Clothing is Communication: Abasi Rosborough for Grailed
Clothing is Communication: Abasi Rosborough for Grailed
- Words Grailed Team
- Date January 4, 2018
Without sounding hyperbolic, Abasi Rosborough represent the future of fashion design here in New York. With a combined design history that includes stints at brands ranging from Nepenthes to Ralph Lauren, Abdul Abasi and Greg Rosborough have honed their respective visions into a uniquely unified—yet multi-faceted—lens that fuses the realms of American sportswear, Japanese simplicity, and military precision.
Initially meeting while both attending FIT in NYC, the pair launched their first collection in 2013. Since then, the label has accrued several accolades, including a spot as a 2016 Woolmark Prize Finalist, and a nomination for the LVMH Young Designer Prize earlier this year. More than just innovative tailoring, the label honors the city’s time-tested garment-making tradition; Abasi Rosborough garments are produced ethically in New York with a focus on sustainable and recycled deadstock fabrics.
We sat down with the pair to discuss what it’s like being an independent designer in 2018, menswear’s breakneck hype cycle, and the importance of sustainability in fashion. Scope their self-shot and art-directed editorial (photographed here at Grailed HQ), check out our conversation with the designers and shop a curated selection of archive and one-off sample Abasi Rosborough below.
Photography by Abdul Abasi and Chris Fenimore
For starters, why don't you guys introduce yourselves and tell me what exactly you do.
Greg Rosborough: Hey, I'm Greg Rosborough. For the company we both do a bit of everything -- there's a lot of overlap -- not such rigidly defined roles. The fun part we can start with because that's only 10 percent of what we do: the design, the fabric sourcing, the conceptualization, direct the photo shoots, the outside facing things. But then, of course, we're at the garment district and the factory about three or four times a week for sampling, overseeing production, coordinating between the people who supply everything from the zippers to the buttons to all the different elements to make sure it comes together. And then the less fun part of shipping and boxing. It takes a week and a half and we're just getting it all out as soon as possible. Sending out the invoices. We do our sales through a showroom in Paris. So, yeah. All that stuff.
Abdul Abasi: Yes. I'm Abdul Abasi and basically if you think of a brain, I think I'm right brain and he's left brain, if that makes sense. We both kind of dabble in both things and everything is a dialogue between the two, but I think my role is more of trying to create broad strokes and ideas. I'm very whimsical and esoteric, and Greg is very pragmatic and detail oriented.
Like any good couple.
AA: Exactly. He takes the ideas that are in this space in the ether and then he picks out what works and makes it happen. And then we, like our namesake, we do everything fifty-fifty. Everything needs to be approved by both of us, but we trust each other equally and it's just a perfect partnership.
And is it just you guys? I know it's a small, independent brand, but do you guys have employees?
GR: It's just us, and then we have different people we work with depending on what's going on. We have the sales showroom team in Paris. We have a guy that works here on sales. We have the sewing team here, which is twenty-seven people that, obviously, we don't fully employ, but at different times of year they're working on our clothing. We have a graphic designer we work with, and then all these different individual roles, but as far as full time it's just us two.
Can talk a little bit just briefly about your backgrounds and pedigree. Greg, what were you doing before Abasi Rosborough?
GR: I grew up playing basketball. I’m from Arizona. My dad was a basketball coach so I had to play basketball, but did that and then a variety of different things happened, but I just decided at some point that I wanted to go to design school and try out that avenue, and got really inspired being here in New York. I got my first internship at Ralph Lauren Purple Label. In school, at FIT, we learned about tailoring. We had to make tailored jackets by hand, but Purple Label helped me to understand the more refined points of what the highest level of tailoring in the world can be. Pieces that are made by the guys that are from Italy that have been working for sixty years on making suit's by hand and stuff like that. That was an amazing education. I stayed with Ralph Lauren for a few more years and then Abdul and I started talking and, basically, it was just the iteration process of conceptualizing garments, sewing things, and then we launched the company once we were fully ready.
Abdul, People might know you as previously the face of Engineered Garments.
