Robert Geller Styleforum Interview.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with New York-based menswear designer Robert Geller in his downtown studio and office. With many fans both on and off Styleforum following him since even before his eponymous labels inception, and the excitement over New York’s recent fashion week exhausted, we elected to take things back a step and look into the roots of both the label and the man.
Be sure to check back next week for part two, covering Cloak, the current Robert Geller label, long-shirts, and that feeling of being the best looking guy in the room.
I’m covering this for styleforum.net, and you’ve got a big, big group of fans over there.
I do, [laughs] it’s so cool. It used to be Superfuture where it was big, but that died down and now it’s Styleforum. Either way, it’s a good way to chat about stuff; I think it’s amazing. I don’t want to make anybody nervous that’s writing there but I do read what they say, because it’s informative for me. It’s like the most honest, honest criticism that there is and also the most honest compliments. So for me it’s the best kind of research I can do, in terms of what’s doing well. If there’s something wrong with the fit - they’ll tell me - they’ll tell each other, you know, and I’ll know. The last thing I want is for them to worry about me reading that.
Because of that community, people have archived everything over the years. A lot of people are interested in how you got your start, how you got interested in fashion, maybe even going back to Cloak. You went to school for… menswear?
I have to go back a little for that. [laughs]
I have to go back to how it started; otherwise it doesn’t make any sense. When I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, professionally, I was maybe like 13, 14? And my dad’s a photographer, so I knew that I wanted to do something creative; I always knew it. I don’t know; my family is very supportive of the arts so it was something that I knew just sort of intuitively, what I liked to do. After wanting to be a soccer player until I was like 10 the real thing came by, and that was photography. And so I did photography, you know, as a job until my freshman year at RISD. I had worked as a photographer’s assistant after I graduated high school for two years. Before that I spent most of my time in the darkroom, so that’s really where I was going. I was pretty certain I would be a photographer.
And then, when I was at RISD during freshman year, you spend a lot of time learning how to draw. I mean I knew how to draw but I wasn’t great at it. And that really gave me the chance to work on it and to gain confidence with my drawing skills. That was one of the things that kept me from thinking that I could do fashion design; I didn’t have great skill at illustrating. During my freshman year it got better and better and better, to the point that it wasn’t really an issue. I could do it.
RISD is kind of set up like the Bauhaus system. You focus on one thing but they really want you to learn many different things. So, they want you to take classes in architecture, and sculpture, and photography. All different things so that you learn how to express yourself differently in different mediums. Between the first and second semesters is a thing called Winter Session, and you take electives in whatever you want to for a 6 week period. And one of the things that I took was a fashion design class. It was basic pattern-making, illustration; kind of like an introduction to it. And I really enjoyed it. It was a time where I was a little bit, like, “What the fuck am I doing here for photography?” I had been doing it for so long, and then I actually worked, assisting professionally for 2 years. I was thinking “I can’t learn that much more here. I can develop my sense and my direction and stuff like that, which would be fine. Or I could learn something totally new which I’ve always been interested in.” I mean I was always doing fashion photography, so it was very linked - something that I’ve always wanted to do, something I’ve always been interested in. It was just like a “Why not?” decision, which seems crazy now, but when you’re in school you don’t think about it that seriously. So then I decided to go into fashion design and once I got there it was like ” …everyone else here has been doing it for a lot longer than I have, so I have to catch up,” which was a scary thing at the time, but it turned out to be a really good thing, because I worked my ass off.
Especially having graduated and then worked for 2 years, you really have a sense for what it means to work professionally. It’s not about how popular you are; it’s just what you know. The only thing that really matters - and I had some pretty tough bosses when I was working for those 2 photographers - is your skill and what you bring to that business. I had the time to mature and I really just threw myself into work at that point. I was in a place where everything was made for me to get better at everything through all the electives - I could learn how to sculpt, I could learn about poetry. Everything is there to make me a better person, a smarter person, and a better worker, so I just dove into it and appreciated it. Throughout those 3 years following freshman year I really worked myself to the top of the class.
During the winter session of senior year you’re supposed to go somewhere in the world to do an internship, and half of the class wanted to go to Marc Jacobs because it was just right at the point he was exploding and you know, the coolest thing around. Including myself. [laughs] I really wanted to go there. So you pick 3 designers… [pauses] Do you mind if I keep going like this?
Keep going, I’m taking all this in too.
I chose Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, and this young designer at the time called Maya Henson. She was doing clothes for Lenny Kravitz: kind of rocker. But she had gone to RISD and she was a cool girl and she had a good vibe. She was one of the critics so I felt like I could fit in with her. My first interview was with Donna Karan, and you arrive and it’s this massive office and they’re like “OK here is human resources,” and you walk down the hall and there is like eight doors that all look the same. There’s 10 wannabe interns waiting and they just stick you in the [room] where you have your interview, and they look through your portfolio. It was crazy; it was like a machine. I walk in, they look at my portfolio, talk, ask some questions. It seemed good and I took off thinking “OK, that was a good first interview.” But I got the feeling I would be one of a lot of interns.
