Words by Ben P.
Images courtesy of Abasi Rosborough
It’s hard to find innovation in fashion. For the past year I’ve been working for StyleForum I’ve seen a lot of great collections up close and had the chance to talk with some fascinating designers, but rarely have I ever been struck by something and said to myself “this is what’s next.” I felt that way after meeting with the minds behind Abasi Rosborough.
The brainchild of Greg Rosbrough and Abdul Abasi, Abasi Rosborough is an exploration of how traditional men’s tailoring can be adapted to the modern world. I first heard about the brand six months ago, when some mentioned that Abdul – who works for Engineered Garments and Nepenthes New York – had designed his own collection, and when I traveled to New York in January to cover Capsule, I knew I wanted to try to see the brand in person.
I met up with Greg in a small coffee shop in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and walked with him to the Abasi Rosborough “showroom” – his small, walk-up apartment. As Greg put it: “this is what a small business looks like.” Any thoughts about the brand being "small", though, faded when I got to handle the clothes. They’re awesome. The jackets are anatomically cut with cunningly placed flexible knit panels to ease movement. The pockets are clever, extremely functional and show how poorly designed most garments are. In fact, everything looks intentional – the collections screams thoughtful design – in a way that makes you appreciate what it means to purchase high-end clothing.
Abasi Rosborough recently opened their online store.
Check out their website here.
For a list of stockists, go here.
Ben: How did you get started?
Greg: I had been working at Polo, designing there, and every season for inspiration we had to "go back to the archive.” After a few years of that, I wanted to do something creative and forward thinking as a designer. I called Abdul - we had been friends at FIT - and asked if he wanted to meet up for a coffee. I told him how I'd been thinking about menswear and the history of it: the men's suit was developed in the 1880s in England, and essentially we're still wearing a Victorian garment 130 years later. The design is so incredibly timeworn in the context of modern society. So, in speaking with Abdul, the dialogue began with, "what if someone tried to evolve the men's suit?" That was our initial design premise and project - let's start prototyping and playing around with pattern and form. We did fifteen prototypes to get to a basic men's shirt we were happy with. We continued to ask ourselves "what does the 21st century man need from his clothing?" He moves around, he's always doing something, he's on the subway, he's driving a car, he’s going to the gym, he's picking up groceries. Why shouldn't his clothing accommodate that lifestyle? A men's suit looks great if you're standing still, but as soon as you do anything else, it starts to fail you. That was the idea - to evolve tailoring to allow the garments to flex and breathe, and the 21st century guy can have clothing that moves with him. But at the heart of it, menswear is still about looking sophisticated, dignified, having an air of intelligence, and we didn’t want to lose that. We wanted to build something new that conveys the same message. Once we got to the prototypes to a place where we were happy with them - first with the shirt, then the jacket, then the trouser - we said ok, let's make a collection, because it was the next logical step.
There's a few things happening in menswear right now: the Americana heritage thing is still going, but it's almost to the point where it's like "do we need another Americana brand?", but they're still coming out. There's also the dark or “gothic” movement. We recognize those movements but we wanted to introduce something new.
Ben: [Looking at a jacket] The fabric is really nice.
Greg: The jacket is 100% cotton flannel. But, [going back], we asked ourselves what the modern man needs from his clothing. Our pockets are large and functional and they don't break the line of the jacket. [With] old pockets in blazers, you basically were never allowed to open them, or for that matter, use them. We took off the buttons at the sleeve opening - the reason we have buttons on jacket sleeves today is because historic English military coats had large gold buttons to deter soldiers from wiping their noses on their sleeves. Those large buttons evolved into the small buttons we see on contemporary suit jackets. The reason most men have two buttons on our jackets but are only allowed to button was is a result of the Prince of Wales back in the early 1900s having a bit of a belly, and he couldn't comfortably button the bottom button on his jacket. But he was so fashionable and influential that him being casual became a staple of menswear that 130 years later is still influential. There are a lot of funny outdated details and thinking in menswear when you really start to examine it.
Ben: The pockets look great. Are they designed to fit an iPad?
