The Menswear Uniform Redefined: In Conversation with Neil Barrett

by Hetty Mahlich on 4 February 2022

The designer is a pivotal force when it comes to reimagining menswear uniforms. After a season full of hybrid dressing, we spoke to Barrett about his best collection yet.

The designer is a pivotal force when it comes to reimagining menswear uniforms. After a season full of hybrid dressing, we spoke to Barrett about his best collection yet.

An unsung hero when it comes to fashion publications' seasonal round-ups and reports, menswear today owes Milan's Neil Barrett a lot. Back in the 1990s, Barrett introduced nylon (the basis of the y2k trend for Prada's re-nylon bucket hats and bags) and neoprene to Prada during a five year stint where he helped to establish the menswear and Prada Sport lines. At the time, stretch and tailoring in the same sentence was unheard of; now 'techno stretch' is the norm. It was part of Barrett's mission to make 'the perfect pattern. And then it was the perfect jacket', he explains. In short, Barrett was pivotal to reimagining the men's suit and introducing sportswear to luxury menswear.

Attending the Autumn/Winter menswear shows in Florence and Milan last month, one couldn't avoid the overarching theme of a New Sartorialism. This was in fact the title for January's edition of Pitti Uomo, the men's trade show for which press, buyers and general menswear devotees flock to twice a year. Menswear is it's own fashion beast; clothes come with a unique set of rules and tribal allegiances, and designers have fierce commitments to their wearers and what they want, whether that's in suiting or sportswear - a simplistic break down of the two main arenas we've seen play out in menswear since the period Barrett entered onto the scene. Whether it's the width of a lapel, or the limited edition colourways of an adidas SPZL trainer, the camaraderie of menswear is addictive, obsessive and unique.

What has become clear in fashion collections post-lockdown, is that luxury consumers - especially the fast growing Gen-Z market - want a hybrid of dressing both up and down. In Milan, Silvia Venturini Fendi showed their most effeminate collection to date, with monogrammed bucket hats and windbreakers presented alongside pearly chocker necklaces placed atop rib-knit neck collars, and jackets which morphed into capes, trousers into skirts. Alessandro Sartori's Zegna was focused on a new vision for a more casual, adjustable suit. Prada's A/W 22 uniform mixed bomber jackets with shearling-trimmed coats. Not groundbreaking, but interesting propositions nonetheless. A common thread was hybrid fabrications; Prada's seasonal nylon sat alongside 'silk tech', whilst as the fabric-obsessed Matthew Williams of 1017 ALYX 9SM trimmed nylon jackets with ostrich feathers. This was also prominent at Pitti Uomo, where AlphaTauri's jackets featured 'Heatable' technology and waterproof 'Taurobran' fabrics.

Look 2

Neil Barrett A/W 22 may just be the designer's best collection yet. Refining his brands codes, like many other designers as of late, the influence of the military uniforms worn by his father and his grandfather's tailoring business form the focus. Even just the three opening navy blue military jackets featuring black leather inserts will have you hook, line, and sinker. The military jackets reminded me somewhat of his S/S 11 collection, but feel firmly for the man, or woman, of today. In other looks, denim collars are loosely reminiscent of naval wear, but don't verge on pantomime. Bomber jackets in collaboration with Alpha Industries fit seamlessly by reimagining archival Neil Barrett silhouettes, rather than feeling like a box ticking exercise. The designer also leant more heavily into the realms of decoration, using military press studs, such as on look 28, to create ornamentation rooted in function. In the same vein, regal cummerbands feature zips in the top pleats and double up as bum bags.

These designs exemplify the beauty of something simple on paper, but glorious when meticulously executed. Shown in an accompanying fashion film cum music video, models rode on conveyor belts against a bubblegum pink backdrop. This season was the perfect amalgamation of everything Barrett has precisely defined at his Milan-based label since founding it in 1999, playing with the rules and constraints of the uniforms of menswear to suit the evolution of his wearer. So naturally, I was eager to speak to him about his latest collection.

This season was very much about the memory of a military detail...I want to go back to my DNA to reinforce why I was interested in fashion.

