The Deals and the Dish on Where You Need to Shop
Apr 13, 2011
06:02 PMWindow Shopping
Guy Style: Lands' End Canvas Hits a Home Run
Recently I spent some time with J Henley (in photo, right), Lands’ End (including Lands' End Canvas) men’s design director, and Nir Patel, men’s general merchandise manager. The guys were in town to view Bill Cunningham New York at the Wisconsin Film Festival, a documentary chronicling the life of New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, an eighty-year-old whose penchant for street style photography has documented stylish New Yorkers for the last forty years. Henley and Patel (impeccably dressed, might I add) were viewing the film to gain inspiration for their own design work.
I talked to Patel, who’s been in the apparel biz for seven years, and Henley, who’s worked in the fashion industry for eighteen years, about their own influences on the men’s design arm of Lands’ End Canvas.
MM: You came to watch Bill Cunningham New York here at the Wisconsin Film Festival. Bill Cunningham’s forte is street style. How does the environment around you influence your designs for Lands’ End?
J Henley: One of the things we do is look at the world around us and see how it influences the product we design. And what’s wonderful about the Wisconsin Film festival is that it brings this important part of what we look at to a local stage so that our team can get out, soak in a lot of that culture and get inspired by what Bill Cunningham does with his street photography. He snaps off shots, gets back and pulls it all together to create that collage or story, and in a lot of ways that’s what we do from a product standpoint. We travel the world, get influenced by things around us, and we try and bring that back and bring a narrative that’s brand-right and appropriate for who we are and the message we want to deliver.
Nir Patel: What’s great is that the [film festival] is right here in Madison. There’s enough culture and art all around us—you don’t need a big city. Even driving to Dodgeville, you see the rolling hills and the big, red-painted, beautiful barns and you think, “This is amazing, this is absolutely phenomenal.” And we get inspired by that.
Henley: I think what Lands’ End is about and what it represents in a great American sportswear company is what Nir said—we embody what the heartland of America is about. That to me is like a really wonderful marriage of what we do and what we strive to do from a product and brand standpoint, and what we’re influenced with—the local drive and the local culture.
MM: Can you share an example of something that you were inspired by that actually translated into a detail in a garment?
Henley: As a matter of fact, I’m wearing one. Think about the quintessential Navy peacoat. It’s an iconic thing that U.S. servicemen wore way back in the ’40s—all throughout military history it’s been one of those iconic pieces. So we take things like that and say, “OK, [our focus] at Canvas is authentic inspiration, modern interpretation.” We look at that idea, of a great wool peacoat, and say, “Let’s do something very familiar,” and take that idea and interpret it in a modern way.
So, we do a wool melton version of [the peacoat], a chambray version of it, and then we take influences from it and turn it into a product that’s completely different than the original. So on this sweater [I’m wearing] we have the same anchor-style buttons that are on the wool peacoat but we interpreted it into a more relaxed, wearable way.
MM: What is the aesthetic of the spring line that’s currently in stores?
Henley: One of the things we looked at this spring is how do we create these really great seasonal basics that guys can build on?
We just had roughly our one-year anniversary. [So when we started Canvas] we started off with the story of Lands’ End and the story behind Canvas, creating a new modern-day version of it. So, a lot of us felt for spring 2011 and spring 2012 it should be about creating a starter kit, if you will, for the guy. How do you create a starter kit using these fundamental building blocks—the chino, the chambray shirt, the oxford shirt, T-shirt, polo, desert boot, great five-pocket jean? So we crafted this collection that was really focused on the basics.
So for spring 2012, we wanted to evolve that. How do we take a great chambray shirt, a great oxford shirt, and take styles that we feel are very instrumental and we create versions of that? So we took a great popover silhouette that hearkens to southern California and interpreted it in chambray, madras cloth, in an oxford. So we took iconic fabrics and we put those in a silhouette you don’t typically see those fabrics in.
MM: And you guys travel the world to research your collections as well.
Patel: At the end of the day, we love classics. And J and I travel all over the world. We were in London together, in Tokyo together, [have had] teams in Paris, people in South America. What we do is we love to understand how the Japanese interpret American style, we go to Paris and see how the French interpret American style, we go to London and see the British interpret American style.
And then we’re in Wisconsin, and we see how the Midwest interprets American style. What’s great about that is we observe. The Japanese have the same chambray shirt in a different style. And the British approach it a different way. So we take cues and influences from all of that and in essence and try to make it fresh and inject some newness into it.
