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Menswear’s Next Act? Raf Simons and Helmut Lang Collector David Casavant Explains

There is no denying that nostalgia has never been more popular in fashion- the most recent and hottest commercial collections have essentially been an ode to the 90s and a celebration of minimalism, logo fever and classic Nike Jordan’s. The influence is not limited to womenswear collections, and so ahead of NYFW: Mens, our NY Senior menswear editor Brian Trunzo caught up with stylist David Casavant, a famed figure in the vintage/archival fashion game to take about fashion’s past, present and future.

When did you first start collecting vintage fashion – was this something that you were into as a kid?

I started when I was 14, because I was bored and thought, I just liked Raf Simons at the time. He was the first designer I really liked. Then I got interested in Helmut Lang. It was really cheap to just buy secondhand on eBay at the time. It wasn’t that expensive. In fact, I would never buy it new because it was so much cheaper to buy it resold at the time. I also would just go to local thrift and vintage stores and just buy cheap stuff from there just to play with. I just like the clothes, holding them and feeling the fabric, making stuff out of them and wearing them sometimes too. (Laughter)

Looking at the exclusivity of some of the pieces that you have, you have to have at least one crazy story about the length at which you went to acquire a piece. Does one come to mind about how far you’ve gone to get that grail piece that you’ve been looking for?

I murdered someone…! (Laughter) Not really, if anything it’s really just paying a lot of money to get something you want. I would never try to cheat someone out of something or steal something. I wouldn’t say I’ve even flown anywhere to get something necessarily — I’ve flown to places and then have found things, of course. I think the greatest length I’ve gone is just paying a lot of money.

What are your personal top three denim pieces in the archive?

One Rihanna still has! Which are these Helmut jeans with safety pins that are all ripped. They’re just perfect. And then…where are those paint splattered ones? No, those are a size 30…

What’s it like, where someone comes in, falls in love with a particular piece but it’s the wrong size? How does that resolve itself?

If they’re too big you can just clip it, but if it’s too small then lose weight or something? I don’t know! There’s plenty of other stuff! The Helmut classic painter jeans are interesting, because the whole concept of his painter jeans just came from him building his store in SoHo and this construction worker is painting and gets paint on his jeans, so he’s just like “well, let’s make them!” And these were made with melted rubber so that the paint doesn’t wash off.

Are there any notable styles right now or select pieces from a specific collection that are notably missing that you are on the hunt for? 

It kills me to say it, but I always wanted this Helmut bubble wrap jacket which I heard some museum acquired recently which I don’t know if it’s true or not, but whatever…

Have you worked with museums in the past?

No, I don’t really have the same way of doing this as museums do or the same mindset about it. Museums are about preserving history and curating a certain way and that’s not really what I do. I don’t care if the clothes get worn. My whole thing is: they should be out being used! “Let’s make new meanings out of these clothes and put them on new people and in new contexts.” While museums are like “we acquired this piece and it’s behind glass and in a cooled environment to preserve it!”

Museums do go to great lengths to preserve things and show them in a different way, yes. But would you say that you share with them an admiration for these garments?

That’s not necessarily the case. For me, this is a personal viewpoint, it’s not me saying “oh, this is historically important” or anything like that. It’s just my personal taste and personal viewpoint. It’s not me saying one thing is the best in the world or something like that it just comes from my personal view. Whereas if you are at a museum you look at it in a broader sense where you learn that this person was a great designer and that’s why the museum is buying it. Whereas my [collection] just comes from my own instincts and feelings.

We are reaching this point in the culture where even “normal” consumers know about Raf and Helmut. Do you feel like we are at peak awareness in the mainstream?

No, not at all.

So where do we go from here in terms of recognising them for as talented as they are and their influence on “the culture”? 

It’s already happened, but it’s more the idea — it’s more maybe “how power is going back to the consumer”. That’s what it’s about. The consumer being underestimated in that way, or has been before, because…just a few years ago, I did an interview with a sort of mainstream men’s publication, and they were not sure about it because they were like “well, we don’t know if our readers would ‘get’ Raf or even know who he is.” So they wrote it really dumbed down like “RAF! He is a cool guy from Antwerp!” (Laughter) You know, that kind of language. And now it’s just — pretty much all teenage boys would say their favourite designer is Raf. I always saw that coming and knew that would be the case.

