Abasi Rosborough are Living the American Dream and Turning Menswear Inside Out
- Interview: Adam Wray
- Photography: Abdul Abasi
New York City’s Garment District exists in a strange interzone between tourist hotspots, nestled in midtown Manhattan between Madison Square Garden and Times Square. At street level, it is a kaleidoscope of storefronts packed with fabric bolts and swatch books. Above, factories still operate at full-tilt. Though diminished from its productive peak—like almost every sector of domestic manufacturing—it remains a resilient hub of American ingenuity, an essential staging ground for young New York brands like Abasi Rosborough. This label’s central concern has been a ground-up reinvention of classic men’s tailoring. Recognizing that the restrictive shapes of the suit jacket and trousers no longer serve the needs of the 21st century city-dweller, their clothes are cut to emphasize range of motion and versatility. Their fabric selections are more traditional: always all-natural, and frequently unique deadstock sourced blocks away from where their garments are assembled. With eight seasons under their belts, founders Abdul Abasi and Greg Rosborough’s approach is connecting—they have just been nominated for the 2017 LVMH Prize.
Adam Wray visited the duo in the Garment District at the factory where their clothing is cut and sewn.
Abdul Abasi (AA), Greg Rosborough (GR)
So, it’s Friday night and you were at the factory until 7:30. What does the Garment District mean to you guys?
AA: It’s the third member of Abasi Rosborough. We wouldn’t be able to have our business without it.
GR: When we were in design school at FIT I was petrified of the Garment District. You come to New York and it’s this wild, foreign country in Midtown, and you hope someday you’ll understand how it works and speak the language. There are 50 different stores where you can buy buttons. Like, is this the right button? It’s not Yelp-reviewed. You just have to learn by being deep in it for awhile. It kind of reminds us of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. There are things that still surprise me all the time.
AA: It’s like a Swiss Army knife—if it can be done, they can do it there. It’s the epitome of the American dream. You have immigrants from all over the world who came here with meagre belongings, or wealth, or whatever, but they have skills. They get a little atelier, a little shop, they hire a couple sewers, and 20 years later they’re employing 50 people, they’ve put kids through college, and now their son’s running it. It’s sweat equity.
GR: And they stress the details.
AA: We love that we can pay people a livable wage. We love that we source from sustainable jobbers and people that have deadstock fabric. We love that we know our sewers by name. They’re part of what we do. They’re friends and mentors. You saw Faye, she’s like our grandma. She gives us relationship advice—tells me to buy a house, I need to get married. It’s out of love. They know that we’re small, but they look out for us.
“That’s how clothing should feel—everything else you have is incorrectly designed.”
The American Dream is a loaded concept. There’s that George Carlin quote: “They call it the American Dream because you’ve gotta be asleep to believe it.” But for some people it really does exist. Are the people you work with in the Garment District worried it might vanish completely in this political climate?
AA: Just by virtue of coming here, people create their own destiny. That’s something that’s maybe conceptually very American, but I feel like more immigrants carry that ideal. I don’t want to badmouth Americans, because I’m an American, but we have a sense of entitlement and expectation. You’ve gotta go and get it. Peter is kind of the patriarch of the factory—he works seven days a week. He’s probably pushing 70—
GR: He’s 71. He’s up every day at 5:00 AM, he goes swimming, then he comes to factory by 8. When we come in at 10 and say good morning, he’s like, “It’s not morning anymore.”
AA: These are exceptional people. Trump, c’est la vie, he says what he needs to say, but does he really know what it takes? We know cabbies that have medical degrees in their home countries. That takes exceptional character and heart, and that’s why we love working with these people. They don’t b.s.—they can do it or they can’t do it and this is the price. No small talk. And not in a negative way, it’s just, like, if they’re not sewing your stuff, they’re sewing someone else’s. And you’ve gotta respect that.
When you’re starting your design process, where do you begin?
GR: We have our fundamental ideals—advanced tailoring and pattern-making and anatomical design—but every season comes from a different place, trying to see outside of the silo of design and fashion. We took a trip together to Tokyo and Kyoto last year and that influenced our Spring/Summer 2017 collection.
AA: Good design is invisible. You actually shouldn’t notice good design. Not to say we’ve solved all the problems, but we think we’re at a place where the design is almost silent, and you don’t even notice it. That’s how clothing should feel—everything else you have is incorrectly designed.
