Fashion icon, former editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, and author of The Price of Illusion, Joan Juliet Buck sits down with Zac Posen, Creative Director of our women’s collection, to discuss everything from gardening to Guys and Dolls—and the nostalgia of fashion.
Joan Juliet Buck:
Zac, one of the things I love about you is that you’re the only person who makes extraordinary “queen for a day” dresses, dresses for the red carpet, the great moment, the Oscar. How do you translate that approach to doing clothes for Brooks Brothers, which is like…the better everyday?
They’re both attached to tradition. They’re both different forms, or ideas, of a uniform, one being today in the imagination, the other being daily today. Clothing itself is nostalgic.
ZP: It’s nostalgic because it’s a necessity, and because all the different elements that make up our contemporary wardrobe are little bits and pieces of human history. With Brooks Brothers, I feel that it’s like charting the history of our country.
JJB: Because Brooks Brothers is 200 years old.
ZP: The idea of a ready-to-wear manufactured suit is part of that history. With the Industrial Revolution came an introduction of fabrics of utility and function, and they were integrated into culture, and then, at one point, into an idea—when clothing went in a more casual direction. The ability to be associated with the idea of the well-dressed American. It goes to the nouveau-riche quality of our country.
JJB: Nouveau riche?
ZP: It’s a new country! It’s a great honor to be part of that brand’s heritage and history. Looking back 200 years, you have many pieces to update, to clean up, and bring into the contemporary wardrobe, bring back the original principles of quality and fair pricing into a culture that today is disposable. It’s a testament to a brand that has lasted through changing times, and to the integrity and simplicity of a kind of design, that link between being appropriate, a uniform, a wardrobe staple, a classic.
JJB: Uniforms are so reassuring. Tell me, hasn’t Brooks Brothers dressed the U.S. Presidents?
ZP: Quite a few of them. They even have an amazing recreation of Abraham Lincoln’s coat, with the most beautiful quilting inside. It goes back to the history of the brand. It started in 1818, and then you have the original Brooks brothers who inherited it, and built out the brand. Then it goes through the course of American history, through war, through uniforms. Because it’s such an early brand, it got ingrained into all different intersections of culture, and even into Hollywood—when the Hollywood women started putting on their Cary Grant shirts.
JJB: Can you name some things that make up the Brooks Brothers style that are essentially American, not European?
ZP: Absolutely. I think it starts in fabrication: seersucker, madras, the button-down collar—
JJB: Was that invented by Brooks Brothers?
ZP: Yes. The polo collar. Also, the six-pleat shirring on the shirt cuff. Then you go into the striped ties. I think the root of American style is that it’s understated and influenced by sportswear. The roots of industrialism, and this idea of an understated, slightly more puritanical kind of dress—that is quite elegant.
JJB: What’s interesting is that your draped satin dresses, your extraordinary queen-for-a-day red-carpet dresses, often also have a kind of puritan simplicity, because their drama and power is in their shape.
ZP: Yes. I’m playing with form.
JJB: Which is what you do at Brooks Brothers.
ZP: When I took on the role at Brooks Brothers, it was about focusing on the iconic pieces that make up the wardrobe, that were invented and built into their history, and from there, really going into bringing back a quality, a luxury and a perfectionist mind-set. I think all of the years of bias and ball gowns and tailoring were really instrumental, training, so as to be able to perfect ready-to-wear, and something that I believed in.
JJB: I see.
ZP: It started with an insight into the classic gold-button blazer. When I was shooting at NBC, I met a page who showed me a photo of her old Brooks Brothers jacket that had been the page’s uniform for years, before, and talked to me about the fit. The tradition, for a moment, had broken. The first thing I did when I got to Brooks Brothers was to ‘Frankenstein’ a jacket: rebuild it from the inside out to find the perfect fit. Then we started to take the classic elements, all our pants, our skirts and shirting, and we built from there.
JJB: Shirting is really fun to play with. Because it’s only supposed to be shirts, so when you make it into shirt dresses and all kinds of other things, it’s transgressive.
ZP: Absolutely. For me, it was such an opportunity. Shirt dresses were essential for me, and something that was needed and hadn’t been expanded upon.
JJB: Are they fitted at the waist?
ZP: Some are tailored, some can be cinched in at your waist. Making a collection gives me the ability to create these kinds of classic items that work on women of all ages and all body types, and always give a kind of understated polish. From there, the decoration comes into play where you build out the world into the shoes, into the hats, jewelry.
