Derrick Miller, the creative director of Barker Black, has proved he can update a classic English company with wit and style. That comes as no surprise for one of the most dapper men we know, who is equally at ease in a suit from Savile Row or a thrift store. We spoke recently at NYC’s legendary Ear Inn (Miller’s choice).
We’re both from Minnesota. Growing up, I learned a lot about classic clothing from Paul, who worked at Polo. He spoke about a legendary local dresser who had his suits made on Savile Row. That man, of course, is your father.
Yes! He was a serious dresser, and a serious customer of Paul’s. He was an Anderson & Sheppard customer. As kids, we’d get off the plane in London and go straight to Anderson & Sheppard. We would sit in the dressing room while he had a fitting, and at the end of the week he’d go back for a second fitting and then it would get shipped to him.
So that seemed normal to you.
It did. [Laughs] I didn’t see my dad in shorts until I was 25. He was a studio photographer and he changed clothes three times a day, just to use his clothes. All this in Minneapolis—and he wasn’t even leaving the house.
Did he encourage you to be formally dressed?
My dad and I always had self-expression in common. My dad always tried to express himself through clothing. He tried to push the envelope of conservative good taste but in a daring way. He would buy things from Polo, and had shirts made at Turnbull & Asser and five or six tailors on Savile Row. He’d mix and match all these different aesthetics. He would mix suits with a Western shirt or a logger shirt, and that made a big impression on me.
Can you talk about your style?
I try to wear a coat and tie most days. When I moved to New York it was the dot com era and it went from casual Fridays to casual the whole week. My form of rebellion was going to the Salvation Army and buying all the suits that people were getting rid of. I didn’t have any money but that’s when I learned about construction and combining things I found. And then my dad’s spirit came out and I tried to express myself in a different way. I try to never wear the same outfit twice.
So you’re anti-uniform in that sense. You seem to embrace tailoring but also a sense of invention.
That’s true. I used to be the photo editor of Nylon, but I decided to write a letter to Ralph Lauren. In my interview with him I wore a suit that I got—I have no idea where—that’s heavy flannel, chalk-stripe, totally custom-made for a man who happened to be exactly my size. I got it for $19.95. I talked to Ralph for an hour and 45 minutes about clothing, about thrift shopping, about my philosophy of dressing, about whether or not he should buy Brooks Brothers. It was right when Brooks was for sale. It was so cool to be in my style icon’s office chatting about whether he should buy another iconic brand.
Wow. And he probably had to cancel a few other appointments to stay in talking to you for so long.
[Laughs] Right. I took off my jacket and flipped it inside out and we looked at the whole thing. He was really into the fact that I got it for $19.95.
So you told him that?
Which he loved even more. I knew that was the make-or-break moment. He’s either going to think this is amazing or the interview’s over. He hired me on the spot. I worked in the tailored clothing department for two years, the neckwear department for two years and conceptual design for a year. I got to be the guy who went around the world and bought all the stuff and rigged it up for Ralph to say yes or no to.
Like a three-dimensional mood board. Not a bad job. Then you went to Barker Black.
Yes. So that opportunity came up. I flew to England to see the factory and the production manager of the factory said, ‘You know, we can make a much better shoe. We can upgrade this and customize that.’ He had come from Edward Green and Grenson and really sold me on better quality. So we did that. After about eight months we got prototypes done and went from there.
How does it look eight years later?
Creating the first samples was very hard. English factories are not very welcoming of change. It was literally me sitting across from the production manager telling him how we wanted it to be. After he saw the first prototype with the skull & crossbones punch on the toe, they thought this could be something.
What do you think about dressing these days, particularly young men?
I’m impressed with how the younger generation is embracing bow ties and dressing well. It seems that guys understand that there’s more to clothes: It can be fun, it can be a statement, and you can do it for yourself. You can wear a suit because you want to and not just because you have to.
And of course your brother Kirk runs Miller’s Oath, the downtown tailor.
Yes, he’s doing great. Everything for the most part is bespoke, but we’re going into ready-to-wear. So that’s a very good sign. And it’s exciting.
Shop Barker Black on Gilt, Tuesday Oct. 8 at noon ET.