Neil Barrett: Man of style

He launched Prada menswear, took Puma to the forefront of fashion, and has a select fan base of A-listers with taste. Neil Barrett tells James Sherwood how he created the wardrobe of modern man
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The Independent Online

It sounds simple, but imagination has taken the Devon-born designer a long way. He graduated from London's Central Saint Martins in 1986. For five years he was menswear director of Gucci, before launching Prada menswear in 1995. Now 40, he has had his own label since 1999, and a high-profile collaboration with Puma that has pushed fashion's fusion with sportswear to new extremes.

His 96 Hours collection for the hip sportswear giant is a showcase of forward thinking. It began in 2002 as a completely coordinating wardrobe for a "black-collar" business gypsy to wear for five days and four nights of travel. It recognised a new type of consumer, for whom workwear meant, for instance, a black, versatile, slim-fitting raincoat. You could even chose to buy the whole collection in a trolley case, packed and ready to go.

Barrett and Puma met when the company's creative director asked him to design for the Italian football team. "Living in Italy and knowing what a religion football is, it was an amazing offer," he says. " Sportswear is a reality of a man's wardrobe nowadays. And with the technology available, garments should be lighter, they should breathe, they should cool you down." Since this first project, Barrett has designed a seasonal collection based on disciplines such as motorcross and running, using sports fabrics with his own luxury finishes. It's savvy - he is introducing designer consumers to sportswear brands and attracting a young, dynamic customer to his main line.

You could pave Via Montenapoleone with the names of British designers who have tried and failed to succeed in the Milan. Barrett's Prada background obviously helped, but it's his techno-tailoring - lightyears ahead of the purring flash and glitter of Italian designer menswear - that has attracted attention and kept it firmly on his own label.

Compared to the macho roar of a brash, flash Versace, Cavalli or Dolce & Gabbana, Barrett's is still a small voice in the city, but then it was his belief that "when something gets too big it loses its charm" which prompted his decision to leave Prada. All the elements that make Barrett such a maverick were on display in Milan at the spring/summer 2006 collections last June: largely monotone tailoring in the shrunken proportions he introduced to Prada, formal pieces such as the tuxedo made in faded, aged and distressed fabrics, slightly gawky shorts and pre-shrunk knits, or a dress-shirt worn with jeans.

The lack of colour or obvious detail is intentional. Up close in Barrett's studio, his work reveals dense permutations of fabric treatments and finishes. "You have to look at a garment from a 360-degree angle. I always work on the body" - this is not a designer who sketches in his boudoir then hands the drawing to a minion to have made up.

"And it is too easy to colour something up crazily to give it interest, " he adds, referring to his love for navy, white, black and grey. " Anybody can do that. Up close with my clothes there's a lot going on with the seaming, pocketing or finishing. It's a balance between interest given to a garment without making it farcical. I try to make men look masculine and credible, while most designers throw out either asexual, fey boys or exaggerated super-macho men. It's one extreme or the other on the runway and not a lot to do with how real guys want to dress. You should look at a Neil Barrett show and either want to be that man, or want him.

Barrett is a leader of the deconstruction movement in menswear - surely the most influential trend of the decade - because his garments fuse classical tailoring with directional technology. "The number-one Neil Barrett style is treating fabrics as if they've been lived in. Prada was all about perfection. Neil Barrett is 50 per cent perfect and 50 per cent aged and destroyed. Instinct told me to do this. Men don't want to look as if they've just walked off a runway. We work with 26 of the best factories in Italy. It's a wonderful country for researching original finishes. There are a million variations you can achieve. Take the navy blazer. I always have the perfect navy wool mohair blazer in the collection. I then have the aged-wool blazer of the same weight but with all the borders shrunk or aged. These two different garments are coming from factories that are side by side in Tuscany.

Even in his early days, innovation was key. "What I proposed with Prada was a menswear label to complement the women's - modern and elegant, with the most exquisite finishing." One of Barrett's major pieces was the classically tailored navy suit - but executed in stretch polyester. " The factories were up in arms trying to tailor a garment with stretch but when we perfected the suit it came to define Prada menswear."

Perhaps the most forward-thinking strategy of the Neil Barrett studio today has nothing to do with technology at all. All fashion designers are in the thrall of celebrity and yet Neil Barrett has never bombarded the Chateau Marmont with freebies come Oscar time or paid what he calls "fashion initiators" to wear his clothing. His followers pay for Neil Barrett because they want to wear it. By celebrity osmosis his clothes have worked their way into the wardrobes of Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, Orlando Bloom and Brad Pitt. "I'm flattered," he says, "that it's such a small, discerning group.

NEIL BARRETT PICKS HIS FAVOURITE FASHION MOMENTS

The Prada stretch suit: "One of the first designs that helped form the Prada menswear image, this was revolutionary. Other designers had deconstructed the suit but what we were doing was constructed tailoring with techno fabric."

The plain Prada tie: "When I started doing ties in the same fabric as the shirt or the suit, it had never been done. It's now a standard in menswear but we were groundbreaking at Prada."

Waxed jeans: "The waxed jean was a standard treatment I did in my denim collection since day one. We've sold over 50,000 pairs and they have become a key theme in the Neil Barrett collection alongside my two-tone, double-layer T-shirts."

My first trainer collaboration with Puma for the Neil Barrett main line: "The first Puma training shoe I designed was an important moment to me. Despite being a giant in sportswear, Puma was, and is, very open-minded about wanting to work with a fashion designer."

Neil Barrett battered leather blouson: "Aged and faded leather is a constant theme for the Neil Barrett label, season in, season out. The autumn/winter 2005 battered blouson is the one worn by Orlando Bloom, Ewan McGregor and Brad Pitt, so it has very good associations for me."

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