Greg: Yea, we call these interior pockets our "media pockets." The inside facing pockets are bartacked, and designed to perfectly fit an iPhone. With the labeling [on the inside of the jacket], we wanted to do something that felt premium and hadn't been done before. We did it in leather, and then had it embedded in the fabric, just to make it really feel like it's a part of the garment. You generally have two types of sleeve construction in menswear, a set-in sleeve, which is 98% of menswear, and you have raglan sleeves, which [you see] in sport. But he wanted to create our own thing, a hybrid raglan meets knit, with the idea being that it's more flexible, you can move around. The paneling sits right on the shoulder blade and underneath your arm. Not that you're doing jumping jacks with your clothes on, but we've all had that moment while driving a car while wearing a suit and thinking "My arms are uncomfortable." Every time you go to the airport you see these poor guys who have a briefcase on their shoulder and it's pulling their collar away from their neck and their jacket shoulder is compressed, and it's just like... there's got to be a better way.
Ben: What kind of stores are carrying you guys?
Greg: The first store to buy it was Isetan out of Tokyo. They saw it, and said this is an awesome concept, and we like you guys, and we want to see how you progress, and we want to be the first to have it. They had the first season exclusively. The next season, we got picked up in a concept store in Dubai, which is a great store called Mahani, and another store in Hong Kong. On this most recent Paris trip, we added a store in Beijing, London, Seoul, and Kuwait.
Ben: What are your days like?
Greg: It's just Abdul and me. We both have other jobs, we're working out of home. This is what a small business looks like.
Ben: What's the response so far been like?
Greg: The response has been great. I think what's resonating with people is that [even though] what we are doing is not Americana, there are tenets of American clothing here. It's strong and utilitarian - that's American clothing. As Americans, we're raised and taught to pride ourselves on ingenuity, and we definitely take that into account. We're trying to come up with new concepts for menswear. Our work is definitely forward, but it's really meant to be very wearable.
Ben: What have you done new with pants?
Greg: With pants - our way of designing [is done] while thinking of the human body, how everything works together; muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons. The pants, for example, have articulated seaming throughout the knee, because that's your joint that moves. For ergonomic reasons, the front and back pockets are mirrored, so it's easy to get into them. There's a knit panel [at the crotch] so your pants are more comfortable when you sit or move. [Our jeans] have a knit panel at the inseam, but the other thing is, when you put your jeans on, the pockets always get bunched up [on your legs]. We designed a half-lining at the front leg and sewed the pocketbag to that. It's super simple, but those two little thing make [a difference].
Ben: Are you doing anything special with your denim fabric choices?
Greg: Japanese only. [We use] a 13 oz Kuroki selvedge. At our price point, you want to use the best denim you can.
Ben: For pricing, where do you find yourself coming in?
Greg: We're in the designer category. Our intention is not make extraordinarily expensive clothes, but to design and create extraordinary clothing. It is all made in New York, using only the best materials, and so they are priced accordingly. They're quality American-made products.
Ben: I think your clothing is very wearable.
Abdul: Thank you. We do too. For us, when we first introduced our product, it was very new and untested, and a lot of people thought you had to wear it from head to toe, but what we wanted to say is no, the [clothing] archetypes are taken from traditional menswear, it's just turned up a notch. Modernized for now. It's not futuristic, it's contemporary to now. It should be wearable. It's not an art project, it's meant for men to wear today.
Greg: Building off what Abdul said, we could price higher than it's being priced [now]. Like he said, its not an art project: the point of starting a clothing business is to have guys wear your clothing. We've tried to price it where it's designer, but its still competitive – not in the upper stratosphere. We want to be priced where you can pick up a couple pieces, and they can accentuate what you have.
Abdul: To add to that... I think StyleForum knows I worked at Nepenthes, where I was a buyer and a manager... [and in that context] Engineered Garments is such a great brand because the value for money is unparalleled. With us, our fabrication, our design, is just as high as if not higher than those brands people know. And we can guarantee when they do try it on, they realize that wow, this blazer fits like no other blazer I've had before.
Ben: You also don't have the infrastructure costs that most brands do.
Abdul: True, and we are still working other jobs. But at the end of the day, what's the point of making clothing if it's not on the people? And that's the best form of advertisement.
Ben: Have you thought about doing an online store?
Abdul: Yes, we are set to launch at the end of February.
Ben: Do you do custom?
Greg: We have. We're actually set up to do custom work if need be. In the Garment District we have a pattern maker, and if he needs to adjust it for another size it's fairly simple to do, and they can make custom one-off pieces. One of my friends from college is a basketball player in the NBA, and he's been a supporter of ours from the beginning. He's a custom size, and we've done garments for him. Custom work is labor intensive, because you have to do the first fitting and the final fitting.
