NEW YORK — The University of California, Berkeley is far from being known as a fashion school. But it has nonetheless spawned some of the industry’s best-known names: Humberto Leon and Carol Lim of Opening Ceremony and Kenzo, Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte and designer Patrik Ervell.
“It was the late Nineties in San Francisco and we all knew each other,” Ervell said during a preview of his spring men’s wear collection at his New York design studio, which sits above the Opening Ceremony store on Howard Street on the Lower East Side. “And we all ended up here.”
Ervell, who still counts Leon and Lim among his best friends and staunchest supporters, graduated UC Berkeley with a degree in political science, economics and art history. The California native, who was born to Swedish immigrant parents, didn’t immediately take up a fashion career; he actually had designs on becoming a diplomat and traveling the world. But he paid the rent by working as a stylist and managed to pick up a few highly lucrative commercial gigs including Apple, where he worked with the tech company to shoot its iPod and ear bud campaigns.
That led to a job at V Magazine and then The New School’s Parsons School of Design, where he took a few classes. “But mostly, I just learned by doing,” he recalled. He started his fashion career by creating screen printed T-shirts while still working at V, “and five years later, I had a collection.”
Not surprisingly, his first customer was Opening Ceremony, which Ervell said was a “mom-and-pop shop at the time.”
Today, the store continues to be his largest stockist.
Since taking the plunge into fashion in 2006, Ervell has made a name for himself with a design ethos that has been described as utilitarian, minimal and elegant. He’s also known for his use of innovative and unusual fabrics such as gold foil, vintage parachute cloth, handmade rubber raincoats, and now, high-performance textiles.
He points to Helmut Lang in the Nineties as the start of this obsession with materials. “His trick was to find something that feels industrial and hard and make it beautiful.”
Ervell’s unique take on men’s wear has caught the eye of the fashion elite and in the past decade he has won the Ecco Domani Award for Menswear in 2007, been nominated for the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Swarovski Award for Menswear in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and for its Menswear Designer of the Year Award in 2011 and 2012. He was also a runner-up for the 2009 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund.
But the designer feels it wasn’t until 2008 that he produced his “first real collection,” and while there was a moment when he “dabbled in women’s,” he has remained strictly a men’s designer since the beginning. “Women’s is not natural for me,” he admitted. “My heart is just not in it, although there are a lot of women who buy my clothes. With women’s, you have to keep churning out novelties. Men’s wear is much more about designing for your own brand.”
His business is still small, with only around 12 retail accounts including American Rag Japan, Jackpot in Korea and East Dane in addition to Opening Ceremony. “It’s smaller than it should be,” he said.
Part of that is due to the fact that he took three seasons off to do what he calls a “reset.”
“It was a difficult time for the industry and there was a lot of turmoil,” he said. “About a year-and-a-half ago, in the space of one month, three of my stockists called and told me they were shutting down. So if there was a time to become a little smaller, it was then.”
He returned to the New York Fashion Week: Men’s runway last season and he will show his spring collection on Tuesday evening during this round of shows.
Although his collection has in the past been carried at large retailers including Barneys New York, Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom, it’s not there now. “We’re still missing that big American department store,” Ervell admitted. “But in our industry, we think that selling more is better and in times like this, that may not be true.”
That being said, he believes it’s now time to start growing again. But until he scores another large retail customer, the Patrik Ervell e-commerce site remains his single largest account. “I believe that’s the best way forward,” he said.
And while his business remains small, he retains full control over the brand. He proudly says that he has no investors and has “never worked with a stylist.” He conceives and executes every runway show himself and also oversees the business end of things with a small support staff.
“I’ve outlived most of my peers,” he said, an achievement he attributes to his unique point of view. “What I do is very specific,” he said. “And I think that can carry you in the long run. Instead of responding to the way the wind changes, you have to build your own world.”
Ervell believes his world is “very American,” with an aesthetic that is rooted in the tradition of American sportswear — “not in the Ralph Lauren preppy sense, but the modern, clean sense. There’s a modernity that feels romantic, and I hope it also feels new in the construction and use of material.”
Prices range from $120 to $185 for T-shirts, $190 to $240 for button-down shirts, around $275 for denim and $375 for a lined denim jacket.
His customer is a “creative professional who is not a follower of fashion or this season’s trends, but a person who adopts a look and that becomes their look.” They are drawn to Ervell’s outerwear, jeans and unstructured suits and his use of unorthodox materials in more-traditional silhouettes. “It’s not just novelty, but real newness,” he said. “If it’s not believable as a garment, you lose interest.”
He pointed to his Air Jacket, one of his signature designs, that has a recognizable silhouette similar to that found in technical fleece jackets offered by Patagonia or The North Face, but in nylon. “Those brands have always been a point of reference for me,” he said.
For his fall show, Ervell turned to pink construction insulation as inspiration, fashioning a selection of puffers in pink wool batting. Those jackets will take over the windows at Opening Ceremony during NYFW: Men’s as part of an installation that will feature the insulation foam, Plexiglass and wool in a design that is part construction site and part museum display. The jackets will be housed in vitrines within the windows.
Although the installation is intended to promote the arrival of Ervell’s fall collection at the store, the designer is simultaneously putting the finishing touches on his spring collection.
For the upcoming season, Ervell said he will once again embrace “the romance of nylon,” in a collection that will offer “stained-glass effects, like light shining through it,” in a variety of silhouettes including jackets and lightweight ripstop shirts.
Ervell said he had toyed with the idea of showing in Paris but decided to stay closer to home.
“For a while it was slightly ‘bro-y,’ and I felt like I didn’t fit,” he said. “Maybe it’s [the addition of] Raf Simons, but I think New York now has a voice that is meaningful, so I’ll stay here.”