Arthur Arbesser is Reinvigorating Fay
Derek Ezra Brown,
Fay is a classic, evergreen label born out of the 60s focused on polished outerwear. Acquired by Tod’s S.p.A. in the 80s, Fay has finally found the creative director able to reinvigorate its timeless roots of comfort and function. Since his debut for Fall 2018, Arthur Arbesser is responsible for broadening Fay’s covet ability for modern customers, while retaining their loyal clientele. With his trusted system of using classic references to create something undeniably his own, it is no question why Arbesser has proved to be the perfect man for the job.
After seemingly failed attempts at reinvigorating Fay for a younger audience, then bringing it back to its roots with the work of creative directors such as Giles Deacon and Aquilano Rimondi, why do critics agree that your debut offers a more well-balanced, tasteful approach to modernizing its timeless DNA than your predecessors ever achieved?
I really try to do one thing: normal clothes that look nice and serve a purpose. All I wanted was to do something that is desirable and easy to understand and not feel forced at all. Because it is a very “real” brand, Fay, I mean, especially if you are living in Italy, it’s also, obviously, more popular in Europe than in the U.S., but it is a brand that people really wear. It is not a purely fashion brand, but more: actual product that is meant to be worn, and your meant to look good, they are meant to have a purpose as basic as keeping you warm, or just looking smart, basically. And I think some people before me… they tried to force something, or they desperately wanted it to be something this brand is actually not. So, I just took it very honestly and very real, and tried my best to simply start by setting the tone of good taste and useful clothing.
Are there any challenges you face while designing for Fay that you do not experience when designing for your own label? Or is your own label more of a challenge and Fay a work of respect?
They are two completely different projects; they do not interfere with each other. From a creative point of view, I’m in a such a good state of mind because of that. In my own label, I try to do something very romantic, very emotional, very artistic, very thoughtful, and very… personal. And, on the other side, with Fay, I try to do something that is very real, and very real- life. I guess it is less artistic but more functional and so, of course, is a new experience for me because I come from a more artsy mindset. But I really enjoyed [my debut, fall 2018,] and I’m really happy that I also got to do menswear for the first time. It is very refreshing and I think it works well for a brain like mine. So, the challenge is that it is two different worlds, but I think this is a good thing from my point of view.
How did you get approached by Fay’s mother-company Tod’s S.p.A. in the first-place? How did they become aware of you?
My usual steps. After becoming Finalist for the LVMH prize in 2015, I worked as creative director for the Italian brand Iceberg for a while. During this time, I met younger designers in Milan who were getting really good feedback from the old school journalists that have good relationships with Tod’s. These designers, I think, confirmed to these journalists that I would be someone who could give a breath of fresh air to Fay. I actually got a phone call last summer, while teaching at the University in Venice, and they asked me whether I would be interested, and if so, when I could come in and see them. I immediately said “yes.” because I know the brand, and even on the phone I literally thought like, “I could totally do this,” and got kind of ignited straight away.
How would you describe the Fay customer vs. the Arbesser woman?
The Fay customer, first of all, is for both men and women, so already this is a different point of view. But I think Fay is more professional, the customers are, like, young lawyers or doctors, these sorts of people. Business people. When you go to Malpensa, the Milanese airport, on a flight to London, literally a third of the plane is wearing a Fay coat or jacket, so there is something very business-like about it. Slightly conservative, but very much, looking for something of quality and taste. They want to have something functional. And, in my case, my client, or the Arbesser woman, is someone that is very outspoken and a little bit more daring. She is totally at peace with herself, often deciding to wear something that is a little bit louder, more graphic, very colorful. She most of the time actually works in the arts, or is an architect, or a curator, these sort of things, so it is a bit more of an artistic spirit. The fun thing though, that both have in common, is that they are kind of age-less. So, I also have lots of women who like my clothes that are in their 70s, and the same goes for the Fay customer, obviously. But at the same time, I also have people in their 20s that like what I do, and so I think that is what stands between the two brands. That my point of view can sometimes appeal to an ageless clientele.
For each collection of your own label, you dive into the descriptions of your intellectual inspirations on your website (and thus I may assume in your show-notes). Why do you do this? Do you feel customers need a good understanding of your references to better-appreciate your work?
We always put so much thought and work into each collection, during a time when there is so much, simply, product out there, simply just plain clothing, and so much stuff that we might, in a few months’ time, not even care about anymore. I want, very unpretentiously, I hope, to show that we really make up stories, themes, and we really work on a collection to make it unique to that season and moment. I want people to understand that there was a point, a starting point. It is such an important moment always, when you start thinking, “What should we do next season?” and, all of a sudden, through conversations, we get to know the work of an artist or an architect. I don’t know, there’s something you see, and then all of a sudden, a little snowball starts rolling and it’s always a very satisfying, beautiful process. Ideally with the show notes, I would like people to understand that there was a lot of thinking that goes into the 10 minutes of show.