The next one was Maya. That was I think in the Lower East Side, some little walkup, and I walked into the studio and there were two BIG dogs that jumped on me. And I’m allergic to dogs! I’m already thinking this might be a problem. We’re doing the interview and I said “I want to be honest with you; I’m allergic to dogs so this might not really work out.” She asked where else I was interviewing and I said Donna Karan and Marc Jacobs. She’s like “We don’t even need to talk anymore; you’re going to be PERFECT at Marc Jacobs.” She looked at my portfolio and said, “Go there it’s right for you; it’ll be amazing.”
The last one was the next day and I walked into Marc Jacobs. That was the one I was most nervous about, and back then Marc Jacobs was much smaller. They had two floors: one for the mainline, and one for Marc by Marc on the floor above.
And you’re designing womenswear at this point?
I was designing everything. I went and I had an interview with this girl called Natalia Zimmer. She was pretty nice, and afterwards asked me to hang on a second. She went and got somebody from the production side, whose name was Muneko. She had gone to RISD so there was that connection and I talked to her as well - this little Japanese girl - and I had a really good vibe leaving.
I went back to RISD having a positive feeling about how it went, and the following Monday I got a phone call early in the morning, maybe like 10am, from Donna Karan. Not herself of course, but somebody in the Human Resource department. ”We would love for you to start with the line.” “Oh this is really great, but to be honest I’m waiting on one more possible internship to get back to me. Do you mind if I wait until Friday 5pm?” They said no problem, so the week goes by, and I don’t hear anything, I don’t hear anything, I don’t hear anything.
It’s tough, I know that feeling.
Yeah and you’re just like “Fuck, OK Donna Karan is not bad but I would really love to be at Marc Jacobs.” I remember it so well, it was that Friday. After my class I went to get more fabrics so I went to this terrible - but the only fabric store they have in Rhode Island – place called Lorraine’s Fabrics. I drove there, got my stuff, got back in the car, and I was just waiting for it to turn 5:00. Just like fuck. And it turned 5:00. I picked up my phone, and I swear - this sounds like a movie but it really happened - I picked up my phone to call back and it rings. I picked it up and it was Natalia, and she said “We would love for you to come and do your internship here.”
The way that it was structured was that there were 3 interns at the time, and above me was Natalia, who had interviewed me. She was the menswear assistant. On the same level as her was Ana, who was the womenswear assistant, and Ana is my wife now, [smiles] so I met her there. Natalia is one of my best friends. She was the maid of honor at our wedding, and above them was Richard Chai, who was one of the groomsmen at our wedding. It was crazy. That phone call. If it had been two minutes later I would’ve already told Donna Karan yes and I would’ve had to say no. And this is like my family now, which is so bizarre.
I started at Marc Jacobs and it was an eye-opening experience for me. In school you learn how to draw, you learn how to make clothes, you learn a little bit about yourself and your aesthetic. You experiment. But you don’t know anything about the business and the whole procedure of making a collection. You learn how to make pieces but you never learn what it takes to create a collection like I’m doing now or what Marc Jacobs does. But I first saw it at Marc and you see it all because that’s a small team. It was just Marc Jacobs, Richard Chai, then the two girls and the three interns. That was it for the design area. So I got to see everything, and I was part of everything. I loved it. The hours were totally nuts there. I mean, around the show it gets really crazy - 2, 3 in the morning then back at 8 in the morning. Even during the regular time you don’t leave before 8 at night. So it’s intense, but wonderful. Such a great experience. I loved everybody that I was around. It was so like, it was real, you know? It wasfashion.
One day I had to drop something off to the secretary on the 9th floor, where Marc by Marc was. It was close to the show. I ride the elevator, the door opens to this huge room, and it’s just filled with models. It was during the casting. Filled. I open my eyes, and I’m a little bit shy, a little excited, and I look around and it’s all the models that I know from the magazines. Obviously I was in Germany before (Hamburg) and then I was in Rhode Island. I hadn’t been around, and then to see all of these people that I had admired in the magazines, was just like “What.” I quickly dropped it off and got back in the elevator and went down; it was too much for me to take.
So that was one aspect where I was just like “Wow, ok I’m here.”
I remember a really important moment, and it really lit a fire under my ass. It was the first show that I worked on, which must’ve been Autumn/Winter 2001, the little drummer boy collection. Really, one of my favorites of Marc’s of all time. When we get into the space, we bring all the stuff there and we get into The Armory, where he has his shows. Have you ever been in there? It’s magnificent. It’s huge, like, it’s crazy huge. And then he builds this runway with these massive speakers, and it’s so impressive.
They had their whole team organized for the show, so they’re like “OK you guys can just go and watch,” so we go into the standing room where there are a couple of bleachers. There were the two other interns hanging out, and suddenly they start the run-through. The lights go on, and the song “Human Fly” (The Cramps) comes on super loud, and the models just start doing their fucking stomp down the runway, and I had tears in my eyes it was so cool. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen. The girls were so amazing, that whole place was so great. I mean I also hadn’t properly slept in like a month and all these emotions were just telling me I want to do this. I really want to do this. I want to do this myself.
And that’s the thing about Marc, you hear him talking and it’s cool. I mean at that time, you looked at him and he was such a cool person to me. The way that he dressed, the way that he spoke about music, the way that he talked about fashion. I don’t know, for me it was really an impression, and it made me really want to do my own thing.