Sweet to your face, vintage and lace, that’s what Tuleh fashion girls are made of.
This story first appeared in the September 11, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Booze and cigarettes, nasty epithets, now is that what Bryan Bradley is made of?
There is some strange monster from the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson lurking inside the head of the man who has built Tuleh into New York society’s ultimate insider label. His gift is the ability to turn the gaudiest fabrics — such as cabbage rose prints not even fit to wallpaper a tea salon — into expensive party cloaks that somehow wind up looking pretty. His secret: that the white-gloved identity of Tuleh is so alien to his own.
After six years, Tuleh is the rare example of a high-end runway collection that manages to turn a profit on its own, built on an improbable, if not romantic, business plan that harkens back to the days before Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta stepped out from the back rooms of Seventh Avenue to proudly declare themselves dressmakers. Bradley’s former partner, Josh Patner, liked to describe the concept as the antithesis of the “cult of the designer.” With its cornball moniker stitched in cursive on an oversize label, Tuleh’s purposefully old-fashioned approach tinged with irony seemed charming and sweet, and so did the cherubic designer team, then partners on and off the runway.
Since their personal and professional divorce almost two years ago, Bradley has continued on, bowing to guidance bestowed liberally by his clients and the bona fide socialites who make up the Tuleh staff — led by Amanda Brooks, its creative director, and Lillian Wang von Stauffenberg, sales manager.
While Bradley may have created Tuleh in their image, more and more it is becoming a reflection of him. He moved the company into a railroad apartment on the Lower East Side with a view of a drab asphalt “park,” tagged grammatically incorrect logos all around the neighborhood as part of a marketing campaign this spring and, in perhaps the most blatant example of his persona rearing its head above those of his clients, designed a cashmere muscle T-shirt for fall printed with the word “P-ssy.” All of this, he said, was “an antidote to a certain view of Tuleh as quaint.”
“I was feeling that for Tuleh to have any resonance and meaning for me personally, it had to move closer to how I live my life,” Bradley said. “That has not always been the case.”
Bradley is not a Lady Who Lunches. He is a 38-year-old gay man who is frank about sex and drug use, smokes cigarettes, drinks a lot of Scotch, has an inherent dislike of bourgeois ideals and has fantastic eyelashes but is losing his hair. His clothes, customers and monogram all have made the comparison with Bill Blass inevitable, but Bradley protests, saying he may be from the Midwest like Blass, but he is not ingratiating in the same way as the late designer (who, nonetheless, also had a fondness for cigarettes and Scotch). Tuleh’s society image was just an inside joke for the designers, which Bradley now claims was the result of his taking advantage of a situation that has gotten out of hand.
Now, the more the press may want to anoint him to carry on that dressmaker tradition, the more likely he is to chafe at the idea and revolt in some mildly offensive way.
“I’m not one of those homos who loves to say, ‘Black is the new red. Red is the new pink. You should wear long,’” Bradley said. “The clients who come up here, they have to know what they want. I’m good at helping girls be what they want to be, but I’m not good at telling them what to be. I have enough trouble inventing myself. What I’m saying about bringing myself into this has more to do with being honest, and being pushed to do things that are more representative of me as a complex person.”
Tuleh’s Uptown identity was crystallized in 2000 when Bradley and Patner presented their fall collection at the Regency Hotel. The show was called “Park Avenue” for a reason: As the era of minimalism began to fade from fashion, Patner and Bradley had been heralded for their campy take on classic ready-to-wear, embracing graphic prints and tacky colors with an approach to dressing up that was perfectly suited to the roster of young, rich women who had recently arrived in droves on the society pages and wished to be noticed: Aerin Lauder, Samantha Boardman, Marina Rust, Alexandra von Furstenberg and Brooke de Ocampo filled the front row in a deft feat of social engineering by Wang, who had just begun to consult for Tuleh in a more formal way.
“It was really uptight and suity,” Bradley said. “Suddenly, we became the Uptown designer. I just accepted it. There was a niche. Fine. Now we don’t have to be defending the clothes and they have something to hang it on. But at that point, I didn’t even know Aerin Lauder. It was totally random. It had nothing to do with something real. I don’t live on the Upper East Side. I don’t vacation in the kind of places those people usually vacation in. I don’t like dinners, usually, unless I’m there with friends.”
Bradley, a native of Appleton, Wis., who’d been working as a freelance designer for various Seventh Avenue houses since moving to New York in 1990, formed Tuleh with Patner shortly after they met. In all the profiles that were written about their launch, Patner was described as the gregarious one and Bradley usually kept his mouth shut, or was laughing at Patner’s jokes.
Yet he has a lot to say on his own. In several discussions over the past couple of weeks, he offered his thoughts freely, following up on several points by e-mails filed at odd hours of the morning, one 1,020 words at 3:58 a.m.; another 1,811 words at 6:29 a.m. a few days later. He is highly literate about fashion, art and literature, as well as more substantive fields immune from accusations of superficiality (gender studies, for instance), yet he has remained in love with fashion since he was in high school, taping into his locker pages from a GQ magazine of a model wrapped up in a Matsuda cocoon, which were recently unearthed as an inspiration for his fall collection. Bradley is a man who extols the virtues of metallic turquoise-dyed snakeskin, while claiming his fashion touchstones are Yohji Yamamoto and Junya Watanabe.
In college, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he spent six years, he began reading the books of Francine du Plessix Gray, whose stepfather was legendary Condé Nast editorial director and artist Alexander Liberman. After meeting her at a party recently, Bradley invited her to Tuleh’s showroom to try on some clothes, an introduction that has helped reignite his excitement about fashion, its history and its possibilities. Now he dresses her.
