Engineered Garments : Homemade In Hell's Kitchen
After a fair bit of blood, sweat and tears; the latest issue of our Pica~Post 'zine is nearly ready. A mix of Oi Polloi's new offerings and obsessions—without wanting to go-on all Dizzy Gillespie—we think it's shaping up nicely. In fact, we're so pleased with how one bit of the new mag has turned out we thought we'd go ahead share it with you now…
If there was one brand that's a definite contender for the 'pound-for-pound champion' title at Oi Polloi, it's that much-loved bastion of modern-Americana — Engineered Garments. The following interview is based on a conversation that took place between EG head-honcho Daiki Suzuki and Battenwear's Shinya Hasegawa. The two designers worked together whilst Suzuki headed up the design department at Woolrich Woolen Mills, and have since become surf-sidekicks, spending days-off hunting cold-water waves on NY's beaches. It seemed to make sense to get them to have a chat and record the consequences.
As if that wasn't enough of a meeting of minds, accompanying the interview are images from an exclusive Engineered Garments editorial, photographed by Antony Crook (The Rig Out) and styled by Angelo Urrutia (Nepenthes NYC) for Oi Polloi. The shoot took place in Hell’s Kitchen, New York—the very same neighbourhood in which Engineered Garments is designed and manufactured. The good folk from Nepenthes NYC stood in as models.
Shinya Hasegawa: Thanks for taking the time to talk. We’ve known each other for a while now, so when I was asked to interview you, at first it was kind of strange… what we were going to talk about that we haven’t already covered at some point? But then I realized I actually do have a lot of questions—especially since I started Battenwear, I’ve been wondering a lot about how you work and how you make the decisions you make.
Daiki Suzuki: OK, shoot!
SH: When I was working for you at Woolrich Woolen Mills, I learned a lot about how important it is to develop a central theme for any collection; to give all items a feeling of togetherness—so that each item is anchored to the others but also able to stand on its own. What’s your process for identifying that theme? For example, do you start with colors first or pick a certain fabric and build off of it?
DW: It’s funny actually—when I started to design Woolen Mills, I had no idea what WP Lavori (the company that owns the label) expected from me, so my biggest priority and motivation was to figure out what they wanted me to do with Woolrich—how much they really wanted me to change it from its roots. So, I started the project with that basic question in mind, and it led to a lot of experimentation. Ultimately, the collection came to be based on the original vintage feel but with an edge that was more in keeping with contemporary fashion.
As you mentioned, I decided that I needed to have a clear theme for each season. This was in order to give the collection that contemporary edge. I started by working with a particular color or image or pattern in order to plant the seeds of what I guessed would grow into the theme. That was the first part of the process, I had to do it way in advance, mostly by instinct. The next step was to start making samples. Then, as the samples came back from the factories, I could actually see how my instinct was turning into reality. And finally, when more and more samples were in hand, I started to see the overall theme. This design process was new to me, because it’s totally not how I work at Engineered Garments. And it was risky, because I always knew that there was a possibility that my instincts would fail me, and when the samples came back, they wouldn’t match my instinct and there would be no theme. But I was lucky—all the way until when my contract finished with Woolen Mills, I was able to pull it off.
SH: So, now I’m really curious about how you do things differently at Engineered Garments…
DS: With Engineered Garments, I don’t have a theme for each season. Instead, the basic idea is to have normal, regular clothes with an interesting perspective. For example, I like to focus on opposites—like I’ll use something that makes you think of hot weather for the cold seasons or I’ll focus on dark colors but throw in some white or I’ll let something look like it’s bad quality when it’s actually really good. I like the idea of Engineered Garments being made up of lots of different influences and ideas and lots of little details. And instead of coming together to form one particular theme, there’s always a certain sense of disintegration, of disparateness. That’s where the real beauty lies—in the lack of completion or lack of wholeness despite all the elements involved. And really, all of the elements are personal to me, so maybe it can be hard for other people to understand. It’s all part of my own unique world.
That said, I want people to have fun when they’re wearing Engineered Garments. I want them to take part in this world I’ve created. I think with most fashion brands, you pay a lot of money and then you have this ready-made outfit and it’ll definitely look good because it’s expensive and well made. But with Engineered Garments, I don’t want the clothes to look perfect immediately. I think people should have to put some work into it. I think it should only look really good if the clothes match your taste, and you bring something of yourself to it. I think of Engineered Garments as clothing for people who are really into clothing.
