of it to determine what works for you, and then somewhere around your 30s, 40s, you’ve settled into a look. Then it becomes a game of finding the best iteration of that stuff that you love. And at that point in the game, it shouldn’t be obvious who you’re wearing. It should be you. You should see the guy before you see the clothes.
Describe how you went from a 13-year-old kid reading GQ, to where you are now.
Well, back then I thought I was going to be a business guy, so I went to business school. It was going into the ’80s, the era when everyone thought, you know, all the answers are gonna be found on Wall Street. All I really wanted, to tell you the truth, was to get to New York. Andy Warhol once said, ‘Success is a job in New York. Any job.’ And I really kind of believed that, and lived that—I came to New York and just had this really incredible series of jobs, where one job led to another. I’ve done a lot of weird stuff. I was at Sotheby’s auction house for nine years, which is a great education in luxury. And then I ended up as a men’s fashion director [at a major department store]. I’m just a good example of come to New York, and the universe will figure it out for you. And from there, here I am.
What prompted you to leave your success in the department-store world behind, and start your own business?
There was so much I wanted, that I couldn’t find in the market. I was thinking, this is ridiculous, because I’m going to every damn country, and dragging my a— through every showroom, and I’m not finding things that are kind of simple and perfect. And someone said, ‘Well, what are you waiting for?’ So that’s how it happened.
How did you work up the guts to quit your job and go for it?
There were no guts involved. It seemed so reckless because, like…it made my mom cry, because I called one day and I’m like, ‘I’m quitting [my job as a fashion director].’ And she loved it, and she loved the discount—and she was like, ‘How can you quit that job? It’s so incredible.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna start my own line.’ She started crying. I’m like, ‘No, we’ll be fine. We’ll be cool.’ So yeah, in retrospect it was totally reckless to enter this weird industry, where you kind of reinvent yourself every season.
Given the different vibe of your current collection, do you feel you can still describe an overarching Michael Bastian aesthetic?
It’s my interpretation of American luxury. And by that, I mean—what luxury is to me, is something that you buy and you wear the hell out of. I don’t think there’s anything luxurious about buying something, and then it just gathers dust in your closet. So, my idea really is buy less, but buy better.
Less is more. What other tips do you have on acquiring a solid wardrobe?
Spend the money, really do your homework, and make sure it fits you. If it’s tailored clothing, get it tailored. Take that extra time. Because if you’re honest with yourself, you open up your closet and you probably wear 10, 15 percent of what you own—but you wear that 10 or 15 percent all the damn time. So why not get the best version of that thing that you wear all the time?
That’s really why I started being a designer. I found I was wearing, like, a navy cashmere crewneck that I had in college, and I wasn’t even able to replace it. I was working in retail, and I was going to every showroom, but I wasn’t able to find another one of those—or like, a pair of chinos I had in college, or the perfect navy blazer. And I just really wanted to make the best version of those things.
Speaking of perfect sweaters—there’s one in the Fall collection that seems to mirror the Blackbird concept directly.
[The shape of that sweater], we do every season since we started. We call it our ‘Ben’ model, which is our idea of a perfected crewneck cashmere sweater. But we treat it a little differently. The cashmere itself is knit looser, and then it goes through this treatment that the Italians call infeltrito, or felting, where it’s washed and dried—and it’s actually fluffier than a normal cashmere sweater. And it’s lighter-weight, so you get that look of something heavier and fluffier, but it’s actually pretty light.
What are some different ways an average guy could wear that signature ‘Blackbird’ sweater?
Like with most things, you can dress it up, or you can dress it down. For instance, this kind of dressy windowpane pant [seen above], with the chambray shirt and that sweater. That’s one perfect way of wearing it.
That’s a lot of diverse references in one look.
All in one. The other way you could wear that sweater, is with one of my other favorite pieces, this sweatpant. Look how good this looks together.
We were talking about the sweatpant before we came over here.
And it’s not just a sweatpant. This is a pant that you could actually wear on the street. Put your wallet in the back pocket. It’s got a lot of interesting detail—the trapunto stitching on the rear, the way the back yoke is cut, the military pleating on the pockets. It’s in a heavier, really beefy, garment-dyed fleece. It’s kind of a womped-up sweat pant, if you will.
It’s kind of creating this new category, in a way, because you can wear it on the street. That plaid shirt could be great with the sweat pant, the sweater, and then you could throw the army jacket that you guys also bought over the whole thing. All that’s missing is like a big army boot…And maybe a knit cap and a pair of sunglasses.
What do you love about a good sweater, in general?
I like the idea that the more you wear it, the more the neck gets a little stretched out. It ends up fitting you. There’s something weirdly magical about sweaters. You hear those stories about women borrowing their boyfriend or husband’s sweater, because it smells like him…or you go home, and your dog has pulled your sweater out and is laying on it. Sweaters really absorb your aura a little more than other things. Maybe ’cause you don’t throw them in the washer, really.
You mentioned the paintings of Andrew Wyeth as a huge influence this season. What is it about Wyeth’s work that inspired you?
He was working with this American vernacular. What he painted was what he saw, either in Cushing, Maine, or he also worked in Pennsylvania. The other thing is, there’s always—okay take this picture for example [above]. At first glance, it’s a hunter under a tree. But then you think about it for a minute, and you’re like, wow this is a very interesting perspective. Am I hunting him? Am I hiding from him? Why am I looking at him from the top down, kind of silently? So there’s always another layer or two beneath every Wyeth painting. You could spend two seconds or you could spend hours [looking at one].
Many, many, many layers. And it’s not all dark. It just is what it is. We also like that it’s not about color. It’s almost non-color. It’s all these cement-y, snowy colors. Or the color of pine trees or meadows, or things like that, that we love. He also had that great quote—where he said, ‘There’s always a bit of Halloween in everything I do.’
At your Fall runway presentation, the venue itself seemed to reinforce the darker theme as well.
It was a different kind of show for us. We showed in a derelict hotel’s ballroom, that was really crumbling, and dark, and vast. There was chipped-up linoleum on the floor, and we created this kind of barn door, implying this burned barn, and these origami birds were on one wall, implying that flock of blackbirds. We moved them into our showroom afterwards [pictured above].
How does the runway relate to average men, and real-life clothes?
When you’re doing the show, you’re kind of presenting this fantasy version of it, that has little to do with the actual individual pieces of clothing. I have no problem with saying, ‘I’m designing clothes that I hope guys wanna wear—not just ideas and concepts.’ But, you know, a show has to have a little more of that conceptual edge to it. It’s part of the business. We’ve gotta kind of seduce people into our world…You almost have to exaggerate to make the point. Hence the burned barn, the peeling linoleum, the spooky music, the casting—and all that. It was fun to kind of try on a different persona. And it’s healthy, I think, to push yourself into a different corner that you may not have been in before.
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SHOP ALL: MICHAEL BASTIAN
[Photos by Robin Stein. Interview by Justin Abbott.
Special thanks to Michael Bastian and team.]