Sunday, May 6, 2012

Tailoring My Future

I’ve had some pretty good things come my way since the last time I wrote in November… The biggest was moving to Cincinnati to apprentice with the 3rd-generation, Italian master tailor, Mike Trotta. 

I remember watching the film “Valentino: The Last Emperor” a few years ago.  In one part, it talked about how Valentino learned haute couture techniques from the old masters, that there’s hardly anyone left from that generation alive anymore to teach and a lot of that knowledge will be lost once they’re gone. 

That’s a pretty similar situation with the art of tailoring…  I don’t know of any tailors that don’t have grandchildren!  And it’s not necessarily a hot trade in today’s increasingly disposable society so, naturally, I feel very fortunate that Mike’s taken me under his wing.  I help out a lot with regards to alterations on garments and assist him in fit sessions and taking measurements for some of his custom clients.

I love working with Mike. There’s a rich history of tailoring in his family that started with his grandfather, who immigrated to America from Campobasso, Italy quite some time ago.  If I wasn't already learning French, it'd make a lot of sense for me to start learning Italian, since half the time, that's the language being spoken between Mike and the seamstress, Cornata.  I've picked up "va bene" and "piccolo" though... so it's a start...

He’s always mentioning how his dad was such a pro when it came to the craft.  And actually as a side note, he was telling me that when Proctor & Gamble was developing the disposable diaper in the 1950’s, under their soon-to-be brand, Pampers, they hired Mike Trotta Sr. to work out the shape of it to get it to fit correctly on a male toddler.

And speaking of diapers, did you know Saks Fifth Avenue was the first retailer to sell the precursor to the disposable diaper in 1949?  Yup, I learned that in my first weeks training there, as I’ve also started working at Saks on the sales floor!  Following to the advice of two people in the fashion industry whom I have tremendous respect for, I've been getting retail experience at various companies for about a year and a half now. Is retail selling something I'm going to be doing for the next ten years? No. But I am becoming more in sync with what people value and find special and getting an understanding of how clothes are moved.

Saks especially is great for me because, unlike the other two places I’ve worked, Lacoste and Banana Republic, Saks sells multiple lines that all have different points of view.  Plus, from a designer's perspective, Saks is as much a customer as the one wearing the clothes, since Saks has a buying team.  So it's mega valuable to get an insider's view on how they operate. (Side note: Someone just asked about the background my wallet's on below... it's my dresser I made when I was 16.)

Another huge benefit I didn’t anticipate when I took the position is the people from outside the Cincinnati store that come to talk to and educate us. Besides different brand reps that come through for trunk shows, there’ve been a good amount of people that work directly with/for Saks.

Recently, I got meet the guy in charge of creative direction for Saks’ own line, 611.   The funny thing was I was having an unusually easy time remembering his name...  Usually, I'm good with faces, but my memory can be shoddy at times in regards to names.  But not with this guy.  Well, we got to talking and I realized he was an adjunct professor in Menswear my first year at FIT and taught half my classmates!  One of his favorite students was one of my best friends, Woohyun Jang, who I just flew up to visit and catch up with for one day because he invited me to the Oscar de La Renta F12 show lol…

Small world, huh?  So naturally, I took him and the rep from Saks he was traveling with out to a really cool area downtown (Over-the-Rhine) for drinks and dinner. I had a really great time with them both and got some killer advice, direction and perspective.

And on top of that, Steve Sadove, the CEO of Saks, came through a few days ago.  He had a great vision for the future and was a really engaging guy.  I got a chance to talk to him one-on-one for a few minutes about what his thoughts on recognizing “white space,” or opportunity no one is filling, at Saks were.  Priceless. 

Saks is turning out to be one hell of an addendum to my degree at FIT!

But then, so is working with Trotta…There, not only am I developing a sharp eyes for the nuances and subtlety of fit, we do a lot of alterations on high-end goods (and actually a small amount of fast fashion type garments) and I get to see the insides of a lot of the garments that sit at Saks. It's interesting to see how brands like Billy Reid, Armani, Charvet, Zegna Couture or Givenchy do things and then be able compare and contrast that with the custom jackets, trousers and shirts we do.

It has also been nice to be able to compare that with more down-market pieces like this jacket from Zara… I recently did a little nip-tuck so to speak of the sleeves on it for a female friend of mine.  I'm quite happy with the pitch of them now:

Super clean.

This year so far, I've been really fascinated with the design philosophy of the German industrial designer, Dieter Rams, which he summed up as “Weniger, aber besser” (In English, “Less, but better”).  Here are his views more expanded, including his Ten Principles of Good Design:

With that rattling around in my head, I went to the Detroit Auto Show in the winter, and among all the novelty, glitz and sex appeal of everything there, what grabbed me most was the devastatingly simple sketch Porsche used for their signage and Lincoln’s new headrests in the upcoming MKZ models:

It’s a great set of ideas for any designer to integrate, but, I’ll admit, it’s a little trickier to stick to in fashion.  After all, he did say “Good Design… avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years.” 

