Many men and women would agree that shopping is their form of homage to a designer, just as visiting the hushed galleries of a museum is a tribute to the artist displayed within. Last week, Holt Renfrew brought fashion and art (plus the added sensory experience of a riot of delectable fairground food and DJ-spun music) together to celebrate rag & bone’s Spring 2014 collection. Despite torrential weather delays, designers Marcus Wainwright and David Neville landed in Toronto just in time to mingle with guests and revel in the five Canadian artist-commissioned works (and one blank canvas which was graffitied throughout the night) inspired by the collection.
Though they have long since made New York their home base, British expats Wainwright and Neville have always attributed the core of their aesthetic to fine English tailoring underscored by a strong military influence. For spring, that utilitarian practice was worked into clothes made with the Paris-Dakar rally and Bedouin culture in mind. Between admiring the fashionable attendees, trying our hand at graffiti, and snacking on too much cotton candy, FLARE spoke with Neville about vandalism as art, a potential future in woodwork, and the iconic Kate Moss.
First off, congratulations! rag & bone will be heading home this June to join the Spring 2014 line-up at London Collections: Men.
Yes, we really thought our men’s show we did in February was well executed, so we’re feeling very confident. It’s good when you get the balance right between all of the different factors [involved in a runway show]. Clearly it’s about the clothes, but then the styling, casting, production, set design, and the choreography of it have to make it in because it’s about the experience for the audience.
As for womenswear, your spring collection took inspiration from two main opposing themes: the Paris-Dakar rally and Bedouin culture. Other contrasts run throughout the clothes as well—masculine interwoven with feminine silhouettes, cropped shirts and oversized jackets, leather for summer, etc.—what draws you to these differences?
Those tensions have been something that we’ve played on all the way through since the beginning. We didn’t have any formal fashion training. We learned about clothes and fashion first and foremost through trying to make clothes, which is great in terms of understanding the manufacturing process and the more literal process by which one makes, cuts, and sews a garment. In the early days of rag & bone all we had to reference was our own past. Marcus and I were brought up in a very traditional British environment, and at that point in time it really contrasted with New York City. That was one of the more fundamental contrasts of the brand. The next one would probably be the one you just mentioned in terms of masculine and feminine shapes. When we started with womenswear we certainly had a lot of menswear influence, so this sort of masculine/feminine contrast was quite deeply rooted in the brand.
You began on the premise of creating a solid denim jean for men. How and why did you expand into womenswear? Who is the ideal rag & bone woman?
Well it’s been said it was our wives; I mean they certainly would have been the ones who prompted us. But I also think it’s a fairly natural and obvious segue. If you’re going to be in the fashion business you’ve got to be in womenswear. As before, when we’re designing or styling a show or a picture, there needs to be some contrast in it, a little bit of hard, a little bit of soft. We think that’s what our girl is like. She’s a little tough but she’s also a little bit vulnerable, and she’s cute. It’s an important thread in the language of rag & bone.
The acid green leather moto jacket was a standout in the collection. Vibrant blue and coral were also striking departures from the Bedouin-inspired cotton whites and desert khaki seen throughout the show. How did you decide on the palette?
A lot of the colour and those references actually came from the more technical costumes that the guys on the motorbikes wear, from their helmets to their motorbike jackets. That’s where that neon acid green colour came from. We used that in our spring campaign on Kate Moss.
Speaking of which, what was it like working with her?
It was really fun. We’ve done it twice. The first time we did it on the streets of North London, the second time we did it in the English countryside. It was really cool—a dream come true, really. I mean, she’s very iconic, and to do our first campaign on her started with a bang. She’s an English girl. She represents a lot of what inspires us in terms of the way she dresses herself, her own personal style, the way that she mixes influences. We wanted to capture her in a very real way as opposed to being too photoshopped and airbrushed, lying on a sofa with a tiger.
In what ways does your British heritage influence your downtown NY aesthetic?
Well, I think tailoring and our military influence is a big part of it. We went to a very old military school which, when we attended, was actually just a boys boarding school, but when it was first set up it was an academy for sons of officers that had died in the war. We were brought up with a lot of pictures of generals on the walls, so there are a lot of military references that are very much a reference to our British heritage as well. And in terms of how that’s married to the New York aesthetic, I think it works because New York is very uptown/downtown, so there’s an interesting tension there between being dressed up and being quite disheveled.
You and Marcus have known each other since you were very young. You’ve gone to school together, worked odd jobs in a foreign country together, ended up in New York, and even had children at the same time. Since starting rag & bone, how has your working relationship grown and changed?
It’s been an interesting road. We struggled a lot in the beginning because we didn’t really know what we were doing. We didn’t have any help; we were financing the business ourselves. So we definitely put in 4 or 5 years of the “hard yards” as they say. And then we started to get some really good momentum in the middle of 2006, and have been on a really exciting ride since then as our company has grown. We’ve been relatively successful as we’ve entered into new categories and opened our own stores, [including] a big flagship store in London. So there have been a lot of highs. But you know the saying, “you wouldn’t enjoy a sunny day if it didn’t rain”— we definitely did the really hard part in the beginning, and that made us realize we needed to enjoy what we were doing, so we’ve tried to make sure that that’s maintained in the culture of the company and the way we go about our business. Because we do love it. We’re very proud of the brand and what we make and what the brand stands for. We think we have an amazing opportunity to be a global lifestyle brand.
If you were to expand into a global lifestyle brand, what venture would you like to indulge in first?
We have our own workshop in Brooklyn and we have quite a large team of about a dozen construction guys who make all the tables and fixtures in our stores. It’s all handmade and hand welded. So we’re already making the furniture for our stores, which is really cool, and a nice extension of what we stand for in the fact that we do it ourselves. It’s not something that’s for sale yet, but it’s definitely something that could ultimately become bigger if we decided we wanted to do that. But we also need to stay focused on what we’re doing now.
The murals created specifically for the Holt Renfrew event were a big hit. What did you think of the pieces? And what is rag & bone’s connection to street art and graffiti?
It was cool! I think the best bit was actually just seeing them do live graffiti. They are some talented people. We have this cool thing in New York called the houston/Project. We have a store on Houston and Elizabeth Street, and on the corner of Elizabeth there’s a big open wall. Over quite a long time now we’ve actually commissioned different graffiti artists to put murals on it. And we’ve put on little competitions where people have voted on who gets to tag it. It’s been cool because now we have a little archive of all of the different graphics and images that have been put on the wall. That was where the idea came from.