Profile: Duckie Brown in their studio
About Duckie Brown
For the benefit of newcomers, particularly readers in the UK, Duckie Brown are a menswear label based in New York designed by partners Steven Cox and Daniel Silver. They are noted for a very European, if not specifically English, take on menswear, despite being very much a New York phenomenon. Recent collections have been seen to push the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable in terms of American menswear, particularly in the use of colour and fabric and how this might impact on the perceived sexuality of the men who wear it. These themes are explored candidly in the recent film The Guts of Duckie Brown. The partnership also has a very successful and ongoing collaboration with the classic American shoe brand Florsheim.
For all of this and more, one of the main reasons I wanted to attend NYFW this season was to attend the Duckie Brown show. As my flight arrived too late to attend the early-in-the-schedule show on the first afternoon of fashion week, Daniel and Steven were kind enough to invite me to their studio for a chat and to see the collection in person the next morning.
I’d been told that the show was ‘much darker than anything you’d imagine from Duckie Brown’, and on hearing me repeat this, Steven was quick to clarify that one of the factors influencing the outcome of this collection was that his mum had died last week. Needless to say, the Spring collection had been put together during a difficult time for them as individuals and as partners and co-designers of Duckie Brown.
Whilst I had areas I wanted to ask about, the conversation flowed naturally, so what follows is a series of observations and themes in words and pictures, rather than a traditional question and answer format interview, or collection review. Both Steven and Daniel were remarkably open and honest and as we chatted, offered insights into their design philosophy as well as the current collection.
We started off by discussing SS12 and given the personal context, the challenges they’d faced, in putting this particular collection together. Daniel was keen to point out that as designers, ultimately the most important influence was “us” and making themselves happy through their work and observed: “If I asked you who was the most important person in your life, I imagine you would say ‘I am’ “.
Meanwhile, Steven said that at times he’d worried that the collection would be “boring” and commented that they had never had “so much black” fabric in the studio. For a label synonymous with “fun” and a playful take on male sexuality, the sombre note introduced by using black as a key reference colour had clearly been jarring and only brought to light the very personal influences at work in their design process.
An Englishman (and a Canadian) in New York
One of the things that fascinates me about Duckie Brown is the duality of their being a New York label whilst clearly not really being “from” there, and in particular the influence that Steven’s Englishness brings to the brand. Both in conversation and in the film they made recently, Steven makes many references to what have clearly been formative experiences for him growing up in England: from the “sexual fantasy” of ‘casual’ lads and skinhead culture, through to the impact of growing up at a time when the fierce individualism of club icons like Leigh Bowery and designers like Westwood, Galliano and latterly, McQueen defined the English stance on fashion. Here Steven drew a parallel with Kim Jones and his persistent fascination with sexualised ‘lads in tracksuits’ in his collections. As Tim Blanks notes in his insightful Style.com review of the collection, references to ‘Bexleyheath boys’ had clearly been both fascinating and confusing for the American press. Steven was quick to point out that as visiting Englishmen we were more likely to ‘get’ the influences at work and whilst he was quick to refute such a literal take as the ‘Bexleyheath boys’ tag, I’ve heard the phrase often repeated in the last few days.
As we continued to talk about influences, I got a sense, of the inherent motifs and interests that run through their work. As I’ve mentioned, for Steven much of this is about the importance of individuality above all else and the pursuit of newness that is perhaps the unique hallmark of having studied fashion in England. Later he talked about the influence of British music on their work “New Order will always be in there, Joy Division will always be in there” and in terms of specific garments: “Spring Summer will always have a tracksuit in it, Autumn Winter will be suited and booted… we’ll always have a crombie”
Duckie Brown and American menswear
I’d wanted to ask Duckie Brown about how they see themselves in the context of American menswear, and this quickly came out in our conversation. It was very clear that they see themselves as different and were very clear about where that difference comes from. I’ve already mentioned the impact of Steven’s Englishness, but he was also keen to emphasise the American basis of their company “I’m an American, I’ve lived here for 20 years” but clearly within that there is also a sense of their being a New York label, and the isolation of New York itself within America.
With so much being said about heritage in the last few years, and the obsessive pursuit of “authentic” American clothing it was very refreshing to be talking to menswear designers here with a passion for newness. Again, Steven commented that his work had never been about “historical references”, something he can talk knowledgeably about having worked (pre-Duckie) within the industry for 12 years including for major history-referencing brands including Ralph Lauren. For Daniel, “American designers do preppy, we would never do preppy” and Steven added with typical candour, “I’ve never been to a prom, I don’t know what that is!”.
The Guts of Duckie Brown
I’d previously managed to see a few clips from the film The Guts of Duckie Brown directed by their friend Lina Plioplyte, currently doing the circuit of international film festivals. From this, I’d picked up on some of the themes of the film mentioned in my intro above, and was excited by their very direct take on reactions to their work in America: that fact that because they aren’t making classic American clothing for “real men” to wear, that the homophobia within the industry is one of their greatest challenges. Whilst Steven and Daniel stepped out to do another interview by phone they left the film running in it’s 12 minutes entirety, and what a pleasure it was. I’m not going to relate the content of the film here, only encourage you to see it when it becomes available, hopefully on YouTube once the aforementioned film festival circuit concludes. Here’s the trailer:
And so, on to the collection. Steven and Daniel gave us a personal walkthrough of the pieces, initially arranged in show garment order on racks, but quickly pulled out for tactile inspection and (in one instance) three-dimensional demo. I was aware that the invited audience for the show had been much smaller than the usual “200 people as opposed to 600″ and that it had been shown in a natural light flooded space, with a tableau sequence as well as individual walks.
The first garments on the runway were in the aforementioned black. A deflated puffa jacket was an ingenious spin on the winter wardrobe staple for spring, and in these pieces it was most obvious to see to the influence of London street sportswear in the nylon fabrics, essentially an elegant tracksuit with blousons and more conventional jacket shapes matched with sometimes voluminous pants, often with ‘twisted ankle’ details.
I particularly loved the sequence of blazers, loose pants and shorts in blues and greys. The indigo jacquard blazer and voluminous pants was a triumph. As was the grey tracksuit with sleeveless jacket.
Interlaced through the collection are some of the floaty, occasionally transparent ‘feminine’ pieces that Duckie have become known for, sometimes with a back-buttoning detailing: “Can you do me up?!” quipped Steven at this point.
The heavy, waxed cotton jackets (an English fabric we were told) were standout (if not stand-up) pieces. The same funnel neck shape appearing elsewhere in both plain printed organza and these items were amongst the most covetable.
A white ‘denim’ jacket and matching shorts constructed from a fabric so stiff they literally stood up, were an astonishing feat of design, and whilst Steven acceded that the jacket is difficult to get into, looking back at the catwalk images, I have to say the outfit looks sublime.
Eventually we got to the rose prints, which I was already aware had closed the collection, running through a spectrum from classic rose pinks, through softer grey shades and ending with, to my mind the most beautiful “the bruised rose” as Steven evocatively described it, where dark reds, purples and stormy greys take prominence. The rose prints are utilised on structural, organza pieces, sometimes as shorts and top, sometimes as a tracksuit.
There is an openness and freshness to Duckie Brown’s work, no doubt a reflection of the honesty with which they approach the world, and the fact that this is clearly a work of love, created above all to make themselves happy. I relish their uniqueness not only in the New York fashion scene but globally, as pioneers in how men might dress, and their dedication to creating fashion that is more than just clothing.