By Gloria Nicola; Portrait By JR Delia

Michael Bastian did not plan a career in fashion. He had no formal training. He studied business at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., and planned to work in marketing or finance. “My major goal after completing college was to live in New York City. The first job I got just happened to be in retail as an assistant buyer at Abraham & Strauss. I didn’t even realize the company was located in Brooklyn,” Bastian laughs. “After that I bumped around to a few other jobs, always in fashion-oriented businesses: Sotheby’s, Tiffany & Co., Polo Ralph Lauren and Bergdorf Goodman. My career in fashion just started building and unfolding step by step.”

It was when Bastian was at Bergdorf Goodman, where he was men’s fashion director for five years, that he saw the need for a new American voice in the men’s designer world—something modern and luxurious. In 2006, he launched the Michael Bastian brand. “I see the Michael Bastian customer as a man in his 30s and 40s and in transition from big brand designer names to the luxury market. These men want quality and a good fit. They still go to the gym and don’t want to look like their father, but they want something a little more traditional,” he explains. “My brand is really classic American sportswear done at a luxury level.”

In 2010, Bastian began a collaboration with Gant for a menswear line under the Gant by Michael Bastian brand. This collaboration led to a Gant by Michael Bastian Spring/Summer 2011 womenswear collection, the first venture into womenswear for Bastian. The Gant partnership also led to a Gant by Michael Bastian Eyewear collection with Viva International Group. The ophthalmic collection launched early this year and the sunglasses will follow in the fall.  

The collaboration with Gant has provided Bastian an excellent opportunity to expand his customer base. “I don’t see this collection as just cheaper or a bridge collection. I have a definite profile of whom I see as the Gant for Michael Bastian consumer. He’s about a generation younger than the Michael Bastian customer, probably right out of college, opens his closet and knows he’s ready for an upgrade. He wants good stuff, but doesn’t want to lose his personality. He wants something modern and sexy at a good price,” the designer explains. “That’s not saying somebody in their 40s, like me, can’t wear Gant, but I think it’s important to have a profile of your customer—something to hang your hat on.”
Getting something you can just put on and not worry about—That to me is true luxury.
The customer profile is especially important to Bastian because he says his design philosophy is directed by his customers. “I tell them ‘buy less, but buy better and enjoy it.’ The key to personal style is not to over think it. Or if you do, you should look casual and natural as though you haven’t thought about it. Do what feels natural to you… and most important, comfortable,” he notes. “I’m obsessive so my customer doesn’t have to be. I wear all the men’s styles I design myself and consider how they fit, if they wrinkle, how easy they are to care for. I work all those things out so the customers don’t have to worry about them,” the designer emphasizes. “That to me is true luxury—getting something you can just put on and not worry about.”

Bastian feels his clothing designs are primarily classic. “I think at this moment in fashion we are revisiting looks from the ’60s, ’70s and even ’80s. We are always looking for something we can’t find anymore. For example, with eyewear I’ve been searching for a style that’s good for mountaineering like one I had in the ’80s with side shields and cable temples. So we created one for our new sun collection (Gant Sun by Michael Bastian Snow). To me that design is a classic American moment in eyewear.”

Although Bastian sees his clothing as classic, he feels it’s different with his accessories. “You can push fashion a lot more with accessories, whether it’s a scarf, bag or sunglasses. Accessories put the real style and personality into an individual’s look. People are more inclined to buy a red or orange scarf or sunglass but will stick with classic navy for a sweater,” he notes.

Just as Bastian sees his clothing and accessories as being separate entities, he also sees sunglass and ophthalmic frames as two different stories with different objectives. “Sunglasses are a fun accessory you can push more to the extremes whereas ophthalmic frames shouldn’t overwhelm the face or personality,” he explains.

“I feel ophthalmic frames are like watches. I have never liked fashion watches much. I like classic looks. You never get tired of them,” he says. “Eyewear should be like that and it should relate to the shape of the face.”

It’s different though for Bastian with sunglasses. “When working on the sunglass collection, I thought about all those street fair sunglasses in bright colors costing five dollars. That’s the spirit I want to capture in my sunglasses, but with excellent quality. That’s what’s so great about my collaboration with Viva. Viva is not afraid of color or size or design. I give them my craziest ideas and they push them even further. It’s very easy to be creative with Viva,” Bastian notes.

Liz Tontodonati, Viva’s general manager for the Gant brand, adds, “It’s great to be working with Michael. Our sunglass business tends to be driven by black and tortoise. Now we are able to do colors and even glitter.”

For his own sunglass wardrobe, the designer likes aviators, navigators and rounds. “I’m slowly getting into plastics in colors. I love white sunglasses. I got that from my mom. She has always loved a good pair of white sunglasses.”

Bastian emphasizes that eyewear is essential to the fashion business. “It’s often the entry level into a brand. And sunglasses, especially, are an easy purchase. You see something you like and you buy it. You don’t even have to go into a fitting room. I think our sunglass collection is a great way to get into the spirit of the Gant by Michael Bastian line.”

Whether he is designing clothes or eyewear, Bastian feels each new collection needs a strong inspiration: “Someplace to start. A definite direction also helps us in presenting the collection to our buyers, retailers and consumers,” he notes. As an example, for his Spring/Summer 2011 collection, he drew inspiration from the 1953 movie “Niagara” and from Marilyn Monroe and the men in her life—Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio. “I wanted to capture a certain feeling by reaching back to the style references from Marilyn’s decade, when American sportswear was at its high point,” he comments.

“Inspiration is an intricate process,” Bastian continues. “Designers are like sponges. As they are living their lives, ideas just fall into their laps when least expected. Eventually everything comes together from a lot of different ideas.”

As for his favorite color, the designer has always been drawn to red. “I have a little bit of red in each collection. Even when I say I’m not doing red, I sneak in a little,” he says as he points to a red frame in his new sunglass collection.

When asked what advice he would give to optical retailers selling his collection, he says, “Have fun, especially with the sunglasses. Call attention to them. Put them in the windows. Place them on mannequin heads. Give your customers a real blast of the spirit of Gant by Michael Bastian.” ■