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A Conversation with Atelier’s Karlo Steel, Part I: Fashion, Art and Design


Professional Style Farmer
Mar 14, 2008
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A Conversation with Atelier’s Karlo Steel, Part I: Fashion, Art and Design

I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to sit down and talk with Karlo Steel, one of the owners of Atelier New York a few weeks ago. For more than a decade Atelier has been pushing the boundaries of men’s fashion, and their carefully curated brand selection represents a very deliberate and sophisticated approach to retail. Recently relocated to a suite on the 10th floor of an office building – Thom Browne and Playboy are neighbors – the store is a must visit, and offers a look into an aesthetic that’s finding a growing audience on StyleForum.

What's the history behind the store?

I'm from New Orleans, Louisiana. I moved to San Francisco at the very beginning of the 90s. I lived there for ten years, and when I was in San Francisco I did retail with various high-end labels. Gianni Versace, Calvin Klein, Jil Sander, and for a while there I was in a band for a year and a half. And I did some freelance styling work when I was there. I worked for Surface Magazine. At the end of 1999 I moved to New York and I started Atelier with my partner in Fall 2002.

From the start did you have a particular aesthetic direction?

It was basically about providing men and women - because the first year we carried women's clothes - with a dark urban aesthetic. Some of the brands that I really liked were found here in New York, but always found with other brands that had no relation to what they were about. So I thought it would be a good idea to be a good idea to bring all of these brands with a shared, similar aesthetic under one roof, and viola, there you are.

Are there any brands you stuck with through this whole period?

Yes, Carol Christian Poell. He's definitely our cornerstone and our biggest account. We do really very well with his work. His aesthetic is really kind of a distillation of what we do. It is quite elegant and very tailored, but there is always an undercurrent of surprise, a kind of artistic experimentation, which lifts it out of the ordinary.

I've noticed in his clothing that there's this kind of mix between fashion and art and I know he's also done more artistic pieces, such as an object dyed horse or a rug made of belts. Is that one of the things that appeals to you about the brand?

The objects that Carol does, I see them as being separate from the clothing. Those really are more art pieces. His clothing of course, most clothing, actually, I would say all clothing, I would hesitate to call art. If you are wearing it then it's not art. Art is useless. Art is something that you just admire, but you don't do that with clothing. It has a function. What I was drawn to in Carol is that there was always some slight subversiveness to his approach. At first glance a jacket by Carol would appear almost bourgeois, but upon closer inspection it reveals more surprises, and some of those surprises can be quite dark and strange, and I like that. I like the idea that there's a slight element of danger there.

Is there any particular piece that you can point to that really exemplifies this idea? [At this point Karlo pulled out a long, tailored coat.]

This is a classic example of that - it's a long jacket, but it has the overlock top stitching, which would have to be up close to know. And inside it's held together by fabric tape.

From a construction standpoint, do you think you sacrifice anything in durability or sturdiness with the taped seams? If so, is that intentional?

I like that question. In a nutshell, yes. Tailoring - men's tailoring - has been finalized. It's done. The formula really has been perfected. And anything you do to a garment of that nature, you're not really adding to it. If you want a beautifully cut, conservative, no, traditional, jacket, then you don't need a designer. Carol is a designer. His background is tailoring, but it's design we're talking about. So whenever you add that to a classic garment, in essence you're taking away. I think sometimes people have a tendency to forget that.

That you have that element of design?

It's kind of experimentation. It's interesting for the garment, it's interesting for the person who wears it. But if you were to go to a tailor, a traditional tailor, he would give you a perfectly designed piece.

Like a bespoke suit, with fittings.

Exactly. Where you wouldn't have taped seams or what have you. Carol's background is tailoring. And that's with anything, it's with different designers as well. That's what you're paying for -- design -- the deviation from the classic garment.

Do you think if you do have the deviation, to speak a little bit of intent, do you think there's a particular setting where the garment is appropriate, or do you think from a design perspective that if you wear it as office jacket, or in a context where you'd normally wear a traditionally tailored garment, it’s still appropriate?

I think someone probably would not wear that if they were a banker. Although it could probably pass, but just so.

Not at close inspection.

Not at close inspection, from a distance. Clothing of this nature speaks more to people who are within the creative industries, or just want to look sharp.

I also see that you carry some pieces that are obviously designed, even from a distance. Do you think one approach requires more skill than the other? Or is it just a difference in approach?

It's a completely different approach, complete difference in sensibilities. What I look for when I'm buying is design, a design approach to menswear, which is actually quite rare. Menswear is really all about styling, it's about taking the traditional garment and tweaking it. You have a blazer, and we're gonna do two buttons or three. One button. Where are we going to place that button? Is it going to be lower on the jacket, or higher? But the shapes don't really change that much, but with womenswear, you do get design, which is original shapes. I tend to look for that in menswear, and I don't always get it of course, so some of those pieces that you're talking about that you can recognize from a distance are usually the ones that are designed elements - which means they're pushing a different silhouette outside of tradition. But then there are designers, like Carol Christian Poell, where it's all about tradition on the outside.

