Fashion Design 101: Hang On To Your Ego

Every profession has its own ecosystem of egos. In advertising, the prima donnas are the creative directors (see Mad Men); in opera, it’s the sopranos; in classical music, the violinists. And in fashion design? Well, if you believed everything you watched on TV, it would seem like everyone but the lowliest assistant was completely stuck on themselves. Not so, says designer Andrew Buckler.
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uckler started his eponymous label in 2001 doing denim and has since evolved it into a full-blown menswear line, dressing men from head to toe. He’s a particular favorite among the rock ‘n roll set, and has clothed icons like Mick Jagger, the Boss, and Iggy Pop, as well as younger lads such as Franz Ferdinand. We met with the notably humble Buckler at his studio and store in the Meatpacking District to talk about coming of age as a fashion designer, the challenges of assembling a creative team, and the art of keeping your ego in check.

What aspect of running a creative venture do you think is the most challenging?

The million-dollar question is that balance between being creative and how much you can sell something for, and sell it to your customer. If you get into a situation where you’re selling something that nobody wants, that’s a problem. And it’s maintaining that balance. Each season, whether it’s 20 or 30 new ideas that we come up with. At least 70% of those have got to hit the nail on the head. And there’s always going to be a small percentage that miss the mark. Maybe you were too clever, or too early with it. Even though somebody might stand back and go, “I love it! It’s brilliant!” when it actually comes to trying to sell it, then nobody buys it. That’s a disconnect.

Did you have to transition from a more conceptual/intellectual way of thinking about fashion to a more entrepreneurial mindset when you started your business?

I think for most designers when they leave college it’s probably like a huge car crash – it’s trauma. I studied at the Royal College of Art, I did a degree, an MA. And, you know, around a group of people and peers and professors where it was super intellectual and very much about the design element. And suddenly you get into the world – and luckily enough I did get a job – and it’s just about the money. They don’t give a shit. I don’t care what button you put on there – is it going to sell?

I think for most designers when they leave college it’s probably like a huge car crash – it’s trauma.

So I think there’s a phase of learning and understanding those elements and the detail of what you do. I think a lot of designers probably graduate and they’ve got this huge vision out there [gestures far away], but the reality is right here [gestures close to himself] and suddenly you’ve got to come back to this – about what that detail is. And you can learn that.

How does it work with you and your internal designers? Initially, when you moved from doing everything yourself to having people work for you, was that a difficult transition to manage?

I think it is one of the toughest. And I probably didn’t appreciate it until I was actually doing it for myself. I was lucky enough when I was working for other companies, I had people working below me or with me, so I got a sense of the dynamic of working with people.

It’s different when you have to choose your team, with your idea. I’ve interviewed many designers, and within that process, I try and find somebody who has a similar aesthetic to me, and seems to enjoy the details I have – but maybe with a slightly different angle. I mean there’s no use getting a carbon copy of me, and there’s no point in getting someone who’s on Mars in relation to me. So it’s getting that balance of someone who’s going to bring something a bit newer to the table, but who’s not going to piss me off.

Do you have moments where your designers come back with something that makes you think, “That’s not how I would have thought of it.” (In a good way.)

Definitely. I think that in the design process that often happens. Even with a manufacturer, they’ll interpret something and you’ll be like, ah well, and then you kind think from a manufacturing point of view that works quite well and is probably easier than what we thought so let’s go with that. Or take that idea and work with it more. I think that works for every level.

What would you say to a young creative who wanted to start a fashion line?

I went and worked and designed for other companies, and I think that’s pretty invaluable. You can learn a lot by doing that, so that you don’t make mistakes. Because if you don’t know what you’re doing, it can become very expensive – you’re going to upset a lot of people, and ultimately yourself, because you’ll have frustration. I think that gaining experience is very valuable, and a there’s a certain humbleness to that as well.

You know, sometimes you watch those TV programs like Project Runway and I think people seem to have a vision that that’s what design is about. You know, I’ve got to have a huge ego, I ‘ve got to be like Mr. Disney character and that’s how I’m going to forge my life. You know the reality is, you know, wouldn’t want to have anyone like that working for me. I mean NO WAY. Fine, you go ahead and start your own thing. But I don’t need an ego around me. And most companies that you work for don’t want that. They just want somebody who is very focused, knows how to deal with other people around them and doesn’t let their own personality take over that.

Most companies just want somebody who is very focused, knows how to deal with other people, and doesn’t let their own personality take over.

As you get older, you’re going to get more experience and you’re going get more and more confidence, and some kind of personality is going to evolve. But at least it’s based on something. You can have attitude a bit further down the road.

Do you that it’s a big misconception about the fashion world, that it’s filled with those kinds of egos?

I think that people look at TV and absorb things from that point of view without getting into the world themselves and dealing with it and working. Even if it’s a junior position picking up pens for some designer, you’re going to learn a lot. And you realize that you keep your ego in your pocket and you really concentrate on trying to learn something.

I think the one thing about clothes, ultimately, is that you use yourself as the expression, you know, you can’t necessarily have a loud ego. I don’t know any fashion designer who’s going to stop someone from dressing up amazingly. If somebody wants to wear ball gowns to work everyday I think that’s fuckin’ great. But I don’t want that ball gown coming out of your mouth. If you concentrate on what you’re doing, and you look amazing that’s really stimulating.

Jocelyn K. Glei

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A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with understanding how work gives our lives meaning. She has authored three books about work, creativity, and business, including the Amazon bestsellers Manage Your Day-to-Day and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.
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