This post is made possible by Lexus Hybrid as a new part of the Fresh Perspectives series that focuses on featuring disrupting and innovative transmedia artists around the world. Every week, the program focuses on one of the six amazing artists involved in the Fresh Perspectives project. Interview by Geoff Carter
By Robert James
By Robert James is the brainchild of Robert James, a rural Ohio native whose menswear brand is founded on timeless handsome classics with a modern twist. After graduating from The Ohio State University and FIT, James pursued a design career in apparel design, with the purpose of honing his skills for his own brand. That day has arrived and James now works to bring his passion for men’s fashion to life by designing, a head to toe line of jackets, coats, jeans, trousers, and craft knitwear.
Jacket: The Sniper
Art on a sleeve
To hear him talk about what he does, you could be forgiven for thinking Robert James to be a young novelist. He’s got a searching mind, and he’s passionate about storytelling. But when you step into his studio/boutique on New York’s Lower East Side, it’s not books you’ll find lining the walls, it’s menswear — shirts, pants, jackets. And every one of his articles speaks volumes.
“I’m looking for small clues and little verbs and adverbs that help create a story within what I’m hoping to create as a modern garment,” says the 37-year-old designer. “A garment that is kind of true to today’s feeling.”
By Robert James — the name of James’ boutique and product line — is a brand based in trust: James trusts local suppliers to provide the materials he needs to make quality garments; he trusts in his ability to make those garments better than anyone else; and he trusts in a century of fashion statements — decades of accumulated verbs and adverbs — to help inspire the smartly handsome fashions of his line.
James employs Edwardian collars, hidden plackets and even polka dots to relate the entire epic saga of men’s style, from Wyatt Earp to Ringo Starr. A Robert James jacket looks equally at home in an upscale restaurant or against the green felt of a dive bar’s pool table. And thanks to James’ edit-as-you-go creative method, every last verb and adverb is easily read in his finished garments.
“Because I have a studio/boutique, I don’t work exactly like you’re supposed to,” James says. “If I get an idea for a garment and I’m in the middle of a season, I might make it now. I won’t make a million of them, but I’ll put it out, see if people like it. Just get a reaction on it.”
For Fresh Perspectives, we took advantage of James’ extemporaneous working style to get his artistic take on two themes, escape and challenge. In escape, James saw the journey he took from being “a mall kid” in rural Ohio to becoming one of the hottest young designers in Manhattan.
“To me, it wasn’t about escaping the people or the place, just the inability to do what I wanted,” James says of his design, a screen-print T-shirt depicting a bicycle rolling through a lush, seemingly limitless otherworld. “Screen-print and artwork is a place for me to escape and do something fun and interesting, with no rules.”
On the other hand, James sees challenge as waking up from the daydream and getting down to work.
“One of the more challenging things to do in apparel is a piece of outerwear, a jacket — especially in a time shortage,” he says. “The piece that we made was a prototype, but a lot of the ideas that we were able to capture have since been put into the final pattern. It’ll be in the shop in a couple of weeks.”
It’s not the first time James has created a garment on the fly. In fact, he seems to relish thinking and working fast.
“When we opened, we had six shirts, two pairs of pants and two jackets in stock,” he says. “When a customer came in for something and it wasn’t his size, I would just make it. We would just make it all, piece by piece, as fast as we could.”
In the end, however, it’s not about how Robert James sews his wearable stories together, but how they’re read out in the world.
“I know what’s going to look good on somebody,” says the designer, with modest but genuine confidence. “I like being that guy who kind of has that part on lockdown.”