Michael Bastian, ‘more like a cat than a dog’

Michael Bastian is the (menswear) man of the hour. Since his 2007 debut as CFDA’s Newcomer Menswear Designer of the Year, Bastian has been spearheading the preppy resurgence with his signature brand of impeccable American sportswear. His momentum shows no signs of slowing — he was a nominee for GQ Magazine’s Best Menswear Designer of the Year, and just presented a critically raved sophomore collection for his Gant by Michael Bastian line at New York Fashion Week. And, of course, the new Gant Campus Store puts New Haven squarely on the designer’s map. WEEKEND sits down for an exclusive interview.

Q. How did you begin designing?

A. It kind of happened by chance. When I got my job at Bergdorf Goodman as the Men’s Fashion Director, one of the things that became one of my responsibilities was developing the whole private label program. It kind of went from just bringing in clothes that were already in my closet to “All right, well, this is something that I don’t just want to copy — that I’ve been dying to find but could never find.” So it kind of evolved into actually designing.

Q. Tell me about this trajectory to becoming one of the top menswear designers working today.

A. Whenever I’m asked by fashion students or people like that to give advice on how to break into this business, I’m always caught off guard. Somehow, I walked in through the back door. I never intended to be in this business; I never thought I would be a designer. When I went to school I thought I would be in advertising or marketing or on Wall Street or something like that. Just by keeping an open mind … I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do for the longest time, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. I would go from job to job, kind of by going to dinner parties, or going to bars or meeting with friends, and just saying “Oh, have you heard of anything? Any job openings? I’m ready to move.” And by doing that — by floating around a little bit — I had a chance to find out what I really like to do and what I’m good at.

Now, somehow here I am, and it’s kind of nice. I think that if you keep your mind open sometimes what you’re best at will find you.

I like to think that success in a career is more like a cat than a dog. You can’t run up and grab a cat and plop it in your lap. You kind of have to let the cat walk up to you and hop into your lap on its own.

Q. Do you have a different approach to the designing for the different collections?

A. Good question. Yes and no. The method is the same, but once I get rolling they diverge. With Gant I am always very conscious of who this guy is. Collaborations are always interesting because you are getting 50 percent designer and 50 percent of the heritage brand. So I am always very aware and very protective of Gant’s message and its heritage and its history. But my job is to take it one step further and really give them something new. So when I’m designing my own line, it’s very organic. It’s just, “What am I looking for right now that I don’t have?” or “Where do I think my guy is going next?” With Gant there are a few more moving pieces there.

And, by the way, New Haven is not a random location for Gant. I mean, that’s a homecoming, really.

Q. Are there certain things or people or places that you go to for inspiration?

A. Well, mainly inspiration kind of falls into my lap. I try not to control the process too much. I think if I walk around, live my life, meet my friends, walk around my neighborhood in the West Village, ideas come.

When I first started this, I would sit in my office and say “today I’m going to work on shirts” or “today is sweater day.” Unfortunately nothing good would come if I forced it. But if I just lived my life, the ideas came. Every designer works differently, but this is how it works best for me.

Q. Tell me about the collection that is coming out this week. Inspirations? Aesthetic?

A. My inspiration for the new collection debuting at New York Fashion Week right now is Nordic winter, cross-country skiing, and winter birds.

It’s more about eclectic layering to get through the winter and less about the individual items of clothing. It’s about personal style and how you put it together.

Q. Who did you have in mind when you were designing this collection?

A. There was no one person in particular, but I was definitely inspired by the young people in Stockholm and how they put themselves together.

Q. Do you intend your pieces to be worn together, as whole outfits, or used as bits and pieces of a different combination?

A. I’m always happiest when I see someone on the street who might be wearing a piece or two of what I do, but putting it together in their own way. To me that shows that they really have fallen in love with it and made my clothes their own.

Q. How does your design work relate to a college demographic?

A. I love that question. A lot of people have asked me about pricing, mostly for my own line, because Gant is really fairly priced, I feel. I remember back when I was in college and I didn’t have much money, but what I would do is really hunt down my clothes very carefully. I’m a big believer in “buy less but buy better.” I would save my money and buy that one perfect thing and then wear the hell out of it. I’m designing for myself and who I used to be and who I want to be, and there was a big chunk of my life when I had to save to buy that one perfect shirt or one perfect pair of jeans. It was much more satisfying than buying a bunch of stuff I didn’t love. It’s a bit of delayed gratification, but it was much more sweet when I finally got the one thing that I was hunting down. As a designer, that’s where you get the biggest satisfaction — seeing your stuff on the back of someone who really appreciates it. It’s easy to sell your stuff to people with a ton of money, but those people who really love it and really saved up for it, those are the people who you say “I’m really going to give you your money’s worth.”

Q. What are three things you can’t live without?

A. Don’t say cigarettes. And I don’t even drink that much coffee. How about Emergen-C, Bravo television and Facebook.

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