Neil Grotzinger: Making Classic American Menswear More Queer
Derek Ezra Brown,
Neil Grotzinger leads the forefront of effeminate high-fashion menswear with his mission to tease society’s notions of masculinity, and lavish them with intricate embroidery. For his brand, NIHL, Neil produces covetable menswear with the luxury of time that can only be viable in Haute Couture.
A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 15th issue of ODDA Magazine.
How has your Midwestern, suburban upbringing influenced your aesthetic as a menswear designer (as it states on your website), and per- haps overall mission?
Growing up in the Midwest gave me something to riff off. I was raised in a very conservative town just outside of Colorado Springs, only a few miles away from the Air Force Academy. It was also home to some of the largest mega-churches in America. I can remember from a very young age knowing that I was sort of misplaced in this part of the world, which made me a very conscious observer. I took note of all of the roles that people, especially men in my age group, used to assume.
There were always those who had family in the military, which completely overran their personality. Above anything else, they saw themselves as a future soldier. Then, there were the ones who were obsessed with hunting and archery, which meant that their entire wardrobe was real-tree camouflage. It seemed so categorical, but that fascinated me and continues to inspire how I work out a concept behind a collection. I usually start by establishing a theme or an icon, and then that icon becomes like a target which I manipulate up until the point that it relates more to my internal erotic or self-fulfilling desires than it does to its original culture.
A threaded motif and title of your debut collection, what do you define as ‘Masculine Effeminacy?’
‘Masculine Effeminacy’ is a very specific spot I was trying to highlight within the gendered grey area. I was particularly fascinated by the term ‘effeminate’ when I developed my first collection because it is technically a male reflective term, but refers to a sort of female nature that can only be found in a man.
I also wanted to dissect this term because it has, at least up until this point, typically only been used as a sort of ‘call out’ or insult. At first glance, it might seem that masculine effeminacy is meant to be a contradiction, but it was really about finding the misnomers within male culture that were almost borderline, and then pushing them so far over the edge that there was no questioning just how queer they’d become.
“I REALIZE THAT THERE IS A BROAD SPECTRUM OF PEOPLE FROM MANY DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS WHO RELATE TO THE NARRATIVE I’VE STARTED” – NEIL GROTZINGER
Your second collection was inspired by rebellion and thus entitled Queer Seditionaries. What is your muse rebelling against with these garments, and why do you believe rebellion is such a timelessly reoccurring and universal motif in art, design, and fashion?
Queer Seditionaries was developed as a rebellion against the generic nature of heteronormativity. It’s not necessarily a punk narrative that I’m trying to create, but I do believe that a great deal of queer culture in the 21st century is a kind of Post-modern non-conformism.
It picks up where the first collection leaves off, by taking what would otherwise be seen as stereotypically masculine, and turning it into something that is not only effeminate, but aggressively so.
Compared to your MFA Graduation collection from Parsons (a college which seems to embrace textile manipulation more than its peers), what were your designs like at Pratt, and how has your work experience in-between Pratt and Parsons influenced your aesthetic and mission?
I really enjoyed being able to study at both Pratt and Parsons, because Pratt really approaches everything that they teach from a fine arts perspective, so studying Fashion Design there meant that you were really working in soft sculpture. I actually learned how to do beadwork at Pratt, because I liked the texture and it felt very instinctive, so the work I did there was very abstract and explorative, whereas Parsons is very practical, but in a sociologically informed way, which was where I feel like I found my voice around fashion. I was also able to gain a really vast understanding of the inner workings of the industry itself by being able to work in-between going to Pratt and going to Parsons, which has been incredibly beneficial in terms of developing my business. It was like a three-step process: I developed a skill at Pratt, learned how to use it in the industry, and then directed it around an overall purpose at Parsons.
What lead you to the path of creating garments and falling in love with embroidery in the first place?
I can’t remember a specific point where I became fashion obsessed, but I do remember always being fascinated by clothing in movies. Everything seemed hyper-exaggerated to me on film, and it made me feel like I was missing out on something in my daily life, which was what lead me to move to New York City and pursue a career in fashion. I think the obsession with embroidery came from a similar place. It makes things seem not quite real anymore, or at least explicitly impractical in a beautiful way, and I like that feeling.
Although heavily decorated, some of your pieces are skillfully tailored and manipulated to force the wearer to look paradoxically disheveled, in tune with the zeitgeist’s notion of exaggerated effortlessness as rebellion. This apathetic notion ironically requires the most skillful tailors to produce as garments. Is an exaggeration of apathy an influence on what you believe society or you consider fashionable or masculine? What do you consider masculine?
It is hard to say in the 21st century what is actually masculine because I think there are different interpretations within different assimilations and different parts of the world. I definitely have an apathetic approach to dissecting and rigging these things together because I find a great deal of masculine culture to be very fictional. It is all character-driven, and it is all so easy to embody, which is why I never really related to any of it. So, when I put a look together, I really just want it to contradict itself in a sort of off- the-cuff, but still very intricately, curated way.
Before your debut, you discussed your dream to become the first ‘Men’s Couturier.’ Some may argue, although not termed in such manner (and albeit a seemingly separate client from yours), that bespoke tailoring holds the tradition of Men’s Couture. Would you agree that the com- mon thread between these two mediums is the time it takes to create each garment, and the difference is your creations are a celebration of homosexuality rather than tradition?
