There aren’t many independent brands still going strong 20 years in, but Neil Barrett is a perpetual, ferocious ball of energy on a relentless mission to make every collection better, better, better. When the designer debuted his eponymous line in 2000 at the Pitti Uomo industry fair in Florence, he’d only recently vacated a position at Prada (where he launched menswear and Prada Sport). Turns out the tough decision to leave was the right one: as master of his own destiny, Neil Barrett has developed a specific approach to dressing and acquired a devoted fanbase along the way. We spoke with him the day after his SS20 catwalk show, in the spacious and serene Neil Barrett HQ, Milan.
Fabien Kruszelnicki: It’s the day after the show, how are you feeling?
Neil Barrett: It’s always going to be strange but I’ve been around the block a few times so I’m used to that sensation.
James West: What about the day after, any anticlimax?
NB: There used to be an anticlimax at Prada [Barrett conceived of and launched the first menswear collection for Prada in 1995] because it was such a big thing working up to it, but the day after there was nothing – I actually had a day off. So I used to get really big downers. You’re workaholics, you work all day, all night, all the time. But obviously I was more stressed at the beginning [of launching Neil Barrett]. There were just no fucking clothes! You know, nothing arrived [for the first show], so it had a slightly different shock value. But now we’re pretty organised. This season we did a lot of embroidered things, we’ve never really worked with decoration like that before. We adapted it to us, so you have full-on multi-colour, and you also have navy on navy, navy on black, whites on white, which is more in line with the kind of client we have.
JW: What do you call those collegiate crests you embroidered?
NB: We created own sort of new, old boys style. I discovered this artist, Jody Paulson, two years ago in Cape Town at the Zeitz Museum. There was a really impressive wall mirror, all in hand-cut felt.
JW: Hand-cut? That must take a long time.
NB: He knows what he’s doing so he’s on it, and very efficient. I sent him a direct message and we started talking. We took his felt pieces and then re-interpreted them within my world. We gave him a studio here [in Neil Barrett HQ, Milan] and he was the artist-in-residence for about a month, so we got to see him every day. We created these coats of arms, thinking about the universities of Britain but we wanted to make our own ones – more fun and hybrid. We did that in the garments too, mixing two, three, four different fabrics within one piece.
JW: The set was quite epic, it was an explosion of colour [the whole room was filled with a piece of artwork that covered the floor].
NB: Yes, it was great. This is a year of colour for me. I didn’t want to look back at the last twenty years and do a retrospective of my favourite pieces. I just thought, “Let’s start the next decade with pieces people wouldn’t expect from me.”
FK: Does it feel more like a new journey, the next twenty years?
NB: Yes, I want to lift it a level, do more, push my boundaries further and be freer. I’ll still cover what my client wants, expects and desires within the pre-collection, which is 70 percent of my business.
JW: Pre-collection seems to be more and more of people’s business.
NB: Well, I’ve been doing pre-collections for sixteen years, so 32 of them. I started really early because I worked at Gucci, and I was used to the way they did a cruise collection for women. We used to do levels – like capsules – with the mens, so a few years after leaving I started doing them myself. It seemed natural to drop something new every month or two. We do the same with our pre-collection now, drop twice within the season. I think what’s wrong and outdated at the moment are the dates of mens’ shows. All the budget is going to the pre-collection for mens because it’s in the shop for longer, so you can actually sell more. It’s not very logical.
JW: What would work better?
NB: Well, I think the main collections should happen at the time pre-collection does. I dream about going back to two seasons a year, we would just show at the times of pre’s, so we’d show the mens in May and just divide up the collections in the showroom. This is first delivery, this is second delivery, this is third delivery. So it’s still a year’s worth of clothes, but we only do it twice. And then everyone’s happy.
FK: Then you can have a holiday!
NB: Exactly! We just want a fucking life, you know? Rather than being here all the time, we would like to go back to the old days which were kind of fabulous [laughs].
JW: Tell us about those fabulous old days…
NB: Take me back to once upon a time. I used to just be a design director. I just did two collections a year, two shows, and a couple of capsules at Prada and that was it. And I didn’t have to deal with business, I didn’t have to deal with commercial, PR.
FK: That changes things quite a lot when you have to start thinking about ‘the business,’ doesn’t it?