“I GUESS THE CODES FOR FAY ARE OUTERWEAR, FUNCTIONAL, AND TIMELESS” – ARTHUR ARBESSER
As opposed to some designers, who design purely from somewhere unexplainably internal, your process is one of an obsession with art his- tory. Where did this obsession come about?
It actually came from back home. I mean, my parents are slightly conservative, but very art-loving people. Our holidays were always based around churches, castles, museums, and archaeological sites, basically. So, even though I am the youngest of three kids, and we were kind of rebellious, we were always forced to go from one gothic cathedral to one museum, there was never a beach or pool in site. Bizarre holidays, actually. But now, loo- king back, I actually thank my parents because we grew up really caring for culture caring for history. Even though as teenagers we hated it, it obviously stuck. It sticks with you, and I now know why I am so fond of history and art in general. So, I suppose it comes from back home.
After studying at Central Saint Martins in London, why did you relocate to Milan?
When I graduated with an MA, I got a job at Giorgio Armani, so it was a very work-related decision. But it was a big shock to move from student- life, Saint Martin’s life in London, to a really hot, end of August in Milan knowing that you have to start a job at Armani in a few weeks. It was all a traumatic experience, but lead to almost 13 years now living in Milan. It is home, and I love it. I definitely found something I probably did not know I was looking for deep inside, and now I like it here. There is something good, and I worked for Armani for seven years, so quite a while.
Why else did you never relocate from Milan?
The longer I stayed here, I realized. This might actually be a good place to start doing your thing, because, at that point, I had nice relationships with fabric suppliers, a bit of factories, and knew the international press comes here two, or actually four times a year. I felt they were looking for someone a bit young, fun, someone that shows you that there is potentially a generational change in the fashion scene in Milan. That actually turned out to be true because the international press was straight away extremely supportive of my work.
Born in Vienna, studied in London, and now based in Milan having designed collections inspired by both Milanese and Viennese icons, how would you describe your aesthetic roots?
It starts with Vienna, there is a lot of and straight lines and lots of architecture and graphics in there. But, through Milan, a lot of color and more design and furniture inspirations came because, in here, there is a furniture fair every year and I love it. So, I guess my roots are very Viennese, but I am very open-minded person and curious guy, so my aesthetic is always in motion. But there is always something that comes back to my roots of decorative graphic lines that hail from my Viennese upbringing.
Has your work for Fay impacted your own label?
Yes, I guess it has, because I’m now starting to think a lot about doing menswear [for Arbesser]. I enjoy so much [doing menswear for Fay]. It’s so fun to finally try on your own things. I cannot explain why I enjoy doing Menswear so much. At the same time, it showed me that I’m very lucky to be working on these two projects, because they are very complimentary to each other in an odd way. Fashion is a business where you constantly learn, every season you learn something more, every season you understand you have some kind of mistake that you try to avoid next season, and I’m very overcritical as well. I would never think that I’m 100% fabulous, so for working also at another brand you learn a lot about the business, you learn a lot about the market, you learn a lot about the customer in general, so there is definitely something to learn from [Fay.]
I’m interested to know what you mean by them complementing each other in some way?
They are very opposite but, at the same time, they are not. They live happily next to each-other as two different professions. For instance, certain trending elements surrounding fashion I wish not to explain that would never matter to Fay. Both brands cater to different people, but can totally fit next to each other.
Elaborate on the differentiation of worlds. Even when purely focusing on the clothes themselves, emotion is inevitably expressed. Would it be correct to say that for Fay your focus is on the clothes, whereas for Arbesser it is on concept?
Yes, this is kind of true… My brain is divided for two projects, and therefore the two positions complement each other. I think more about real life, real situations with the Fay collection, but for my own label I keep it dreamy, emotional, and conceptual. But I totally agree that the precise execution and true functionality, like at Fay, can definitely evoke emotions and desirability. For Fay, I work a lot with image making, which we still have to get right, do Ad campaigns, so it’s a broader spectrum I work on over there as well, which is very satisfying.
Your own label makes use of fantastic collaborations, one particularly worth highlighting was your recent one with historic Viennese textile manufacturer, Backhausen, for Fall 2018. May we expect any collaborations at Fay like those we have seen for Arbesser?
