Tell Us Everything, Menswear Designer Grahame Fowler
We sat down with Fowler, across from the mechanical clothes rack (a relic from the shop's days as a dry cleaner), to talk with him about menswear, his 1960s Manchester inspirations and his collection of more than 50 Lambretta scooters.
Gallery: Grahame Fowler's New York Shop
There are elements of your look that remind me of Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger. Your clothes are colorful, classic, preppy and masculine. What look were you trying to achieve with your brand?
I used to run a design consultancy and I used to give [Ralph Lauren, Etro and others] lots of ideas. You could argue, well, where did that detail really come from?
The larger question is what's the look you're trying to achieve?
It's like English tailoring, English youth-movement clothing from the late '60s, early '70s mixed with East Coast preppiness. But also it comes from other things, too. It comes from seeing a movie with Steve McQueen and he wears a certain pair of pants and then it's like, man, I just love the way that looks. And then mentally keeping that in the back of your mind and drawing it afterward and saying I really want to make that come to fruition. So it's like how do you make that come alive and relevant for now? Or is it? And the only way to do it is to make it and test it and see. So it's like that. It's finding things, old things, new things, borrowed, begged, stolen, tweaked. It's like being a chef, really.
So a lot of it is rooted in the '60s. Tell me a little about the youth movement that so much of your look is inspired by.
I grew up in the north of England in the '60s and I'd lived in Africa. I came back to England in '66 and it was just a jolt to my system. I went from having money and a dad and a mom -- my dad was in the army and we had all sorts of accouterments that came with that -- then we came back to England and all of a sudden we had nothing because my dad and my mom divorced. I was 11 years old and I'm like, wait a minute, how do I fit into this culture that doesn't mean anything to me anymore.
So I escaped, mentally, artistically. Making clothes and dancing to certain music, going to certain clubs where only certain types of people went. Mainly soul music, mainly reggae. There weren't many people doing it. It was like that post-mod thing, which had died in '64, '66; they'd all gotten cars and grown up. We were the younger brothers, we picked up the scooters. We were a bit more aggressive with it. We had short hair and button-down shirts, we had little suits made. It was all about dressing up Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And staying out all night. So you just went where like-minded people go. Like moths went to a light. You heard a certain music, you liked the way somebody had a colored scooter, you liked the way somebody dressed. And it was regionalized as well. People in London dressed differently to people where we were, to people 80 miles away. So it was like style gangs in a way.
As a former textile designer, you begin your colorful menswear designs with the fabric. How does that affect the final product in ways that it wouldn't if you began from sketches with no color or fabric in mind?
Enormously. My family were textile designers in Yorkshire. I used to sweep under the looms. And everybody in the looming sheds used to lip-read because it was so loud. I got to see how the different yarns were died. The whole process of the wool coming in and being spun, put on the baubles, loaded on the shuttle cocks. The noise the looms make, the rhythm, almost like a train.
So that whole thing is in my DNA, I think, because I'm able to recognize what a fabric will do. What a crisp cotton is like; how it drapes. I think most fashion designers now in America don't understand fabric. They do everything flat, draw on computers and it's all flat. But they don't actually cut the fabric and wash it and see how it drapes and feel it and - ah, it's not quite right, lets try another. So understanding a fabric for me, from an early age I learned what a super-150 was, what a worsted [wool], what a twill weave was, all kinds of things I had no idea I was consuming. But I remembered it, how a wool could be woven a certain way and become totally waterproof, without treating it - loads of things that go on in the construction of textiles that then go on and become inspirational for a clothing maker to take and create.
You display incredible photographs from the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica in your shop. And you've said you often get inspiration from photographs. What inspired you for your new spring collection?
Some of it, like the suits are inspired by pictures of kids that had just come out of the Twisted Wheel soul club in Manchester. And they're all wearing a very similar suit in a very similar way and they've all got the same haircut. They've got a little tie and a little white shirt. Everything's crisp. So that for me was a very strong image there. It's a very musical image. Mix that with a washed shirt that someone like Jackson Pollock might have worn when he was painting out in the Hamptons. Fuse that with a northern-English soul ethic. Then throw very-American-heritage boots, vintage leather belts, and henleys, which is more of an 1880s thing. It's mixing things from different eras and washing them or detailing them to make them more... without them being film authentic, without them being so authentic that they're unwearable. You get people that do that kind of thing but what they don't do is alter the fit.
There are quite a few British military touches in your shop. You sell boots that were worn by Scottish military officers, Falstaff leather jackets worn by British military, cargo pants ... what is it about military clothing that you find appealing?
Well, I was brought up as a military brat dragged all over the world, and educated in military schools so all the teachers had uniforms on. Everywhere we went there were people dressed in uniforms, whether they were smart ones or dress ones or fatigues. Plus in Africa you had all the other regiments, you had Indians, and they all had their own uniforms. Then they'd all play cricket on Sunday afternoons against each other so that's another uniform. Or they'd play [field] hockey so they'd wear hockey-stripe socks and sticks. And the military band with the red with the blue, that's kind of ingrained in my head, without thinking about it.
Plus there are aspects of military clothing that have been very influential in clothing today. Because as things have gotten more casual and as things have gotten more functional, designers and companies have taken the accouterments from the military; the four-pocket front jacket, the hidden pocket, the trouser that snaps, the extra fabric inside the cuff that stops the rain. There are quite a few companies that model their whole lines on military details.
I notice you sell some great vintage items like Lambretta scooters, CIA Rolex watches, leather belts, what would you say are five essential accessories for a well-dressed man?
A perfect pair of shoes or boots. A very good watch, preferably one that winds up, not a quartz battery watch. Vintage motorbike or vintage scooter. A cool wallet or a nice, old bag. And a glamorous girlfriend or wife.
Why was it important for you to have everything made in New York?
The garment district in New York In the '60s was the largest single employer. These big conglomerates have taken everything abroad and just made it so cheaply in these factories and put people out of jobs here that had fantastic skills and trades. Some of the guys who set the shoulders in the jackets here they're from Naples and they're 65 years old. What happens when that guy retires? Going to China and India isn't necessarily beneficial for the trade balance and for local people. The world I think would be a lot more interesting if people started making stuff in their own backyard. There's a reason then to travel and there's a reason for cultures to flourish and re-energize. ... I'll go to some little suit maker in Milan that only he does it a certain way, or the guy who makes you sandals in St. Tropez. You don't tell anyone because only you can have that experience. That's what this is.