A Modern Spin to Classic American Menswear
Michael Bastian’s witty twists appeal to conservative guys
In the past decade, Michael Bastian has become one of the leading American menswear designers of his generation, revered for applying a modern spin to classic American apparel. Remember that Champion sweatshirt you couldn’t part with in college? In Bastian’s hands, it becomes a masculine gray cashmere crew neck, albeit with a $950 price tag that few college students can afford.
Bastian’s “new American” motif has won fans around the world because his clothes are deftly styled, gimmick-free, and easy to wear, with an emphasis on fit and feel. “Men want to look like themselves, only a little bit better,” says the 50-year-old designer. “You should always see the guy before the clothes.”
In many ways, Bastian’s clothes personify the designer. Trim, tall, and silver-haired, with preppy good looks, Bastian finds inspiration in his own closet, among clothes old and new, and he serves as his own model during the design process. “I often think, ‘What would I want myself that I don’t have?’ ”
His spring line, now in stores, includes a striking reinterpretation of that fall staple, the glen-plaid suit. Bastian’s version ($2,290) is made of cotton and linen, and the jacket is graced with unusual dark horn buttons and light-brown suede elbow patches, which stand out against the blue-and-cream fabric. Bastian seamlessly mixes fabrics and patterns in his latest collection. A navy-blue and red windowpane double-breasted suit ($2,645) pairs beautifully, for example, with a short-sleeved denim shirt ($365) and a red paisley cotton tie ($145). The unstructured, featherweight flax jacket breathes perfectly on a hot summer day.
Bastian’s pairing of a black-green jacquard-leaf dinner jacket ($1,695), black bow tie, and pleated evening shirt in light-blue chambray cotton ($485) also makes a powerful statement. His sophisticated reinterpretation of a camouflage print, inspired by the banana-leaf wallpaper at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, shows up in everything from safari jackets to chinos.
But Bastian’s button-downs are in a class of their own. He favors a high collar stance, double-barrel cuffs, and mother-of-pearl buttons. Check out the hand-gathered shoulder vents, rear shoulder pleats, and waist darts, all of which make for a slimming V-line silhouette, no matter your body type.
“There is a void in the market when it comes to fit,” says Jim Moore, creative director at GQ. “When you put on a suit or shirt of Michael’s, the fit and workmanship are perfect.”
Bastian was born in Lyons, N.Y., an upstate farming hamlet near Lake Ontario. He says he’s cut from the same sartorial cloth as his father, a former high school history teacher and basketball coach who favored blue jeans, a flannel shirt, tie, and down vest. “I can’t believe I’m even sitting here having this conversation,” he says, reflecting on his upbringing. “What random series of events got me here? I never thought I’d be a designer.”
After graduating from Babson College in 1987, he bypassed Wall Street and instead took a series of jobs in New York at Abraham & Strauss, Sotheby’s, Tiffany, and Ralph Lauren. He was later recruited by Robert Burke, then Bergdorf Goodman’s VP fashion director, to become the store’s new director of men’s fashions.
“Michael has an incredible eye,” says Burke, who now heads his own consulting firm, Robert Burke Associates. “I saw that even before we worked together.” After five years at Bergdorf, Bastian got the itch to design a perfect pair of khakis, and struck out on his own. His collections were a huge hit; his “golden shorts”—a tongue-in-cheek reference to their $600 price tag—created a publicity furor.
Six years ago, the designer ended his licensing agreement with the Italian luxury-menswear company Brunello Cucinelli, which allowed him to lower his retail prices by at least 20%, after his operations became more efficient and cut production costs. Similarly, Bastian believes that men should buy less, but buy better.
Steven Kolb, president and CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, rightly observes that Bastian is for “a conservative guy” who is “comfortable in his clothes” and yet still wants to feel “some personality, too.”
That’s Bastian, a designer who works with just five employees in a 1,000-square-foot studio in New York’s Chelsea district, while his coveted brand sells in high-end specialty shops and department stores across North America and overseas.
Expansion is in the cards. In January, Bluestar Alliance, a privately owned brand-management company, acquired a majority interest in Bastian’s firm and plans to develop a more-affordable department-store line. “The 25- to 50-year-old man is constantly looking for newness,” says Ralph Gindi, Bluestar’s president and chief operating officer. “There is a void for a young contemporary designer. Michael is exactly that designer.”
Tim Flannery, a creative director in the fashion industry who regularly wears Bastian, appreciates the label’s wit, like the tiny owls woven into the silk lining of herringbone trousers, and yet notes that “there’s a connective thing that makes all his clothing work together.”
Bastian, in short, taps an American essence, and then makes it distinctly his own.