When men talk about craftsmanship in clothing, they’re usually referring to tailoring or workwear. But for the past decade or so, men’s fashion has been dominated by that amorphous, novelty-obsessed category known as “streetwear” which focuses less on how clothes are made than design, logos and hype.
However, for those who prioritise craft, the choice between suits and sweats is a false one. You may be ready to skip the Travis Scott/McDonald’s sweatshirt collaboration but that doesn’t mean you have to dress like an extra from Peaky Blinders.
Now, a new crop of designers and makers is bringing a handmade sensibility to casual clothes. They’ve been building their brands slowly, with a commitment to using recycled or natural textiles, and long-term connections with (and fair wages for) the people whose hands are doing the sewing.
Perhaps the biggest of the three is the New York-based 18 East, led by Antonio Ciongoli, the former creative director of Isaia sub-brand Eidos. I met him in August at the brand’s Elizabeth Street studio-office-store, which still bears the signage from the space’s previous occupant, Ming Beauty Salon. On the racks were loose camp shirts and baggy trousers rendered in nubbly textures or hand-blocked fabrics, bonkers colour combinations and offbeat graphic tees — all carried off in the deeply insouciant way of skateboarders.
Many of 18 East’s clothes are made in India, where Ciongoli took a trip in 2016 and discovered the rich textile heritage of the region. Ciongoli was impressed by artisans who were using pre-industrial techniques: textiles woven on handlooms and block prints that created irregular, unique garments a machine could never reproduce.
At the time, he was feeling creatively stunted and tired of the wholesale business, so he decided to start a direct-to-consumer brand that could offer better value and make things that were closer to his lifestyle: “Blending the outdoor gear with functional clothes that you can skate in,” Ciongoli said, “and then this curveball of handcraft.”
The perfect encapsulation of this ethos is 18 East’s popular Studio double-knee pant, made last season in an olive cotton ripstop with a wavy Rajasthani quilting over the knee panels. A high-end but affordable homage to a pair of Carhartt painters, the $145 pants blend utility with eccentricity, elevating a simple garment. Be warned, however: the last time they were released they sold out within hours.
“We’ve actually gotten some negative feedback about that, like ‘Oh, you’re trying to be this cool, streetwear brand where everything sells out so quick’,” Ciongoli told me. He doesn’t want the brand to become another Supreme or Palace, intentionally limiting supply to create the illusion of value.
“For us, it’s just trying to be responsible with how you release things . . . Making 50 sweatshirts that are just blanks with the logo on them is not the same thing as making 50 handmade,” Ciongoli said. He grabbed a terracotta-coloured fleece hoodie with teal trim, custom-milled from recycled, deep-pile sherpa. “This fabric, it’s a limited quantity,” he went on. “And that’s a real limit, not an artificial constraint.”
Likewise, Graziano and Gutiérrez, which specialises in relaxed takes on West Coast cool, embraces the idea of releasing clothes in small batches. Founded in 2018 by Alejandro Gutiérrez and Samuel Graziano as a thesis project at the University of Cincinnati College of Design, the brand puts artisanship at the core of the design process by collaborating directly with craftspeople based in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca and San Andrés Larráinzar, Chiapas.
These weavers traditionally make rugs, tablecloths and other linens from locally dyed hemp and cotton, but on a research trip to the Yucatán Peninsula in 2017, Graziano and Gutiérrez realised that the richly textured cloth would make fantastic shirts, pants and jackets. From Mexico, the cloth is shipped to Portland, Oregon, where Guetiérrez cuts and sews by hand. Customers can buy off the rack from one of their seasonal capsule collections, or order something custom — down to the particular pattern of the cloth — all the while knowing that much of their money is going to pay the wages of the people who made it. The brand’s goal is to “create pieces to preserve, honour, and share the incredibly rich heritage of Mexico while also providing a platform for the artisans’ work to shine.”
Like Graziano and Gutiérrez, Pentimento is also a small operation, so tiny that it’s based out of owner Tim Haught’s Atlanta basement. Specialising in bomber jackets and square-cut Hawaiian shirts, Pentimento uses only found garments and upcycled fabric to create colourful, one-of-a-kind or limited-edition pieces, often with quilting and patchwork effects. From a FaceTime tour back in August, I could see shelves stacked with bolts of fabric, vintage sewing kits filled with old buttons and threads, and racks of thrift store items.
Haught never planned on being a “designer”. He learnt to sew from his grandmother. He spent a few years practising by watching YouTube videos, and now sells most of his work directly through his brand’s website.
Haught approaches his designs from a deeply anti-capitalist perspective: he doesn’t want to add more waste to the world, has no plans to hire an employee, and won’t raise his prices beyond what he needs to live.
“Just buying indiscriminately is so stupid,” he said. “I think people would be more satisfied just enjoying a thing without feeling like they’re in a race to find the next thing.”
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