I’m always intrigued by the tales and inspirations behind a designer’s line. I find the interplay and struggle behind a designer’s vision and the challenges to respect brand history fascinating. That draw and also an emotional connection to a brand heritage versus the constant churning of trends by mass production brands spearheaded what I believe to be the resurgence of rugged classic Americana in the past few years.
That and perhaps men felt inclined to dress..well, like men, again.
The main blogs I tend to (and chances are you do, as well): A Continuous Lean, Sartorially Inclined, Mister Crew, and the Inventory Magazine Update among others, do a superb job capturing and articulating details on construction and fit. My interview below with Rogues Gallery design director, Aaron Levine focuses on the man behind the inspiration board.
It began as a series of questions I mentally cataloged when reading reviews of his line, season over season at Hickey, however changing as he left the company (like many others during the recession, Hickey’s parent company had massive financial setbacks). Aaron then took over the helm at Rogues Gallery. I call these, “bar-questions”..casual and informal, but probing enough to capture the essence of the individual to lend their voice as an extension of the work they produce.
On January 9, 2009, Michael Williams of ACL posted a photo blog entry, “Street Style-Aaron Levine.” Clad in a Barbour jacket, cuffed jeans and Alden Indy boots, Aaron stood for 2 simple front and side profile shots. I’m guessing that Michael nor Aaron foresaw that the 2 relatively unassuming photos, entwined with complimentary comments, would elicit such boisterous and rowdy responses from his readers.
71 in all.
The front profile photo was subsequently used in a Newsweek article on February 9, 2009: Authentic Americana.
When Rogues Gallery founder, Alex Carleton began to lead the L.L. Bean Signature Series, he tapped Aaron as design director for RG-a brand inspired by all things Maine and nautical has seen very positive reviews and thrives under him.
I hope you enjoy and have as much fun reading this insightful interview, as I did giving it. Aaron grew up a few neighborhoods from me, and even life-guarded as a teenager at my community pool. It’s a huge inspiration to see such creativity arise from such a non-creative area (DC). A big-thank you to Mr. Levine, for taking the time out of his hectic schedule for these questions.
-This interview begins a series for this blog on designers-
1. You began your career in sales at Joseph Aboud (like many of the top menswear designers, you have no “formal design education”). How did that experience of working the front-end business influence you as a designer when you made the transition?
It was great. Really, it’s such a small industry that in order to be truly successful, I think it’s very important to know as much about as many aspects as you can. My passion is on the product and design end, but without sales, where would that go? As far as how it was influential with regards to product, I can’t say that it was so much.
I think the main thing I took away from the experience was the importance of clear and honest communication. I think the textbook answer here would be to say that by interacting with customers and really knowing about their business, you recognize where your own business can improve. I think the most important thing a brand can do is stay true to itself…it takes passion and discipline to do that…passion is what will come across when showing potential buyers your product…if the care is in the product and the passion is in the team that’s working on it, chances for success are greatly increased.
You can’t fake that. People can smell fake…
2. You’re the father of two gorgeous twin baby girls. If my time-line is correct, their birth occurred near the tail-end of your time at Hickey, in which you were at one point-THE Hickey team..literally, just you. Can you walk me through your thoughts during that time? As a new father, I’m assuming there were some sleepless nights for Mr. Levine.
The kids came at the end of May 2008. I left hickey at the end of July 2009…so you’re right on! It was crazy, man. That’s all I can say. The first three months….I…I…I still can’t talk about it…no, but seriously, it was rough. I was running on no gas and my wife was at home with the kids…it was tougher for her…so I can’t say anything, really.
I was not-not a bastard. I had to go around the office after 7 or so months, when some of the fog had lifted, and make personal apologies for my behavior to several people.
I didn’t have thoughts during that time. But, it has just gotten better ever since. People aren’t bullshitting when they say that. They’re awesome. My family is my rock. They’re all right here. It’s rad.
3. Were you taken by surprise with the rise of the blogosphere and their influence on menswear? Your friend, Michael Williams of, A Continuous Lean, and his blog post on your “Street-Style” garnered over 70 comments (some thoughtful, some asinine), and the photo of you was subsequently used in Newsweek. Can this be distracting for a designer or do you find the coverage and comments by readers useful?