SH: The Engineered Garments aesthetic has so many reference points—hunting and fishing, work wear, hiking and climbing, surfing, etc. I know a lot of your influences come from your own hobbies and pastimes, and link back to your encyclopedic knowledge of vintage outdoor clothing and sportswear. Unlike a lot of other companies who just copy vintage clothing—for example use the same exact pattern but just change the fabric—Engineered Garments always does something different to give each item a certain twist, making it more suited for contemporary life. What’s the thought process behind that?
DS: With Engineered Garments, I mostly try not to think about whether something is fashionable or not. Because what I personally think of as cool isn’t always fashionable. The kind of clothes that influence me and form the base of Engineered Garments are all over the place—clothes that I want to wear, clothes that I used to buy when I was younger, clothes that I wanted to buy but couldn’t, clothes that are really ugly, clothes that make you think “no way”, clothes that are shocking. I get inspiration from hunting gear, workwear, sportswear. Sometimes designer clothes inspire me, sometimes uniforms do. All of these elements are part of my design process and then on top of all of that, I’ll always feel like changing this or that, just to make things more interesting and stand-out. That’s the twist, I guess. Every season, I’m thinking of what inspires me and trying to find balance in my designs between all the competing elements.
SH: American manufacturing and the meaning of ‘Made in USA’ has obviously changed a lot over the years. When I was a teenager and I started searching out American sportswear and outdoor clothing, I came to think of clothing that was made in the USA as items that were rigidly functional—almost like uniforms. I remember how uncomfortable everything was at first because it was designed for hard use… and how satisfying it was to break it in until it really felt like mine. That had a major impact on the way that I thought of clothes. And now, most of the more utilitarian types of clothing that used to be made in America are actually made in China, or wherever, and it has a different feel. What does ‘Made in USA’ mean to you now? Do you think of Engineered Garments as part of a new generation of ‘Made in USA’ brands?
DS: I think it was in the 1970s that American clothing and culture began to play a big role in how I thought and dressed. There was a lot of American pride back then, due to the 200th anniversary of the nation, and you could see a real dedication to American clothing made in America. Like you described, I was also really interested in how American clothing was rugged and only fit well after being worn for a while—clothing like jeans and t-shirts that changed bit by bit with each wear and wash, until they were totally different from when you first bought them. This type of clothing was really unique, and striking to clothing connoisseurs all over the world. Also, at that time, in the 70s, the thought of ‘made in USA’ conjured all of these dream-like images of places far away, y’know, romantic notions of California and New York. Looking back at this image I’d formed of America when I was young, I realize it still influences my designs today. I definitely have a nostalgia for American products ‘made in USA’— and that forms the basis for Engineered Garments, at least in part.
But, to answer your question, I don’t exactly think of Engineered Garments as being a ‘made in USA’ brand in that same way as the products I encountered in the 70s. The concept behind Engineered Garments is more ‘made in NYC’ than anything else. We live in New York and are dedicated to making our clothes locally. This, for me, is the most significant origin of Engineered Garments.
SH: Not to spend too much time talking about brands and nationalities, but I’ve also noticed that both Battenwear and Engineered Garments are sometimes identified in the media as ‘Japanese brands’, even though both labels are based in NYC, made in America, and primarily influenced by traditional Americana. In addition to being a ‘made in NYC’, do you think of Engineered Garments as a ‘Japanese brand’? What goes through your mind when people focus on the ‘Japanese attention to detail’ or the ‘wabi-sabi aesthetic’?
DS: I think whether or not Engineered Garments is seen as a Japanese brand depends on who is looking at it. For me personally, since we are based in NYC, I think of EG as a NYC brand first and foremost. But of course, I'm Japanese, so people might instead think of it as a Japanese brand first. Honestly though, for me, it really doesn't matter. There are American designers in Paris and Turkish designers in Milan and Indian designers in London. How you look at each of these designers and their work depends on what you’re looking for. To me, I don’t really care about where a designer is from as long as what he/she is doing is interesting and different. People from all over the world are curious about the Japanese culture, which is great. And there are parts of Japanese culture which are different and sometimes hard to understand, actually I wonder if people just use the expression ‘wabi-sabi’ for anything Japanese that is difficult to define. Regardless, I think wabi-sabi is more accurate when used to describe fine art or high-end design, not what I do. I’m the guy who used to work at a clothing store and just happened to get into designing. I’m not a ‘designer-designer’. I don’t come from that world.
