A candid conversation with J. Crew’s Frank Muytjens, the dutch innovator who has stepped out as one of the most influential designers in American men’s fashion.
This story first appeared in the June 21, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
So how do you pronounce your name exactly?
“Mow-jens.” It’s the “u” and “y” together that throws people off. Even by Dutch standards, it’s an unusual name. My first name in Dutch is pronounced “Fronc,” but here I prefer Frank. It’s much easier and I feel more like an American now anyway.
What originally drew you here?
I was always interested in American culture: cowboys and Indians, the Gold Rush, Dorothea Lange and the Empire State Building—all the American iconic places. It was my dream to drive around in a camper for six weeks crossing the country, like everyone else in Europe.
Did you ever realize that dream?
No, they won’t let me go for six weeks in a row. That would be a sabbatical.
Tell us about your first trip to America.
My first visit to New York was in ’86. Together with my classmates, I organized a fashion show at Danceteria. Later, after working in the Dutch fashion industry, I thought it was time to explore whatever New York could offer me. So I moved here in ’94.
What was the impact of your eight years at Polo?
Just to sharpen my eye and immerse myself in everything American, from rustic Americana to midcentury modern. I did outerwear there, but then the J. Crew position came up and it was a great way for me to put my signature on a whole line.
How did you establish that signature?
First we looked at the fits and the colors. Before, maybe we were a little too colorful, so we changed the color palettes into one that was more masculine, but still sophisticated. Then we looked at American history—from more formal, classical men’s wear to workwear, with elements of army-navy thrown in—to give everything a heart and a soul.
Sounds like a contradiction—new looks from the past.
I like things with a patina. But I like to juxtapose them against something clean.
Does your home in upstate New York reflect that sensibility?
Absolutely. There’s vintage industrial stuff and there’s a cleaner sensibility right next to it. It’s vintage French industrial mixed in with American midcentury modern.
How do you come up with novelty, given the inherent limits of men’s wear?
Men’s wear is almost like a framework. All the shapes are there and you can tweak them, but you have to keep it understandable. You want a guy to recognize it. There are only so many elements you can play with. That’s a challenge, but it’s also what I find interesting.
Your storyboards show an eclectic mix of items, from Vice-Grip wrenches and birds’ nests to a Bob Dylan album.
Yes, look at those old long johns. We found them in London. They’re mended, darned and patched —they might be from the Twenties or Thirties. You start to think about the journey of those pants. I love things that tell a story.
Which artists inspire you?
Many. [Constantin] Brancusi, Fairfield Porter—he’s a great American painter. The Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen—I love his clean lines. The photography of Irving Penn.…I also look at nature. I love the California coast—Big Sur, Muir Woods. I’ve always been a bit of an outdoorsy guy, and that translates well [in my designs]. Nothing is too precious or too elegant—there should always be a tougher, masculine edge to it.
Who are your style icons?
They’re all dead, but I love Montgomery Clift and how he dressed, Jacques Cousteau’s striped Ts, The Clash and Brancusi—he had great style. With people like this, it seemed more genuine, less thought out. There were no hair and makeup people. It’s hard to see personal style anymore.
You’ve done some interesting brand collaborations.
It started with Red Wing. We were always crazy about them. And then we thought, Why don’t we seek them out and see what we can do together instead of just copying them, which we’d never be able to do right anyway.
Do the brands you choose to work with have something in common?
They have a long history. They do one thing and they do it best. They’re not bothered by trends; their logos stay the same for ages. To pull them out of their comfort zone and put them in a new world, it becomes something new. Mixed in with a curated version of J. Crew, it gives them a new life.
What’s up next?
For fall, we have Crescent Down Works and Russell Moccasins. [Russell’s] factory is about as big as this room, and their process has been in place for such a long time now. It makes me appreciate the craftsmanship even more because you know what’s behind it.
Now that you’re feeling American, would you say you’re the J. Crew man?
Yes, I think so. Maybe I take more liberties than the actual J. Crew guy. But I should be a few steps ahead of him anyway—at least a year in advance.