The Classic Gentleman is Back
- Jul 24, 2012
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Last week we brought you the story of the early days of New York-based designer Robert Geller. We last left him interning and working at Marc Jacobs for 3 seasons in the early 2000’s. Today we discuss his time with Cloak, the current Robert Geller label, the trouble with buyers, and being the best looking guy in the room.
When I came back (to Marc Jacobs) after the summer I met Alexandre Plokhov, who was at the time a pattern maker there for the men's side. I remember in one of the fittings I was helping out and Alexandre was doing the fitting with Marc. When he left I remember Marc saying "Oh I'm so glad Alexandre is back. He's the best menswear tailor in New York." So that was already a stamp of approval.
Besides that Alexandre and I would spend a lot of time in the kitchen when we would take a break, and just talk about fashion and things that we liked - aesthetics and stuff. And it was really, really similar. He had started Cloak I think two seasons before and had taken a season off to go back to Marc to make some more money, as you do when you're starting off. So he said when I go back I don't really want to do it by myself.
I had been hoping to get a job at Marc Jacobs but the team was super tiny, and the chances were super small. There was a chance at Marc by Marc but it wasn't properly happening. I lost patience and said "Well let's do Cloak. Let's do it." So I became a 50% partner with him. We both put in whatever money we had and gave it a shot.
Cloak became something pretty special. I don't know; people still talk about it for some reason. I think that the mixture of Alexandre and I just worked somehow. He’s extremely talented. He has such a sense for creating a garment, and proportions and things. At that point I had more of a sense for direction and colors, and for style, and that combination was really good. It wasn't a clear-cut line though. He was more product development, and I more the overall look of the collection. And together I think it really worked.
That was one of the things I was thinking about. You said he had that background in pattern cutting, and that he was a stellar pattern cutter. And I heard that you had a heavy hand in the direction of the styling of Cloak, so I was wondering if there was any validity to that.
Yeah, I think neither one of us likes to say that we only did that. It wasn't like Alexandre was only a pattern maker by any means. He had a huge, huge part in every aspect of Cloak. Even at the time we said to each other that I'm more the styling, color, overall look and direction, and he was more product development and stuff like that. But it's hard to separate it like that, but really, that's kind of how it was. At the time, I think the product was just like a fashion point of view, it was pretty cool. [laughs]
That's an understatement.
It's hard to make it work financially, and we didn't have much experience, but the production and all of that was definitely an experience.
It's important I think, to get your ass handed to you.
Yeah, for sure. The reason that I left mainly was... [thinking to self] "How old was I... 26 years old, 27 years old?” and had a huge debt. We put more money into it and that was gone, and then put more money and borrowed from whoever would lend it to us, and it was just too much of a burden. This business, what it looks like from the outside and what it is on the inside are two completely different things. It's extremely difficult to get to a point where you're making money. Extremely difficult. And we were nowhere close, in reality. [Reflects] Well with Cloak, at least when I was there.
How did you Cloak days influence what you're doing now? How is that moving your label forward? Do you ever look back at that?
Well, yeah, I mean it's a step. It was the biggest learning experience ever. With Marc Jacobs you learn, you see what it's like and you have a part in putting it together: the colors and trims and you see all that happening. But then with Cloak, while doing it there was nobody else. It was just Alexandre and I. So you have to do it all: production, financing, all of that. Everything. It was like throwing us into the pool without knowing how to swim. But I learned tremendously; I learned how not to do a lot of things.
One of the things that was important to me when I started my own menswear again after Cloak was that I didn't want to do Cloak 2.0. Why would I? There's definitely elements of it in my collections, but it's also, what, 10 years ago? You can't do the same thing. I mean there might be some people that would be like "Oh cool I can finally get that jacket," but that's not what you do as a designer. You need to push forward, and what I've been doing ever since has been honing in on the Robert Geller aesthetic and pushing it forward. Cloak was us, it was two of us. Now it's me, and he's doing his thing, which is him. But yes, a hugely important step in my development.
Still, I learn so much every season. I’m not - and hopefully not ever - at a point where I can't learn anything and don't want to move it forward. Every season I really enjoy sitting down and creating something new. There's the stress, and the days where you're like "It's fucking crazy," but most of the time the general feeling is pretty exciting. I mean I get to make clothes; I get to make full collections. Kind of make whatever I want.
Did that play any part of it, that you wanted to make clothes you wanted to wear? You've got a very distinct style and you can tell you wear your stuff.
Definitely. I mean there are always some pieces I feel I wouldn't wear yet it looks great on the runway, but most of the stuff goes through like my personal checklist. Do I think that's cool? Do I want to wear it? Would my best friend Danny think it's cool?
That definitely plays a part in it, and that's important. The thing about my collection generally is that I try to create something that's masculine, yet sensitive, you know? I don't want to make clothes for jocks. It's not like "Yeah bro." But I also don't want to make clothes for peacocks. It's meant to be something that you can put on and you feel cool and you feel like you're wearing something of quality. You feel like you're wearing something that somebody has thought about. But you don't want to feel like people are staring at you because you're trying so hard. You don't want to look like you're trying hard but you definitely want to be the best looking guy in the room.
