Dispatches from Fall '11

The Gilt MAN Q&A: An Exclusive Sit-Down with Alexandre Plokhov

On the eve of his much anticipated Paris debut, the former Cloak kingpin talks to us about striking out on his own—and gives us a sneak peek at his new collection.
Photos: Alex Freund

Alexandre Plokhov, Fall 2011.

Like pretty much everyone else who follows menswear, we’ve been anticipating this week’s launch of Alexandre Plokhov’s namesake collection in Paris—which is why we were thrilled when the Russian-born, New York-based designer invited us to his Flatiron District studio last week for an exclusive preview of the line (check out a few looks in this post). The design signatures Plokhov developed at Cloak and his three-year stint at Versace—razor-sharp tailoring; precise, angular construction; a focused attention to fit—get an upgrade via uber-luxe fabrics (blazers and overcoats in unbleached Italian wools; a parka lined with lamb fur; T-shirts cut from soft Japanese jersey; a kangaroo leather jacket) and deconstructionist details (inverted, flipped-up lapels; side-pleated trousers; recurring V-shaped “train” hems on outerwear pieces). It is, in Plokhov’s words, “the spiritual progeny of Cloak, with Italian craftsmanship and a slightly more open worldview.” Over lunch, the man himself told us the backstory of his return—and of his newfound obsession with “craft, technique, honing.”

Your presentation in Paris is the first time the public will see your new clothes in person. Anything you can preview for us?
We rented a nice little gallery near Place des Vosges, a beautiful white space in an old building, through an alley. Semi-secret, which is always attractive to me. [laughs] It’s sectioned off into three areas. In one area will be clothes; in the second area will be portraits of the collection by photographer Alex Freund; and then there’s a dark room, where a video I did with Doug Keeve will be projected. It’s a different way to take you through the experience. And you can touch the clothes, and try them on, and all that stuff. Because a fashion show is a very different kind of experience; it’s such a specific, short-lived exercise. It feels very temporary to me know, like a burst and then it’s over. I like to savor things a little right now, and get up close, and really show things, and have people touch fabrics. More personal, less glam.

So is Paris your place?
I never say no to anything. Right now, yes. But I love New York, too. I live here, and would like to continue living here. It’s just from a commercial standpoint, selling menswear out of New York is very difficult, and fraught with delays and just the secondary nature of menswear, as it relates to the women’s business. I think in Paris it’s taken differently. Creativity in menswear is appreciated and proudly exhibited.

What inspired your new line?
I was looking at industrial photography, and these abandoned buildings and abandoned machinery—fly wheels, hoists, cranes, things like that. And I tried to imagine the people who worked there, and what kinds of things they would wear.

What drew you to those industrial influences?
It’s not so much desolation. It’s more the whole concept that as a society we’re going through this process of deindustrialization. We’re such a consumer society, as opposed to a producing society. And, there’s a certain element of nostalgia. The western world for me was always, you know, people who do things. And now we don’t, so much. I mean, of course we’re producing differently, through electronic media, but it’s not so much manufacturing. And I think there was a certain beauty in conveyor belts and people going to work.

Your Russian upbringing factors into this somewhat, then…
Possibly, because both my mother and my father went to work every day. They worked in a factory—my mother as a fashion designer, my dad making furniture. And it was cold. So things had to be sturdy.

You’re making an ambitious move, striking out on your own. What prompted it?
I just think it’s the right time. People are more open to ideas and expressing yourself through menswear. Pretty much at this point we’re sick of this force-fed preppyism, especially in American menswear. And I think there’s a whole new generation of consumers who are ready to dress…I don’t want to say outrageously, but in more interesting ways. You know, not particularly classic. I’m not saying there was a void in the market. I just felt that nobody’s been doing what Cloak was doing. But I didn’t just want to re-do old things. I wanted to incorporate what I’ve learned and move forward. But Cloak is definitely the foundation of what I’m trying to do.

