THE NEW BLOKE AT BRIONI
He’s the clown pimp – and most powerful Australian – in luxury fashion. Better yet, he’s putting men back into menswear.
Australian designer Justin O’shea on what it means to be a modern man.
Justin O’shea is the physical embodiment of the egalitarianism that’s sweeping though the luxury houses. ‘Accessible luxury’ – sure, it’s a buzzword. Hell, it’s arguably an oxymoron, but it’s also a sartorial concept central to the contemporary outlook of top-tier brands collectively pushing broader than ever before. Look at Kenzo – which, in 2011, started to reposition (read: explore a wider range of price points) under the creative stewardship of Opening Ceremony cool kids Humberto Leon and Carol Lim. Then there’s Louis Vuitton’s installation of Kim Jones and his announcement of a new line of men’s denim a few months back. And now Brioni, a once-staid Italian outfitter, which, under the creative direction of O’shea (the suited and bearded Australian who walks with a pimp’s swagger and swears like a wharfie) debuted a collection that featured, alongside $9000 suits, the likes of “wife beaters” – his words. See, that’s the thing about this 37-year-old from Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory – he’s real. Unaffected. The ultimate accessible gatekeeper to a luxury label; a wellestablished ‘street style star’ with a marketable following far removed from the buttoned-up, designer Belgians who spend weekends espousing, at some considerable length, the importance of 17th century sculpture. Not O’shea – he’s the man who, within minutes of talking to GQ, is outing a fondness for a solid night of beer and shenanigans with the “boys”; the same man who announced his arrival on the scene by unveiling rockers Metallica as the faces of Brioni’s new direction. “Look, we’re high suiting, [but] we should also have stuff that’s just fucking cool, things that anyone can buy – yeah, that’s what I wanted to bring to the brand,” chimes O’shea, in elevated tones that belie his ‘slick biker’ look. “You know, we’re at a level that’s more exclusive than a lot of other brands, but you also need to bring in more accessibility among the ultimate in luxury... “Modern guys, you know, with the digital age and ecommerce and social media, it’s given them the ability to know a lot more about fashion, to know what their style is and to know what’s available. And I know that modern guys can go and buy a $15 fucking Uniqlo or Bonds T-shirt and wear it with a $10,000 suit and that’s totally fucking awesome, because you don’t need expensive stuff with expensive stuff.” It plays into his use of Metallica – an unconventional move and one met by a mixed chorus of support and surprise, but again it delivers a broad slap. “There’s not one dude who doesn’t want to sit in a pub and have a beer with these guys, not one,” says O’shea. “They’re the ultimate bad arses; they appeal to a 70-year-old who’s loved them since he was 40, and then there’s the 18-year-old who loves them because they’re fucking rock gods. There aren’t too many superstars who have that kind of appeal.” Talk of the Metallica campaign – which also displayed Brioni’s return to a Gothic font for its logo, something O’shea dragged from the archives and which was used by the Italian tailors between the 1950s and ’70s – prompts a couple of questions. How the hell did he explain ‘wife beater’ to his new bosses? “You’re right, the translation wasn’t too politically correct. I was just like, ‘Don’t fucking worry, it’s a fucking Australian thing, it’s a fucking tank top.’” And what was the initial response from François-henri Pinault (CEO of Kering, which bought Brioni in 2012) about using Metallica to sell luxury fashion? “I presented [the campaign] in these big gold frames like you do gold records, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Well, he’s either going to say two things – ‘You’re fired,’ or ‘I love it.’’ And you know what? He was just like, ‘That’s awesome – what’s your favourite Metallica song? I need to start a new Spotify playlist.’ Oh, and then he said he needed to be sat next to them at the show.” O’shea admits nerves ahead of that first collection in Paris in July. He also admits it wasn’t so much Metallica, as fellow ’70s rockers Boston, who helped him relax. “I was listening to them so much in the two weeks of show preparation. Every time I’d get in the car, I was so tired and so fucking stressed out. I’d play that and scream it fucking out, ‘It’s more than a feeeeeling – more than a FEEEEELING...’ Yeah, that got me through.”
“They thought ‘wife beaters’ wasn’t all that politically correct. I said, ‘Don’t fucking worry, it’s an Australian fucking thing.’”
