Labels For More, Eugene Rabkin, 2008
Image courtesy of Interior Design.
Karlo Steel, a New Orleans native, is serious, soft spoken, and contemplative. Only his dark eyes, set behind horn-rimmed glasses, and an occasional chuckle give away his emotions. And yet his passion shines through his impassive demeanor. He wears his fashion heart on his sleeve. As he unfolds a long gray coat by Austrian designer Carol Christian Poell, he talks about it in his quiet voice. Of course, the explanation must start from afar; Steel is not satisfied with merely describing the garment.
“First of all, let me give some background information. Tailoring for men is slowly dissolving from our lives. The suit is dead. Today, men wear suits only when they have to. Compare that to 1948, when every man wore a suit every day. One of the few people who are infusing a sense of modernity into traditional tailoring is Carol. I am not necessarily talking about designing something new, but breathing a new life into a corpse. He is taking traditional, conservative tailoring and bringing it up to date. There is an element of experimentation that goes into his work. Not all of it is successful, but that’s the price you pay. This is the intersection of what was, and what will be. This is why Carol is important to us – he is the anchor of what we do at Atelier.”
Your store has a particular aesthetic that can be described as dark or gothic. This aesthetic does not seem to come from merely a desire to satisfy a niche, but from something personal. Is this true?
“What I do is deeply personal. I am lucky that a lot of people connect with it. I am really attracted to cities. When I think of cities, I see concrete and graphite, gray, black and white. I never picture myself in a bucolic countryside. I am not against these environments, but whenever I picture myself, it’s urban – there are certain vibrations, textures and feelings that come with that, and that is expressed through the brands I am attracted to. I do not see myself particularly as gothic, although there is a lot of black and distressed clothing in the store. I am kind of romantic, but in a sense that things do not always end well, not in a pastoral sense.”
Some designers you carry, Ann Demeulemeester, Number (N)ine, Rick Owens, are often accused of doing the same thing. However, it seems that what they do comes from the inside and that anything else would be inauthentic.
“This is true with some designers we carry. Yet there are others, particularly from Japan, who tend to imitate. It’s a cultural thing, an idea that imitation is the highest form of flattery. In the avant-garde fashion realm, there is a torch being passed down. In the 1980s the Japanese, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons, began it, their clothes were a novelty; black, asymmetric and deconstructed. They influenced the Belgians, such as Ann Demeulemeester and Martin Margiela, who came in the ’90s. Now, the torch is being passed back to the young Japanese designers, who are looking up to the Belgians. For example, if I see Number (N)ine, I think Ann Demeulemeester. The influence is there, and he wouldn’t deny it, but he does it in his own way. The cognoscenti can read the references, but there are differences when you put the garments side by side. Andy Warhol once said that you are allowed to copy as long as you change two things. Sometimes you have to start somewhere, and through imitation you can come to your own ideas.”
These designers represent two generations. One came in the late ’90s, and the other fairly recently. They appeal to younger clients. And then you have Yohji Yamamoto, an important designer, but from an older generation. Was the decision to carry him a gamble?
“Yes. We were offered to carry Yamamoto; an opportunity I could not pass up. It was an emotional decision on my part. Growing up in the late ’70s, I went searching for what I wanted to wear in my life. I knew I wasn’t getting it from GQ or Vogue. It wasn’t reflecting the kind of music I listened to, the kind of movies I watched. Then I came across new magazines like Face, Blitz, and I.D., English magazines. They were more about style rather than fashion; they were not about what you were wearing, but how you were wearing it, and how the clothes were connected with other cultural phenomena.
The two names that stuck out were Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto. Yohji is someone who I’ve always held dearly to my heart. I appreciate his influence and integrity. When we were offered the collection, I knew that Yohji was in some areas out of sync with what we do, but he also started it all. It’s not easy, but I can see how it is causing some people to reconsider Yohji. Of course, I always try to buy what works with the shop. You do not necessarily have to subscribe to the designer’s point of view.”
There is also the other side of the shop: Carpe Diem, Carol Christian Poell and Label Under Construction. These are not “designers” in the traditional sense; they consider themselves artisans. What attracted you to them?
“It was something I felt drawn to. I can appreciate their point of view and connect with their aesthetic. It’s hard to talk about all of them together, because they are all different.”
What unites them is the handmade approach of a craftsman. Does that play a big part in this attraction?
“Yes, and that is something I am aiming to explore further. In the world of instant access and obvious commercial desires, it is nice to find something that does not keep those things at the forefront. The garment is at the forefront, and I respect that. Having designers that show off the standard semi-annual fashion week schedule is inconvenient for me as a buyer, and I wouldn’t do it for something that wasn’t worthwhile.”
Talking about $5,000 leather jackets and avoiding commercialism is problematic. People look at price tags, but not necessarily at the garments.
“We live in a culture where people know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. I suppose it’s a sign of the times, because everything is popular and instant. It is refreshing to find these designers in such a climate. I do not want to compare what they do with art, but there are parallels. Art by its very nature is anti- populist. And yes, it is very expensive. I wish it weren’t, but we also have a weak currency, and a lot of these designers come out of Europe, especially Italy. It is an interesting topic in itself. Italy is very ‘Italian’ in regard to fashion. There are some very big names in Italy that push a certain flashy, gaudy aesthetic, with a small underground school working against that. For every culture there is a counter-culture. If you grew up on a diet of shiny gold, you might want some dull leather.”