LONDON, United Kingdom — Neil Barrett is pondering the wood-grilled cauliflower that is one of the signature dishes on the menu at the Chiltern Firehouse, André Balazs’ hotel-slash-clubhouse in London’s Marylebone. “I love it,” he says crisply. “The combination of the slightly charcoaled vegetable with the crème fraiche and spinach mousse, the colours, the flavor…and it’s healthy.” Without stretching the point, Barrett’s enthusiasm for the transfiguration of something as commonplace as cauliflower could be read as a metaphor for what he’s managed to achieve in his 25-year career as one of menswear’s quiet masters, giving wardrobe staples a razor-sharp spin, modernising and sexualising the banalities of pants and jackets.
The adjective most often applied by others to Barrett’s designs is “rigorous.” The word he himself uses most is “finickity.” His grandfather and great grandfather were military tailors in Devon, so his eye for manically precise detail is genetic. He’s always fine-tuning — and not just his clothes. He just reconstructed his suitbag, for instance. “What’s the point in doing it unless you do it in a clever way to make it effective and efficient? It’s a pain in the arse for other people,” he acknowledges, “but I always see things other people wouldn’t see.” And yet, surprisingly, Barrett’s pursuit of perfection also embraces the not-so-perfect. For instance, he praises Alber Elbaz’s talent for “the deliberately raw done perfectly.” And he claims Miuccia Prada, whose menswear he designed to gamechanging effect for nearly five years in the 1990s, was “fantastic at creating rawness.” He calls it “the perfection of irregularity. I don’t like a perfect balance.”
His passion for “balanced irregularity” has become clearer since he began incorporating graphics into his own work with a Bauhaus-inspired men’s collection for Autumn/Winter 2012. The shift was essential for Barrett. His groove was in danger of becoming a rut. But the erstwhile arch-minimalist insists that’s not at all why he’s embraced colour and pattern. Toby Bateman, Mr Porter’s fashion director, had suggested that Barrett’s clothes, with their immaculate, artful cuts, didn’t sell online because they weren’t “visual.” The designer’s response was that collection. If the Bauhaus lines weren’t such a step away from his signature rigour, the way the cuts were literalised in intarsia knits or cleverly seamed outerwear made them more readable — and therefore more easily appreciated — by the average online shopper.
Since then, Barrett’s collections have become increasingly visual: a print of classical Roman sculptures, the pop-arty Kaboom graphic and, this past season, a collage of instantly recognisable patterns — nautical stripes, Thai batik, Western camouflage, the keffiyeh scarf — which Barrett felt represented a global pot pourri of masculinity. There was a definite frisson to the result, enough so that when Beyoncé wore a bomber jacket from the collection for “Sorry” off her visual album “Lemonade,” you could feel she’d taken politics as well as fashion into consideration. By the way, Beyoncé bought her Barrett off the rack, he still doesn’t know where. How many of his peers would be so casual about such an endorsement?
You don’t have to do things the way the industry says.
That’s always been Barrett’s style. He’s scored his fair share of celebrity coups (Brad Pitt, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ewan McGregor and Justin Timberlake, for his world tour) but the relationships have never been PR-ed down our gullets. In 2009, he made the decision to invest in production rather than retail: shoes, bags and small leather goods, as well as all his ready-to-wear, 85 percent of it produced in Italy by some of the most skilled craftspeople in the industry. He has never licensed his name. The only equivalent who springs to mind, who has successfully preserved his independence to such a degree, would be Dries Van Noten. And, like the subtle Belgian, Barrett has grown his business unshowily until he could claim a consolidated turnover of more than 90 million euros in 2015, up an impressive 50-plus percent on the year before. There are 15 Zaha Hadid-designed Barrett stores worldwide, mostly in Asia. With 70 percent of his business in wholesale, he claims he has weathered the downturn that is dogging much bigger labels remarkably well.
But he feels that’s also down to the emphasis he places on his customers rather than his retailers. Men are fashion’s biggest repeat customers, so consistency counts for a designer. “It’s a question of constantly perfecting, constantly creating products that men buy into again and again, and that only pays off over time,” Barrett explains. “We have four fits in the collection. Once someone gets to know their fit, they can order online and know the clothes will work for them. It’s consistency, nothing else.” Which explains why Hedi Slimane is one of the handful of designers he respects.