Absolutely. Its both good and bad. Everyone has a say…but come on. Its clothing. There’s no right or wrong answer. You want people to like your product as much as you do.
People get so worked up over it. I mean, I do, too. I just try and absorb the constructive comments and laugh off the inane ones.
That post received 70 something comments. Literally, that was the first time I met MW. It was a rainy Friday in the city and I wore what I typically wear when the weather is shitty. It’s crazy how many people were so eager to thrash me personally over it.
It’s funny, though. When Michael is nice enough to let me do something for his site, as you are with yours, it’s like, “Let’s see how bad I get thrashed this time.”
Every now and then you come across a really insightful nugget…
I think what he is doing is really important though. He has a crazy passion for this stuff as well, so it’s nice that he doesn’t have a review board to answer to. He does what he wants to do…its not like, “who placed ads in x magazine this month?”…now were obliged to shoot all their clothes for editorial, you know?
This forum allows a lot of people who do this for the love of the game to show people what they’re up to…
4. What I like about Rogues Gallery is the encapsulation of ruggedness with a crafty appreciation for detail. JCrew in the past year has made huge strides in this area and also began partnering with tried and true brands like Barbour and Redwing. RG recently collaborated with JCrew and a line of tshirts is available in retail stores. Where do you see this partnership going?
Hopefully we can keep inspiring each other. They have an awesome team over there…super good people, crazy talented. If we can bring them things that they love, we can all get stoked talking about amazing clothing…that is…its gotta come from the love…can’t force it, you know?
So, I hope we can stay stoked to work with each other…that’s the goal.
5. The bubble of Americana is sure to burst sometime in the near future..or is it? What are your thoughts?
Man, it’s really a reflection of a lifestyle. It’s about shooting empty beer cans in the backyard with your buddies. Calling people you work with friends. Some one said to me the other day-“Man, you’re really in deep in this whole beard, brand x, brand y, brand z, blah thing lately.”
….What is that?
I mean, I’ve always been. I was before and I will be after. Hopefully people appreciate this aesthetic and the integrity in this type of product and keep staying into it.
Even if they don’t, I will. Slight variations in fit and details will always keep things relevant. Menswear is menswear. I always reach for the same things in my closet for a reason…
This whole business is cyclical. Can’t lose sleep over it, you know? Just gotta keep doing what you love.
A few fun questions:
-What do you do to recharge your batteries from the daily grind?
More daily grind.
-Outside of RG apparel, favorite articles of clothing?
English shoes. Swiss watches. Beat up t-shirts. A favorite couple of suits. Favorite couple of jeans.
I like simple, comfortable, classic things that can be dressed up or down.
Can’t ask that question to a guy that does what I do!
-You grew up a few neighborhoods from me in Northern Virginia, 10 minutes outside of Washington, DC. We’re known to produce stellar corporate monkeys and policy wonks…not exactly a menswear designer breeding ground. Do your old friends find it hard to believe you’re mentioned in publications like GQ and at the helm of a well-followed indie brand?
They bust my balls like they always did. Seriously. I get my balls busted.
Cold. Wet. Crisp. Ill drink any kind of beer. I love a beer.
-Any favorite footwear?
Impossible question. Too many. In the rotation right now are an old pair of Alden boots, an awesome pair of McNairy pebble grain double monks, some Brooks Brothers unlined cordovan loafers, a pair of brown leather Belgians, another Alden whiskey cordovan handsewn algonquin, some NB 996s, Chucks, a Churchs custom grade black Balmoral brogue, a polo by Crockett and Jones cordovan blucher brogue…too many.
You should see my side of the bedroom. Its a joke. The rest are tucked away in assorted nooks and crannies.
Another question you dont ask a guy who does what I do!
And finally, Aaron..what’s a quote you would share with your girls when they’re older that embodies their Father?
"Follow your bliss.” Took that one from my mom. I think she took it from Joseph Campbell. Thief.
Thank you, man.