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This year has been pivotal in the young life of the Michael Bastian business.
This story first appeared in the September 26, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
After ending his license relationship in November with the backer that first launched his line in 2006, Bastian took the fall 2011 season off to regroup and is now reintroducing the collection for spring. The aim of the transition is to lower prices in order to become more competitive at retail while growing the label into a bigger independent brand.
In an ironic—and well-timed—twist, Bastian took home the CFDA award for Menswear Designer of the Year in June, despite skipping the runway shows in February since he had no collection to show for fall. It had been the fifth consecutive CFDA nomination for the designer, who lost out the four previous times—once for the Swarovski Award for emerging men’s talent and three times for Menswear Designer of the Year.
“I had no expectations. I didn’t even get a new tuxedo for the night—I already had four summer tuxedos from before,” recalls Bastian, who edged out Simon Spurr and Patrik Ervell for the prize. “I didn’t write a speech. When I got up there, that was genuine shock.”
The win came at a fortuitous moment for Bastian, as the designer, by that time, was gearing up to begin selling his spring line to retailers, the first collection produced entirely by his newly independent company. Previously, the collection was manufactured and distributed under license by Solomeo, Italy-based Brunello Cucinelli, known for its luxurious cashmere knits and tailored clothing.
“We got the award and immediately flew to Milan to open up the new collection,” says Bastian. “I think it really helped put us on people’s radars again. We had appointments with accounts that hadn’t seen us before.”
For spring, Bastian has almost doubled sales from a year ago, with all of his old retail partners like Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue restocking the label and a number of new accounts picking up the line for the first time. “We’ve gotten a bunch of new stores from Europe and particularly Korea,” says Bastian. “Korea has really come to life—it feels like the new Japan.” Among those new accounts are Tomorrowland in Tokyo, Boon in Seoul, Beyman in Istanbul, Matches in London and Duchatel in Biarritz, France.
Bastian’s main goal in taking his business in-house was to reduce prices by 10 to 20 percent, to get them more in line with other brands in the designer space at retail. For the new spring ’12 season, the average retail price for a blazer is $1,769, shirts are $405, jeans are $413, shorts are $388 and outerwear is $1,534. By comparison, last spring blazers averaged $2,039, shirts were $475, jeans were $465, shorts were $438 and outerwear was $1,756.
However, not all prices came down this first season. For example, last spring dress pants averaged $461 and for this spring they are up to $545. Bastian will continue to work on finding ways to bring those prices down. His high prices previously kept distribution limited to just 20 high-end doors in the U.S. and 15 overseas.
“We’ve worked our way backwards on pricing and figured out where we need to be in each classification, even if we aren’t getting the margin you’d expect,” Bastian says.
The separation from Cucinelli was amicable—Bastian bought back the license for a fee and took back his patterns and sample archive—with the Italian company intent on concentrating on growth of its own signature brand. “In order for Michael to grow, he needs a partner that can invest all their time and energy into helping his brand really get to the next level,” said Brunello Cucinelli at the time. “Due to the increasing growth of Brunello Cucinelli in the past couple of years, I felt it was important for us to focus all our efforts nurturing our brand. I think Michael has a lot of potential going forward.”
While Bastian was growing up, that potential in the fashion industry was not immediately apparent. He was born in Lyons, N.Y., in 1965, to a homemaker mother and a father who was a high school history teacher. The first time he lived away from home was when he entered Babson College, where he majored in business with the goal of working on Wall Street. But as fate would have it, the first job offered to him was as an assistant buyer at the now-defunct Abraham & Strauss department store in Brooklyn. “I wasn’t very good at it, and was probably going to get fired. I started in junior knits and ended up in rugs and carpets, which was like God’s waiting room there. It was their way of telling me I needed to find a new job,” remembers Bastian, who scored a gig as an assistant at Avenue magazine in the nick of time.
After a short time in publishing, Bastian moved on to the marketing and public relations department of Sotheby’s for nine years. Later, he transitioned to Tiffany & Co., where he worked with celebrities like Susan Lucci and Phylicia Rashad to create tabletop installations for the flagship store.
Bastian went on to work in creative services at Polo Ralph Lauren before being recruited by a former colleague, Robert Burke, who had gone to Bergdorf Goodman as fashion director. Burke tapped Bastian as men’s fashion director at Bergdorf’s, even though Bastian had no previous direct experience in men’s. “Robert told me it was more about my eye, so I decided to give it a shot,” says Bastian.
At Bergdorf’s, Bastian helped remake the men’s store from a stuffy emporium for older shoppers to one with a hipper, more eclectic vision, while staying true to the store’s reputation for luxury and exclusivity. Among the brands he worked closely with was Cucinelli. When Bastian began conceiving the idea of starting his own line after five years at Bergdorf’s, Burke—a close mentor to Bastian who now runs his own consulting firm—suggested Cucinelli as an ideal partner.