NB: Everything’s crazy, yeah. I thought it would be easier because I didn’t have to report to somebody, and I could just do what I wanted. But I didn’t realise how much more work having your own company is. Then maybe you try and make your life easier by giving everything to your assistant, and then you give them an assistant. And then there’s another person and another person, and then you end up with a tonne of people, and it’s your responsibility to steer all that. They don’t teach you that at college. You want to do your own collection? Great! Fantastic! Exciting! Glamorous! And it is, part of the time.
“I dream about going back to two seasons a year, we would just show at the times of pre’s, so we’d show the mens in May and just divide up the collections in the showroom.”
JW: Since you launched your own brand, what are the biggest things you learned? We’re talking about this like it was two years ago, I mean over the past twenty years.
NB: I think I’ve gradually changed as I’ve gone along. That’s the good thing about being your own boss, I’ve always tried to adapt and understand what people are saying. One thing is working creatively with different body shapes. The complete story has to work so that you’re not only cool in London, it needs to work in Tokyo with smaller body shapes. Or in Texas with the [size] 54s and the 56s. That American market is another huge one for me. But I also have about 20 muses of different shapes and sizes.
FK: Where do you find them?
NB: They are just friends over the years that become people who believe in the brand, who are very faithful and constantly come back. We’ve literally just been doing the edit of SS20 – taking that oversized kimono- shaped bomber, it’s got like a zip-off bottom that makes it into a coat. I just launched the small version today for the Asian market, one of our team’s Asian and quite short and he put it on and he was engulfed. So we do these reality tests.
FK: Do you have specific fit models? How often do they change?
NB: Over twenty years, three people, that’s it. And at Prada, just two. I keep the same body shapes, I know their defects, well when I say ‘defects,’ they’re models… but maybe one’s got an arm that’s two centimeters longer. So you might think, “Shorten that, shorten that,” but no, – it’s his arm! I remember taking a picture of a piece on someone else and thinking, “Oh, it looks right now.” You have to view the same thing on a different model until you get it.
FK: How did it feel to start your own brand?
NB: I was excited. I was doubting myself, and it took maybe a year and a bit to actually decide to leave Prada, because that was already my dream job for life. I was fairly young to be there already, and to have another 40 years ahead of me in a company. So I thought, “Wow, I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life,” which was fabulous, but I was also curious. Brad Pitt’s agent was actually the one pushing me. He said, “You know, you’re doing all this stuff, why don’t you just do your own collection?” And I said, “Well I’m quite happy here, it’s my dream job.” He said, “I can get Brad to wear all your clothes to everything for five years, I’ll look after you.”
FK: Quite a good offer.
NB: Well, you know. Brad was Brad. So I was thought, “Wow, you know, that could be interesting.”
FK: Was there a specific moment where you remember deciding to go for it?
NB: I was being head-hunted persistently by Calvin Klein. One weekend, they flew me in to see him. It was the fifth or sixth time and the offer was going up and up, and then it got to Monopoly money, with everything thrown in, it was kind of ridiculous. It was a lot of money at that time, and I actually signed to go there. It was a strange time, because my mother had cancer and she was dying, so I was on my way back to England. They were very persistent, they were breaking my balls. Eventually I signed, you know, they gave me £100,000 just to sign. I mean… Concord lounge… it was ridiculous. I was like, “Fuck, this is crazy.” So I went back [to Prada] and said, “I’ve just signed for this job at Calvin” And they were like… “No.” [laughs] They put the lawyers on it, they said there was no-one to replace me, and I had to stay another six months. So I did. And also my mum said, “New York’s too far away.”
JW: Were they annoyed at you?
NB: Sightly. No, very annoyed with me! But I gave them back the cheque. [laughs]. I didn’t have to, but I gave it back – I was trying to be correct. I stayed and had another year with my mum, so that was worth it and I understand why that happened. Then Prada said, “There’s no reason you would ever leave us. Because this is you. Unless you’re going to launch your own brand.” And that was the ‘bingo!’ [all laugh].
“I think I’ve gradually changed as I’ve gone along. That’s the good thing about being your own boss, I’ve always tried to adapt and understand what people are saying.”
