“Right now you’ve got to be your own hero, but you’ve got to be humble.”
That was the advice to aspiring designers from Ben Stubbington, senior vice president of design and concept at Lululemon, during a conversation with Robert Geller for Joe’s Blackbook Thursday night. Stubbington said young people shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to people they admire and most will respond and try to help.
But there are caveats, as Geller pointed out.
“On the flip side, when I see a 16-year-old saying, ‘Yo, I’ve got my label,’ and all this hype, and really, he’s made one bodiced sweatshirt and dyed it one color and maybe painted something on it — slow down, you don’t need to be a superhero when you’re 16 years old,” Geller said. “Learn and become good, that’s the most important thing. Work hard, that’s what really matters. Then you’ll be fine. You don’t need to pretend to be good when you’re 16. People will find out eventually. Spend the time learning and studying instead of hyping yourself up.”
In the case of both of these apparel industry veterans, they’ve taken that advice, paying their dues over the course of many years. The U.K.-born Stubbington started his career in the U.S. at American Eagle, went on to Banana Republic and Calvin Klein before joining Theory in 2009 as creative director of men’s. He joined Lululemon in 2016. Geller worked as an assistant to Marc Jacobs before joining Alexandre Plokhov at Cloak. He launched his namesake collection in 2007. The two worked together on a collaboration in 2019.
During the conversation, Stubbington said his early years were influenced by his father, an art teacher, who encouraged him do what made him happy rather than following some preordained path. That led him to a fashion design and business studies degree from the University of Brighton and working with some small designers in London.
After making the jump across the pond, Stubbington turned down an offer from Sean John in order to join American Eagle, even though he was warned that such a commercial brand might not be creative enough for him. It turned out the warnings were justified, and he was eventually lured to Banana and then Calvin Klein where he became adept at injecting creativity into commercial product.
Working for these big companies taught him “integrity behind the design,” or putting the brand and its aesthetic first before following fickle fashion trends.
But he soon hit what he called a “roadblock” and struggled with how he could grow as a designer with such guardrails in place. “It’s a blessing and a curse,” he said.
However, working for established brands also brings a steady paycheck, which is something Stubbington’s working-class background ingrained in him to always have. He said that he left Calvin Klein and was planning to take a year off to create art, but a visit to his grandfather changed that when the older man was horrified and told him to go back to New York and get a job.
He listened and took the job at Theory, where he remained for nine years.
Today he views his role as a “curator and editor” who can bring the vision of a brand to life. But it’s still a balancing act. “I respect the boundaries of what commercial clothes can be,” he said, adding that his goal is still to “touch people and leave an indelible mark on someone.”
Nudged by Geller, Stubbington also shared a personal story about how a botched operation for a tumor behind his knee changed his entire life. A onetime marathoner, Stubbington was told he might never walk again and spent an entire year not being able to put his foot on the ground.
But hard work and determination eventually allowed him to regain the use of his leg — and taught him resilience, a skill he applied to his work as well.
Returning to the idea of being open to learn, Stubbington said a lot of people starting out in fashion are looking for the easy path. But ultimately, that won’t help them. “You don’t learn that way,” he said.
He said to look at building a career like art or cooking — practice makes perfect. “With practice, both get better so allow that to happen with your career. Speed up by slowing down.”