Beyond Carol, are there any other particular brands you'd like to talk about? How you acquired them and decided to carry them, and what they represent?

Well, that's kind of a big story. We have quite a lot of brands. But I can tell the store is sort of divided into two sections. One section is the trans-seasonal brands, and those are usually ones that have a lot of hands-on [construction], constructed partially by hand, the artisanal brands. And those brands are Poell, A1923, Label Under Construction, which is all about finding very inventive ways of [making] knits. MA+, is another one of those brands, we don't put those brands on sale. Guidi is also another one. We only carry the shoes. We don't put those on sale, partially because the vendors don't want us to, and partially because we don't have to. Most of them have such a classic design and have such an inherent quality markup that discounting them sort of speaks contrary to what they're all about. Then there's the other side that we do that is sort of tied into the six-month seasonal cycle. Those brands are Ann Demeulemeester, Thamanyah, Julius, and then we have some of those brands that walk the middle, Boris Bidjan Saberi, where some pieces might go on sale but the leather jackets will never go on sale, or the shoes. I'm noticing the distinction between the trans-seasonals and the seasonals is becoming more blurred with each season, which is quite exciting.

Is there anything you'd like to say about the artisanal process employed by some of the brands? I know many people online talk about how things are hand-made. Two questions - one debate I've heard a lot is the idea that artisanal brands, having something made in a small workshop, does that represent an increase in quality. And two, what value does quality truly have in garments?

To answer your question, the first part, is no, what it has is a hands-on technique, which doesn't necessarily translate to quality. Something can be very worked through, but something very fragile. The end result can be transient, almost fleeting, but that's the beauty of it. Something that is guaranteed to disintegrate, because it's been treated so much that that's what its intended to do. The designer is asking you to buy into his particular vision, and if fragility is part of that vision, that's what he's asking you to accept or reject, the choice is yours. You can buy a Hanes t-shirt and get something that will hold up to washing, that will last a couple of years depending on how long you might wear it, but someone like Rick Owens' t-shirts don't do that, but they're designed to fray. When you wear them they certainly feel more comfortable and luxurious then say a Hanes t-shirt, so there's the feel good factor that goes into that too. And also, too, it's how it makes you look. It clings to your body, it allows the air to go through, it's almost like wearing nothing, so these are elements you have to pay for, because construction of a basic cotton tee is quite easy and inexpensive. But with a Rick Owens t-shirt, it's done in a different way, the cotton is much finer, the cut is more extreme.

I know you sell Poell's women's collection, Fe-Male. Have you done well?

We've done okay. It's a very particular aesthetic. It's actually derived from the mens, instead of vice-versa. Carol's work is very strict, it's about tailoring. This kind of tailoring is something that descends from uniforms. All men's tailoring is derived from the military uniform. The cut for those garments is designed to highlight certain masculine attributes, and people have a tendency to forget that. It's to make a man look tall and strong, and slightly aloof. Meaning the very clean finish. It's usually a higher arm-hole, a narrow sleeve, fitted at the waist. It's meant to at least give the illusion of the man standing taller, it's not lounge wear. So when people say Carol is not comfortable, you're right. Generally it's not something you'd put on to row a boat in. It's not clothing for that. But you look great. There's a certain sacrifice you have to make with this. Women know this very well when it comes to shoes. Generally speaking, fashion isn't comfortable. It's something that's used to prop the body, to redefine what's there.

[Stay tuned for Part II: The State of the Industry and Looking Forward]
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Darth Millennial
Dubiously Honored
Feb 10, 2009
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Great, tegs. Fun stuff. I'd also love to read a more personal article about shopping there - about Karlo's presence, what he means to the space, etc. Dunno if that's possible, but that's the kind of stuff I like to read.


Distinguished Member
Nov 2, 2008
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Wow, excellent work Ben, very excited for further installments. I like Karlo's thoughts on Menswear though I think some of the forum's favorite designers would disagree in a sense...


Professional Style Farmer
Mar 14, 2008
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Thanks for the kind words everyone. The interview was a lot of fun, and Karlo was extremely gracious.

Great, tegs. Fun stuff. I'd also love to read a more personal article about shopping there - about Karlo's presence, what he means to the space, etc. Dunno if that's possible, but that's the kind of stuff I like to read.

When I visited, they were still working to get the new space set up. I'm also way too poor to seriously shop there, so...
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Senior Member
Aug 24, 2012
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Nice job.

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