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Printemps.com
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Neil Barrett: "The more diversity there is, the more beauty."

Neil Barrett en noir et blanc

Photo: © Neil Barrett

Hybrid pieces featuring a clever mix of tailoring and sportswear, an undeniable sense of comfort, graphic details, and sharp Bauhausian lines: since going solo in 1999, England-born and Italy-based Neil Barrett has established a unique style and perspective on fashion. Creative, clean, and with his finger on the pulse of the world, Barrett speaks with Printemps.com about the evolution of his design, the fault lines in fashion, and his commitment to diversity.

Printemps.com: Has the public health situation changed how you see the fashion industry?

Neil Barrett: Yes, absolutely. I really feel like the rhythm of fashion, with time, has gotten faster and faster. It's like a racetrack where the horses just keep galloping, and they never stop, it has no end! You present a collection and you're already late starting work on the next one. The machine needs to slow down; it's gotten out of control, not only for me, but also for all the actors in the sector. Particularly for independent designers who want to hang onto their authenticity, their creativity and their point of view. It's time to slow down so that we can preserve the beauty and the craftsmanship of our industry.

Maintaining your brand's independence, is that still a non-negotiable for you?

After having worked for two of the world's most beautiful enterprises for ten years — at Gucci and then at Prada — I wanted to prove to myself that I could create my own brand. I had already launched Prada Men and Prada Sport from the ground up. I wanted to see if I could create Neil Barrett, without public relations or publicity. I wanted to create clothes that could sell themselves, and not thanks to the label sewn inside. I've gotten offers on the brand or asked if I'd like to create for a larger group while keeping this project on the side and I've always refused. I have a fairly purist vision of things and I love a good challenge.

Backstage at the Neil Barrett Autumn/Winter 2020 fashion show. © Neil Barrett

You've been described as a very pragmatic person. Do you think that's important in such a fast-paced industry?

I place a lot of trust in my instincts, and everything I do comes from passion. I'm not a diva. I just love my work. I also think that it depends on how one's been educated, how the mind's been guided. I was lucky to have parents who kept me grounded.

How do you interpret the changes in men's fashion over the past few years?

With the advent of digital, things have changed a lot over the past ten years, really accelerating. The Internet changed everything. The style that I've created over time is a mix of tailoring and sportswear, with a lot of military influences. I created Neil Barrett by making hybrid pieces, mixing inspirations. At the time, I was the only one doing that, and then Sacai also started doing mashups. Then people started talking about "athleisure," which was what I'd been doing for twenty years without putting a label on it. I've always mixed techniques from sportswear and the craftsmanship of tailoring. But everyone started doing athleisure, and I got copied a lot, from fast fashion to luxury houses. But I take it as a compliment, so it's all good!

"I imagine collections for all forms, sizes, and ages."

Has Instagram changed how you work?

Yes, absolutely. I've always designed — from my years at Prada to the last ten at Neil Barrett — unified clothes: it's the uniform that I created, that I wear to feel cool and confident. I always wear the same things: black, navy blue, white, or camel, or a khaki, maybe a grey pant. That's what I'm wearing ninety percent of the time, except when I'm at the beach and I'm wearing a towel! So I've always used those colors, throughout the 30 years of my career, exploring different ways of combining them, using different textiles and threads. Before social media, those uniform pieces sold well. Each monochrome garment that I create is simple in appearance, but when you come closer, you realize that the fabric is totally not what you imagined it to be. You try the piece on and notice all the little practical details that have been foreseen, it's something that you can't understand if you haven't touched and worn the piece. And then those styles stopped selling quite so well...We realized that on a phone, no one could see all the detail! So I started making more graphic pieces, without putting my name on them. I was inspired by Bauhaus art, architecture, and started imagining graphic patterns, cuts and combinations of my pieces. Without embellishment, embroidery, whatever. I had to imagine something that would work visually on that tiny smartphone screen, without betraying my DNA. That was also when I created my logo, with the lightning bolt symbol.

Backstage at the Neil Barrett Autumn/Winter 2020 fashion show. © Neil Barrett.

Inclusivity is central to your take on fashion. What inspired that?

Around a year and a half ago we took a detailed look at the models who had been featured in our shows and our campaigns. We saw that half of them were Black men, thirty percent were Asian, and twenty percent were white. I think that the more diversity there is, the more beauty. I don't recognize myself in orthodox beauty norms, I always seek out models with character; I want to see their personality come through. I imagine collections for all body forms, sizes, and ages.

Sustainable development is a major concern for fashion houses. What's your perspective on the subject?

It's a question that's been important for years, but Covid-19 really shines a spotlight on it. Since day one, I've always produced ninety, today eighty percent of my collections in Italy, reducing carbon emissions linked to transport. Plus, as an independent brand, my inventory is limited compared to fast fashion brands. I recently watched David Attenborough's Life On Our Planet on Netflix. He's incredible, a real defender of nature and an animal lover, 94 years old, making shows on the BBC since the 60s. What mankind has done to the planet is terrible, but there's a chance we can save the world if more people take an interest in what's going on around them. It's a gentle film, it doesn't deal in shock value, but it raises awareness. For the first time in my life, I sent a link to all my contacts and asked them to watch it. It's sad, but it's beautiful and there's a hopeful ending. It's that hope that we must listen to.

Backstage at the Neil Barrett Autumn/Winter 2020 fashion show. © Neil Barrett.

After all these years in fashion, what keeps your passion alive?

I love the process of creating a garment. I love really thinking as I look at my wardrobe, about what I don't already have that I would want. I love creating textiles that will make my clothes even more practical and more beautiful. And then I also love assembling, making those connections, trying everything, adjusting and refining until a garment or ensemble is absolutely perfect. When I see someone in the street wearing one of my designs, I smile on the inside.

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