Get Close ... with Designer Michael Bastian

by Renata Certo-Ware 


Michael Bastian has been based in NYC since the mid-’80s, but he has a soft spot for New England — his college stomping grounds. After earning his business degree at Babson, he took the first job that covered rent, an assistant-buyer gig at Brooklyn’s Abraham & Strauss. “I had no idea where Brooklyn was, but I knew it was close enough to New York,” Bastian laughs. Next came stints at Sotheby’s, Tiffany & Co., Polo Ralph Lauren, and Bergdorf Goodman, where he served as the men’s fashion director. Then, in 2006, he launched his eponymous line. Last year, the CFDA named him Menswear Designer of the Year, and he’s added womenswear to his résumé with his line for GANT, which opened its first New England store at 324 Newbury Street this month. While GANT’s team prepared to open their doors, we got Bastian to open up too.

Word on the street is that Boston helped inspire many of your GANT designs. True? Boston’s always been a favorite city of mine. The Fall 2012 collection in particular was directly inspired by my time at Babson in Wellesley. Going to school in the suburbs and getting into the city every chance I could get made it that much more exciting, more vivid, and it really stuck with me. The beautiful thing about Boston is that it’s always changing, but in a way it never changes. Half the population grew up there, the classic half, and the other half is changing every semester. Yet Boston manages to retain its own personality so clearly.

I’ve read that your design process is to create something perfect and then rough it up a bit. What’s the philosophy behind that? I want you to be able to wear the clothes you own, even if it’s the most beautiful, perfectly made cashmere sweater. It’s like knocking the whole thing off a pedestal a little bit. You should be able to wear it every day without having that guilty feeling, like, “These are my dress-up clothes; why am I wearing this to go to the supermarket?”

It’s like how old people have plastic-covered couches you can’t sit on. Or women who have this beautiful jewelry they keep in a bank vault. What’s the point? Here’s where my business education comes in: buy less, buy better, and really wear it! It’s the opposite mentality of that whole fast-fashion thing. In my 20s and 30s, I didn’t have a lot of money, but I knew what I wanted. I would save money, and I would wear it until it fell apart. To me, that is pure Yankee, pure Boston. You can see one of those old guys walking around Beacon Hill in the ratty old Shetland sweater and the perfectly washed-out wide-wale corduroys, and you just know that guy has owned that stuff since 1974. And it still works, and it probably looks better now than when he first bought it.

Some designers completely separate themselves from their work. Lagerfeld wears black Dior jeans and fingerless gloves; Armani has his black T-shirts. You perfectly embody both your lines. Do you reflect your designs, or do your designs reflect you? The designs reflect me. When I start a collection, I always think, “What do I want right now?” It’s all very personal, which I don’t think is a bad thing. I’m a normal-enough guy, so if I’m looking for something, there’s probably a bunch of guys who are looking for it too.

You’ve been on both sides of the runway, as a designer and as a buyer. Where do you feel at home? I definitely prefer being on the designer side. The weird thing about doing a runway show as a designer is you have an incredibly huge, complicated party, but you’re in the back; you miss it. It’s almost like you missed your own wedding. You don’t even know what happened until you see the video, read the reviews, and see the pictures. I did used to love going to shows, though. I actually cried at a show.

Which show? A Jil Sander show, right after Jil left the brand. It was actually one of my first menswear shows. It was beautiful, with Radiohead music. . . . Maybe I was just exhausted: you’re jetlagged, going to 14 shows a day, hungry, vulnerable. But being moved like that renews my faith. . . . That’s how I know I’m doing the right job, because I still have that capacity to be swept away like that.

What fashion faux pas makes you want to run across the street and slap someone in the face? Oh man! Every time I say, “Never do this, never do that,” I’ll walk outside the next day and see someone rocking it! On the right person, anything can work! But let’s say square-toed shoes. They’re really hard on the eyes.