TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY TAILORING

STYLE/DESIGN

TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY TAILORING

Q&A with Abasi Rosborough

Interview and text: Diego Hadis / Portrait: Ports Bishop

Nothing in their backgrounds would give one the impression that Abdul Abasi and Greg Rosborough, founders of the New York–based clothing label Abasi Rosborough, were destined to become fashion designers. Though the two met at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York in 2006, they each came to menswear from a rather circuitous path. After high school Abdul joined the U.S. Army, where he worked on Apache attack helicopter–systems’ repair. Greg played sports throughout his youth—his father was a basketball coach—and majored in business as an undergrad at the University of Arizona. After graduation from FIT, Abdul began working for Engineered Garments, and Greg started at Polo Ralph Lauren, but as the two made their way up in the industry, they would often get together to discuss their own ideas about design. Eventually these meetings blossomed into a forward-thinking, super functional line of clothing with advanced tailoring and ergonomic construction that allows for full body movements.  With Abasi Rosborough’s debut fall/winter 2013 collection, which is being carried exclusively by Japanese retailer Isetan, and increasing interest from other stockists, the future looks bright for the brand. Diego Hadis met with Abdul and Greg to learn more about it.

Diego:Was there one thing in particular that led you guys to start Abasi Rosborough?
Greg: One of the eureka moments for me happened on an Air France flight.  A male steward in his nicely fitted suit was helping a passenger stow her bag into the overhead compartment, and as he lifted it up to about his shoulder height, he realized that he couldn’t get it any higher because his jacket was constricting him.  So he set the bag down, took the jacket off, picked the bag up, stowed it in the overhead, and put the jacket back on. As a designer, I thought, a major failure just happened for this guy. Your arms were evolved to be raised above your head, and here’s this garment that says, “No, you can’t do that.” And it’s this garment that’s worn by millions of men around the world every day, and I thought, “There’s something just fundamentally off about that.”  So I started asking, “Why do we all wear this suit? Why is the suit this icon and archetype that can’t be altered in any way, shape, or form?” And every year people put out the same suit—it’s like a new car with a different coat of paint each year—and it isn’t evolving. You have this garment that is essentially a literal transplant from 1870, 1880, and it’s still this standard of menswear.  When you start looking closer at it, it’s riddled with outdated thinking. It’s a combination of equestrian and military clothing, and neither was ever meant for everyday use. The military clothing was meant to pull your shoulders back, puff your chest out. There are silly little things: We have buttons on our suit jackets’ cuffs because there used to be these big gold military buttons so that soldiers would not wipe their noses on the sleeves of their uniforms. And that has diffused so that now we have these semi-functioning buttons that really don’t do anything, they’re really an aesthetic thing. The reason we have two buttons on the front of the jacket but you’re only allowed to button one is that King Edward VII had a little bit of a belly and couldn’t button both. But he was so fashionably influential that that became a trend that has lasted a hundred years now. We have an extra button because this guy was a little out of shape, and now that is a standard of fashion?! It’s so odd.
Diego: So that extra button doesn’t really have a purpose.
Abdul: Exactly.
Greg: Evolution should have moved us past it, but it’s still sitting there. The shoulder pad comes from military clothing—you’re meant to look like a trapezoid and have these ultramasculine shoulders. Going further back to the Victorian era, you have lapels because your head is supposed to look like the center of a flower, and the lapels all fold away like petals. But all these are very outdated ways of thinking, and as we got into development—if we were ambitious enough to say, “We want to tackle 21st century tailoring for the guy of today,” what exactly were we going to start doing?  You just start gutting the suit and questioning everything about it, and everything starts falling away very quickly. The garment was not designed for the body at all. It was designed to be a straightjacket of sorts—you conformed to it, it didn’t conform to you.