Do you feel we’re reaching a defining moment in menswear?
I think there’s a seismic change coming. I don’t quite know what it is. I think there are lots of interesting things coming out of Paris, with skirts and things being wrapped, and craftsmanship yet deconstruction at the same time. I think it’s quite fascinating—there a sort of new primitivism, but there’s also a search for the old tradition, the old techniques.

We have to reach saturation point with the whole American prep thing at some point, right?
Not just the preppy thing. The whole New England lumberjack thing… What I’m saying is, I think there’s more room, there’s more willingness to accept things than back in 1999, when I was trying to launch Cloak. I think things are about to change.

Next page: Plokhov on what he learned during his stint designing for Versace…

Can you tell us a little about your design process?
I don’t really design collections for a specific person, or with some predetermined concept in mind. It more like a process of elimination: What looks new and interesting to me? Menswear is more gradual, it’s more about improvement, about tinkering, as opposed to radical newness…which is more women’s wear, this force-feeding of the new. Men’s is more about starting from where your last collection left off, and I think I’m starting from where my last Cloak collection ends.

You’ve cited your last collection for Cloak being a turning point for you as a designer…
I think I stepped out of that goth military thing that for some bizarre reason I was pigeonholed into. There was color, and experimentation with shape. And just a general loosening of the silhouette and the proportions. What I’m doing now is a little more in that direction, but more controlled. I knew I wanted a very rigorous, almost institutional collection. It’s not all things to all people. It’s a very clear point of view. You like it or you don’t. Fine.

Can you give us some more details on the new collection?
The collection is made in Italy, exclusively, and incorporates some Japanese textiles. It’s made by craftsmen—the shirts are made at a shirt factory, the trousers are made at a trouser factory, the coats are made at a coat factory. It’s all very highly specialized. I spent three years in Milan and, you know…you learn new tricks.

Did your time in Milan with Versace bring about that “slightly more open worldview” you mentioned?
Yes, and it was basically the experience of working with craftsmen and textile people. It improved my understanding of fabric, because the access was unrestricted—you can go to any archive of any factory and find anything you want, and ask for those fabrics to be reproduced, things like that. That’s really liberating. I learned that different fabrics do different things. We used this Escorial fabric from Holland & Sherry, for example, which is exorbitantly expensive, but absolutely beautiful. I mean, even the swatches come in a wooden box.

And just being able to actually go to factories… If you talk to the craftsmen, they’ll show you the new way of finishing, the new way of construction, and that’s a learning curve you don’t really get here [in New York]. Because here the factories—whatever are left of them since the garment district was deregulated and rezoned—have to do everything: shirts, dresses, coats, all together. And I just don’t think you can achieve the same goals with that. The hand of the stitcher is a different experience.

Another element I learned there that was very, very important was lightness, especially in the summer. The Cloak collections tended to be fairly substantial and sturdy… Not that I was disregarding the season, but this summer I’ll be doing lighter things.

No suits in your new collection, I notice. Does the suit have a role to play in a man’s life, in your mind?
I just don’t think there is a suit anymore, per se. All of those things are broken down. You can buy a blazer, a jacket, a pair of trousers separately. I really don’t believe we have the call for it, apart from weddings and funerals. But nonetheless, the techniques used in making a traditional suit are fascinating. And I think it’s one of the most complex things to make.

I just like cutting. I wanted the darts to go in strange directions. Complex tailoring is interesting to me. I like structure. I like the cut of a lapel. I like a strong shoulder. I like a perfectly fitted sleeve. These things are all based in classic tailoring. It’s just, if you manipulate the shape a bit, it gives you that edge. But I really do want it to look sharp. Like, made with a razor. Cleaved, if you will. But, if you use tweedy, soft, twilly fabric, I think there’s a funny interplay between the sharpness and the softness. And that’s another Italian thing. They’re very conscious of softness. And I was not able to achieve that before in New York.

But each season I can only make a proposition. The role of a suit? Those broader philosophical things are way beyond me.