Ben: You do fittings?
Greg: I think custom work without fittings is insanity, because how are you going to get the jacket to fit right and hang right? Everyone's shoulders are sloped a little bit forward or back, their neck is a little bit wider, different postures, etc.
Abdul: I think the nature of our business, and why we created our designs, is a perfect match for custom work, because it's all about the body and how our clothing allows you to move. I think that's the ultimate luxury, to have clothing cut for you. I'd love to entertain custom even further.
Ben: Have you thought about Kickstarter? The Gustin model at all?
Greg: We've thought about Kickstarter - not that we want to do one - but what it means in today's context. I think for products like jeans, or a t-shirt, or a button down shirt, they're commodity products and a thousand different brands make them. It's just a different label. It's all the same archetype and it's all based on the same things. Gustin, for example, is making a pair of jeans. As long as they fit well and they're a good price, why not get a pair? But does it really have a soul? Is there unique ideas or thinking there? For Gustin, the direct to customer model makes sense - everyone is familiar with jeans, there's no mystery to them. What we wanted to do was create something different and special and very much derivative of who we are. I don’t think Kickstarter would convey that message very well.
Abdul: To be honest, the internet is a bittersweet thing. On one hand it's great - the visibility, everybody is on the same plane, but on the other hand, there's so much that's out there. People don't have to go through a vetting process or research, and he who yells the loudest gets the most attention. I've always thought what we're doing is whispering, our clothing is not very loud. We don't do glitter and all sorts of stuff... we want you to come and inspect it. In the marketplace, Gustin or whomever, they should exist, but I think our customer is a customer who would never go there. There are certain customers who buy Margiela, or Thom Browne, or EG, and then there's other customers who go to Wal-Mart, or the Kickstarter brands, but they are all valid. It all depends on the point of differentiation, and how the brand speaks to the customer. We speak to people who care and think about considered design, forward thinking. We speak to people who don't want the ordinary jacket. We're just giving an alternative, we're not saying it's the best way, just a different way. For us, we didn't want to take all the archetypes and blocks that were already set. For years before launching the line it was just research and development. We took all the patterns and tested them on my body, found out what was wrong with it, how we could update it, and it's still not there. This [season] is just one iteration, and every season we're refining and tweaking just a little bit. The customer might not even realize it, but when the customer puts it on there's a difference. That's what we're about. We're about design, true design, in solving problems, not just making product for the sake of. There's space for everything. Everyone has a customer and everyone has a niche. Ours is the forward thinking.
Ben: What's been the biggest challenge so far?
Abdul: Its expensive to produce [in New York] and to do something of a certain level. The clothing we're making we show on the world stage, so everything has to be considered and superlative. Fabrications, if you don't meet the minimums, there's a surcharge, if you use a certain fabric content, there's another import and duty charge. There's all these costs upon costs.
Ben: Why should a StyleForum reader check you out? What do you have that no one else has?
Abdul: I think there's one word I'd like to use, which is a loaded word, but we're original. What we're doing is something that's not out there, and I guarantee that if anyone tests our product they'll find it to be of special quality. For me, I've worked in the industry, I've loved fashion and art and design for a long time, and my dream out of school was to start a line. Greg and I met in school and we realized that if you're going to do a line, to make clothing, it has to be something that doesn't exist because there's too much clothing out there. If every single clothing manufacturer stopped today, we'd still have plenty of clothes for the rest of our lives. We had to make sure we were making a statement and had a signature. Our clothes have a signature, it's branded without logos and instead through the design itself. You look at our clothing and I don't care if you've never seen it before, you're gonna ask about it, and the next time you see it you'll say "Oh it's Abasi Rosborough." It doesn't need any ostentatious or conspicuous logo or branding, just by virtue of how we create it, how it wraps around the body, how it considers the human form, it makes it its own product, its own brand. I think that any person will immediately notice the thinking that goes into our clothing.
Greg: I'd just say that they should check it out because it's the year 2014 but men are still wearing garments designed in the 1800s, and if we you want to see what 21st century design looks like, you should check out Abasi Rosborough. This is what next level design looks like, designers who are willing to take risks and try new things. All of the history of fashion has evolved to meet the needs of the human body, to evolve towards comfort, and it's always going to continue to do that. And if you want to see what new ideas look like, this is what it is. It's the epicenter of it.