As part of the store’s celebration of its first re-design in 12 years, Harvey Nichols recently asked Barrett to review his career as a British designer and create a capsule collection of 10 looks. It was a revelatory exercise for him. “Looking back, I really do have one aesthetic,” he says with a dry chuckle (he does those very well). “Purist in its perspective and construction.” The 10 pieces, which will be available at the department store starting June 10th, span 16 years but they sit together as a timeless group: the classic cuffed pants from his first collection, the original sweatpant in Super 100 wool, the double-collared coats, with the second collar and revers creating a scarf effect, the original Buffalo jacket (he gave the sample to Brad Pitt, who wore it for a good five years), alongside hybrid high points from collections like Amish Punk, Skinhead Banker and Tuxedo Army, with evening jackets memorably scissored in twain and reconstructed with items that looked like army surplus. And how peculiarly compatible these components were, the way the spareness of the skinhead matched the pinstriped precision of the banker, for instance. That’s because all of Barrett’s work (even the tomboy womenswear he’s been showing since 2006, come to think of it) is connected by a common thread: an idealisation of masculinity. The military blood runs thick in his veins.
And that is why we always seem to end up back at rigour, a word with a distinctly military ring. Barrett himself radiates self-discipline, from the cropped hair, clipped speech and whippet-thin athleticism, belying the form of a man on the cusp of 50, to his assertive fashion philosophy. “I want to improve myself,” for example. “There is no point in putting any garment on for just practicality.” Or, “Everything has to be desirable in a certain way. Why would you wear anything if you don’t look better in that garment?” These are, according to Barrett, assertions in the name of aspiration. “That is the aim of anybody in the fashion industry: to make people desire to wear your clothes.” This month, he’s launching a skiwear collection, which would seem to be one product category where practicality and performance were paramount. Again, “Why be purely functional?” Barrett asks. “When you’re spending that money, have it look great too. These pieces keep me warm and dry on the slopes, then I can go for a drink in the same thing and still feel good. So this product is more lifestyle, less specifically technical.” It should be mentioned here that this isn’t an arbitrary instance of fashion for fashion’s sake. Barrett is a passionate skier, and his skiwear is a finely tuned distillation of a lifetime’s experience, road-tested to the nth degree by himself. That symbiosis between designer and design is his secret weapon.
I made a conscious life decision not to be bought. Ninety-nine percent of designers today have financial backing, but I’ve done this without a penny from anyone else.
It may also help to clarify why he is remarkably sanguine about fashion’s current state of flux. “This is the year of making it work for you, whoever you are,” Barrett says. He appreciates the see-now-buy-now concept, if only because “It would discourage the repetitive plagiarising of our designs by H&M, Zara and Cos, because our clothes would arrive in store before the copies.” But what interests him more is the opportunity to rationalise the showing and the selling of his clothes. He feels Raf Simons’ shock departure from Dior started a conversation about quality of life in fashion. “What I would like to do is spend more time with my friends and my partner,” he muses. “It would be great to go home at normal hours, even to do nothing sometimes.” So he’s been mulling over ways to achieve that goal. “I enjoy doing my pre-collections, I love what they mean for business, so I’m thinking you could present everything in pre-, then show the best pieces on the catwalk. That would mean four intense periods a year — two for men, two for women — instead of the current eight. We’re definitely going towards that. You don’t have to do things the way the industry says.”
Barrett’s career so far has been a similarly-minded paeon to independence. “I made a conscious life decision not to be bought out early on,” he says. “If I’d done that, I would have been promoted to another level. Ninety-nine percent of designers today have financial backing, but I’ve done this on my own paypacket, without a penny from anyone else. After Prada, with the offers I got from people like Jil Sander and Calvin Klein, they clearly saw my potential to create something from nothing. I always had the sensation that that’s how those household names started.”
Though Barrett may be far from a household name, the Harvey Nichols project reminded him of how much he’s achieved, how he has been a quiet force in menswear, since those first hugely influential collections he designed when he was at Prada in the mid-90s, where his concept — to take sport fabrications into tailoring, and tailoring fabrics into sport — radicalised menswear. In pioneering what he calls “athletic leisure,” Barrett may, in fact, have been a little too ahead of his time to be fully recognised. Same with his early affection for the Frankenstein technique of needle-punching, which helped him marry a leather bomber to a fine wool coat, just one of the hybrids that are his most visually arresting work. It was the Harvey Nichols project that put him in mind of collecting and collating his past, but it would be no surprise if Barrett didn’t also have fair due on his mind as he finally sets about creating a proper archive, bringing together the clothes he has stored in two facilities in the UK and three in Italy, including a huge collection of Prada he hasn’t seen since he left the company.
And maybe when that’s all together and accessible, Barrett’s place in fashion will be more clearly defined. There’s certainly a lesson in his story. It’s partly that caution pays. As he himself says, “Never stop dreaming, because aspiring to be is everything, but be realistic, work at it in an organic, true way — don’t expect to be in the spotlight immediately, and you can truly create something.” Slow and steady wins the race? In the face of fashion ever faster, that’s not a bad reminder.