JW: What were the early days of Neil Barrett like? This is an amazing space that you have now [HQ in Milan], and it’s still only fairly recently that you moved here. What was the team like at the start? How did it work in that first year or two?
NB: We were four people. Everyone had a space on top of a box, no tables. Just boxes and boxes. And just one fabric director, we called them directors, there were only four of us… I had a PA and an architect who did illustrations for me part-time. It was another world. Immediately they asked me to open Pitti [Uomo, the biannual menswear trade fair in Florence].
JW: Tailoring is very important in your work, it’s not like you threw all that away.
NB: No, no. I keep it within everything I do, even this season, and I like to stretch my boundaries by working with younger talent. It’s good to get a bit of youthfulness, but at the same time I’m creating with the knowledge of all that artisan and workmanship you get in Italy.
FK: There are a lot of mills closing, especially in England, and it’s quite hard to keep the craft going. Is that the same in Italy?
NB: There have also been a lot of mills closing in Italy in the last three years. And printers – the best dying company in the world closed about a year-and-half ago – they were quite brilliant. It happens, and it’s sad. Hopefully I think there are enough companies that can cover you sufficiently. You’re not going to use more than twenty, but the really successful ones who are still creating crazily beautiful stuff, they have a tradition of passing down knowledge and craft. There’s enough talent, it’s not going to be lost. In Britain, I think, it is going be lost, unfortunately. Places are closing and there are no alternatives, all the rules have changed. In the last three years, a designer doesn’t have to be trained anymore. We can all go on to The Voice, or Britain’s Got Talent.
JW: Someone else can auto-tune it for you.
NB: Exactly, we can all try and be a singer, a designer, or an artist.
JW: Right. And that was 2000?
NB: Yes. I hadn’t even had one production. So they gave me this big deal, because of Prada, and we didn’t have a collection. It arrived like an hour before the show.
NB: I strongly suggest no designer leaving a big brand ever thinks to do Pitti. You’ve got to be sure that you can do the collection and it arrives on time. It was a lot. And then the dressers started throwing people [onto the runway] in the wrong order, the second look before the first look, and I’m pretty much a control freak, so I was losing it. I didn’t know what to do. But it was a good experience. And one of my ex-boyfriends told my dad I was gay as well.
JW: On the same day?!
NB: That night, at the party. So he got totally plastered, and you know, that was a bit of a hard time.
JW: You might as well do all the drama in one night!
NB: You know, I lost kilos. It was an amusing night. There are other stories like those, but you don’t want to go into them… The stories he told my dad were funny, looking back. My dad kind of chuckled about them about fifteen years later. I’m not sure whether it was a nervous chuckle or a proper chuckle…
JW: At least it was some kind of chuckle.
NB: It was some kind of murmur – it sounded like he was laughing. So starting out was a bit stressful, but then it was just fun! Because you’re on your own, and it was an experiment – I wanted that challenge to show that I could do something without a major brand behind me. I’d already created a brand from zero with Prada, and then Patrizio Bertelli [Prada CEO] asked us to cut the men’s and women’s sections apart and create Prada Sport.
JW: Prada Sport, job done!
NB: Yeah. They’d worked on the idea for many years, but needed to put it together. The designs were ones I already had at Prada men, and we were just dividing the collection. It was such a fun time to do that. Everyone at Prada was tasteful, even if they were laying the garments out on the rack, they did it tastefully. The colours, the details on the doors – everything was tasteful and modern. So it was like working in a beautiful bubble. And then trying to do something on your own, it’s different, because you don’t have that experienced team around you.
JW: How long did it take to grow?
NB: Well the first season I already had 50 of the best clients in the world, because I used to have to sit on the buying routines at Prada to explain the collections. When I left, those buyers were curious to see what I would do. I was just roping friends in to help me, it was an exciting period and it was great that my father could see it. My mother had passed away, she missed it, she died literally a week after the last Prada show. So she stayed until that last moment, and then passed away.
JW: It’s nice she experienced the last show you did there. And you’re from a family of tailors?
NB: Yes, so my father was interested the whole time I was building the company.
FK: What did he think of your designs?
NB: He was very proud of it, he would give me advice.