I do agree that bespoke tailoring is the alternative to Couture fashion within menswear, but I don’t think that it holds anywhere near the same level of stylistic consideration that Couture does. Having said that, I have the utmost respect for bespoke tailoring because it has a beautiful history and is so intricately crafted. But, at the same time, when I think of some of the couturiers that I’ve idolized like Christian Lacroix or Cristóbal Balenciaga, it is pretty undeniable just how heavily informed and influential some of the looks that they sent down the runway were. You don’t get that kind of experience from a tailor shop.
Would you offer your clients bespoke services, enabling them to customize (like in Haute Couture) or even approach you with their own designs?
Absolutely. I would love to be able to curate my business around the desires of my customers. The initial catalyst behind the brand was a deep seeded desire for things I felt I’d always wanted, but never had access to. So, coming to a better understanding of how that relates to other people I think would make my design process much more universal.
What is your end-goal as a ‘Men’s Couturier?’ Your garments seem difficult to be produced within the ready-to-wear, buyer’s time-constraints, particularly in terms of quantity depth. Will you primarily focus on ‘made to measure,’ or do you hope to create for the ready-to-wear mar- ket as well, perhaps with fewer samples than your counterparts?
I’m trying to figure out how I can tackle both markets within each collection. I’m starting to realize that there is a broad spectrum of people from many different backgrounds who relate to the narrative I’ve started, which is forcing me to consider what the accessible elements within each collection are. The couture pieces I create will still be made to measure, and incredibly intricate because that’s what I think people identify with as a component of impactful runway culture. At the same time, I’m also trying to figure out how I can create a similarly elevated feeling without having to put so much time and effort into each piece.
Would you rather lead the industry underground, or would you hope to one day be considered mainstream?
I think what I do is about pulling something up out of the underground. I wouldn’t every really consider myself mainstream because I just don’t relate to that terminology, but I do feel like the work that I do is deserving of an elevated platform. My process is also deeply informed by the underground, and I want to be able to pay homage to and provide a stage for those within my community who are, in my opinion, totally under appreciated. I don’t think that my work only has to exist as a part of the underground, even though it is such a huge part of my inspiration, but I also don’t see it as mainstream.
“I CAN’T REMEMBER A SPECIFIC POINT WHERE I BECAME FASHION OBSESSED” – NEIL GROTZINGER
To truly call your brand Haute Couture, do you plan on approaching the Chambre Syndicale once you have the finances and team viable to put in the required hours? Is your team already capable of such tasks?
I’ve thought about this for a while, and I’m somewhat hesitant to place my- self into such a complex society. I kind of like being an outsider and being able to say what I have to say without necessarily following all of the rules provided by the Chambre Syndicale. I don’t know if I need that stamp of approval, or at least not yet. Maybe in a few years, when I feel that my work has evolved to the point that it belongs within that realm, I’ll try to become a part of the Chambre Syndicale because I do like the idea of critiquing and participating in something. However, for now, I’m more interested in having the freedom to explore the idea of ‘custom’ on my own terms.
I noticed your Internship Application states the education of intricate embroidery-work, with no skills necessary to apply. How long does it take to teach your staff the multitude of embroidery techniques you have acquired, and what do you look for in building your team?
My interns usually learn new techniques almost every week. I create a lot of my own methods for embroidering, so my process is constantly evolving, which I think is one of the reasons why so many people from so many different backgrounds come to intern for me. Most of my interns come from outside the world of fashion, and some of them have full-time jobs, but enjoy being a part of this collective and seeing the process, which I really like. I don’t really have any requirements for who can or can’t work for me anymore, because so many different people reach out to me and, at the end of the day, the thing that makes someone a good intern is their passion for the work.
How did your working relationship with Casey Spooner initiate?
One of Casey’s stylists reached out to me about a year ago for his Top Brazil music video, and I received an email about a day later saying he loved the clothes and wore them throughout the entire music video, which was really incredible. I actually didn’t meet him face to face until very recently, but I sent him a message on Instagram after I saw the music video telling him how well he embodies the aesthetic of my brand, and we’ve been working together ever since.
What is your definition of modern, forward-thinking fashion?
Forward thinking fashion is about social imperative and purpose in my opinion. I get tired of seeing the same things go down the runway over and over again, so whenever a designer challenges you to think about what you are used to seeing within the fashion sphere I get really excited. At the end of the day, fashion is all about sociology, and some of the most interesting young designers are carving out their space within the narrative of human identity that has recently taken over the fashion industry, and I’m grateful to be a part of that world.
What are your art and fashion history influences in terms of styling, silhouette, and/or textile design? Describe your research process.
I’m incredibly inspired by early Helmut Lang because of how intensely apathetic it felt. There is such a sensation of rejection to every collection he designed himself, which I love. I’m also really inspired by designers who balance art and fashion, like Susan Cianciolo, who was actually one of my professors when I went to Pratt. My research process, however, is totally separate from the art and fashion world. It begins by establishing whatever assimilative culture I’m interested in breaking apart, and then finding image after image of that particular type of person. I dive as deep as possible into that world to the point where I feel like I truly understand it as well as the person who embodies it. That’s also how I develop my prototypes. I make garments and collage them together on myself, so that I can feel the clash of cultures and see how it feels to embody multiple identities.
Will your collections everlastingly explore the dichotomy of cliché masculinity and showpiece-worthy effeminacy? Is this the core behind your aesthetic?
I’ll continue to explore this dualism as long as I have more to say about it and as long as I feel it is necessary. I think there is still a great deal that we don’t understand about the fictitious masculine identities we assume. As my work progresses, however, the levels effeminacy and masculinity are starting to fluctuate, and I think that’s how I want to push myself within this framework. I want to find different shades of grey and explore them deeply up until the point that I feel they can be clearly understood.
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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