Hetty Mahlich: Congratulations, this is my favourite collection you've ever done, and I'm really excited to talk to you about it. I mean, those three opening looks! But I did want to start by talking about the digital format, and the success of the film you produced. There's an interesting contrast between the playfulness of the presentation, and then the rules of dress which underpin the collection. How do you feel about showing digitally, why did you embrace film this season?

Neil Barrett: This is my first purely digital show. We decided early that, perhaps, this wasn't the season to return to a physical show. Everything is changing so quickly, it's so uncertain, and I like to be precise. We committed to staging a digital show to really push ourselves to present differently and approached it a little like a music video. Rather than feeling constrained by the medium, I wanted to embrace it and embrace its possibilities, to express this surrealist concept. It proved to be both an inspiring and an enjoyable experience. I don't think I've ever heard people laugh so much during a show. So I found the virtual and digital show a really fun experience, which I wasn't expecting.

HM: It's clever to do it in that way. It's been difficult for brands to adjust so quickly, but you can really tell when it's been a last minute scramble.

NB: I really wanted to do something like a music video because those are the sort of short videos I enjoy watching. I wanted to have this crazy sort of surreal scenario where you had all the multiple eyes watching you. It was this concept of individuals all over the place, watching the show, and then actually following the models as they were walking along on the moving ramp.

HM: How did the soundtrack by Arne Vinzon come about?

NB: That particular song [De Beaux Rêves] is at the beginning and the end of the video. It's been on repeat on my playlists all the time, it's inspiring to me. So I thought, well why don't I just reach out? We worked out the rights for you know, the next 10 or 12 years, and I can use it whenever I want.

Look 37

HM: I was reading an interview that you did with GQ, a few years ago, and you were talking about being very aware of the digital age and how that's changing menswear especially; designing to make sure that your clothes translate digitally. I thought that was really interesting, especially as there's less graphic prints than you usually do in this A/W 22 collection. Now we're in a more digital age than ever, how do you feel about that when you are designing?

NB: We've been aware over the years that the digital presence is so much more important as time goes by. The fact of designing things that are visible and that can actually be understood through the screen is still essential. It was really important that the looks could translate digitally and be very visual, that's why we chose the pink background because I was doing lots of navies and I wanted that to be visible and not look like it was black, because so often navies just disappear in a show. That's very much ever present, the idea that you have to make something that's attractive in that square or rectangle of the screen, and yes I'm always aware when I'm doing that.

It's one of those things, obviously I'd like to put in graphics into the collection that you have visible, which you can see here in the puffers, knits and sweaters. But what I wanted to get across with this collection was that what I wear and what I believe in, is uniform. I really love it when it's one fabric from top to bottom, or a similar one with different weights. So the look can be the same, but the feel can obviously be more practical.

In one way, it's important that I always put those cuts and inlays into the collection, which my clients sort of expect to have for me, but now it was trying to put them in a younger, fresher way that felt like I could wear everything. I've tried to move away from the fact of trying to keep people happy in my different markets and my different partners, and it's really important to try and get across the statement that I can physically, I can personally, believe in all the looks.

I just feel that this time I'm actually sticking to my guns and actually putting a lot of my plain garments here, which is what I feel is true to my nature and how I started in fashion in the 90s. It's a combination of both.

HM: I think calling what you do 'plain' is doing yourself a disservice!

NB: Plain is the wrong word isn't it!

HM: Particularly in this format, as you say, you can really see the details, from the buttons to the pockets, to the quality of the fabric. Navy and pink is such a brilliant combination. This collection feels very you, you can see your design codes throughout.

NB: Exactly. I felt it was very, very me. I say plain but I undersell myself. I'm not the great orator when it comes to things like that, but for me, I see it either as pattern or plain. All those details, the way I cut things to get that look across. This season was very much about the memory of a military detail because I wanted to get across a military collection, I want to go back more to my DNA over the next few years to reinforce why I was interested in fashion, how I started and why I love the 90s so much, but really working it for today's reality. Wherever I could put the memory of a military detail, I was applying it, but in a way that wasn't kitsch. It was considered and made relevant, I felt, for something that I could be happily wearing now.

HM: It feels completely modern. When we talk about uniform, particularly that of the military, there's this inherent idea of ceremony. I was really drawn to the cummerbunds and tie-up collars which are reminiscent of the ties on a corset, I felt. Do you think of your work as being ceremonial in any sense?