Sooner or later, yes, I’d love to, because I never think of fashion as something you solely play on your own. I think fashion is very much a team- business, so I’m always up for collaborations. I think they enrich your horizons and state of mind. But, with Fay, I think it is a bit too early. We really have to set the tone straight of what direction we want to go in, how it should look, really set the aesthetic language, very straightforward, and easy to understand. Once this is 100% clear, I think it is time to maybe bring in a graphic collaboration, or an artistic sort of thing. For now, for the next season at least for sure, we still have work to do. We have done Fall and now we are doing a Spring collection, and it will be much clearer that there is an aesthetic that will keep going. I think it will be the moment to start thinking about collaborations, yes.
With such a rich history in modern design with help from the Viennese Secession, why has there been a lack of fashion designers hailing from Vienna and other parts of Eastern Europe? (Besides now a rise in Georgia after Demna)
Yes, this is true, particularly in parts such as the Czech Republic and Hungary and so on. I don’t know, to be honest, I really don’t think that Vienna is actually the ground where you breathe fashion as much as do Italy, France or in the UK. There is less of a history and appreciation of dressing, and the individual character in England is much more appreciated than in Austria, which is more conservative society. I always think of Vienna as the perfect place for the arts, music, architecture, but I never thought of Vienna as a good place for fashion, although it is a wonderful place to get inspiration and get ideas. I think it is more in the culture that dressing and clothing for an Austrian brain is more about practicality and less about aesthetics, so you grow up feeling a less of an importance in that matter, which brings out less creatives, although there is the fantastic University of Applied Arts in Vienna where students have graduated and went on to work for great brands. There’s a lot of support in the States for Austrian Designers, they want some more things to come out of Vienna. However, I think it is something in the society that fashion is less important to an Austrian than to an Italian.
I read that your family was close friends with Heinz Stangl, who inspired a couple of your collections. How did this family-friendship come about, who were your parents?
He was an Austrian, who unfortunately died a couple years ago, who was really a great man, not internationally successful, but had quite a good reputation in Europe. My parents are completely normal, conservative people but they are very into arts, music, theatre, opera, and all these sort of things, so I don’t know, they befriended Heinz Stangl and other artists, who I grew up with. They spent a lot of time at my home, and we often went to visit their ateliers. They are very curious people, I got a lot of my curiosity and my own sort of interest in all things beautiful through them. There was also this great Austrian artist named Kiki Kogelnik, an Austrian Pop artist, though she spent lots of time in New York and was another artist who unfortunately died in the 90s, but was also friends with my parents. Maria Lassnig, another Austrian painter, lived next door, so there were always weird connections, I used to always go to the supermarket and do her shop- ping as a child because she was already in her 80s. They were always pushing us kids to be very open minded and interested in all artistic things. That’s how I came along.
What are the codes established by Fay and by yourself for your own label?
I guess the codes for Fay are outerwear, functional, and timeless. This doesn’t sound too exciting, but is actually challenging and a great goal to achieve, to do these three things well. And, from my own collection, I just want to do personal, graphic, and gracious.
Do you use your career in fashion as a way to satisfy your intellectual curiosity?
Yes. Why not? It is something, I can only say that thanks to my work I have met so many amazing people, and the greatest satisfaction is when someone else’s work that you love (whether it is a set designer, an architect, even singer or musician) get vibes from what you do and your work are interested in what you do. Then you create a sort of dialogue, that’s a really beautiful satisfaction. I am an intellectually curious person, so it is very nice when, through your work, you can also break the curiosity of other interesting people, and that is when the mission is accomplished. It all sounds so strategic but, on the other side, I happen to do what I love to do, and if you do that and it happens to please some other people, that’s when you’ve found your job. If these people also do something that you’re really interested in, then that’s even better.
Are there any other careers you would imagine having if it weren’t fashion design, perhaps that further delve into expertise in art and industrial design history?
Yes, it could definitely be something more of… interior, furniture, but also set design, stage design, costume, I am really into the theatre and opera and ballet, and arts in general that only happen on the stage. So, these sorts of jobs would be another option.
How important is intellectual curiosity and respect for creative history in fashion today? Do you find yourself in-tune with today’s zeitgeist, despite your reference pattern?
No. I don’t find myself in-tune at all with today’s zeitgeist. I also know this is something I need to start addressing and handling because, I think, the world right now spins in a very different direction and an odd way. Nevertheless or even more so it is important to keep doing what you are doing. To come back to Fay, I feel like I am thinking much more rational and much more clear-minded, and I know I am doing a good job there and following the guidelines to make the brand seem more appealing and younger and fresher again. There, I do not have too much of a problem regarding the current zeitgeist. But maybe more with my own brand, I feel like I’m maybe not 100% in-sync with what the world wants right now, but I really do hope that at the end of the day this would be something positive. In fashion, I think the most important thing is that you stay true to yourself and do your thing. There is just so much stuff out there so, whether it is completely on trend or not, it is a different story. But I think the most important thing is that you do your thing because that is the one way it is going to be paid off. On a personal level, I feel it is really important to know about history, to know about to be informed about the past, but it is not necessarily that by doing so you’re doing a good job. I think everyone is different, but I think that, being someone from Vienna which is a place very stuck in the past, very interested in the past and very attracted by what surrounds us, but I guess in one way or another, everyone wants to do something they connect to and in their own way.