Our platform is making clothing. You can’t actually design fashion. Fashion is the reappropriation of clothing by people. Skinhead style, or rockabilly, or whatever, that’s a group of people taking disparate elements from different cultures, whether it’s workwear, motorcycle jackets, things that were designed for certain functions, and then they turn it into a uniform. People latch on and it becomes a movement. And then that becomes fashion, or anti-fashion, which itself eventually becomes fashion. That takes a lot of weight off of what Greg and I do. It levels the playing field, especially nowadays with the prevalence of streetwear, and Vetements, and all this culture that seems to be taken from people that don’t exist in the fashion world but have been recontextualized and put into a luxury frame.
The idea of trying to design fashion that references existing fashion is, like… How many times can you recycle something until there’s nothing of it left?
AA: It’s easy to be like, “Oh, the 90s are back.” Leave them in the 90s! It’s 2017. Architecture has moved forward. Communication has moved forward. Graphic design has moved forward. Why are we still referencing that stuff? Why aren’t we creating new stuff? That’s the reaction from these companies trying to make sure they have a hit. Just like cover songs—“I know that song was a hit in the 70s, so let me put a hip-hop beat behind it because this generation has no idea.” It’s, like, no—make new music. Greg and I decided a long time ago that we would never create a company unless we had something new to say. A lot of people say, “It’s sportswear with a twist,” or, “It’s preppy with a twist.” We’re not twisting anything.
GG: And we’re not saying, “We couldn’t find a pair of jeans that fits,” or, “We couldn’t find the perfect t-shirt.”
AA: We only reference ourselves. To have complete continuity of design, you always have to be looking at what you do and tweaking it. Instead of making a different chair every year, have one chair, and whatever doesn’t work on that chair, next time take that bug out, so eventually you have a perfect chair. That’s why we’re not heavily referential. We think a lot of that stuff just doesn’t work. It’s cute, it’s trendy, whatever—it doesn’t work. I put my arms in it and I can’t do anything. I want clothing that allows me to be me, 100%, unabashedly. And as soon as I notice that I can’t be, that thing has failed me. When we put you in our jacket, in my opinion, you should never want to wear another jacket. For us, that’s the motivation.
GR: We were looking at some old garments in Japan and I was like, “Oh, we should buy all these so we can take them back to have these references,” and Abdul was like, “No, we don’t need to buy any of them. When we get home, whatever you think that you remember, design based on that.” I wanted to take those pieces and probably would have ended up just copying them. Instead, we took the essence.
Whatever you remember is probably the most important part. The rest fades away.
GR: In traditional garment construction, everything is clean-finished inside and out. A lot of the most beautiful details in a garment are on the inside, actually. Everything in Epoch, our Spring/Summer 2017 collection, is sewn with the guts fully exposed. You can see the canvassing on the jackets. Everything is out there. Our first season, we went to show our old tailoring professor at FIT our designs to get their stamp of approval. Now, we’re confident in what we’re doing. We know the products fit well, we’ve done enough cutting and pattern-making to know that these things are working. After three years, we finally feel confident to just run with our ideas.
AA: We had to teach our sewers to sew it wrong, if that makes sense. Fashion is about hiding all the evidence of how it’s made. Going to Japan and looking at the traditional architecture, when you look at some of the temples, the inside and outside are almost the same. The walls are interchangeable. The light and wind cut through. It’s this notion of, like, are you inside or are you outside? It’s in-between space. So, we were like, let’s expose the garment’s structural components as though it was a Japanese temple with the washi paper and the wooden beams.
GR: There’s a great quote by Charles Eames that we’ve been saying to one another as a reminder or a pep talk that goes, “The details are not the details, the details make the design.” The little details are why you love anything you have. We just try to find those details that feel natural to us and bring them out.
The temple comparison is interesting, particularly the point about the airflow. Abasi Rosborough is an urban label in the most literal sense of the word, and cities are sort of prisons of bad design. We have all these massive concrete structures that we need air conditioning to cool during the summer, which produces so much heat, which in turn requires more air conditioning.
AA: One of the tenets of our design is “ancient and modern.” The most simple pieces are actually the most modern pieces. If you look at some of these temples that are a thousand years old, that architecture is actually quite modern.
GR: If an architect proposed the exact tenets that those temples are built on people would be like, “Oh my God, what a progressive, modern idea,” and it’s actually a thousand years old. It’s so harmonious. I’m not a huge meditator—Abdul is, I try it once in awhile—but you get lulled into a state of mind by the joinery of the wood, and the paper walls, and the tatami, and the wind flow, and all the little vistas they’ve created. It’s not fanciful, either. It’s humble and utilitarian, in a way. That speaks to their staying power.
AA: It was a transformative trip. We wanted be vulnerable and say, “Hey, this is every nook and cranny. It’s here.” And it’s been the best-selling season for our jackets. The one where we show you all the guts is the one that everyone responds to.
- Interview: Adam Wray
- Photography: Abdul Abasi