You mentioned that you originally studied photography, and that was always a passion of yours. Is that still a passion of yours and do you have any say in the photography of your collections or lookbooks?
Yeah, I do a lot of it myself. It's something that I do just as a hobby. When we do our lookbooks and stuff I shoot it, but it's not like a big published thing. It's useful for us and for sales though. I still take a lot of photos, especially Polaroids.
I once did this thing with the CFDA. CFDA, Vogue, and Kate Spade did this thing where they chose five designers (CFDA fashion fund finalists) and they put together this program over three months, and it was like 6 sessions about marketing, brand development, etc. So we had all of these exercises about what our brand was, or what the essence of our brand was; stuff like that. I took the chance to do a survey with 20 people who were kind of close but a little bit further from the brand to hear about what the strengths might be.
One thing which was really amazing came out, and it was one of my old interns who said it. When asked about the brand, he said "If Dries van Noten is an oil painting, Ann Demeulemeester a black and white photograph, Martin Margiela a photocopy of a black and white photograph, then Robert Geller is a Polaroid."
Which I think is really fucking smart, and really beautiful. That was like the main statement of the brand. And it's true. There's something about Polaroids that's kind of precious, especially today in the day of digital or disposable. I want to have those qualities in my clothes. It's not an accurate depiction of reality; it's more like seeing the world through a romantic, kind-of-blurry view. I have a lot of that in my collection.
A lot of us are clothing nerds too. We like garments. Before I came here, I was shopping around for your stuff and I wasn't necessarily impressed with the buys. How do you feel about the different buys you see for your brand? You have stellar pieces, and your line is carried all over the place, but everywhere I turn I just see the dip-dyes and the jeans. I mean they're great pieces but the real strong stuff is missing. I saw that Barneys picked up the neoprene vest though, and that's wild. Have you noticed a change over the years in the types of buys as well?
It's always been like that. I complain about it a lot and stuff though. [laughs] For example at Isetan in Tokyo, I'm at like the coolest store, and I go and look at the Lanvin collection and it's literally like 25 shirts, some of them with the grosgrain collar, then there's five blazers, one leather jacket, and one show coat. And it sucks. But it's the reality of the consumer. Somehow you want to blame the store, but it's not the store. They're buying what the people are buying in the store. That's just the reality.
But you guys. You're a smidgen of a percentage of the actual reality. You guys are the ones that are into it. We're like the nerds. The ones that want to see those cool pieces that you see on the runway. But the reality of the business is that 95% of people buy the dip-dye sweatshirts, and they buy the shirts, and the denim, and that's it. And it's… painful.
Most stores will buy the jeans and the shirts, and they'll pick up one or two of the other pieces. But say there are three deliveries - if it's in the last delivery, and the first two deliveries you see jeans and sweatshirt. Then something will come in, like one exciting piece. I wish it was different, of course. I've been doing it for long enough and you can try to push the stores, but then if you push the store to buy something and it doesn't sell, what's the point? They're unhappy, we're unhappy, it sucks.
On a similar note, you were talking about honing in your style, and the idea of the collection. You do have pieces that repeat season-to-season like the Richard blazer. Is that something you see as part of your cohesive vision? Is there a reason for that?
I think there are certain pieces that are kind of like staples in the collection that can be carried over. It's more of a business decision because that's something that everybody will go for. They really like it. Like the dip-dye sweater. [laughs] Eventually people might get sick of it, and then we'll stop making it, but I like it. I wear all kinds of dip-dye sweaters myself and I still really enjoy it. Guys kind of shop like that - if they like it they'll buy it for a few seasons in different versions.
I think the best way to explain it is that it's giving the customer something that they know they like already, which allows us to play around more with the other stuff.
I was curious to see if it was a piece the customer liked, you liked, or both.
Spring is in stores now, fall is in Japan now (the actual collection); did you want to talk about that? Fall was going back to Germany…
Yeah, a lot of my collections go back to Germany. Berlin, generally, and the history of Germany fascinates me. This collection (F/W 2013) was more about the creative energy at the time. Specifically about the films: German expressionist films. I think it fed a desire for me to do a darker collection again - something kind of strong, and a little bit harder, a little bit darker. Thinking about the films of the time really got me thinking about how perfect that look and that feel of them would be, and it also gave me a chance to research something deeper. It's something that's interested me, and it's something I know some things about, but now I can really take some time to get into it for my job.
For me it's definitely the whole vibe of these films. They're a bit different but it was the beginning of horror films. There's this dark, twisted vibe to them. The way things were produced - Germany was kind of in shambles at the time - was done on the dime. All of the sets were done like this, and they turned out to be kind of surrealistic films because they couldn't film in reality. They had to build these sets out of cardboard and things that were laying around, and just paint scenery. It was awesome. It made it look cooler, you know? It’s just a really cool aesthetic that that they developed.
