Growing up in Lyons, New York, a small town upstate just off the shores of Lake Ontario, Michael Bastian lived and breathed the Americana aesthetic from an early age. Surrounded by flannel shirts, work boots and down vests, Bastian made style icons out of locals like his sixth-grade history teacher and even his father. (Eventually, he’d turn to J.F.K.)
Today, Bastian is leading the charge of menswear designers (as evidenced by his 2011 CFDA win) bent on reviving the homegrown fashion scene. Known for his expertly-fitted slim chinos, Bastian’s designs—for his eponymous line and for Swedish brand GANT—incorporate a sense of nostalgia made modern by a pop of print or bold color.
We caught up with the designer to see where he was headed with his fall collections and to hear his thoughts on the ever-changing landscape of American menswear.
Your Fall 2013 collection is inspired in part by painter Andrew Wyeth. What drew you to his work?
Andrew Wyeth had always been a favorite American painter of mine. I’ve always loved how he took a quiet everyday moment and turned it into something a bit more eternal and profound. It was only when I started to dig deeper into his work that I saw the darker side of his paintings—something more reflective and lonely. Maine (where he lived and worked) is an interesting state—it’s really rugged and isolated. This was the mood we wanted to convey with our Fall ’13 collection—the darker side of New England and American menswear.
On a related note, your Fall 2013 Gant by Michael Bastian collection was inspired by another American painter, Norman Rockwell. Do you have a favorite piece by Rockwell?
I’m glad you’re asking about this because I look at my two Fall ’13 collections as basically two sides of America. Where Wyeth was more detached, dark and observant, Rockwell was more into the idea of celebrating the best of America, or at least our sentimental idea of America. He too focused on a small moment in everyday life, but whereas Wyeth’s view was personal, Rockwell’s was more about a shared common experience between all of us.
There is very little darkness in Rockwell’s work. My favorite painting has a little story behind it. When I was in high school, my family took a summer vacation to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and visited the Norman Rockwell Museum. Now it’s housed in a big Robert A. M. Stern designed neoclassical building, but at the time it was in this little house he used as his studio and you could walk from room to room like you were walking though a two-story New England house. In one room was a painting of the little boy in his pajamas discovering a Santa costume in the bottom drawer of a dresser. He was facing the viewer with this great look of shock and discovery. When I walked into that room, there were two little boys staring at the painting, and I thought ‘Oh no, this is how they’re going to find out about Santa,’ but what they were noticing was that Rockwell actually put real white hair into the paint on the Santa costume’s beard. He was that obsessed with detail. There are many Normal Rockwell paintings I love, but that one will now always be special to me.
How has menswear in this country evolved since you began designing?
In the seven years I’ve been designing, there have been a few significant shifts. The largest is the revival of respect for our own American style, which is usually a bit rougher and more authentic than the European men’s styles. This was largely driven by the new generation of menswear bloggers who really became fascinated with idea of true, heritage American sportswear, which was largely dying out in the last few decades with the closing of our mills and factories. We’ve gone from a place that makes things to a place that imports things and, in the process, we lost a bit of what was true to us and our style.
What does American luxury mean to you?
American luxury to me is buying something really well made and beautiful and then wearing the hell out of it. I don’t believe in buying something and then only saving it for special occasions—what’s the fun in that? If you own something beautiful you should be wearing it—there’s something very practical and ‘Yankee’ about that idea. Buy the best you can afford then really wear it.
Who are your style icons, past and present?
I tend to go back a lot to J.F.K. Jr. mainly because he represents a story which we never got to see how it played out. But when he was alive, I think he really represented the best of American men’s style, that perfect blend of casual and tailored, worn with a lot of personal style and humor. As for present icons, I don’t have so many because it’s really hard to know what is personal style and what was the result of hiring a stylist. Celebrities need to have a bit more courage with their own personal style and rely less on stylists.
What are your top 5 style tips for men?
1. Trust yourself.
2. Buy less, but buy better.
3. Always have a pink Oxford shirt ready for days when you’re feeling run down.
4. Invest in good shoes and a good watch—they elevate everything you wear them with.
5. Befriend a good tailor.
Describe your design aesthetic in four words.
Classic, luxury, American, masculine.
You call NYC home, what are your favorite spots around town?
I travel so much that when I’m in the city I tend to stick pretty close to my neighborhood, which is just north of Washington Square Park. At the moment, I’m loving the restaurant Omar and I usually eat at Piadina a couple of times a week.