AA: Right, well, long before that I grew up in Maryland. When I turned eighteen I joined the military and traveled the world. I had always been into art and design, but it wasn't until I traveled overseas and I saw menswear in a different light that I really wanted to sort of take my love of design and think about how I could integrate it into clothing. Something that's very tangible. So after my enlistment, I only applied to one school, which was FIT, which has a menswear program. And there, I met Greg. We were classmates. It's the whole thing. You do mock collections. You do mock presentations, so you get in front of the class and sort of do your pseudo presentation. And I think Greg and I both had more of a fiery attitude about what we're doing. We took it very seriously. There's a lot of people that maybe party a bit too hard the night before, or couldn't care less about it. But we were really passionate about our ideas, so I think we connected on that. My first job out of school was as an assistant designer for Engineered Garments, which at the time I didn't really know who they were. I learned so much about quality, the soulfulness in clothing, integrity, all those hallmarks from EG that we bring into Abasi Rosborough.
How would you define Abasi Rosborough, the brand and even just the aesthetic? I find it's an interesting sweet spot for me because it's more conceptual than other stuff, but it's not too conceptual. There are these great military elements and some technical innovation as well.
GR: I would say it is a forward vision of tailoring that involves military and sport and architectural elements. Of course we wanted to design clothing, but the idea was—and when I was at Purple Label I would ask some of the old tailors this—"What do you think guys are going to look like in fifty years?" Because while at FIT, we had taken this history of menswear class and saw the iterations of how things evolved up and through time. And I remember this one old guy told me, “The suit’s perfect. It'll never ever change." I just thought, as a designer whose at the beginning of my career looking forward, I'm like, "Well that would be a freaking travesty.” That was part of the impetus of like, "Hey, we can just take this idea up ourselves and try it. We may fail greatly, and that's fine. But we do know how to make a suit. We've been educated in this. We know the traditions of the past. Let's talk about how it can move for the man in the modern world.” I was just reading this thing in the Washington Post about the death of the power suit because people don't want to just stand still and rigidly. People want to move. They're going to the grocery store. They're coming to work. They're going in the subway. All these different things in their lives, so Abdul and I believe that—and this is probably contrary to the streetwear movement—a lot of men want to give off an appearance of dignity and sophistication. You don't always have to have on the coolest logo tee ever. It's okay to have on a suit jacket, but that suit jacket doesn't also need to be this thing that's rooted in conformity, that you’re kind of a drone and you can't think for yourself. So I think, "How do you combine sophistication with modernity progressive ideas?" And that's where Abasi Rosborough fits in.
AAi: And just to echo what he's saying, we first started this with the idea of bringing the suit forward. So it's the convergence of military activewear and sport. And then using codes of menswear in clothing. So, obviously, our version of a suit is totally different than the Brooks Brothers version of a suit, but, if you look at it, it's the same silhouette. And so we try to implement innovations, so it's kind of like remixing codes and ideas in order to create something modern. We look at it as a very global standpoint, and also a very historical one. We don't just look at Western clothing or the history of Western men. We want think about culture. We always have a conceptual idea, an overarching theme where we can sort of say, "Okay, we're feeling some sort of way about protest. We're feeling some sort of way about AI, or whatever. How can we implement and sort of use our platform to spark a dialogue?" There's a lot of semiotic codes. There’s also a lot of history. There's also a lot of utility like, "What do we need on a daily basis?"
So, if we think of a venn diagram, Abasi Rosborough is sitting between a lot of different things. In a good way.
AA: Absolutely. And not to be overly esoteric or whatever, but the idea is that clothing is communication. It's second skin. It should allow you to be 100 percent yourself, not restrict you. But then, when you wear something you communicate an idea. Who are you communicating to? What tribe are you belonging to? What are you trying to say? And using all of that to inform collections is how we position Abasi Rosborough.
Who would you say the Abasi Rosborough man is? Is that something you guys think about?
GR: Well, we know who our top customers are, so I guess I could maybe just speak to that. It's too hard to conceptualize who could potentially buy it and everything else. We do design it because we wear test the hell out of it. We break everything down over months or years of wearing it and find the flaws in it. Ultimately it's built for us and for people in New York City and things like that that are hard wearing on your clothes, like this city beats the shit out of your stuff. But, ultimately, the guys that do wear it and collect it are a mix of independent people. They're the same guys that are super picky about their coffee.
