For New York Men’s Fashion, Small Is Beautiful

For New York Men’s Fashion, Small Is Beautiful

Last Saturday afternoon, the designer Alan Eckstein, 34, was busy installing an interior decorating project he took on as a bill payer. Afterward he pulled an all-nighter at his studio, putting finishing touches on outfits for the Timo Weiland men’s wear show. On Sunday, he took a five-hour paying D.J. gig at the One Hotel in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Then on Monday, he was on hand for the Timo Weiland presentation, for which he also did the casting, styling and created the soundtrack. Monday night, he was back at home again, bubble-wrapping and packing up some of the vintage Gio Ponti furniture he hawks online to make the rent.

“That’s me every single day,” Eckstein said at the Timo Weiland show, held in a sunny loft just paces east of Hudson Yards, and which was the comeback, after a two-year hiatus, of a men’s wear label that for a fashion minute was by every accounts the one to watch.

If there is a moral to this story it is the following: You need a side hustle. Oftentimes one side hustle is not enough.

It was in the prehistory of 2010 that Timo Weiland, the label created by Eckstein, Weiland and Donna Kang was first hailed as one of the industry’s top 10 breakouts. In the years that followed, the label won awards, start-up grants and press plaudits, and its presence quickly expanded into 100 wholesale accounts and stores that included Barneys New York and Saks.

With several million dollars in annual revenues, the brand was quietly a success. Then, in 2017, the three friends abruptly closed the doors.

“A whole bunch of things happened, and we decided to walk away,” Eckstein said.

Things fall apart. That could hardly have been made more clear than when the Council of Fashion Designers of America announced in January that, while it would continue to organize the experiment that was a stand-alone New York men’s wear fashion week, it could no longer provide it with financial support. Designers would have to fend for themselves.

Maybe that was not such a bad thing. How does the cliché go? When a door is closed, a window is opened. There was a time when fashion in New York City was far less corporate, more ad hoc, when tribes and teams operated on the slimmest of margins and relied for survival on passion, gumption, favors, connections and maxing out somebody’s credit card.

Some of the more inspiriting moments in the life of this longtime observer of the industry were generated by folks of infinite creative resources and zero cash. Think of the soulful and supremely gifted Miguel Adrover and his jackets made from Yankees caps or shreds of Quentin Crisp’s mattress. Think of As Four’s wild runway romps in the still raw Far East Village, replete with pit bulls tinted pink and clothes designed according to abstruse philosophical precepts involving the circle and that produced a handbag immediately ripped off by a designer of international renown.

Think of the gender mosh pit that was any given show by Heatherette.

Those moments were exciting, and nothing says they cannot return, provided you rebut the notions that universal domination is a sane business model or that New York is forever condemned to becoming a playpen for overage toddlers living on Daddy or Mommy’s dime. “My parents definitely should not be supporting me,” Eckstein said.

The city itself will do that. And mall culture, of the sort exemplified by Hudson Yards, may not have the last word.

On the first and all but final day of a diminished New York Fashion Week: Men’s, this reporter took a stroll through the polished vaults of that retailing cavern and found himself wondering how long the global labels can afford to keep the lights on in stores where salespeople in glossy though largely empty emporiums looked as if their main job was holding up walls.

Returning to the New York Men’s Day presentations afterward felt somehow invigorating. Though little on view was very commercial, the atmosphere was fertile and loamy, and not merely because Jon James and Jené Stefaniak, the designers of a first-season label called Feign, had trucked in a half-ton of mulch for an installation whose theme was environmental degradation and corporate greed.

Here was David Hart — at this point the O.G. of indie men’s wear — showing car coats surprinted with a saucy Weegee image of a burlesque queen or else cabana sets patterned all over with the dense sea of humans packed into the frame of “Coney Island Beach,” a 1940 image also by Weegee, that quintessential New York street photographer.

“It’s probably Weegee’s most famous picture,” Hart said. “I kept bugging ICP,” he added, referring to the International Center of Photography, which holds an archive of work by Arthur Fellig, Weegee’s real name. “And they agreed to license them to me.”

Why had nobody ever thought of that before?

“We’re all designers, not artists,” Eckstein said during the Timo Weiland presentation. And yet there was plenty of artistry on display that morning, including, at Abysm, a pair of leather-paper trousers with vast upturned cuffs resembling the caps worn by Tibetan nomads. The designer, Qian Wu, 26, grew up shuttling between Shanghai and Minneapolis with her family. At Ka Wa Key, there were washy, ethereally floral printed shorts and frocks worn by a group of dancers.

“There’s a social anthropology of fashion,” Eckstein said. “And I feel like we’re studying humans and trying to figure out how to make something of it and where to go next.”

What his team did was make suits. The suits were outstanding. They were simple; some boxy and double-breasted, some single-breasted and unlined. They had three patch pockets and softly rolled lapels neither too wide nor too narrow but somewhere in the middle — a Goldilocks proportion.

Certain of them were paired with trousers cropped to a length that made it look as if the model had experienced an unexpected growth spurt. Others were more contemporarily conventional, long and lean. What most delighted the eye, though, were the colors: fire engine red, azure blue, a pink not quite the saccharine millennial hue but something closer to baby boomer bassinet.

“For my generation a suit is a novelty,” Eckstein said. That may be so. But it is also a uniform that in its basic elements has survived over four centuries. Most designers at high fashion men’s wear labels are concertedly trying to move consumers away from sweatpants and hoodies and convince them that a suit is useful for occasions other than weddings, court appearances and job interviews.

Why not? A suit, when adapted to the needs of the moment, is a kind of bombproof armor. Check out the new niche lifestyle journal Wm Brown to see how easeful one can be. Consider that, when the young designers behind Timo Weiland decided to return to the business and give men’s wear another try, it was with a radically different business mode, one based almost entirely on the suit.

Before, Eckstein said, he and his team produced 180 products a year, sourced from seven different factories and mills on three continents and attempted to sell their goods in a crumbling bricks-and-mortar environment

“It was not sustainable,” he said. “If someone gave me a million dollars to do a fashion brand that spans the categories, I would turn it down immediately. It’s not the modern model.”

As it happens, the Timo Weiland designers came to the conclusion that the most modern model was also the traditional one.

“We decided what we wanted was to do one thing really, really well,” said Eckstein, caffeinated and jubilant after his show on Monday. “I have stayed in fashion, despite my wife saying, ‘When are we going to be able to buy a house?’ because I love that feeling of collaborating with friends. I love seeing the work come together. I love making something I can really get behind.”

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