Bastian, Burke and Cucinelli met in a hotel room in Florence to discuss the idea and sealed the deal with a handshake. “When I told my mom I was leaving Bergdorf Goodman, there was a long silence. Then she said, ‘Well, you can always move home if it doesn’t work out,’ ” says Bastian, with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Thank you, but that’s not going to happen.’ ”
When Bastian and Cucinelli launched the Michael Bastian collection for fall 2006, it was immediately picked up by Bergdorf’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Holt Renfrew. Bastian’s design sensibility hews to casual, preppy basics—with some tailored clothing thrown in—but with carefully wrought details and high-end fabrics, trimming and construction. “There was this big void in between Gap and the suits you wore to work. I wanted to put as much care into your shorts and shirts as others put into your suits,” Bastian explains. “Really what I do is elevated sportswear.”
For his return this spring, Bastian created a collection inspired by James Dean and the blue jeans, oversize sweaters, chinos and glasses that are part of the screen star’s iconography. “I’ve been keeping this inspiration in my back pocket for when I really needed a good collection,” says the designer, who made sure to not take the theme too literally but instead modernized the fits and reinterpreted the looks to fit into his own aesthetic. “James Dean represented such a big chunk of classic American style. We have some Western stuff from Giant, and the cool jeans and T-shirts and knits from Rebel Without a Cause. We re-created his horn-rim glasses—he had really bad eyesight.”
One pair of chinos was inspired by a look from East of Eden, with a double set of belt loops. The collection also includes a singlet, in a nod to Dean’s high school days as a wrestler.
Producing the new collection was no small feat. Leaving the Cucinelli fold has meant Bastian and his employees—you can count them on one hand—have had to develop their own infrastructure for design, production, sales and deliveries. “It’s been a steep learning curve,” Bastian admits. “I had it very easy before, in a way. I would go to one factory with Brunello Cucinelli, and everything was very centralized and they made a very beautiful product. But the downside was that I had no control over pricing or distribution. We’re taking the necessary steps to turn this into a real business and not just make beautiful clothes nobody can afford.”
Instead of relying on that single factory in the Umbria region of Italy, Bastian now produces in 12 different plants throughout Italy and Portugal, which he had to seek out and visit. The designer opened a showroom in Milan to sell to European and Asian retailers and set up warehouse distribution in both Milan and Brewster, N.Y.
In Milan, Bastian works with Christine Ellis Associates to handle sales, while in New York he has set up his first office and showroom at 210 Eleventh Avenue, the same building in which Thom Browne, Simon Spurr and Adam Kimmel are located. Prior to opening his new headquarters in December—encompassing a cozy, inviting atelier and showroom—Bastian worked out of his West Village apartment. Samples were kept in the Union Square apartment of Eugenia Gonzalez Ruiz-Olloqui, who heads up Bastian’s public relations and serves as his constant sounding board and adviser in the business. “I don’t think people realized how bare-bones we were,” says Bastian.
Key to Bastian’s newfound independence and the establishment of his own company is the co-branded collection he designs for Gant, the Sweden-based sportswear brand that was originally founded in New Haven, Conn., in 1949. Launched in fall 2010, the Gant by Michael Bastian line brings in the lion’s share of company revenues for Bastian. The company expects to post total revenue this year of about $4 million, including sales of the Michael Bastian collection and fees from the Gant by Michael Bastian collaboration.
“I put very little pressure on the designer line in terms of profitability and sales. Gant really takes a lot of financial pressure off,” Bastian explains. “The runway collection really drives the desire and communicates the point of view of the Michael Bastian brand—and I don’t want to crush that butterfly by strapping a financial weight to it.”
The Gant by Michael Bastian range is younger and markedly less expensive than the Michael Bastian collection, which uses more luxurious fabrics, is more minimal and involves fewer embellishments. A Michael Bastian shirt is highly engineered, for example, with vents in the back, darts to shape the silhouette and Neapolitan shoulders. A Gant by Michael Bastian shirt is a bit looser, shorter in length, with a classic pleat in the back.
The line is priced about 25 percent higher than regular Gant merchandise. It is sold in 30 countries, including more than 100 stores in the U.S. and 150 stores internationally. Retailers include Barneys New York, Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Ron Herman and Scoop, in addition to Gant’s own stores.
“We are growing the line at 20 to 30 percent per season,” says Ari Hoffman, chief executive officer of Gant USA, who was the architect of the deal in 2009. “We originally launched it as sort of a branding exercise, but it’s grown into a really nice business for us.”
Last year, Gant launched a women’s collection with Michael Bastian, which is sold in Gant stores only, and this year it introduced sunglasses and watches under the partnership.
Under his own flagship brand, Bastian launched an eyewear range earlier this year with his first licensee, Randolph Engineering, under the Michael Bastian x Randolph Engineering moniker. In February, Bastian became a finalist in the GQ Best New Designers in America competition and designed a khaki look for Dockers as part of the program. The designs are on sale at Bloomingdale’s in September and on Dockers.com as of October. Bastian has also designed flip-flops for Havaianas and, going forward, is seeking license partners for underwear, fragrance and perhaps even a diffusion label that would sit in between the designer collection and the Gant range.
Not bad for a former rug salesman in Brooklyn.