By David Walmsley
Zam Barrett's functional designs have been a best-kept secret of the avant-garde menswear industry since 2005. The Jamaican-born New Yorker has been contracted by the American, Canadian and British militaries to design field apparel, and for three years he was head patternmaker for Crye Associates, an elite international research and design group. He has also designed costumes for movies such as Transformers and Black Hawk Down.
Launched in spring 2010, Barrett's eponymous line takes a somewhat different route: still highly functional, but opting for a darker aesthetic and heavy-duty fabrics and leathers. A hands-on designer, he is not only deeply involved in every step of the design process, but is known for being open and approachable with buyers and clients. An intriguing character in his own right, The Genteel spoke with Barrett about this season's collection, his personal design process, and his outlook for 2013.
David Walmsley: How has your tailoring experience influenced the way you work with materials like leathers and canvas?
Zam Barrett: If you look at my work, you will see that most of it is very structured. I prefer to work with materials that take and retain their shape, over materials that are more fluid and drapey. I've tried those before and they don't work well for me.
My work with leather and canvas really do stem from a belief that clothes should be worn and beaten up in all different kinds of circumstances. I find that these materials look better and age well, with hard wearing. I don't like things that are too delicate and precious.
DW: You've mentioned that you want to concentrate on tailoring for your 2013 line. How does this differ from past collections?
ZB: Not all of the collection has been shown so far; it's a pretty large collection and we will take our time in presenting it properly. However, there is a lot more tailoring and a lot more outerwear than before.
We have done a lot of custom tailoring for private clients and it's going well; it's becoming a growing aspect of the business for us. All of this is a large part of our efforts to move beyond the common perception that we are a company to look to when you need interesting and cool pants. Yes, we are that, but we are so much more, and we will be showing that to our clients going forward.
DW: You use a lot of high quality materials. Do you source materials before the design process begins or is everything designed and then the materials sought out?
ZB: I am a sucker for materials, and both processes you mentioned work for us. My suppliers know the kinds of materials I like, and they often call me to say they have something for me. At times, I buy fabrics before having any idea what I am going to make from it, while at other times I am making something I know requires a certain kind of fabric to bring the piece to life.
Fabrics may also remain in the studio for years before they are even used because I am a sucker for vintage fabrics; sometimes buying them not knowing when they are going to be brought into being as a garment. I also do a lot of fabric treatments and experimentation with colours that make many of our fabrics exclusive
DW: As an independent designer, how do you find a balance between commercial accessibility, on one hand, and material and construction quality on the other?
ZB: Commercial accessibility to me simply means making interesting clothing that people can wear in an everyday context. I have long suppressed the desire to show how creative I am by making "showpieces". Of course there is a place for that, but businesses are built upon providing things that people can and will enjoy using and wearing: items that they will buy because they fit into their lives and meet their needs. When it comes to construction, I am obsessed with figuring out my own way of making the product to my own satisfaction. I am like an engineer, thinking about all aspects of the design and how best to make the product.
The last year or so, I felt like I was working so much on selling and promoting the company, managing staff etc. It made be feel as though I didn't get the time to immerse myself into truly creating, and that for me is the most important. I never want to become a businessman who just owns a company without truly designing the products bearing my name.
DW: You maintain an open and approachable dialogue with your audience when compared to other designers in the darker menswear milieu. It's something that I think is very unique and quite impressive. Has this direct line of conversation with your clientele changed the way you design and create?
ZB: Why thank you. To be honest, this has been a mixed blessing for me. I have been able to grow my business to this level and to have an extremely loyal and supportive client base because of it. It does, at times, influence what we design, but not in such a significant way as to be concerned about it. Most of what we make are variations and expansions of core themes we started with from the beginning.
However, I am very much aware that fashion businesses are traditionally revered, because of a certain inaccessible mystique and image that can be created by being not as open a company as we are with our clients. There are many businesses that are not as robust as ours but are more revered, because they were able to cultivate and shape perception, through a lack of accessibility.
DW: The 2013 collection has been named "The Vicissitudes of Being." What does that mean to you as a designer and how has that theme been adopted by this season's line, in particular?
ZB: As much as I am a designer, I am also a student of history, theology and philosophy. I am constantly contemplating the human condition as a whole and trying to better understand why are we here as human beings and what should be our premier directive, during this phase of our existence. Getting older and having a son, I have become more aware of the vicissitudes of this life. In a sense, the collection was kind of my own way of tackling these issues, while raising the bar of excellence amidst the pain that it often takes to be good at anything.
DW: How do you envision ZB growing or expanding, over the next few seasons? Are there any additional types of apparel you'd like to see being brought into the collection's range?
ZB: This is a very interesting question. As a company, we have grown quite well, over the last year or so, but it has put me in a position of thinking about how to grow without compromising my own happiness and integrity. I think, for the moment, focusing on taking better care of existing accounts with stores that carry the products and increasing the quality of my work is more important than expanding. I had never envisioned ZB as a big company anyway: Azzedine Alaia and Richard Tyler are my design and business role models.
As for new products, we will be doing some womenswear later this year. We have quite a number of women who purchase some of the menswear and accessories. In another lifetime, I must have been a womenswear designer. I would also like to experiment with footwear, but I know that requires a special kind of investment that we may not be ready for yet.