O’Shea was born in Toowoomba and raised, for the most part, in Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory – a remote bauxite mining community, closer to Papua New Guinea than the key Australian capitals. “No one knows where the fuck it is – I just tend to tell people in Europe I’m from Sydney. But it’s a peaceful place, people are relaxed, they leave their doors open and there aren’t many worries. I loved it – even though at the time, I’d dream of living somewhere that had a fucking Mcdonald’s – yeah, that was the thing I aspired to back then.” Beyond riding dirt bikes and “getting drunk on the school oval,” teen years meant running about on varying sporting fields – O’shea gifted at rugby league, AFL, hockey and basketball. Each offered a chance to travel – especially given he was, by his late teens, playing at a representative level. O’shea admits there was never really a firm plan for life – and it’s an approach that’s worked. It saw him leave Perth, where he was chasing an Olympic hockey dream, for Amsterdam at 23, to run a retail sports store. “Despite popular thinking, I’m not a pot head, so I wasn’t wasted all the time – it’s the one thing I didn’t do among all the other stuff. I still managed to find some good times and have some fun, but I also found a good set of Dutch friends, went to Dutch language school and was doing OK at that and felt like I was actually living there. It was really cool to be part of another culture.” After a stint in the Middle East (with Kuwaiti retailer Al Ostoura) he returned to London and eventually moved to then-new ecommerce fashion start-up, My Theresa, as a buying director. There for seven years, O’shea says it taught him about professionalism, work ethic and “looking at fashion in a different way; looking at everything that surrounds the industry and realising it’s not only about the clothes – there are so many other tasks you need to do to make something successful.” Despite his ascent and achievement – My Theresa making $130m a year by the time he left – O’shea never lost the honest and raw sense of masculinity that framed his upbringing. His wardrobe may have evolved to favour threepiece Jake Mueser suits (prior to joining Brioni, that is) but he wore them with a hyper-masculine edge, as accessorised by his biker’s beard and tatts. And it’s that same essence of manliness that he wants to deliver at Brioni. “My vision is about bringing the word ‘men’ back into menswear, because it's definitely gone down a path where everyone is trying to move away, wanting an image that’s the contrast to what a man represents, searching for something to separate themselves in the market. No one’s applauding masculinity, [but] it’s cool to be a guy and it doesn’t matter if you’re straight, gay, bisexual or anything – who gives a shit? This [collection] is for a man, whoever you are – that’s what I wanted, to bring that back as that’s what’s going to separate us from all the other brands at the moment.” A quick look elsewhere confirms such sentiment – key luxury houses such as Gucci, Burberry and Givenchy but three maintaining a certain androgynous output. That said, Brioni has a history with ‘traditional’ masculinity – the label loved by men like John Wayne and Richard Burton. “Those guys who first bought into Brioni [in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s] were such real men and that’s what I wanted to embody in the collection. But I also wanted to make it fun – I didn’t want guys drinking whisky out of a tumbler and smoking cigars and having beards and riding tricked out motorcycles with brown seats, that’s not the path. It’s more about what defines a man, rather than the modern things dudes are into... And I mean every fucking [marketing] campaign has a dude with a beard in it now – they put dudes with beards in there because it’s trendy.” O’shea scouted real boxers to model his debut collection, “fucking tough guys”, to convey his message, each working with designs that were overt and outlandish in their styling – each an extension of O’shea’s personal style. “I wanted to be true to not only the Brioni brand, but also true to myself – the one talent I can say that I moderately have is tailoring. Even though I couldn’t sew a tablecloth, I know what looks amazing on a guy and what style can define an individual among a vastly individual world – so I wanted to stick to my strengths so people go, ‘At least he’s doing what he knows.’ And because style has to be authentic.” Authenticity – it loops neatly to that notion of accessibility. Much like the man himself – a guy who may be peddling luxury, but equally a guy you can easily gravitate towards and understand. Someone for whom life is meant to be fun. “I love my job. I have a great time and I enjoy the business, fun and creative aspects of it but, at the end of the day, I’d hate to be one of those dudes who’s too serious. It seems a bit too try-hard – that’s not the way I am. I just want to do something that makes people enjoy it, and to have fun myself... You know, I’m from the fucking middle of the fucking Australian wilderness. I spend my life watching fucking Marvel films on planes. I reference Jerry Seinfeld and The Simpsons. Man, if I took myself too seriously, I’d feel like a bit of wanker.” brioni.com
“No one celebrates masculinity, but it’s cool to be a guy – gay, straight, bisexual or anything, whoever you are.”