Words by Ben P
Images courtesy of Alexandre Plokhov
Photography by Dusan Reljin
Last week I was able to chat with Alexandre Plokhov, the lead designer and founder of Alexandre Plokhov. The CFDA award-winning designer – he walked away with the Perry Ellis Award for menswear in 2005 for his work with Cloak – is preparing for the upcoming presentation of his Summer/Spring 2014 collection, and was gracious enough to take a few minutes to share his thoughts on men’s fashion and reflect on his time in the industry.
What’s your background and how did you get started in the fashion industry?
My mother is a fashion designer and my sister is a textile designer. My mother had quite a few private clients, so I watched her fit dresses and make clothes, but I never thought of it as a career until I came to the US in 1990. I tried studying business administration and marketing, which didn’t work out, but then attended the International Academy of Merchandising and Design in Chicago for two years. At the same time I apprenticed with a tailor who taught me even more about how to cut clothes. Next, I moved to New York and worked as a menswear pattern maker for Marc Jacobs for a year-and-a-half. In 1999 I started Cloak.
Could you talk about your experiences with Cloak, and some things you learned from the brand?
It was a hard road, but exhilarating at the same time. I launched the brand with savings that I had from the Marc Jacobs job, which didn’t go very far. From time to time I took freelance pattern-making and design jobs to help pay the bills. Some of the most important lessons I learned were about the amount of time, passion, and capital it takes to not just design clothes, but to run a company. Slowly it came together and made sense though. It was heartbreaking to close it in 2007 due to the irreconcilable ownership dispute. I miss it, but I moved on.
And from Cloak you moved to Versace.
I spent the next 3 years commuting to Milan, which gave me a lot of frequent flyer miles, and an amazing experience. It was the opposite of Cloak, which was very hands-on with a tiny team. All of a sudden I had assistants and people who were in charge of fabrics, production, etc. I had access to the finest fabrics money can buy and a wonderful archive. However, I did not have final control over what came down the runway, so it was sometimes frustrating to compromise on color choices, casting, music, or scenography.
You had a chance at Cloak to work with some designers who have become very well known in their own right, in particular, Robert Geller and Ken Chow. Do you still keep in touch?
No, not really. Ken [Chow] was an intern for a short while. I liked the trousers he made and I saw potential there. Robert’s contribution was more that of a stylist. He introduced me to the work of Raf Simons and Helmut Lang. He joined the company in 2002 and left in 2004.
After Versace you founded Alexandre Plokhov. What would you describe as the brand’s aesthetic and your particular approach?
The aesthetic is the same as it was with Cloak. I am drawn to a certain kind of music, people, environments, film, books – let’s just say I like things in a minor key. AP is simply an evolution, progression and honing of the craft. Maybe it’s a bit more grown up because I got older!
You mentioned music and films, what are your some of your favorites? What inspires you?
Well, as far as films, Jean-Pierre Melville is my favorite director hands down. Le Samourai and Army of Shadows are two of my favorite movies. Le Samourai is one of the most stylish films ever made. I still listen to the same bands I listened to when I was a teenager: The Southern Death Cult, Sisters of Mercy, Clan of Xymox, and I’ll forever be an avid fan of Danzig. But I also like newer things – like Cold Cave, Raime, Pharmakon and The KVB, among others. I am fortunate to have Wesley Eisold from Cold Cave occasionally wear my clothes on stage. He has great style and serious stage presence.
I’ve noticed many of your clothes seem to reference historical Eastern European clothing.
Well, thank you. I think everything comes from somewhere. Nobody invents anything absolutely new – you just refine and transform, borrow and steal, put it through your own process. Like a blender, something comes out. Early in my career I was more drawn to thematic shows; it’s easier to come up with a concept and fit everything into it. But I’ve withdrawn from that and now am trying to concentrate on technique, fit, and execution. Before, I would pick out a theme through something that interested me -- a book, film or particular album. Now, it’s more working with patterns, communicating with tailors or shoemakers and the theme emerges organically, as opposed to as a preconceived concept. As far as historical clothing, I love uniforms, historical costumes, discovering a construction technique or a fabric that’s specific to an era. [Back then] all the clothes were made better. I’m not talking just about couture – even everyday things were made beautifully because I think people valued clothes more. They weren’t so disposable, so readily available, nor so cheap. They accounted for a large part of people’s disposable income, so when they bought something, it lasted. I think we’re missing that today.
Since you mentioned construction and shoemakers are there any particular makers you want to highlight with the brand? Any techniques?
Not really – I’m trying to keep what I do and how I do it to myself. I’m not being cryptic or mysterious, but I’m lucky enough, through travelling to Italy, to have connected with my production partner Nicola. He got us into some very special factories, like those who produce for [Maison Martin] Margiela and Jil Sander. Alone, I would have probably not have gotten in because our volume is not the same as those other brands.
Maybe. I’m quite happy doing the things I love though, and there’s no grand design to take over the world. I just want to improve. Two people stand out as role models: Charles James, who never made any money but was probably the most important American couturier, and Azzedine Alaia. I think he makes beautiful clothes, is very comfortable, and doesn’t worry about being on every actress walking down the red carpet. He stands for quality and impeccable technique, everything I’d like to stand for.
Would you be opposed to an actress wearing your clothing on the red carpet?
Definitely not – nor an actor or musician! And we get lots of requests. But our company policy is to not lend out clothes for personal or red carpet appearances. I think it cheapens the brand when celebrities wear them for free – especially since they’re the ones who can afford to pay. We have plenty [of people] who actually wear AP, so we support them as a matter of principle.
