Merging classic British style with American sportswear, Rag & Bone has written a rule book entirely of its own,
Rag & Bone has written a rule book entirely of its own.
Three little words. A lot of power can preside in just three little words. There’s the obvious (“I love you”), the rousing (“I’m with her”) and the shrewd (“truth will out”, as Shakespeare foretold.) If Rag & Bone’s Marcus Wainwright were running a campaign for some sort of fashion presidency he might choose these three: “integrity”, “authenticity” and “quality”. It’s a triumvirate of words that comes up often, and mantra-like, when speaking with the co-founder and creative director of the New York-based label.
Punchy? Not really. But then Wainwright is not so much here to play the fashion game, spouting sexed-up fashion platitudes to the masses. Instead, as the label celebrates its 15th year, he’s drilling down to core values. “Quality is first and foremost the most important thing to me. You can have the most beautiful jacket, but if it’s not made well, I can’t really wear it,” he says plainly, with distinctive British practicality. “I think the English in me has always been very drawn subconsciously to the English approach to quality, which is very understated, but with a very intense focus.” It turns out his conversation is as fuss-free as the clothing he produces as the now sole chief executive and creative director of the label – co-founder and former business partner David Neville departed the company in June last year, but still sits on the board of directors. “We’ve never really been about esoteric fashion for the sake of art,” he says, seemingly still used to speaking as a duo. “We’ve always had a very focused awareness of the importance of art and commerce and that it’s our own money – it’s my own money, my savings that I’m spending – so someone needed to like it. Someone needed to be able to wear it.”
Now embedded in the fashion psyche, it would seem Wainwright isn’t talking pocket money. Market sources say the brand was predicted to take in US$300 million last year. Rag & Bone has become a go-to, if not the go-to, for extremely well-made real clothing. This year the label eschewed the runway show for an exhibition in New York of photographs of friends and muses wearing the label. “The pressure to be something that we’re not has never really dominated the decision making,” says Wainwright.
It’s part of the way the brand is adjusting to the seismic shifts brought about by the digital age and the problematic high cost of producing in America. Denim is made in LA, part of ready-towear in New York, with some of the rest produced overseas.
“Some things you have to compromise on otherwise you’ll go out of business, and some things you just don’t compromise on because you’ll go out of business,” says Wainwright.
For pre-fall ’17, Wainwright showed jackets in washed-out shades with palm tree motifs, drawstring shorts and sandals when everyone else was doing weighty outwear and trousers. “The system here is so fucked,” he says, not one to hold back. “People want you to deliver shearling in July and August when it’s 95 degrees [Fahrenheit]; they want spring stuff in January and it’s snowing.” The label’s response is making the switch to monthly drops rather than seasonal collections.
Taking the fashion temperature seems to be an intuitive skill for Wainwright, who knows there’s a need to dip into the Zeitgeist. “You can’t be completely off-trend if everyone wants to wear skinny jeans and you’re making bell bottoms. That doesn’t work.” That’s not to suggest the collections that veer toward an editorial look feel forced. For spring/summer ’17 cricket knits were exaggerated to become nonchalantly slouchy, cotton twill chinos were smartened up to become an easy alternative to working-girl trousers and the roomy shirt dresses were versatile wear-with-alls.
Rag & Bone signatures, on the other hand,n go straight to the roots. Founding duo Neville and Wainwright met as schoolboys at Wellington College, a favourite of British military families, where portraits of generals graced the walls, hence the field jackets and anoraks. The tailoring draws on the traditions of Savile Row, introduced to Wainwright by his father. Neither had formal fashion training before they set out to make the perfect pair of jeans in a Kentucky factory in 2002. “No-one ever told me what I should think fashion was,” says Wainwright, adding he thinks the base now of New York has furthered their blend of British classicism and American sportswear. “Here you just walk around a block and you can come up with a few ideas. It’s not that complicated.”
The consistency in the clothing, the shoes and the bags, the slight Margiela-esque approach to reworking the staples, has given the brand broad appeal. That the first Australian store is opening in Melbourne’s The Strand this month is not surprising. As Wainwright says, “a great pair of jeans is a great pair of jeans”.
Wainwright now juggles being a father with the demands of the Rag & Bone men’s and womenswear and the business mechanisms. “My day is a little bit crazy, so home is like bath time and stories followed by collapsing in a heap most of the time.” The future is also on his mind. “A lot of the time I’m thinking about how fast the world is changing and how to preemptively make decisions. I think that’s what people are struggling with in fashion right now; everything feels very fucking nervy,” he says with a half-laugh. “No-one really knows what’s going on, and I think you need to seize the day.” Three more words to see him on the long road.
Backstage at Rag & Bone spring/ summer ’17.
Rag & Bone’s creative director and chief executive, Marcus Wainwright. Right: looks from the label’s spring/ summer ’17 show. RAG & BONE PARKA, $1,450. RAG & BONE PANTS, $855. RAG & BONE SHIRT, $425.