NB: I added more elements of the regalia of military this time than I've ever used. It would be the same fabric in raw cut layers to create the idea of military colours, which are now neutralised. Gold buttons were replaced with a metal button. So I made a play of buttons on the same garment, but you could only see it if you could really focus because it's something for the wearer. I don't really work so much into that decoration normally, it's a whole world that I haven't really explored. I really liked the concept of a memory of a detail, rather than being so literal.

HM: Having those subtle details worked into one another, rather than it being kind of a slap on reference.

NB: Yes, or it becomes too obvious. Even the press studs, those were authentic military press studs, but they became a new form of decoration in those parallel lines across the trousers and jackets. Those were actually from an original army jacket, where you could press on pockets on wherever you wanted. So I took this idea that was 100% authentic, and made it into this sort of linear decorative idea. Studs can be very Philip Plein, or rock 'n' roll, or very Prada. I was trying to avoid that, to find something that was a decorative element, but that was intrinsically practical. That makes the difference for me, it makes more sense. It's a little bit more masculine, I feel.

Look 21
I'm just trying to elevate the details of how the fabric reacts and how it reacts on the body.

HM: You've been such a incredible force in menswear, and at the moment everyone's talking about this new shift in classicism and sartorial dressing. Those technical fabrications which you were such a key part of bringing into menswear, creating this hybrid, are everywhere now. Where do you see the Neil Barrett brand in relation to all of this?

NB: I've been fortunate to have started my career in the 90s, and to have been a pioneer of that period of bringing technical fabrics into tailoring. And then, in the following decades and following decade, bringing in the idea of the hybrid from day one of my first collection. The first five years of the 90s were doing the technical nylons in tailoring, reworking this over the years. So many people are up on that trend of addressing that period. What I wanted to present this season was something that was just taking it more into how I felt would be what I would desire to wear in the city, in an urban reality. It was to be less sporty in that casual way, and more the sport element but which actually derived directly from actual military uniforms, whether it's air force or naval. Taking elements of all of them, neutralising them by the use of certain colours or fabrics, like bringing all those rich flannels into some of the sports pieces and then having the matching trouser. For instance, I backed the fabric with a viscose so that against your leg, you have this really smooth viscose and then the outside it actually looks wooly and flannelly. It was so many things that you won't notice until you actually put the garment on. I'm just trying to elevate it now, the details of how the fabric reacts and how it reacts on the body.

When I first started putting nylons into a jacket for Prada, for example, it was about trying to cross over things to change menswear. It was about modernising it and taking away the decorations, because it was so decorative in that period, so patterned and blingy. It was about just trying to clean it down to the essentials, but make things that were completely practical. At the time, there wasn't really stretch in the industry, stretchy menswear didn't exist. So by finding these technical fabrications, and even bringing the techno-stretch to Prada, that didn't exist. I found the fabric and then it went into the women's and so forth - it's the the second most famous fabric in the company. I brought that to the table because it didn't crease, it was comfortable, and I could get the perfect pattern out of that. And then it was the perfect jacket. I had to persuade all the suit factories to actually work with stretch, because none of them wanted to. There was a whole period of convincing traditional genius producers of classic tailoring, that they could move forward and actually create something new, which now has become a norm, and even more so in this moment where people are just pulling pieces and redoing them. We used to always look down on people doing that, but now even the highest brands do that, because it's an accepted process. But that's the reality of fashion, things have changed so much that you just make the most out of each period and push yourself to move forward. That's what I've been trying to do with how I put together this collection and how I have developed my relationship with the wearer so that they can discover new things.

Look 43

HM: Do you think menswear is still exciting?

NB: When an industry or specific subject within an industry is exciting, it drives us all on. There's really good stuff out there and there's also a lot of plagiarism going on. I find menswear exciting because there's so many designers, there's so much competition, that it makes me feel that I've got to become more focused on who I am and more pure to what I believe in, which has actually pushed me to do this show. And, you know, for you to say that you thought it was one of the best shows, that obviously makes us feel great because you're actually seeing that it's very on brand, but it's also very relevant, very modern. But it's still wearable, not excessive.

Interview by:



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