A lifelong resident of New York City, Matteo Gottardi decided he wanted to follow his father, formerly of the Italian eyewear company Safilo, into the design business while far away from Soho and all that. A college trip to Sweden opened his eyes to the possibilities of menswear. “Their work wear was just amazing,” he says. "Like G-Star, but on crack. I thought, why don’t I bring that aesthetic back to the US and put my own spin on it?” He couldn’t answer the question, so he opened a store. Operations was a sleeper hit, but when the recession hit, Gottardi had to put it to sleep for good. That’s when he dropped out and got serious.
Gottardi wrapped up Operations and skipped town for South Africa, where he climbed on a bike and toured through the veld. “I mean, I wouldn’t call it ‘soul-searching.’ But I guess that’s what it turned out to be,” he says. His casualness about riding a motorcycle through the developing world for three months is the least cool thing about him.
Riding around Africa, he began to think about menswear. “You have heritage—the Ralph Laurens, the Americana—then you have this very active sportswear trend that’s happening. And there are a lot of guys like myself who see value in both, but we want something in between.” That something in between is called W.R.K, the menswear label and design house he founded and presides over. And that label has a bonafide hit. The Reworked Shirt is a combination of poplin and jersey woven from the same thread, so it has the crispness of a dress shirt but the comfort of a T-shirt.
“I think of every garment as a tool,” says Gottardi. "It’s not just about looking good, it’s about a garment that serves a purpose.” For Gottardi, purpose means something he can wear on his motorcycle. And it’s not just inspired by that Africa trip. The guy drives a motorcycle to work every day—a completely custom rebuilt Triumph Bonneville—from his apartment in Battery Park City, up Manhattan’s West Side, to the W.R.K studio in Chelsea. The Touring Jacket is another example of Gottardi’s design ethos: He claims it is one of the only sartorially minded motorcycle jackets with just-so articulated seams that complement, not constrict, the way a man rides a bike.
Speaking of bikes, Gottardi loves his. “They say you know you’ve found the right woman when you love her as much as you love your bike,” he says. "Let’s just say I haven’t found one yet.” This does not appear to be a joke, which is fine because he doesn’t feel pressure to settle down at the moment. Gottardi divides his time between work, the Sag Harbor house he keeps in the summers, and the aquarium stores he frequents to keep the centerpiece of his apartment in working order. “It’s this huge 100 gallon tank in my apartment, and my father did it growing up so I guess that’s where I get it from. Every ten days or so I go in, trim the plants, check the pH. It’s different, but it’s my little heaven.”
Which brings us back to Gottardi’s design philosophy. It’s not about about doing what everyone else is doing, he says. “Every brand has a Steve McQueen inspiration right now, usually way too literally,” he says. "Back when Steve was around, he was himself, he wasn’t trying to be some guy from forty years before. That’s what I’m trying to do with W.R.K. Redefine what the Steve of today is. Who is that guy today?”
Would Gottardi call himself a McQueen for today? He grins. “I don’t know. But maybe.”
Photos by W.R.K