Now, fashion designers have absolutely come up with long-lasting designs…  Think of jeans, the suit jacket or the tee shirt.  But a sizable part of what excites people about them is the constant variations designers make on the colors, details, proportion, fabric, etc.  As Mike Trotta has reminded me about many things, specifically in the clothing business, “The target is always moving.”

Rams' philosophy isn’t as smoothly transferable into fashion as industrial design because significant part of what makes people enjoy fashion is the unneeded decoration and novelties that change multiple times a year.  I’m not sure I’d ever be able to design totally in alignment with all of his Ten Principles of Good Design, but I think a very large portion of it is applicable.    

One of the few people Rams has praised for his design work is Jony Ive at Apple.  After reading Steve Job's biography and comparing the creations of both men, I can see why. 

One of the takeaways I had was the reminder of how much obsessing over the tiniest details matters. There's a part in the book where Steve and his head designer, Jony Ive, were traveling and going through a culinary store looking at pots, pans and all sorts of cooking utensils. They both separately found a knife with a beautiful shape and good weight but both put it down in disappointment because of the smallest detail: a tiny sliver of dried glue that oozed from the handle.  The book talks about things that make Jony a world-class designer.  Among them, here's one of my favorite quotes:
“Simplicity isn’t just a visual style.  It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter.  It involves digging through the depth of the complexity.  To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and so complex.  The better way is to go deeper with the simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured.  You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.”

Hearing things like that make me very happy that I’m learning so much about fit and construction of clothing from Mike.  In the book, Jony’s praised: “Unlike some designers, he didn’t just make beautiful sketches; he also focused on how the engineering and inner components work.”  I have been making an effort to do the same thing in my craft too by doing things like taking apart quality garments and really trying to understand how all the parts were put together and their functions.

Let’s not be mistaken though, beauty can just as easily come from complexity and the ornate.  Case and point, this incredible part of a still-life oil painting I snapped on my phone (shh, don't tell security) in the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Isn’t that just sublime?  I ended up by bizarre coincidence finding this painting on a silk scarf in the gift shop, which I snapped up as a gift for someone special ;)

Another example of something with a ton of complexity being beautiful is my favorite tie!  From afar, it kind of just looks like a solid dark gold:

But when you look closer and see it move, you see it’s a super complex jacquard pattern with an incredibly subtle plaid.

I think the juxtaposition of simplicity, complexity and having parts of a design that people feel like they “discover” is what often times makes the coolest stuff be cool.

But back to that Zara jacket... After I altered it, it had a great silhouette and really elegant lines to it in general.  However, when I looked at the center back seam, there was a random topstitch at the vent (click on the image to get a closer look).  Ugh!

I mean, it wasn't really random because I know it was there for reinforcement, but, aesthetically, it totally interrupted the flow of the design… just like how the glue messed up the design of the knife Jony and Steve saw.

Needless to say, after I was done with the sleeves, that vent stitch was pulled right out and I cross-stitched it on the inside.

I read recently that Tom Ford is someone else who obsesses over lines in his clothing and has the back of his trousers extend into the pocket in the front rather than having the standard seam for the pocket facing at the side.

So if Tom Ford and Steve Jobs pay attention to this kind of minutiae, I'll continue being OCD about it too haha...

Ok, that’s enough for now.  At Trotta’s, I’m starting to work on completely changing the fit and silhouette of this Hugo Boss tux jacket monstrosity.  Can you say “wrong size” haha? 

As much as I’d like to “keep it simple,” this is gonna be pretty complex to get right.  Oh well, it’ll be great practice.  Stay tuned! 


  1. Josh, great entry after a long hiatus. If waiting for another entry means having updates like this, sounds good to me.

  2. Great job Josh!!!

  3. Josh, I am so happy to hear about your opportunity to work with Mike Trotta in Cincinnati!! I have to admit, I am disappointed you won't be in NYC this summer because I will be moving back in 2 weeks!! You taught me everything I know about different stitches and the beauty that goes into making clothing. If you visit NYC this summer let me know! I would love to catch up.

  4. It is so inspiring to see you learning the tradition, craft, and expertise that is tailoring (especially from a local Cincinnati, master tailor!). It is so interesting to think about the garments from the inside out instead of the opposite. Also looking at how simplicity is hiding the complexities to create a more unified piece and relating that to looking at the inside of garments is a great point to think about when designing. Awesome post Josh!

  5. Now I can see why you've always been super focused on little details. Even when you were a kid, you would do it again and again till it was right. Remember when you landed on your face while rollerblading down the bannister and ended up in the ER with Duck Lips! And then went back a week later and went back a week later to do it again cause you needed to "get it right"! Thankfully, you did. :)