JW: That must be quite rare in this industry, for a parent to be able to say, “How about trying it in this way.” Usually the fashion school kid is like, “I don’t want to be an accountant dad!” [all laugh]
NB: My great grandfather and grandfather were both in the military and were master tailors. My father and brother also went into military, and I went into design. So there was no stigma, it was all fine. It would have been stranger if I was becoming a vet or something. So it was really nice because it was supportive and there were suggestions about how to make things.
JW: Where do you think that’s going to end up? It has become, not necessarily about celebrity, but more about personality and ideas, even if you don’t know how to execute them.
NB: I think it’s interesting because it challenges the existing system. Fashion’s been pretty lucky to hold onto the past for many years, so I think a good shake up’s not wrong. Certain things will just be hype, then they’ll die, but there’s always going be another hype moment. I think that the weakest links fall by the wayside; I try to be consistent. With my consistency, the solid part of the company can go forward, and then I also try to express new ideas and ways of presenting. I don’t do much advertising or PR – hardly anything. I think this is the second interview I’ve done this year.
JW: Has that always been the way?
NB: I’ve always been fairly quiet. I do think now I’ve got to change and be more willing to talk about it in different markets and countries. Maybe it’s detrimental to the brand and I should do more. James: A lot of brands just do one or two key interviews a season, and then delegate out all those micro-communications to other people. You can be quite strategic with it, I guess.
FK: How do you think that idea of a creative director of a brand will develop?
NB: If they’re clever they will try out good designers underneath them, get other people to do their job for them. If they’re not too pretentious and don’t presume that they can do it themselves. I think there’s a total future for that, and because they have more visibility maybe they will have more share of the market, they’ll steal it from other people, but in a good way. Because they deserve it. People are buying into their name, great, and if they get a decent enough garment… Unfortunately, a lot of these people still don’t know how to make clothes and they don’t know how to delegate to good people, so you can get some pretty shitty garments, but there are exceptions. And those exceptions are going to do very well.
FK: In this period where lots of big names are getting older and maybe stepping down, I wonder if we’ll start to lose the idea of what some of these big houses are about, if the designer isn’t there to be the face of it.
NB: But don’t you think there’s always going to be someone else to come up – sometimes it might work, and sometimes not. It’s more problematic within the French brands where they seem to change too quickly.
JW: This whole culture of a three-year contract doesn’t seem very long. Sometimes things can get disjointed.
NB: The companies doing that have enough backing to make a lot of money in a short period of time, so they’re happy to just change it up. Because the designer is expendable, the brand carries on. So they take the hottest thing at the moment and then just change it up again.
JW: There have been a few brands with such a legacy, you’d think it’s impossible to fuck it up, but somehow it still turns into something else quite quickly.
NB: But the thing is, with your consistent clients, you’re gonna lose maybe 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent, whoever they are. They’re like, “Oh they’ve changed so much and I loved the other designer.” But then maybe you gain 60 percent, so you’re actually winning.
JW: Plus for a lot of these older brands, all of the old clients are dying off, or at least not spending the way they were.
NB: It’s interesting to see how things are going to work, maybe these brands lose 50 percent of the clients and gain 60 percent… or do they only gain 40 percent… but the second season maybe they gain 70 percent. There are such extremes at the moment.
JW: Those companies that are private aren’t going to tell you whether it was a success.
NB: The rules are changing. And when you’re working for somebody else, you know you could be in a job, you could be out of a job. I feel like I’m one of the last independent brands of my group and I’ve got a great team, working with Katy England on styling and Gary Gill on the hair.
“Fashion’s been pretty lucky to hold onto the past for many years, so I think a good shake up’s not wrong.”
JW: How integral are stylists to your process?
NB: Well I had this experience at the very beginning when I started my company. I had a meeting in London with a particular owner of a magazine and he told me, “This is how it works, you’ve got to work with our stylists and then we will put you in the magazine. If you don’t, you’re going to be new for about two days and that’s it.”
JW: Oh god!
NB: This person was very ruthless and I was in shock, sitting there like, “I just want to design a collection, why are you giving me this?” He was so blunt, but he was actually giving me the honest truth at the time.
JW: Did you appreciate it later?