Abdul: The whole idea for us was for it to have a reductive quality. Instead of adding things, we thought about what we could take away. The human body has evolved over millions of years, it’s perfect in the way that it flows. And we asked ourselves, “How can we create something that does not hinder the body?” A lot of what we thought about, as modern men and people who live in New York, is how do we dress? I like to dress in a layered fashion, a modular way, so everything works together.  You look at our collection and think, Wow, that’s a ton of looks.  But essentially, these are all the same.
Diego: Originally, I thought you had a lot of different designs. But I later realized, this is actually the same jacket worn different ways.
Abdul: Exactly. For us, it’s about permutations. Our stuff is not cheap—but you buy this jacket, you can wear it two ways. If you buy this shirt, you can layer it with the jacket. Everything is meant to function together. Just like the human body: We’re layers upon layers of tissue, bone, tendon. And although we have an epidermis, underneath we have muscles and we have ligaments, and things push and pull, but nothing gets in the way, so everything is layered and in its place. As we work with natural fibers, we thought, When you’re hot, you take off layers. When you’re cold, you add layers. So you start with the base layer, and you add a dress shirt, and you add an overshirt. Then you add the jacket, and you can wear the jacket right side out or inside out. So it’s a very sober and clean silhouette on the outside, but then you can also make it a bit more graphic worn the other way—almost like a day-to-night situation.
Diego: So the collection is truly modular.
Abdul: We thought that was the best way to attempt this. We’re designing a way of dressing. We’re not saying that this season we’re informed by Americana, the next season we’re all about the Wild West,. No: We’re all about the human body. And just like you have your iPhone 4, and then the iPhone 4s or 5 comes out with updated features—that’s the way we want to attack this. So every season, we’re going to refine and tweak and make things better. It’s a dialogue.  We’re not saying this is the end-all, be-all, but what we’re striving toward is the end-all, be-all.  That is by careful refinement, trial and error, discovery, and seeing what we use and what we don’t.  Right now, this is what we think is a contemporary version of a suit, but maybe next season we’ll find a better way to fit it on your body, or adjust movement, or conceal something. So it’s that sort of progression.
Diego:What you’re saying is that the evolution continues.
Greg: If we wanted to take this to the nth degree, we could just create one big bodysuit that’s like a second skin. But you have to gradually evolve what’s out there now, because if you push it too far, there’s no point of reference. And this is kind of a suit, but there’s something further to it. That’s how we want to design: Take what exists and just make it better. And that’s what your job as a fashion designer is. A lot of designers think, “My job is to style things.” No, your job is to solve problems.
Abdul: Our prototypes were actually a bit further along than what you see now, but we decided to dial it back because we wanted it to look like that suit jacket you already have but just that much better. What we did was to take elements of activewear and formal tailoring and place them together. A layman might say, “Why don’t you use 100 percent stretch fabric and make a jacket?” And that’s easy, but then we can only use that fabric to have that process.  So what we did is just like the human body—you have stiff, you have soft, you have push, you have pull. [Puts on a blazer.]   We don’t want to nerd out on design details, but just to illustrate, this jacket is 100 percent cotton—which is traditional and natural—but in order to increase movement, we put a knit panel at the underarm. This was a direct result of that Frenchman on the plane because, essentially, the way his suit jacket was built, there was no up-and-down movement, so we put a stretch fabric here.
Diego:But that’s all-natural stretch fabric?
Abdul: Yeah.
Greg: And all-natural is another tenet of our design because, the same as with the human body, natural fibers have evolved over eons, so we humans come along and think we can come up with Dri-Fit, but it’s really just polyester with a different name on it, and it does nothing else. Wool will always perform better than any synthetic fiber.  Cotton will perform better.
Diego: They’re proven elements.
Abdul: Yeah, exactly, and sometimes you just have to look at the obvious, you know—open your eyes. Nature in itself is perfect—the ecosystems, the things that have evolved—it’s harmonious, and everything works together. Why try to develop some Gore-Tex coating that does this when you can get a wool that is hydrophilic, that has all these microscopic properties that have evolved for years to keep people climate-controlled?    