As for attention to detail, I think old American designs influenced my tastes more than anything else. For example, American clothing from the 1920s and 30s—at that time, there were a lot of anonymous designers who made really detailed, really amazing clothing. That era of garment making really inspires me.
SH: One of the things I really like about Engineered Garments is that there’s a great mix of bold, more experimental items and super simple, pared back items. It’s interesting to see how these items come together in the look-books, you have a really unique eye for coordination. As you mentioned, you didn’t come to design via any traditional or formal route; I’m interested in hearing more about how your experience working in Japan before coming to America influenced the way you design…
DS: I actually worked at a clothing store for eight years before coming to America. It wasn’t what you’d call a normal clothing store, though. We had really unique products imported from all kinds of places all over the world. Everything we had was truly excellent—really great stuff. People from the fashion industry, like editors and stylists, used to stop by to see what we had, so we always had to keep on our toes. While I was working there, I got really into all aspects of the clothes we sold. I examined all the details of each item and tried everything on. I figured out how to merchandise the items and worked in sales too. I really think having so many different roles at the store helped make me who I am. I learned how to pay close attention to every little detail, how to examine the fit of clothing, how to do styling and merchandising to make items look their best, and how to communicate with customers. All of that comes into play when I make the Engineered Garments look-book each season.
SH: Speaking of stores, one of my absolute favorite places to shop in NYC is the Nepenthes store. I’ve spent more time hanging out there than I’d like to admit, especially since it’s around the corner from my office. It’s been great to see how many people come every day from all over the world and really love the place. It must be really satisfying, since you spent so much time and energy putting the store together. Someday, I’d like to build a Batten flagship store. Would you say there was a secret to making a store successful?
DS: It would be so great if there was a secret, right? If there is a secret, I don’t know it, but I’m really happy to say that the Nepenthes store is doing well anyhow. Partly, I think the success comes from the fact that the main brand we sell is Engineered Garments, which fortunately has a good reputation. Also, the other items we sell, like the brands from Nepenthes Tokyo, are really unique—you won’t find them elsewhere in the US. Maybe more than anything else, though, I think we’re successful because of the great staff we have in the store… maybe there is a secret after all: nice people and nice stuff.
SH: I know you’ve really gotten into surfing in the past couple of years, actually more than I expected you to when you first came surfing with me. As you know, I’m really crazy about surfing, but even I sometimes wonder why I’m so in love with a sport that’s so hard to pursue in NYC. What do you think keeps you going to the beach time after time, making the long drive, braving through the winters, etc. and do you think surfing has influenced your designs?
DS: Yeah, I don’t think I would have gotten into surfing if you hadn’t introduced me to it. I’ve always loved the ocean, and I used to go to Mexico or Hawaii to swim and relax, but I never really understood the appeal of surfing. Even after we started working together and you asked me to come to the beach with you, I was skeptical. I feel like it was almost like an accident that I started loving it, because at first it was really frustrating. I got on the board, and I couldn’t do anything. But I think it was the disappointment of those first couple of times that made me really stubborn about quitting. It turned into a challenge. I think I still surf, even through the winters, because it’s so much fun to hang out with the people we surf with. Of course, you’ll always be my surfing teacher, and the other guys we go with are just as into going to the beach as we are, so we just keep going. That’s it, I guess. Surfing is a really great sport and something about it really suits me. As for my designs, yes, surfing is a big influence, because Engineered Garments is based on my personal experience and surfing has become such a part of my life.
SH: Finally, there are a lot of brands on the market, and most of them have fairly short life-spans—usually disappearing after 2 or 3 years. Engineered Garments has been popular for more than 10 years. I’ve always found this really inspiring. How have you managed to sustain your brand for such a long time?
Again, it would be nice if there were a secret to it. I don’t think there is, unfortunately. All I know is that I put everything into Engineered Garments—all of me. When I started the brand, I actually didn’t think it would last this long. I didn’t know if there were enough people out there who would share my taste. But as it turned out, I think EG struck a chord with the people who grew up in the same generation as me, or just admire that era. I think my ideas are based on a style that will always be important in America. Another way of looking at it is that EG appeals to people who want to dress differently from the average. Even if the group of people who like my clothes gets smaller and smaller, I really hope that EG will be able to continue forever, to keep those ideas alive. My hope for the future is that I can just keep making things that I enjoy and love, things that are not copies of anyone else’s designs or influenced by any one style or person in particular. I want to keep making clothes that are really original. If I had it my way, I’d keep making Engineered Garments forever.