Moving beyond your label, do you have anything you’d like to say about trends in men’s fashion in general?
Not really. I just have this ongoing rant about preppy clothing.
I’d love to hear it.
I don’t understand why American menswear is obsessed with remaking the same styles every two years. You can never be as good as Ralph Lauren. He does it in such a beautiful, comprehensive way, yet each season we get another iteration of polo shirts and cardigans. Why not try to come up with a concept that does not relate back to conservative clothing? Obviously a lot of men are comfortable wearing those styles because there are lots of people who are quite successful in selling them. It’s just never been me.
Do you have any thoughts about the return of workwear?
Fashion is always cyclical: Logos come and go, and every seven years we have another British invasion. So now workwear is being repackaged, which is fine. But I think the most modern and original thing that’s happened in menswear since the heyday of Dior Homme is Rick Owens. He came out with a finished set of aesthetic values that are overwhelmingly complete.
A singular vision.
Absolutely. I have great respect for that.
Do you see the place of menswear changing in wider American culture?
Yes and no. I do not see the suit surviving as a way of dressing much longer. Very few people wear suits everyday. I think we will go further and further down the road of casual clothes. But casual can be well put together. I like the segmentation of streetwear, which now is a whole market, well represented with different niches. It’s very interesting to think about more and more compartmentalization in clothing.
Do you see the movement away from traditional suiting affecting your brand at all? I don’t believe you’ve ever made a traditional suit.
Not really. I do love a tailored blazer, but it needs to be different if it comes from me. It can never be as beautiful as one made by Kiton or Brioni – those people have years of training, exclusive fabrics, hours of hand construction. Looking at a buttonhole on their suit makes me realize how much craftsmanship there is still to learn! So if I offer a blazer, I want it to be a little different -- the material, the sleeve construction, the fit, some weird shoulder detail. It’s not that I need to make a blazer, it’s that I want to, so I want to make something re-engineered. Each season I stay away from traditional -- with soft shoulders, super hard shoulders, collars permanently turned up…
Looking back at your collections to date, are there any stand out pieces?
Every season I have something that I really, really love. The very first season at AP – Fall/Winter 2011 – I did a coat that only had one sleeve. One side of it was completely sheared off, but it didn’t disrupt the balance of the coat at all. It was a marvel of sartorial engineering and I am very proud of it! Last Fall/Winter we did a fantastic batwing parka, basically a huge triangle with a hood. I’d never done anything like that before and was delighted that retailers responded very favorably. You have your bread and butter, but it’s also fun to experiment.
Have you found retailers to be accepting of your more experimental garments?
In the end the retailer’s job is to make money. There is an element of promotion of the new, or of their personal taste, but today it’s very hard to stay in business if you just promote your personal taste. A customer walks through the door believing in the taste level of the shop owner, but that owner needs to make a profit and pay the rent.
They have to keep the doors open.
Yes, it’s not easy. It’s really a challenging environment.
Speaking of retailers, how do you feel about the current seasonal delivery model?
Some of it makes sense, some of it doesn’t. It takes a lot of work and expertise to manufacture and deliver on time. We just finished the sales campaign for the season, and last night we were finishing the fitting and construction notes on new garments for the S/S 14 collection. The fabric [to produce them] is coming in October. I would like for the clothes to be shown closer to the time when they’re actually delivered to the store, but you have to withdraw from the standard fashion cycle to do that, and at this point I do not have enough pull to survive doing that.
Do you see that changing at all going forward?
Yes, some people deliver when they want to. Azzedine always did, although now I think he’s different because of the Richemont investment. Carol Christian Poell delivers when he wants to.
From talking with other designers as well as store owners, I’ve gotten the sense that people are becoming unhappy with the seasonal model because the time schedule is so skewed, and favors the northern hemisphere. I recently spoke with Karlo Steel of Atelier and he suggested the adoption of a single seasonal collection with both summer and winter elements.
I’m not sure that will happen, but I do think that eventually designers will be their own retailers. If you have enough of an audience, you can do a lot of different things. The manufacturing side is challenging though, if you don’t have the quantity to ensure the quality and uniformity you demand at a price you can afford. A one-off is time consuming and difficult. To do that you need your own atelier, which is my dream eventually.
Do you have any plans to launch your own online store or even a physical location?
I would love to, yes, and I have all kinds of plans. But for them to materialize is something different.
Are there any details you can share about the upcoming collection?
It’s tough and body conscious. It reflects how I feel right now, which is gratifying. I’m very happy with it.
Do you have a personal uniform?
Yes. I wear boots every day, no matter the weather or temperature. I wear my asymmetric-front trousers all the time, or giant linen pants if it gets really hot. And black t-shirts. That’s my uniform.
Is there anything else you’d like to leave our readers with?
I just would like your readers to know that we make clothes because we really want to. We are really committed, and I hope, especially with the upcoming collection, that there is a certain feeling that comes across. I’m very passionate about what I do. I’m also very touchy.
That’s good – you want to have that investment in your work. You want to care about it.
Yes, you do, and I’m lucky. It’s not a profession for me -- it’s my passion, my vocation, what I’m meant to do. People ask me what I would do if I wasn’t a fashion designer, and I simply don’t know. An alternative has never occurred to me. I hope the passion, the hours and the hard work, in some small measure, translates into the clothing.
Alexandre Plokhov S/S '14 - Terra Damnata