NB: I did, but I thought he was a total asshole at the time! I didn’t want to be forced to do anything. I’d just left a big company to be on my own. The stylist was sitting there in the meeting. He was an amazing stylist, but I was put off by the owner of the magazine, big time. I should have just asked for a second opinion, “Are all editors like that?” So I didn’t have a stylist for at least twelve or thirteen years because I was put off the whole idea. Then I was on holiday with Anya Yiapanis [photo and stylist agent] and she said to me, “Why don’t you take on a stylist, it’ll just make your life easier.” So then Robbie [Spencer] started with me and he was amazing. I was trying to get my head around it, so Robbie experienced me not knowing what it was like to work with a stylist.
JW: Do you look back at old shows much?
NB: Occasionally I’ll look back at my favourite things, I like to refer to my own work rather than look at other people’s. I think maybe it’s purer to the brand.
JW: Do you ever have that feeling of, “Oh this is happening out there in the world, maybe we should be doing a bit more of it?”
NB: I’ve never believed that I have to follow a trend, I think the whole point is that you’re meant to be doing the thing you believe in. I think masses follow trends, so mass-markets and high streets should follow trends and first lines should not be copying each other.
JW: It makes logical sense when you say it, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
NB: Some people have integrity, others don’t.
FK: How do you block all of that out and not get influenced?
NB: I mean, I don’t follow a lot of brands [on Instagram] to start with, you know? That’s it, I follow Prada!
JW: That’s allowed.
NB: And I don’t really follow anyone else, there’s no point. I’ve got too many friends and acquaintances who I follow that I don’t have any time.
JW: It’s a visual industry though, so you’re constantly seeing things in shops, and campaigns…
NB: Well I don’t know, they never show me magazines! They’re all around the press offices but I never see them.
FK: You don’t see the magazines?!
NB: I very rarely ask to see them, unless there’s something of mine in there. I look at yours, at AnOther, at 10. I see the indies.
FK: What do you do for inspiration?
NB: Whenever I travel around – the people I see, maybe how they’re dressed, or architecture, museums – or I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with an idea. This season I spent three weeks out of the office for the first time. I Airbnb’d a studio in the middle of nowhere just on my own in the countryside.
JW: The dream.
NB: It was pretty amazing, I designed the collection there. It was a friend’s suggestion and it was kind of brilliant. It was weird, you know?
JW: How long did it take you to shift head-space?
NB: Well I went for two weeks after the show in January, and it was maybe a week after the show I left.
JW: Was it in Italy?
NB: Oh no, we were in the middle of Devon.
JW: Did you ban the internet?
NB: Tried to, but it didn’t quite work. I didn’t watch TV though, just a couple of movies for inspiration, documentaries, and then the internet for books and imagery and stuff like that, I had a great time. It was really cleansing, and freed my mind. Being on your own is amazing.
JW: Do you sketch a lot still? Is that how you design?
NB: Yeah I sketch a lot, but I don’t work in looks, I work in garments. I want to go back into looks from next season.
JW: Did you used to do it that way then?
NB: Yes, I stopped because I used to think my drawings were a bit shit. My drawings were really good when I only needed to do flat drawings and get it all right, but trying to get a whole look…
JW: Like a Karl [Lagerfeld] swoosh.
NB: Yeah, I never had that Karl swoosh. It was a little bit more scratchy.
JW: So why do you want to go back to drawing looks now?
NB: I think it’s going to free myself from my own rules. I’d like to work a different way.
JW: Over time you make decisions about things and they stick, and then a few years later you’re like “Why?” Sometimes you’re not even aware that you’re not questioning it. With this anniversary, it sounds like you’re quite consciously looking at everything.
NB: It’s like a seven-year itch except it’s twenty [all laugh]. I feel like I’ve had an amazing career. I’ve been very fortunate, and the company is amazing and the majority of people don’t know who the fuck I am, it’s only within the industry that people kind of know who I am, right? And that’s cool, what more could I want, I got to create Prada menswear and then Neil Barrett, that’s a big deal, to be able to conceive and develop something and take it forward. Now I want to hone in more. So that itch is to do less product and make it even more edited. It’s got to be tight, focused and really desirable. If I’m going to get rid of a garment in my wardrobe there needs to be a reason for it.
FK: Do you often get rid of stuff in your own wardrobe?
NB: Yeah, it goes into the archive.