“But because people don’t take the time to listen to young people and give them credit or realise that they have the Internet so they can learn all this on their own anyways and do not need you to talk down to them and explain who Raf is like they are idiots. I think that’s what has caught everyone by surprise, and that’s how I got into this.” There was no mainstream articles telling me as a teenage boy that I should like Raf and Helmut. I just naturally went to them because they were doing cool things in menswear. If someone is doing cool things in menswear that’s going to naturally draw that attention.

Lately, we’ve seen so much nostalgia for the 1990s. Where do you see that going, this trend of the youth today being into 1990s style? 

I think that’s also a misinterpretation of people who aren’t young — I don’t know how to say that. Old? (Laughter) That whole, “oh, 90s nostalgia” or “this is coming back” or “that is coming back” — no, it’s that there is the Internet, so you’re able to buy stuff from someone across the country as well as you are able to find an item from a show that you can easily see on Vogue Runway from 10 years ago and buy it now. Whereas before it wasn’t that easy to buy things from the past or to learn about things from the past. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t want the present or the future either. “It just means that young consumers are more educated, smart and creative, so they want to make their own look and show their own point of view, and they do that by saying “hey, I love this look from the 90s, I also love what this new designer did, I also love these shoes I’ve worn for ages that just I wear” and they are able to create their own look and own identity rather than just before where you were marketed by some brand and you ended up wearing that brand head to toe as it was back in the day”. So I wouldn’t call it a “revival” I’d just say that the Internet has opened more doors for people to have more. Also, people are so over this idea that fashion is disposable because they appreciate it more. So if you appreciate it more, you’re going to keep an item from the past, wear it longer, treasure it and not just get rid of it. That was formerly known as “vintage” but that’s going to become normal now to keep clothes for that long rather than this disposable idea. People now get it wrong in the way that they will be like “oh, 90s nostalgia, let’s just design our current collection to look like 90s nostalgia!” And it’s like, no that’s also not what it’s about because the idea is to get the actual thing that’s from the 90s and make me something new to wear with it!

How do you feel about the word “streetwear”?

I would say not wearing something to dictate trying to gain social class. This sort of idea that all fashion derives from couture — you know the couture days where it was like “here’s what you wear to your coming out party!” or like very formal, and that’s also why people roll their eyes at fashion or think that it’s vapid because it’s used to just make yourself look wealthy or gain class or whatever — “and the idea of street style is to just wear what’s comfortable, what reflects you, what reflects your real passions — what is really you and feels like a second skin to you so that you feel comfortable walking down the street” doing all the things you have to do like…skateboarding! That’s very stereotypically street style. Or if you are going to a concert, you want to wear something comfortable to have fun at the concert. I think it’s the breaking down of restrictive clothes so that you can have more freedom to do what you want to do.

So it’s more a state of mind or projection of oneself rather than a falling in line or being categorised?

Yes, even though that’s what street style being commercialised now is about.

With the commercialisation of street style, do you feel vindicated in what you’ve been doing over the years — where people look to Raf or Helmut for inspiration and then come up with something that’s more commercial — or violated?

It’s good for business, if we are talking in those kinds of terms. If you’re going to commercialise it, then you’re going to make some cheesy brand that’s based off these ideas then you are going to get customers who buy into those cheesy brands and say “well I wonder where these came from” and if you search far enough you are going to find where they are from which takes you here to Raf and Helmut. But then you might say “where did this come from, this Raf and Helmut?” And maybe you’ll search further and find maybe that some of it comes from old military uniforms or band t-shirts. Even this, you could say that some of it is very commercialised versions of past things. Why I really got into Raf and even Helmut is because he was one of the first designers — and it would take a menswear designer in order to do this — to put the idea of street style in a high fashion context. So they were the first to do that, and they could sort of get away with more of it being menswear, but now even womenswear can be streetstyle-high-fashion but that had to happen with menswear first I guess.

Let’s talk about fashion’s future.

I think tech fabrics and athletic wear is what the future of fashion is. People haven’t experimented enough with these tech fabrics. The reason Nike works so well is the way they make the clothes is to move really well with your body and make it so you can do lots of stuff and I think that’s what’s coming next. I feel like everyone is so stagnant about that, and I don’t know whether it’s because it’s so expensive to innovate with that stuff or what it is. It’s sort of me wearing my track pants and saying “this is where we are with fashion — we got this far, so I’m just going to wear this every day until you make something to move this forward.” Technical fabrics that just move with your life, look cool and are sleek and stuff like that — I think the stopping point has been just Nike. They’ve innovated so much in the way that we wear clothes and that’s where we are right now. Waiting to go forward from that.

Photo credits: Chris Fenimore

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