Menswear designer Neil Barrett uses the most rigourous of traditional tailoring standards to make modern, attractive clothes for the contemporary market. By Daniel Goh
Neil Barrett, 50, is waxing lyrical about his first denim designs for his eponymous label in the lounge of Upper House, during the press briefing for Blackbarrett’s Spring collection (Hong Kong, November 2014). He fairly gushes about his first foray into denim, which he professes to not having worn in the last 15 years, excitedly, and triumphantly extolling his superior take: It’s really dark indigo colour, almost black; it’s pristinely non-washed, even and dense; it stays rigid and creaseless; there’s a stiff body it that gives it that military bearing. “It’s perfect. I tried to make clean denim. It’s super lovely. I was trying to work out how to make it so I would wear it. How do I make it modern? Why would my client wear it? How do I make it relevant to me?” he enthused with evident pride, swiping at the looks on his iPad. This dressy denim is very much a metaphor of what Neil Barrett stands for – he’s all about a certain formality in design and craft, much more about rigour and traditional techniques even though he works very much in the contemporary market, especially with the trendy men’s label Blackbarrett. This purist bent can probably be traced to Barrett being born into a family of English tailors: He’s the fourth generation in his family to follow in those sartorial footsteps. “My family's business began at the end of the 19th century and we specialised in military tailoring. That's the root of my life's passion and inspiration,” he said.
Barrett is a graduate from London's prestigious Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design as well as the Royal College of Art. He entered the Italian fashion industry by working for five years as Gucci's senior men's designer under Tom Ford. Next, he joined Prada (“Miuccia Prada is the only designer I always look at”), where he established Prada's minimalist menswear line in 1995. “Spending more than a decade at both Prada and Gucci moulded me into the designer I am today,” he admits.
Striking out on his own in 1998, Barrett's first stand-alone store opened a year later, in Tokyo. In 2002, he staged his first runway show, at Men's Fashion Week in Milan. In 2007, he launched the diffusion label, Blackbarrett.
How would you describe the aesthetics of Blackbarrett and who do you design for?
I’m just trying to do good, desirable menswear pieces. I design for myself always; imagining myself as the client, in different fits, down to the super skinny – some of the kids over in Asia have snake legs - even our super skinny looks loose, so we had to start doing extreme skinny. We take into account the reality of the markets we sell to. I’m very aware of my markets. I’m very aware and very sensitive to my clients. Colour blocking is a signature, and the jogging pants. I’m not trying to make Blackbarrett crazily gimmicky. Many brands do gimmicks, so it’s very seasonal. My work is recognizable, but not so gimmicky that it cannot be worn in another season. I want my clothes to have longevity. I don’t design throwaway fashion. I’ve never been into instant fashion. I’ve always been believed that men buy garments, they wear them a lot and they become a favourite item, a favorite jacket, a favourite shirt or jeans. That’s a guy thing.
What qualities keep your customers coming back for more?
Most of my clients are repeat clients, which is very stable for us. I’m very attentive to fit and fabric. I always try to create new interest which is appreciated by the discerning. It’s not crazy, silly, gimmicky. I do subtle details which people understand and are happy to wear. I create a balance of wearability and desirability. It’s striking that balance that makes the difference between a gimmicky designer and a designer who has longevity.
Your passion for fashion is obvious; What moves you about this business?
I enjoy the whole wonderful process of fashion. It’s a fun organic process to make the vision in my mind into reality. Fashion is a learning process for me. If you’re a good designer you’re always observing, you’re very discerning about what you take on board. I listen to people who are astute. I love creating new fabrics – that’s one of my favourite things. I prefer to create my own fabrics rather than go around looking. I know what I want in my mind, I go to the best mills and we make it. I know the best mills to do things at the price point we want.
You define yourself as being a menswear designer?
I’m a menswear designer who designs womenswear with a menswear point of view. I accidentally did womenswear. I had so many people buying small sizes of my menswear.
How would you define a stylish man?
Style should reflect one's character. To me, style is about knowing how to put together a look with nonchalant ease. A stylish man could be stylish in a way that I don’t like or in a style that I do like. A stylish man has enough taste to put something together in an attractive way. Someone who’s stylish takes care in putting themselves together and they look at themselves in the mirror in an objective way and they make an effort. Some people put too much of an effort and they look ridiculous. I like men to look like men.