FK: How often do you clear out?
NB: I try and do it twice a year.
JW: Ooh that’s pretty efficient.
NB: I try. I get in there like, “OK, what do I love?” The pain is trying it on, because I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t really want to try anything on. Like, I get into a shop and I don’t want to try anything on.
JW: I hate it.
NB: Especially when it’s trousers and you’ve got to take your shoes off.
JW: Yeah like when it’s hot outside but you’re trying a coat on…
NB: What are you doing! I’m that client who gets bored quickly, which actually works in my favour because I’m trying to make it easy for other people. There are moments when I go back and just try old stuff on, I’ve got great mirrors so I can see the back, and a lot of space to throw stuff.
JW: Are they slightly tinted mirrors? No one wants evil lighting.
NB: No, full-on. I’d rather know my faults.
JW: That’s very brave.
NB: I live with my faults, it’s fine. Accept everything.
JW: We should talk about womenswear.
NB: Well, I’ve really tried to bring it down to twenty or thirty core things where the girl can come in and find that boyish jacket for the more voluptuous body, or a jacket for the straighter body. That perfect coat is always in there, a couple of outfits, great pieces that I know are well-tailored. They’ll be a constant, so she can always come back. I’m going to make a core, and then I’m going to have seasonal bits around it. But I want to really edit it, super-crazy edited.
JW: Are you good at editing then?
NB: That’s a huge question for a designer.
JW: I mean does it come naturally to you or is it hard work?
NB: I have all these little gremlins on my shoulder. But they’re happy gremlins. It’s like this is my Japanese one, this is my Korean one, my Chinese one, you know, my basketball player friend, my tiny friend… Lots of different people and they’re all saying if it’s good or bad for them. It’s great having the shop in London actually, I love the London store. That’s the beginning of the twenty-first year and how I want to go forward. So if you edit towards how much you can fit in that store, that’s kind of where I’m thinking at the moment. That’s been a huge eye-opener. There’s only so much space, how do we want to set it out?
JW: You were talking about bringing the licenses in-house, how does that work?
NB: Before, I had different licenses. So it would mean they would all become one, where basically we order the fabrics, accessories or packing, everything goes into one place, you get the specialist to make everything and then it all comes back to the industrial platform, where it’s then divided up to sell out to the client.
“We all want to move forward, I don’t want to keep waiting and wasting time. So you know, there’s probably part of the twenty-year itch where I really want transparency and I’m not going accept anything less.”
JW: And that gives you control over the vision of everything?
NB: Yes. That’s the idea, and it does work. Sometimes with my current system and partners – I thought it would be different – but they’re not naturally transparent. Being transparent is the most important way to build a business, and to build a friendship and trust, so if you don’t have transparency I’m not going there anymore. If they’re willing to be transparent, I’ll re-sign them.
JW: It sounds like running a magazine [all laugh]
NB: I don’t understand why people have grey areas. For fuck’s sake, it’s black or white just tell me truth…
JW: And if it’s bad news you can fix it.
NB: You find a way. We all want to move forward, I don’t want to keep waiting and wasting time. So you know, there’s probably part of the twenty-year itch where I really want transparency and I’m not going accept anything less.
FK: If you could pick out three memorable moments from the past twenty years, what would they be?
NB: The latest one was the show in January . I was totally in love with that idea, it was a dream come true to actually have that installation [the show had a video wall backdropping the runway with sped-up journeys through nighttime cities] and to throw in a collection that was so full and in-your-face. Full prints, the whole situation. There were some great pieces that I loved in that collection. Then having a party afterwards and having a fun time, that was a really special moment for me. Before that, moving in [to the new building] was a huge. I mean it took forever, it was like a slow birth, a nightmare that went on forever and ever, there was always another problem that was always caused by someone else, or somebody not doing something. So half of the time it was my fault because I didn’t get the right people to do the job.
JW: You only really learn afterwards though don’t you?
NB: Yeah, yeah. But really? It was like drawing blood. It was all worthwhile when we moved in, it was a tailor-made space and so easy to work in. And the third would probably be when I see somebody wearing the garments in the street. I always like that. And you can see whether they’re wearing it well, or they bought a size too small [all laugh].
All clothing and accessories by NEIL BARRETT SS20