So what’s your proposition this season?
The proposition is: Try it. It’s not going to make you feel like a fool.

The collection has a very strong point of view. It feels like you’re attempting to redefine the standards by which men look at the most basic items in their wardrobe. The T-shirt, for example.
Yeah, I’m proud of the T-shirts. They came out really well. You know, we all have T-shirts, we all wear them. I am not a big proponent of unfinished, raw-edge things. I always wanted to achieve the balance between luxury and innovation. And I really like to cut things in a strange manner that’s appealing to me. Sort of a constructivism without ridiculousness. And now I’m working with the factories that can help me achieve that.

And the hoodie—another casual basic that you’ve recast.
I wear a hoodie all the time, and was just obsessed with the idea of trains—not as in locomotive, but as in a part of clothing. Because that hem was originally from a swallowtail parka, the mod thing with the two points coming down in the back. I think there’s something almost regal about it. But again, without being ridiculous.

Regal, almost in the sense of a morning coat.
Yes—a tailcoat or a morning coat. Taking the base of traditional tailoring and reimagining it.

Let’s talk about pleats for a second. You’ve got ‘em.
[Laughs] We’ve got pleats, yes.

But aren’t pleats, you know, bad? A lot of men see them and think, I can’t do that.
I think many people have already done pleats on the runway successfully, but I can’t be the judge of that. To me pleats are just a way to control volume. And I think it looks appropriate again now. It’s just a tool. I don’t look at it in any other manner. I mean, I wear pleated trousers.

Do you think the men’s fashion world has become a little too obsessed with the slim look?
I don’t know. I just go by the motto of, Why not? And there’s a little of my contrarian nature in there, too.

You’ve also lined a parka in lamb fur. I was blown away by how warm it was when I tried it on…
I’ve always liked the idea of removable fur lining in a parka. I think it’s a reaction to the weather we’ve been having recently. It’s freezing.

Even for a Russian?
Well, let’s not go into stereotypes now. Let’s just say I was sartorially unprepared for the last snowstorm.

There are distinct pockets of men in New York who have felt a void since Cloak shuttered. It was a line that seemed to have a real cultural impact. What do you think was behind that?
I think it’s just acknowledging that for young men there are certain cultural signifiers. Like, if somebody tells you, I like Joy Division, you kind of understand their aesthetic references—the art they like, the music they like, the food they eat, how they dress. And I don’t think before that… I mean, I think Stephen Sprouse did quite a good job, but I think I was just lucky enough to realize that that was the void. The clothing was very much music-inspired, and literature-inspired. It was about experimenting with shape, details, and proportion, but again, to make men look more heroic, not ridiculous.

Speaking of music, what have you been listening to these days?
I’m liking Fever Ray, Blessure Grave, and Soft Moon. Bands who are doing things along unpredictable lines. Bands with passion.

And books?
I’ve been a little disappointed lately, to be honest. The last William Gibson novel, Zero History, was a bit lazy, and I’m his biggest fan. Neal Stephenson’s last book, Anathem, was unreadable, and I love him, too. I’m waiting for the next Cormac McCarthy or something to satisfy the craving.

In the meantime, any classics you go back to?
Blood Meridian is my favorite novel now. The way McCarthy writes makes me very happy.

Any analogies between the way he writes and the way you design?
No. I’m not even in the same building. The way his sentences are constructed…Everything is intentional. And that intentionality is what I’d like to convey. There are no accidents. And that’s probably the most important difference between what I did before and what I do now. Craft, technique, honing—that is what’s important to me as I get older.

Nothing’s left to chance.
I would like for it to be so.

So you’re saying you’re a control freak?
No, I never said that. You said that! One person’s control freak is another person’s perfectionist. Or psychotic!

You seem excited about the new collection, which is great to see.
I am excited. I think it’s okay to be happy once in a while.

Really? So this is the new you, huh?
[Laughs] I’m happy. This is my baby. It’s born. It exists. And now I release it…And then the next one begins.

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