Greg: The one thing from historic tailoring that we did keep, because we thought it was important, was hand-canvassing, and using authentic 100 percent–horsehair canvas, which is called hymo. So our jacket is fully hand-canvassed through the entire front panel, which is how it was made 140 years ago. We thought that this one element really harkens back to a strong masculine shape. We didn’t want to take that out because it would sag a bit, and I think the suit still has to have some power to it, some gravitas. What we figured out in development was, when you cut out all of the suit’s guts and still clean-finish it on the inside, each garment is actually reversible because there aren’t these lapels and shoulder pads getting in your way. We got really excited about that. At first we were doing all-tonal linings, but then we realized, This is our chance to have fun with this garment in a new way.  So maybe you have your monochromatic quote-unquote conservative side, and this is more of your fashion side. Also, we have a carrying strap, just for ease of use. You’ve seen these in old hunting jackets, but if you go to visit a museum and want to take your jacket off and not have to carry it, it’s over your shoulder; it’s easy.
Diego: It’s futuristic in the sense that you’re positing this idea that all of the suiting we’re wearing is actually rooted in the far past. So it’s only futuristic in relation to that—it’s actually contemporary.
Greg: Right, and somebody needs to step up and say, “The suit is going to evolve.” It can’t be the same suit in the year 2100. Also, once men put this on—and we’ve seen it time and time again—they’re comfortable in it and say, “Oh, yeah, I’d wear this.” It’s not so much that it’s a fashion statement, it’s that we humans gravitate toward comfort—whether it’s food, shelter, or whatever. This is saying, “You can feel comfortable and still look sharp.”
Diego: And how did you get to where you are with Abasi Rosborough? What did you do after graduating from FIT?
Abdul: I got hired by Engineered Garments as an assistant designer, worked there for a while, and then moved on to the Nepenthes store. And E.G., being a Japanese company, was very nurturing—it was a lot of standing back and watching and not being able to actually do things, but observing—which was the key, because now I think that informs the way I look at things. As a designer, your first impulse is just the holistic design, but the fine details are what the Japanese are so good at. And that’s why our clothing has that edge, because we pay attention to the details, and the details are not just the details, they make the garment. So that road kind of led me to where we are now.
Diego: Greg, what lessons did you take away from your time working for Ralph Lauren?
Greg: Obviously, you learn that branding is paramount.  Probably the number one lesson that I learned as a designer at Polo was that everything is about storytelling. Ralph is a really good storyteller, and his story is always about going to a place, setting that scene. So you go on safari, you go to Barbados, you go to Alaska, you’re on an English hunt—whatever it is, he captures that mood via clothing, and that story gets people excited.  That was probably my big takeaway—that and “choose good fabrics.” A lot of what this is, though, is also a reaction to working at Polo. One thing I didn’t like there is that you can take the label out of the Polo shirt, and the Rugby shirt, and 50 shirts in the world, and you don’t know if it’s a Polo, a Calvin Klein, a Tommy Hilfiger—expensive or not, it’s all kind of the same stuff with a different label. In response to that I said, “I don’t ever want to design something that feels like it could be somebody else’s with our label on it.” So you see the paneling—you could take our label any which way, but you know that it’s ours. That is our design, that is our garment, we own that.
Abdul: It’s branded by design. Just by looking at it, you know what brand it is. And there are designers out there—people like Rick Owens, Yoji Yamamoto, and maybe even Comme des Garçons, to a certain extent. You look at their stuff and, even if you don’t know what that is, you’re like, “That’s probably Comme.” A lot of times, you can tell by how it’s cut, or the whimsical nature, or whatever, and we wanted to adhere to that as well—make something that’s branded not only by a logo or this or that, but just by looking at it: “Abasi Rosborough, they always do something like that. That looks like a piece from them,” you know?

10.01.2013

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