“We can discuss fashion outside the usual boundaries, i.e., without the jaded tone of insider-types or the ignorant attitude of those who think they’re above something so trivial,” Bradley said.
On his current reading list, representing a broad swath of 20th century literature, are Gray’s “Lovers and Tyrants” and “October Blood;” Robert A. Caro’s “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” and “Cast a Cold Eye” by Mary McCarthy. There are books that have been sitting on the shelves that now divide his studio for many years — “I think every book has a time at which you and it are ready for each other,” he said.
After the show, he is moving Tuleh’s offices into a vacant apartment in the building next door on Chrystie Street; the current space will become his residence and the first thing Bradley plans to do is build a bookshelf that will run the entire length of his apartment.
When a man as intelligent as this starts tossing around a word like “p-ssy,” there has to be something more to it than the typical designer’s embrace of shock value. “It’s a powerful word to me, and wholly positive in nature,” he said. While Bradley included less confrontational printed shirts in the fall show with the slogan, “We is family,” it is still a marked departure for Tuleh, even though the complex printing process meant they would retail from about $850 and up. But Bradley included the language as an opportunity for Tuleh to be interpreted in another way, “trying to throw the formality off.”
“A lot of people didn’t get it because they didn’t want to,” he said.
Bradley is attracted to women with strong personalities, such as a manicurist he has hired for the show, or the FedEx delivery woman with 2-inch-long painted nails whose opinion on designs he solicits, or Yvonne Force, who, like Brooks, manages to traverse the worlds of society and art as a curator for private collectors while creating her own work. “To be around all that cacophony, having that around me, some of it makes a bigger impression, some of it not at all,” he said. Bradley has silk-screened a sketch of Force’s face onto a T-shirt for spring, along with words from rap songs that she performs in a band called Mother Inc., including lyrics about addiction to cosmetic surgery and a song entitled “Nipple Confusion.”
That song is about the conflicting expectations of women as mothers, wives, workers and society fixtures, a subject that also struck a chord with Bradley, who describes his current state of fashion fixation as centered on the image of a mother as a Madonna figure versus that of a whore. To make his point, Bradley pointed to a jacket with enough pockets to handle “keys, cell phones, pacifier, some old packets of cocaine.”
“The mom thing has to do with the girls I’ve been hanging out with since college,” he said. “They’re different now. We’re all different. This girl’s life is suddenly more complex. Suddenly she’s all compartmentalized — she’s got to be a mom, then a wife, then go to a job, then she’s supposed to be a real friend to the people she knew before she met her husband. I’m always asking women, ‘Are you having sex with your husband?’”
His own dualities and contradictions notwithstanding — those of the happy-go-lucky party boy and the brooding creative type — Bradley thinks seriously about how Tuleh relates to his customers’ lifestyles and in some sense is challenging them to move beyond the “pretty” along with him. Arguments with Brooks and Wang are common in the showroom, a sexually charged environment even before the long, alcohol-fueled nights turn into tears and screaming matches.
Yet Tuleh remains a success, with sales ranging from $6 million to $10 million annually, 20 employees with health insurance, and a meager profit. Nor has Bradley managed to scare away his loyal fans, at least not yet. “Bryan has a niche for bringing a sense of humor and tasteful kitsch to his customers,” said Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, one of Tuleh’s major retail accounts along with Neiman Marcus and Jeffrey New York. “The Tuleh customer is a good girl who is being a little naughty.”
Bradley is testing the boundaries as he gains more confidence at the top of the Tuleh pyramid. Looking back at his relationship with Patner, he attributes his general malaise with the collection to the fact that, “I was so unhappy with how the clothes actually looked. On a good day, I could take the long view and understand that it’s a long-term process and trust that I could get it there, but it was such a huge drag in the moment, painful really.”
Interestingly, Bradley created a print for the upcoming spring collection to be shown Sunday night that tells the history of Tuleh through the handwritten notes sent from editors over the years. Some of them are quite embarrassing or incriminating, as in the case of an editor who called in a dress for an important shoot but actually lent it to a friend for a party, or others who accepted gifts their editorial policies would have prohibited. Bradley was inspired to produce the print in three color ways.
“I’m doing this for me,” Bradley said. “This season, if you want to encapsulate it in a single word, it’s ‘personal.’”
The prints for spring are all text driven because Bradley likes to read. And they are very spontaneous, including part of an e-mail dialogue that was intended for this article. “I don’t like flowers,” Bradley said. “When people send them, I give them to the seamstress. I don’t want cut flowers around here. I think that’s gross. I think that Tuleh had gotten to be really too sweet and one note and too obvious, and that’s not really me. I can be really sweet, actually, but I can also be so mean, so difficult, so this or that, so secretive. We are faceted people, but the clothes that seemed to be coming out didn’t seem faceted.”
Bradley described his vision for where Tuleh is going as an open, but genial, state of conflict, which also serves as a nice metaphor for his studio and him. Out of all this, he hopes Tuleh is heading toward some sort of resolution out of “that discordant miasma,” he said, one of which he may some day be proud.
“I’m bored, and we all should be,” Bradley said. “Fashion has been in a decorative phase for an extraordinarily long time, and I should know.” Tuleh was ahead of the curve on that trend, so it is worth noting that Bradley feels it is time to move on. Watching that transition play out in reactions to his clothes and articulating this change, he said, “It’s been more fun than anything I can remember.
“Contrary as usual, there is no black or white in the spring collection,” Bradley said. “The decorative element is now in service to function. People, myself included, will either like Tuleh’s new view or not, but I think fashion change is overdue.”