Michael Bastian Wants More Than the Respect of His Peers

The designer of the moment wants to lead the brand of the future.

“I’m trying to think what I can tell you so this feels new,” says Michael Bastian. “I want to make sure you get something good.” It’s been nine years since he started his eponymous brand and he gets written about a lot. Obviously, we knew this going in and didn’t care. But Bastian is a warm and sincere man. He wants to help.

His story has been told before: the rise through the marketing and buying ranks at Sotheby’s, then Tiffany & Co., then Polo Ralph Lauren followed by the men’s fashion directorship of Bergdorf Goodman. Now he has his eponymous brand and a huge amount of influence in an industry where cutting someone down to size is an art and a science.

“I still don’t think I’m a fashion guy,” Bastian says. “I think I’m a clothes guy. I’m a little obsessive,”

He explains that his brand exists in a part of the market that he created. The fact that he can make this claim without sounding like an asshole is a tribute to the fact that he isn’t an asshole. He’s also – it’s worth noting – right. “I think the secret of my brand is that I speak to the guys who just get it,” he adds. “They don’t want something all logo’d and tricked out. But they go to the gym, they still go out, they want to look hot. And they want an upgrade, but they don’t want to look like their Dad.” 

To outfit his growing consumer base, Bastian churns out new must-haves every season (this fall it’s the Monster intarsia sweater). He is also largely responsible for the slim-fitting cargo pant trend of the last few years and the return of the tennis sweater. He’s not high fashion exactly, but he’s unpredictable. “I don’t know if I would use that word, ‘trailblazer,'” he laughs. “That implies that this huge crowd followed me and that certainly is not the case!”

Then he pauses for a second. “Or maybe it is,” he says.

Nearly a decade into his business, Bastian has hit a critical mass of sorts. He’s got a strong brand identity – sexy, classic American with European-inflected fits and fabrics – but there’s a certain threshold he is trying to cross. “I am so proud that we got to this point on our own. You can always be bigger, but being bigger was never why I got into this. It was selfish – I wanted to make this sweater, those pants, those jeans. Because if you believe in it, chances are someone else will believe in it. If you’re dying for it, there’s a guy out there who will die for it, too.”

At this point, it’s time for Bastian to find his signature. For Calvin Klein, it was underwear. For Ralph Lauren, it was a polo shirt. Bastian thinks his could very well be denim. His five-pocket jeans have been met with an enthusiastic response. And he’s got a chance to experiment a bit – to find what makes his jeans different. Here’s why: His business is in the black. He likes and trusts his employees. He’s the exception to the ten-year rule. Marc Jacobs wasn’t profitable for ten years. Yves Saint Laurent didn’t have a robust business until the ten year mark. Even Ralph Lauren wasn’t an overnight success. Michael Bastian is entering year nine. He’s a success, but he’s not the phenomenon he could well become.

Bastian launches his own e-commerce operation later this year, and once his business gets just a bit bigger, a fragrance and his own brick-and-mortar store will be (his fingers are crossed at this point) in the cards. “At a certain point this is a brand,” he says. “It’s got to be bigger than me as one little person. We have a lane, and it’s a good lane, and want to drive faster down that lane.” 

As the conversation ebbs, he puffs on an e-cigarette and thinks about whether he’s provided “something good.” When it is suggested that interviews with him generally focus on current trends and his past rather than the future of his career and his brand, he nods. “You know what? Yeah, that was all new.”

Photos by Brian Ach / Getty Images