JJB: When you say “understated polish,” is that a black patent leather belt? Is that a white ostrich belt or a red leather belt?
ZP: It depends. If you’re wearing navy, I think you can have a red accent, or it can be a patent leather belt, to add a hint of sheen to it. Each season, you complement by adding new classics.
JJB: What are the classics that you want to be known for?
ZP: In the past few years of building the line, our dresses that I’ve added—just great, classic shapes—have been very successful. In general, it’s about respecting the brand. It’s such a gem of a world within Brooks—you edit, you reshape, you focus and bring it into today, and that’s what it needed. It didn’t need bells or whistles.
JJB: You’ve done trench coats?
ZP: Lots of trench coats. When you’re building a line and testing new ideas, that shows you where you can keep perfecting. You can never stop perfecting a classic.
JJB: Because it’s kind of disappeared a little. I’m hoping you’re bringing it back.
ZP: We have our classic trench and then each season add in some form of novelty trench. We do great raincoats that we originally started developing for Japan, and they reintegrated back here.
JJB: Who’s influenced your style the most?
ZP: It’s so layered—many people have influenced my style. All the many muses or girlfriends throughout my career and life. My father, his paintings with their different colors, finding form and texture, was definitely influential. Growing up in SoHo New York was hugely influential—that’s where you have these industrial buildings in cast iron and kind of more European decorative facades, Corinthian, more classic, and that balance of that romance of industrialism. And then nature, Mother Nature, influences me, with her absolute brilliance and surprise and how she infinitely finds new ways to perfection through construction and technique.
JJB: Now, if you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
ZP: I would probably be a farmer.
JJB: Really? A full-time farmer?
ZP: A gardener, a gardener. Just taking care of one garden, one grand garden.
JJB: Okay, so as it is, you have two gardens. You have Zac Posen and Brooks Brothers. What’s the difference between the two gardens?
ZP: One—Brooks Brothers—has deep roots and great heritage and needs its care, because it has another 1,000+ years to live.
JJB: We like that.
ZP: Mine, Zac Posen, is a sapling that found its light.
JJB: Okay, a sapling that’s sending out these great velvety flowers and leaves. Did anyone else influence you?
ZP: When I was a teenager, I met two artists, David McDermott and Peter McGough. They were hugely influential, and part of my learning about the history of fashion.
JJB: Because they always wore nineteenth-century costumes.
ZP: Especially suits and hats from the 1880s—the history lesson into the history of menswear. Because Peter McGough and David McDermott function like historians, and their art deals with the role of men’s fashion. It’s part of a kind of early training into understanding the codes.
JJB: And also, there’s the element of time travel, right?
JJB: Every time I look at you, I think of Guys and Dolls.
ZP: That’s funny. I think with Brooks Brothers, you want to be able to take it back into time, and I think that you want to make clothing that has the ability to let you slip into different time periods.
JJB: Nobody wants to be stuck in one time period. That’s why clothes are such fun. Is there a period that you prefer?
ZP: I’m partial to moments where craft was at a peak, and the beginning of the use of industrial machines in helping craft. I think that’s a great time of fashion in the ’30s and ’40s, a magical moment in terms of where history met the future of how clothing was going to be made.
JJB: As Brooks Brothers made the coat for Abraham Lincoln, what would you design for the first woman president?
ZP: First of all, we would definitely dress the first woman president. I think we would design Abraham Lincoln’s coat full-length.
JJB: To be worn over what?
ZP: To be worn over pants. Or over a long full-length white shirt.
JJB: Is it true that Brooks Brothers is going to be making the most elegant Wellington boots?
JJB: I can’t wait. And you’re very partial to hats—
ZP: Each season at Brooks, we do about three different styles of hats. They’re accessories that bring in different classic elements—the perfect proportion, the right material, the right color—into a wardrobe. And the hats, that change with the seasons, are like punctuation to the face. Like an accent on a letter! And a hat with a brim magnifies every gesture. It’s like a mask that you can’t hide behind, a giant eyelash.
JJB: I’m very glad that you lifted the veil for this conversation.
ZP: Thank you.
JJB: I can’t wait to get my hands on everything you’re doing for Brooks Brothers.
ZP: Yes, you have to come to the store!