They're true enthusiasts.
AA: They have a curated lifestyle. They don't just do what everyone else is doing. They research it and can tell you they like something because of x, y, and z.
GR: And they're all different ages and there are some women in there as well. And the main thing about it, I'm always like, "What do you feel like when you wear it?" because that's what you want to know as a designer. And they're like, "I just feel kind of like ruggedly independent. I feel like I don't look like anybody else. I feel nonconformist. I feel powerful.”
It's an open dialogue between you and the customers.
AA: We've had this conversation before, about the nature of fashion in that no matter what a designer cooks up in his little bubble, as soon as it goes out into the world it's going to be interpreted however culture wants to do so.
Are you okay with losing that control?
AA: Absolutely because that's the beauty of it. It is about communication and it's always interesting to see who picks up our clothing. Of course, we have a design language, a shape language and some people are going to respond to it and it's going to go over someone else’s head. But we found that certain high-powered individuals—entrepreneurs, forward-thinking people—gravitate to our clothing, which to us means that we're connecting. But that's not to say that you have to have a degree in biophysics or whatever. You might think something's dope and just want to wear it. And that's also valid because at the end of the day we want to sort of interact with everyone. It's egalitarian. It doesn't matter what your background is. You just want clothing that makes you feel better and stronger.
To piggyback on something that Greg said earlier about kind of the state of menswear right now. What do you guys, as independent designers in 2017, think of the market right now?
GR: It's interesting. It's a learning process all the time. It's sometimes frustrating because, of course, you see certain people and events happening and you’re like, "We could do that. We could do that in that way,” but then you're like, "But that's not what we're doing at all.” You have to just maintain vigilance on your journey and your vision. All the guys, and women I should say, that've been our mentors, from Daiki and things I learned working at Ralph Lauren, they say things like, "You have your vision. You've got to do it that way." It's a longevity game. If you try to chase a hot trend, maybe you'll get to the pinnacle of that hot trend, but as soon as you get to the pinnacle you're going to fall off. Our favorite brand ever in design, I think for both of us, was Cloak. It was amazing and gone like two minutes later. And then there's been a bunch of other ones that we interned for and other brands that we all know that were so hot two years ago, so hot five years ago, and they're no longer existent. You look at Engineered Garments. It hasn't ever been white hot. It has just been steadily growing and has a great customer base. You just keep creating quality stuff and stick to your guns. We don't talk about this a lot, but if you were to scrutinize the business there's a massive sustainability undercurrent to everything we do with the deadstock fabrics we source so it's like recycled goods. And the guys that wear it know that because we put in the labels and it's kind of hidden in there, but if you scrutinize the garment you'll find it. But it's a completely mental time to be designing in because. It’s like you're in the middle of Time Square and watching the traffic run past you and you're like, "Which car should I chase?" So it's tricky, but it's exciting too.
AA: I would just say the brands that we know and love are the brands that stay the course and have integrity. And I think, for better or worse, that's the way to create a business. Everyone has a point of view and that's what's special about each person. So for us, Abasi Rosborough, we have our point of view. It's not going to be a hit with everybody, but that doesn't matter. I think a lot of the brands that do become white hot or become super trendy it's because of just kind of making something that's super normal stimuli as Greg likes to say, or something that is very very conspicuous. Something that is very easy to understand. Something that is very basic that many people can latch onto it. And as soon as they're tired of that your whole brand falls apart. But if you look at great design, that lasts forever. And that's what Greg and I are trying to do. I think it's a beautiful time as well because I think anyone can be a creator. And I think any trend can survive. And I think everyone has a voice. But you have to be aware that it's not forever unless you have something to say.
You guys have name dropped some interesting kind of influential brands and designers, from Cloak to Engineered Garments to Ralph Lauren. Who else do you kind of look to as contemporaries right now that inspire you?
GR: Abdul’s always telling me what's going on with fashion shows. I don't look at any fashion shows. I don't really read fashion magazines. I think the best way that I like to learn about what's going on is just walking in the streets and see what going on in New York. If you ride the L train for a week you're fully informed on what's going on in the world. But I will say one person that really inspires me, just as an individual, is Rick Owens. I know everybody says that.