I think it’s funny how you described the world as “spinning in an odd way,” can you elaborate on that?
There is something so unsettling at the moment, we can feel so many other things besides fashion that are unsettling, but from a fashion point of view, the actual garments and the purpose of why we’re doing this is so much less important than what surrounds us, so coming from a fashion designer who takes his job very seriously. I find this a little bit worrying.
Who are the most inspirational figures to you in the history of fashion, art, jewelry, and/or design?
It is an endless list. German painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, or Austrian Hermann Nitsch, or Bacon or Goya, or designers like Sottsass obviously would always be a huge inspiration. From Vienna, Josef Hoffman, or Kolomoan Moser, the designer or painter.
From fashion, I admire everyone who really does their own thing, and there are people like Dries Van Noten who have done their thing for 30 years, and doing such an incredibly beautiful job with such a beautiful body of work. Then, there are people like John Galliano who does something completely different and at a completely different level, but I admire what they do because they simply use their job as a way to show off their creativity. I admire people who stay true to their vision and keep doing their thing over the course of years and years, and that’s when you really understand that there is more to something. These people have the strength and guts to keep doing their thing.
The soundtracks behind your shows are also intriguing. Who would you consider your musical inspirations?
Yes, I guess also music is always something of importance in my design pro- cess. Strangely, there is always a certain tune that comes up while working on a collection, and this often builds into the soundtrack of the show. We try often to work with my friend Dorian [Stefano Tarantini], who has his own sportswear label Malibu1992 in Milan, but he is also a great DJ. We often collaborate. I always tell him the inspiration of the music, and then we come up with something together. It can be something like downpour, or Schubert piano, or Ultrabox from the 1980s. There is always something that goes in line with the collection and I really try, with every show, to do something very thoughtful. Never just a rhythm that the models walk well to, there is always more to it.
I think most of us designers who decide to do a fashion show, and decide to really put ourselves out there that way, really try to think about all these details, or at least I hope it should be that way.
During all the changes, Fay has still kept loyal customers it has had since the 1980s. Where do you plan on taking Fay in the future, whilst keep its loyal clientele?
It was something when I started the job, I immediately said to the people there I have absolutely no interest in scaring away your current customer, because I think it is so fantastic if you have people who love the brand. The- re are certain iconic pieces, coats and jackets, that really have not changed over the years, and I do not intend on changing them either. Those loyal customers will always be able to come back and find their pieces that they loved in the first place, maybe with just a bit nicer materials, a bit of detail on the collar, but very very recognizable still. I think Fay has a few pieces that tell you what brand it is, so it is very important to keep these symbols alive. But, also, a lot of Fay customers are now a bit older, so it is very important to get their kids in the shop as well. I feel right now emotion is very important. I mean it is always important, but I feel right now there is such a lack about something emotional, and with Fay there are a few pieces always in the collection. Maybe, for instance, a jacket a son wears of his Dad’s from the 1980s, these sort of things. I really want to bring back a few classics. I feel our generation, in our 30s, are desiring what happened in history with a story to tell, so there are some classic pieces where we changed a bit of material and detail, there is a big opportunity there. If emotions and memories are connected with clothing, I think magic can happen, and the idea is to bring kids and sons in, so instead of being an old brand, achieve somewhat of a cult status. Which it has already achieved in Italy but, ideally, we are going to bring that around the world.
How would you explain the talent of using a vast array of classic inspirations to create something fresh, forward, and undeniably your own? A talent you have demonstrated for Fay and especially for your own label. Is this a talent required to keep fashion both forward and timeless?
Timeless, for sure, forward? I’m not even sure myself. It’s more like, apart from classic inspirations. It’s about respect for certain graphic rules and true history. You can get a lot out of it I feel. There are certain rules, proportions, and shapes that have worked over the centuries, at least in the last century, to dress men and women really well. If you work with them, with a lot of respect but also a vision and knowledge of the now and ideally the future, something really great can happen. You don’t always have to reinvent things completely from scratch. I think it is very important today that one still shows creativity and knowledge of construction and fabrication, these sort of things, because they seem to get lost a little bit. Especially in Italy, where you can still get in touch with fantastic factories and manual know-how. I feel a responsibility to get these fantastic hands to do great stuff. I feel respect is an important factor.
Derek Ezra Brown
Derek Ezra Brown is a young journalist and fashion stylist who travels the world in pursuit of creating thought provoking fashion shoots and designer interviews.
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