When fashion gets manly

Adam Kimmel's clothing is defiantly masculine and inspired by the macho artists of New York City's present and past. Glenn Waldron meets him
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Fashion doesn't often do manly. Indeed, when most designers start using words like "butch" or "macho", it's usually accompanied by the soft swish of tasselled leather or, at the very least, a metal stud or three. Which is why Adam Kimmel is so refreshing. Kimmel's work is manly and then some.

Inspired by the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s surely the most testosterone-fuelled art gang of the last century the 29-year-old creates clothing that is masculine and defiantly rough-edged. Working in fabrics ranging from artist's canvas to chamois leather, Kimmel has a playful yet emphatically subtle design sensibility: here is a man who can make even a cape seem like a rugged sartorial option. "I like things to feel good but not to be prissy," he says. "I like there to be a remnant of something rough or coarse in the finished product whether it's in the shape of the clothing, the feel of the fabric or in the kind of inspiration it comes from."

One of the rising stars of the American menswear circuit, Kimmel has been producing collections for the past three years. Having studied architecture and art history at college, he began by creating a few limited-edition pieces for the super-cool French lifestyle store Colette. But it was a chance meeting with Joe Serino, the former design president of Calvin Klein Menswear, that propelled Kimmel into the fashion fast lane. "Joe became my mentor," explains Kimmel. "He had all these connections with Italian factories that were producing incredible outerwear for brands like CP Company. I put my first collection together, did all the patterns, then went over to Italy and stayed there for six months, just learning the whole thing tailoring, pattern-making... Joe really taught me the business."

With no formal fashion training to speak of, Kimmel took inspiration from his college-day heroes. "I did my first proper collection based around the artist Willem de Kooning," he says. "Then I started looking into the whole scene, moving in and out of these different groups in New York. I still really love researching the city's different art crews, all these tight-knit groups of men that all hung out with each other. Just after World War Two, New York was such an amazing place. The guys were really tough but dressed beautifully and simply."

Although Kimmel can get a little misty-eyed when he starts talking about De Kooning and co., he's keen to stress that his work is more than just a retro-flavoured tribute. "I'll pick an inspiration and go after it, digging up the style, the cuts. I'm always researching," he says. "But then the work is arranged in a consciously updated way. There's always something of me in it. It's filtered through my own particular vision."

Alongside an appropriation of workaday fabrics and textures, the jumpsuit has become something of a trademark look for Kimmel. A longtime staple of American workwear, it seems to neatly embody his ethos of designer-as-artist. "I started out producing a really small collection and the jumpsuit was a salient feature within that," says Kimmel. "When I first started producing them, you couldn't really find a nice jumpsuit with a low waistband usually they were much higher and not very flattering."

But reality check here, Adam who actually wears a jumpsuit, anyway? "Well, I will, from time to time," he laughs. "Particularly when I travel. Or I'll tie one around my waist with a T-shirt. I don't mind dabbling in a bit of fantasy, as long as it's rooted in masculinity." Alongside some of Kimmel's more outr creations ever the renaissance man, he has recently designed a flatpack chair and a pair of fold-away sunglasses the intriguingly named Unijohn has also become a big hit with his loyal customer base. Recently modelled by the designer in a shoot for the menswear biannual Fantastic Man, it resembles something between a pair of long johns and an oversized romper suit, all realised in the softest of cashmere. "It's something that you'd probably only wear at home," says Kimmel, with a twinkle in his eye. "It's not what I'd call a street piece, really."

Kimmel has continued his exploration of New York's artistic communities in the spring-summer '08 collection, where he pays homage to the likes of Fifties rabble-rouser Neal Cassady and the grandfather of Pop Art, Larry Rivers. "For me, the masculinity I try to evoke is based on a strong creative aspect, so I'm always drawn towards men who create things," Kimmel says. "Nothing feels better than working with your hands."

Alongside beautifully cut shirting in faded cotton poplins and ridiculously luxurious cashmere suits, the collection also makes use of an unusual waffle print that Kimmel discovered on a vintage Fifties scarf. It makes the kind of curious juxtaposition that the designer loves. "You can mess around and make your own fabrics and tweak silhouettes in a way that's never been done, but really, it's how you arrange the collection that gives it its flavour. Each ingredient has to fit in." Perhaps in contrast to many of his contemporaries, Kimmel is more concerned with the general feel of each collection than with making grand statements. "There is a clear identity to my work in the various different stories that I tell," he says. "But the goal is to keep things as consistent as possible."

Shot by his brother, the acclaimed fashion photographer Alexei Hay, Kimmel's lookbooks the small books sent out to press and trade showing the latest collections are a key part of the message. Whereas other designers often regard them as an afterthought, Kimmel treats his lookbooks more like advertising campaigns. Gathering together the cream of the New York art world, recent collections have seen the likes of Ryan McGinley, Jack Pierson and Dan Colen modelling Kimmel's outfits (an idea that Kimmel took one step further for his fashion and photography installation at Florence's Pitti Immagine trade fair). But while the lookbooks say a great deal about Kimmel's pulling power on the downtown party circuit, the designer argues that they also reflects the vibrancy of the New York art scene.

"It's a way of documenting something that is really special," he says. "For me, these people are like a modern-day art crew. They hang out with each other, they work together. Maybe in some ways I'm trying to recreate a certain feeling from the past."

A diehard New Yorker, Kimmel is nonetheless concerned by the way that the city is changing. With rents in Manhattan and Brooklyn at an all-time high, many of his artist friends are moving to sunnier, cheaper climes. "New York is just so expensive, and the art community is particularly affected by that," he says. "It's already difficult to live here. Added to which, LA is having a very good 'art moment' right now."

So could Kimmel's beloved art crews soon be a thing of the past? "Nah, I'm pretty sure they're not," he says, smiling. "Things have a strange habit of coming around again, don't they?"

Adam Kimmel is stocked at Dover Street Market. He will be showing his latest collection as part of a special art installation at the Istituto d'Arte, Florence, on 10 January