For good reason.
GR: He speaks so powerfully from his own voice. He's not bending to the whims of anybody else. Everybody for a time period was bending to the whims of him. I walk by his stores to appreciate the furniture that he makes or look at the books that he has. I always find that when I read his interviews he has something really enlightening and inspiring to say about life and the human condition and things like that, so that's a person that really inspires me. Not necessarily in a design capacity, but just a life capacity.
AA: Yeah, I would agree. I think he has such a holistic brand point of view. Whether it's furniture. Whether it's footwear. Whether it's clothing. And I think you can see his fingerprints in everything. It doesn't seem like it's a design by committee or like, "Oh, you design that, I'll design this". It seems like he's very present in his design. Very hands on, which I respect. I think, rest in peace, but Alaïa also seemed like a person that kind of did his own thing. Much to the chagrin of a lot of people, he was a consummate creator. Greg and I we look at other disciplines as well, so whether it’s Dieter Ram or Zaha Hadid, people that are singular in the way that they create, and that even though they have a large body of work you can still see that through line. So that's what we try to do with AR. We think of it as a on-going body of work. So whether you buy collection one or collection eight, there are pieces that you can wear together. It's never divergent like, "Oh, we're going to do polka dots and cowboys this season, and next it’s going we're going to do punk, or whatever.” It’s always going to be a very singular.
You don't rely heavy on thematic fashion, where that would change from season to season necessarily.
AA: I think recently what would be more interesting is about bigger global topics. So whether it's protest culture or climate change and things like that. It's looking at giant ideas and just distilling that through clothing.
Greg, you mentioned sustainability. That's clearly something that you guys are passionate about even if you don’t necessarily give a ton of lip service to. I think it's interesting and important now more than ever. Maybe you can speak on that a bit more or talk about some other causes you guys are backing.
GR: Well, we don't go on sale on our website, but if you want a discounted price and you adopt animals, or you’re involved with your local Boys and Girls Clubs, or if you donate one of your old suit's that we can put back to work with somebody whose finding a new job, we’ll give you a fifty percent discount. We try to have these little things that are sort of more like, "Do good, we'll hit you back for it.” Regarding sustainability, the reality of the whole situation is fashion is the second largest polluting industry in the world, which is daunting when you think it's up against the oil industry.
Not great company to be in.
GR: You don't think of it in that way, but it's all the different dye processes. All the wastage. The cotton that it takes to grow. The cotton that is in one tee shirt, it takes seventy-five gallons of water to grow that and yet there's people in the world that are dying of dehydration. It all comes back on you full circle and you say, "How can I do my own little part?" We can't all ultimately tell H & M, "Close your business. You're ruining the world,” but we can say, "We're going to do what we can do in our control" and as we get bigger, that will hopefully be a more influential sphere. So, using deadstock fabrics. Eighty percent of our collection is recycled fabrics. We’re using natural fibers so everything biodegrades. We ship locally. We source locally. There's less plane travel in between everything else. There just less carbon emissions.
Farm to table menswear.
GR: I'm proud of that. It's cool. Everything's limited edition. There's nothing that's mass produced. That's just the nature of it. That's kind of our sustainability under current. And we're not screaming like, "Buy this eco-friendly garment!” It just so happens to be that it is made in that way.
AA: Just to piggyback off what Greg was saying, when we first started our design company, we wanted to think about the life cycle of the product. Most of the times people think that, "Oh if I get this shiny synthetic jacket or whatever I'll wear it for a few seasons and I'll toss it,” but when it goes to the landfill it's going to be there for thousands of years. I think our job as designers and problem solvers is to think about the holistic footprint of what we're doing, and how it affects the world. We also love natural fibers because they evolved over eons to work. Wool is an amazing technical fiber that people don't think about, you know what I mean? Hemp, which we got into a few seasons ago, is an amazing fabric. It's four times stronger than cotton. It takes less water. It's pesticide resistant. It can grow in a week. It has all these properties and so, instead of humans and corporations try to create the next GORE-TEX or whatever, look at Mother Nature. It's already there. So that's one of the reasons why we always used natural fibers.
