Best of British
Exquisite tailoring and an eye for the quirky have earned the designer Neil Barrett an A-list following. He talks to Natasha Bita about launching Prada Menswear and - the ultimate compliment for an Englishman in Milan - designing for the Italian football
HIS FACE OBSCURED by a teetering pile of white china plates, fashion designer Neil Barrett staggers incognito into his studio an hour late. What on Earth is he doing carrying all that crockery?
'Oh, I borrowed a whole heap of plates for Christmas dinner at my place and kept forgetting to bring them back,' he says. 'My assistant told me I absolutely had to bring them in today because all the buyers are coming.'
Barrett is exhausted after burning the midnight oil during Milan's men's fashion week - first preparing for his runway show and then marketing his latest autumn/winter collection to flocks of fashion buyers and press. He drags a couple of chairs into a quieter room and requests a strong cup of heart-starting Italian coffee.
'Please don't stir it,' he pleads with the caterer. 'I like the sugar to stay on the bottom so it goes all caramelly,' he confesses. 'If you stir it, the coffee tastes too sweet.'
Is this man a closet control freak? He certainly prides himself on perfection. His collections are crafted in 24 Italian factories, which he keeps under close supervision. 'We have a specialist trouser factory, a shirt factory, five knit factories, two jersey factories,' says the 41-year-old, who designed menswear for Gucci before launching Prada Uomo in the 1990s and finally setting up his own label in 1999. 'The shoes are made by Italian artisans.'
Barrett's quest for quality and eye for idiosyncrasy have earned him a loyal following - and an A-list celebrity fan base. Brad Pitt, Justin Timberlake, Jake Gyllenhaal and Orlando Bloom adore his supple leather jackets, exquisitely crafted but slightly beaten up to give that loved-and-lived-in look. Barrett's label was one of the few to launch with menswear, and he showed his first women's catwalk collection in New York only a year ago.
'My pieces usually sell through word-of-mouth,' says Barrett. 'I've gone from 5,000 pieces in my first season, seven years ago, to now selling 160,000 per season. And I have nobody behind me; I did it all on my own.'
Barrett's latest menswear collection has an Amish-punk theme, in line with his habit of clashing clothes from different cultures. Thus, bowler hats are matched with jeans that have been sprayed silver. Blue jeans, painted black, are paired with impeccably tailored charcoal jackets.
Trousers are stitched from horizontal strips of fabric - an effect only noticeable up close, which lends the fine wool trousers a cool, ultra-skinny look. A white dress shirt features a printed black barcode in place of a traditional pleated bib. Black mesh vests are popped over elegant white shirts striped with bold strokes of silver paint. Classic cashmere overcoats feature zip-out felted hoodies, suitable for heading straight from the corporate boardroom to the coolest bar.
'I love this duality,' Barrett says. 'I love mixing subcultures.
It was my signature ever since I was at design school. I pull two themes together because I have more fun doing it.'
Barrett says men want designs that are quirky without looking queer. 'It's like a punk who has grown up,' Barrett says. 'He would want to wear the ripped knits, but they've got to be beautifully made and fully fashioned in angora wool. He wouldn't wear Doc Martens because it looks too teenage, so I added a zip detail to bovver boots to make them a chic version. I'm not about carnival. I'm about reality.'
Barrett, a fourth-generation tailor, was born in Devon, in south-west England. His great-grandparents owned a department store there and were the most successful tailors in the area, outfitting the army, navy and local gentry.
But Barrett grew up oblivious to his heritage. His grandparents divorced and sold the store, and Barrett did not meet his grandfather until he was 15. 'Then I went to St Martins [College of Art and Design] in London and he taught me tailoring. I loved it; it seemed so natural. Obviously, I had tailoring in my genes and didn't realise it.' Barrett still treasures the tiny hand-stitched uniforms his father wore to school and he has 50 of his grandfather's bespoke suits in storage at home.
Graduating with a Master's degree in fashion from the Royal College of Art in London, Barrett was talent-spotted by Maurizio Gucci, who was so impressed with Barrett's final show that he offered him a job the next day.
Barrett spent five years in Florence as Gucci's senior menswear designer, but he craved more of a challenge. His dream had always been to design for the trend-bending Miuccia Prada, so he wrote to her husband, entrepreneur Patrizio Bertelli, proposing that Prada launch a menswear line.
It took a couple of years for Bertelli to agree, but eventually he hired the 30-year-old go-getter. For the first year, Barrett worked alone. In the second year, he got to share an assistant with Miu Miu, Prada's diffusion line. Then, he says, 'It got huge. Prada was a fabulous comfort zone. Great expense account, great title. But it became bigger and bigger and more bureaucratic. I knew every garment I'd ever designed from day one, in my memory.
I knew every fabric, every colour, the name of every colour.'
Barrett is the designer who, through Prada, introduced the tie-matches-shirt trend and the tailored suit in hi-tech stretch fabric.
'I thought, 'While I'm still young, why don't I do something where I can wake up and decide I'm going to get my hair cut at 4 o'clock in the afternoon?'' Barrett says of his decision to quit. 'It was about having autonomy in my personal life. I'm my own boss now and I don't feel like I should be here all those hours of the day, six days a week.'
The designer took a huge gamble when he left to fly solo.
'I sold my house to build this design studio and offices,' he says. 'I'm gambling all my money.'
Still, he has a safety net in his four-year design collaboration with German sports giant Puma, where he gets to fuse his old-fashioned tailoring skills with high-performance, space-age materials. (The deal started when Puma asked him to design the Italian football team's kit for the 2006 World Cup; the ultimate accolade for an English designer in Italy.)
Lacking the marketing clout of his larger competitors, Barrett has shied away from slapping his logo on the outside of his clothes. But he does understand fashion's obsession with big-name brands. 'It's peer-group pressure, magazine pressure, people wanting to fit in and feel cool,' he says. 'There seems to be a need in this consumer society to buy into that acceptance that you get through wearing the Gucci or Prada jacket. Maybe they have a career that doesn't let them be so cool or creative, so by buying that jacket they also become part of that creative crowd.'
Barrett's own label is 'very much about subtlety. It's a very in-crowd that recognises my pieces,' he says. 'I design for my cool girlfriends' boyfriends, husbands or lovers. The general mass will follow these guys because they're the coolest group in hetero-land. Gay-land will also follow them because they happen to be the coolest group generally in the world.'
Barrett will open a boutique in Los Angeles later this year and is quadrupling the size of one of his two stores in Japan. 'I would say the Japanese are the most adventurous dressers in the world,' he says. 'They take more risks than anyone else.' The Chinese are not far behind, Barrett reckons, so he is planning a trip to Hong Kong early in September.
Despite his penchant for the idiosyncratic, Barrett would never push a 'fashion victim' approach to dressing. 'Everyone has to feel at ease in what they wear,' he says. 'You have to follow your gut instincts. Don't feel pressured by a sales assistant - block them out, because they're pretty imposing.'
Although, he adds, 'You should take some risks trying stuff on. If you don't try, you don't know!' And with this final word of advice, Barrett seems to have summed up his philosophy on life.