And I think that’s something that really pushes us, and makes us say, how do you take that navy wool peacoat and how do you make that fresh and different? At the end of the day, we’re just moving and twisting [these garments] a little bit, and it feels fresh. I love, love how the world interprets denim. We love our denim!
Henley: Last September, we went to Tokyo—we have a Japanese office there. It’s been there for twelve years. So it’s one of our stops, we go there, check in with them, make sure we’re providing them product that’s right for their markets. It’s also a really great opportunity for us to see how the Japanese are obsessed with American style—they research it to no end. It’s one of those things they’re so passionate about. We feel it’s a really important destination when we do travel just to see what’s going on.
I don’t know if you’re as familiar with Ivy League style and the influence that it’s had over the past year, but it all kind of points back to the Ivy League schools from the ’60s. There was a group of Japanese young guys and one of their fathers was in the fashion industry and they decided they wanted to chronicle what the Ivy League is all about. So these four guys came over to the U.S. and spent a couple of months touring all of the Ivy League campuses, taking photographs and film and came back to Japan and basically released a book documenting all of this—what the typical Ivy Leaguer was about.
They published this book—it was wildly successful, it sold out fairly quickly, they reprinted it and it sold out again. And then it just kind of went dormant. And then it became a collector’s piece. So much so that you couldn’t find it anywhere—you could find them on eBay or a rare vintage bookstore, for $2,000 or $3,000. It’s just a small book. It’s called Take Ivy. So our fall collection takes a lot of cues from that.
So they [were hosting] an event with these four original guys that hadn’t been together collectively in over forty years. And they were having a release party for the English version of the book that about forty Japanese people were invited to. Nir and I were fortunate enough that when we planned our trip, we were going to be there at the same time and we got invited. They showed the film that had never been seen publicly and all of the same footage that they took. [It was] really, really amazing.
Patel: Imagine us in the room, with forty Japanese men, super styled, wearing bowties, looking great, and they’re speaking Japanese. So we couldn’t really understand them. And then the whole crowd looks over at us, and we have a merchant in Japan that told us to stand up—the authors of the book were basically saying, thank you very much, Lands’ End, for being here tonight, one of the classic American brands. And they all clapped for us. And we were like, we’re clapping for you guys! It’s just this book that’s been an inspiration to many, many companies. And we got to meet the guys and we had conversations with them about their inspirations—it was an amazing experience. They all knew Lands’ End, knew who we were and loved the quality.
Henley: So that heavily played a part in how we approached fall 2011, which you’ll see in a few months. And then there’s this whole town and country aspect to it as well, beyond the city, what is he doing beyond that. What’s influencing him, the sportsman’s club, the hunt club. And again, all of that, we have here in our backyard. Which is a really wonderful part of where we live.
MM: What are your favorite blogs?
Henley: So, top of the list: ACL, A Continuous Lean. Michael Williams has a blog and he’s kind of the benchmark I think of when it comes to the blogosphere.
Patel: I think we’re seeing a new generation. This is my observation, [but] before guys didn’t like to say or admit they like to shop, or they like to look put-together, or dress well. And I think it doesn’t matter how old you are, I think it’s this generational shift going on that it’s OK to look put-together. It’s OK to have a nod to what your father wore or pick the best stuff out of his closet, or your grandfather. There’s still some stuff that your grandfather wore that looks phenomenal. It’s guys saying it’s not like my wife or girlfriend only has to go shopping for me.
We’re seeing a lot of these men’s blogs really coming to life. Every week, we’re like, check out this one, check out that one. At work we’re all riffing off each other, look at this collaboration, we’ve got the high-end collaborating with these small, no-name companies. The internet is nice because it equalizes the whole playing field.
There’s a laundry list of blogs we follow. We even assign blogs to some of our team members because there are so many.
In a lot of ways, it can spawn collaborations we have going on. One specifically is Allen Edmonds, which is in Port Washington, Wisconsin. They are one of the perennial shoemakers in the U.S. and still make a lot of things here in the U.S., which we feel is a really important movement happening in the marketplace that’s been happening in the last two to three years. It seems like it’s been getting more and more important. So we try to tap into things like that that are relevant for our brand that have company history similar to what we have. We have some stuff coming up with them in fall.