GR: The goal for us is to just imbue things with meaning. If you can do that, then people aren't going to question what things costs. You also create the desire. It all comes back to the storytelling, whether it's a project with you guys, or all the campaigns we shoot and things like that. It's very important to just keep telling a story. And not just a story, keep telling your story. Keep projecting your ideas out there. Help educate. Talk about these things. Talk about consumption and quality and things like that.
From your end, what are some motivations behind this project with Grailed?
GR: Speaking of sustainability, what you guys are doing is creating an amazing secondary market where things don't have to go into a landfill or just get jammed in your closet for the next ten years before chucking them out. Things are in this perpetual motion, which is how things should be moving. Whether it's clothing or cars or anything else. Having this secondary market to keep extending the life of items is good. I admire what you guys do. Also, you guys are smart young guys with a great vision and doing your thing. I like businesses that are challenging old ways of doing things. We've never had a sample sale. We've never done celebrity gifting so our archive is kind of everything we've ever done and we're now about four years into it so we just thought, "Okay, we can pull out twenty five of our top pieces that are our favorites. Let's bring them out and keep telling that story.”
AA: Yeah, I'd agree. And I think you guys are speaking to a consumer that understands the value of this stuff and I think, for us, if there was any way we would want to distribute goods at discount prices or whatever, I think Grailed would be the to way. We think that this is the consumer, the audience that would appreciate it. This is also another version of sustainability, keeping that life cycle going. It's definitely a timeline of what we created. We both started with a simple idea and just kind of look back in your archives and see how it has evolved and iterated is a beautiful thing. So you're going to see hits. You're going to see ideas that we tried that maybe we only made one of and maybe people weren't ready for it, but these are pieces that we loved. These are pieces that illustrate the history of what we're doing.
They're all significant in their own way. What I love about you guys, and what I would imagine a lot of your fans and customers do too, is that you do seem laser focused in like the best possible way. When you look towards the future, where do you kind of see AR going?
GR: Going back to looking at other disciplines, one of my favorite artists ever is Richard Sera. You ever seen any of his work? You look at his pieces from the sixties and seventies, and then look at his stuff now. It doesn't actually surprise you that it's so amazing because you see that that's the arc that he was on anyway. But it's still surprising that it's just so damn epic. So that’s what I aspire to do, that you'll see things in ten years from us that you're not surprised that that's where it ended up, but it's also amazing to see it come to fruition. That's what I'd like to do. That laser focus isn't going anywhere.
AA: We've always wanted to dress everyone, the most people possible. The best, for the most, for the least. For us, good design should be for every single person. It shouldn't be just for an elite, it should be accessible. I think the idea is to grow the brand so that more people can access it and buy it.
Do you see AR becoming more of a lifestyle brand moving outside of clothes and doing other types of product to reach that goal?
AA: Absolutely. I think because, especially in 2017, in this day and age, people are so multifaceted, and the specialization in all those boundaries are now broken. It's all about being a polymath, having ideas and executing them. So for us as long as we have the ability to do so, we'd love to explore more things. Greg is a painter as well. I think design and art and creativity, whether you're an architect, a fashion designer or industrialist, it's all from the same part of brain. It's just different tools and different materials.
Finally, what’s one piece of advice that you'd want to give to a young person reading this who you hope to inspire?
GR: It's the same thing that my dad told me. It's comes from sports, but perseverance, a positive attitude and being a relentless problem solver will get you anything you want. Don't let anybody stand in your way. And even if your idea seems a bit crazy, keep working on it. Once you get a few years into it and you look back to where you started, you're amazed at how much you can accomplish. We had a lot of interest in doing what we’re doing now. We didn't have any special talents, we just had work ethic and were open-minded enough to look at other designers and artists and try to incorporate new ideas. Just follow your vision and don't let anybody stop you. People always say, "Well, I would love to do it, but I don't have any money,” but we started this company with $10k. It's about quality and great ideas and you'll figure out ways to make that money stretch to be enough.
AA: I think that's great advice. I think having a point of view is super important because I think that's the only thing that's going to make you rise above. If you try to be like the next man, you're going to be a second rate version. Never stop learning. Stay curious. I think as long as you're doing that, you're going to make an impact.