Given those constraints, you have to get creative.
Definitely, I mean we have it all the time here as well.
Getting back to the pieces, I saw a lot of the sock-tuck again. I think I was reading an interview whereyou we did a collaboration with a sock company. Was it the same company that did the socks this time?
For some of them, yeah. For most of them we used Etiquette, these guys behind us.
It's funny right? Socks. They're part of a man’s wardrobe. They're important. It's nice if you have some special ones in your drawer. He's actually a guy that I met through a friend and then we started talking. It was fun.
It's something that once you start developing your aesthetic, you can apply it to anything, really.
Yeah, you've got the Common Projects collaboration. That's still going strong?
Yeah, it's still going strong. I'm a fan of Common Projects, and I've been really great friends for a while with Peter and Flavio. There's a personal connection there, and I feel like the trajectory of Common Projects and Robert Geller is very side-by-side. So many times when I see people wearing Robert Geller they're wearing Common Projects shoes. There's a synergy I think, to the two brands, and they work together well.
One thing that really caught my eye from the most recent show was a "long shirt" that you have in there. It’s this one button-up you have that is long but tied in the front.
I like that grunge look of wrapping your shirt around your waist, so the idea was to just make a long shirt with slits in the side so you can wear it long or just tie the two front bits and it will look the same as a shirt around your waist.
You never know until you make the first sample to see if it works. The first one we kind of shaped it too much - made it smaller, and it didn't work. Then we fixed it and when the final samples came in it was great. I was really happy about it.
I think it’s going to be a star piece.
I think that actually did sell, yeah. It's one of those kind of things that could just be ignored by buyers though, you know? The thing with men is, if you want something to sell you have to make sure it's different than what exists, but you can't give them a reason not to buy it. It's this small opportunity where you really get them.
Is this something you keep in mind or focus on?
Part of the collection, yeah. We divide it into like… fucking awesome, where we don't have to care if it sells or not, and then the middle bit where it can be kind of fun and crazy, but it should sell, and then the guys that have to sell a lot.
You have to have the balance. You have to have the pieces that push the brand forward but you also have the make the pieces that bring the money into the brand that fuels the next collection.
I never had a problem with that, though. Cloak taught me that real quick. It's a business, and it's real money, and it's your life. Hats off to anybody who's made it in this business. Anybody. I don't care who it is, whatever their style, if you've managed to make it in this business where it's really difficult.
I get some kids straight out of school - I love my assistants, and my interns - I really take them in and I want to tell them about the business. Like, fuck, it's expensive. The big problem is selling enough to cover all of the costs of PR, the shows, making a collection. People have no idea how expensive all that stuff is. Shipping stuff back and forth between Japan and here.
Even if you're doing a small collection out of your home, produce it in New York City, buying locally, you still would spend a LOT of money producing a collection. It’s just the way it is. And then you have to sell it all.
But like, I did it. So I never tell people not to do it. Just cross your fingers. [laughs] You have to work hard, and you have to have a certain level of talent. Anybody I know that's doing it, it really becomes a big part of their life. But it's great. You have to love to do it. Those people that don't really love it should do something else, because there's no way they'll do what it takes.
I don't enjoy every second of what I do. There's definitely moments where things go wrong. You run to the store, and there's like defects or something. You just can't control everything. But, most of the time it's great. And in the design phase, I can make my own world. I usually start designing at 5:30 in the morning. That's when nobody bothers me. Once I'm up I'm not tired anymore, and I love that time. I just moved out to Brooklyn at the end of last year into a brownstone, and these past few weeks I've just gotten up and worked in my house, in a little office, then my assistants come over at 10 and we listen to music or watch a movie while we're designing. It's really harmonious. It's calm and it's beautiful. It's a nice process.
What are you listening to these days? Don't worry; I don't have to put this in there.
It's fine, [laughs] I'm listening to this band called Chinawoman. She's from Toronto originally but she's been living in Berlin for a while. She sounds like a guy with the way she sings, but really beautiful, moody. You should check it out. The opening song for our last show was Party Girl, by Chinawoman.
Lastly, and this is a bit off topic, and more just my curiosity since I had spent a fair amount of time hanging out in Rhode Island as well, but what did you think of Providence while you were there?
When I first got there it was like fuck. But with time, you make it your own crappy little place. You find your little restaurant that you like to go to, you find your crappy bar that all your friends are at. In the end I really didn't mind it at all. I kind of liked it there. Not that I would ever move back to Providence, no way. I go back to be a critic at RISD sometimes, and I usually bring two assistants and we go and have a really fun time there. We call it our "Midwest Vacation" even though it's not Midwestern. We go to the mall, and to see a movie, and to TGI Fridays or Cheesecake factory. [laughs]
There was sort of a big thing with the locals not liking us though. But it was a college experience. I had great friends, and a lot are still my friends now. It was a really good school.