How big is your team?
I have a 6,300sqf headquarters just outside Milan, with another 6,000 sqf factory. In Milan I employ 65 people; In London I have about five, in the factory I have about 55 people. I have four designers for Neil Barrett, not a very big design team, but I have a very big support team.
For Blackbarrett there are four designers. I basically give the direction for where I want to go in terms of story and theme and then we go into the designing process, then the merchandising plan, what I believe in, and expand on the bestsellers, and cover what you sold well and try to create new fabrics.
What motivates you to keep working?
After more than 15 years in the industry, I'm still always trying to improve on everything. I feel like you can never sit on your laurels and accept that this is the best. There are some things that I feel I can't do better, but there are products that I could do better, so I focus on those. I have a huge wardrobe, but I still wake up and feel like I don't have a specific garment with the right fit. So I'm always creating new stuff. That's why I love my job. My biggest kick in life is this challenge to keep creating something new, modern and relevant. I know that if I don’t like it, and I’m not going to wear it, then it’s not good enough. I could wear all my clothes.
Why do people still shop in this age when there’s just so much fashion?
The whole point of clothes is to make you feel psychologically more confident. Because when you feel you look good and you go out smiling in the morning you get compliments. I try to recreate interest and desire for fashion season in and season out. But for the whole digital era that we're living in, I decided that it was important to make things easier and recognizable from a distance, which has been very successful. I'm expanding the brand by adding these more graphic options. I’m applying that graphic everywhere, but in a way that I would wear it. As for myself, I don’t really have time to shop fashion. I buy furniture, I buy objects. I love interiors so that’s where I spend my money. The problem is I have too many things and I need to edit!
How do you differentiate Neil Barrett and Blackbarrett?
Blackbarrett is a contemporary line that is accessible, but designed. They are original works – not watered down versions of the first line. It’s accessible fashion – not just clothing. There’s lots of clothing companies out there but they are not fashion. Neil Barrett is made in Italy, (95 per cent is made in Italy – knitwear is made abroad), basically using all the new technologies to push new boundaries. It’s entirely owned by me, and the prices are quite high. Blackbarrett is made in Asia, to be sold in Asia. If you start exporting, the prices go crazy because of taxes, that’s why all the first lines from Europe costs so much here. Over the years, I’ve seen so many people who wanted to wear Neil Barrett but they couldn’t afford to buy the clothes, so it was a natural progression to start Blackbarrett. It was to be made available to a wider audience. I wanted Blacbarrett to be sold alongside Neil Barrett, as one concept. Two types of people wear Blackbarrett: People who are attracted to the product, the fit and image, and then there’s the younger ones who have just started their first job who are not interested in spending that money on clothing. It can be any age group.
What are your other obsessions? How do you unwind?
I try to eat well and I try and exercise three times a week at 7.30 in the morning before work. We are all attracted to youth obviously because it’s when we have most vitality, energy and beauty. It’s natural that people are going to be anxious to keep their youth. But I think that as long as you look young for your age, that’s all that counts. I believe I have a young spirit, so however old I become, I will always have a young spirit which keeps me going and keeps me smiling.
My friend are my other passion. Walking in the countryside. I love extreme, isolated places. I was born by the sea in Devon. I’m always trying to get back to the sea. We are always taking weekends away.
Are there plans to do a bags and accessories line?
For Blackbarrett we’ve just put in a jewellery collection this season. Shoes and accessories are in the works for both Blackbarrett and Neil Barrett. The usual reason for making shoes and accessories are when you have more standalone shops. It’s one of those areas that I’ve studied over the years – I designed a Prada men’s bag that I still see now after 20 years. When you have a good bag, you don’t need another. You can change the fabrication but that bag is good. Men are creatures of habit, unlike women. Once you get something that really works you can carry on and carry on. I’m looking forward to expanding into that area. For shoes it’s more about guaranteeing a minimum quantity for production so once there are enough stores then that’s when the shoes will be launched.
What is this obsession with bags?
Bags are objects, like a vase or any object that you have in your home – they are collectible. Clothing seems more expendable. Shoes are also small objects, easy to store and so they are a dream for selling.