The Romance Behind the Designs of Robert Geller
I visited menswear designer Robert Geller at his Tribeca showroom and design studio only a few days after he presented his latest fall collection at New York Fashion Week. The 36-year-old designer had a brazen swagger about him, with hair coolly slicked back like Jimmy Darmody on Boardwalk Empire and the facial profile of a 1950s comic book superhero. I started talking about layering and Japanese manufacturing with the German-born artist, who worked on the revered Cloak line with Alexandre Plokhov in the early 2000s and has helmed his own eponymous brand since 2008. But it didn't take long for our conversation to veer off into more personal realms, namely how he found the love of his life.
As Robbie tells it, he met his wife-to-be back in 2001, during the summer of his senior year at the Rhode Island School of Design. He had just started interning at Marc Jacobs, and everyone in the office was telling him about this girl. "Just wait until you meet Ana," they said.
In the first few days of his traineeship, Ana Beatriz Lerario—the company's gorgeous assistant designer at that time—was on holiday in Brazil, her birthplace. But when she returned, he recognized right away that she was something special. "She looked like all of my fashion illustrations," he told me.
But even though he was hit by the thunderbolt, he couldn't sweep her off her feet right off the bat: Robert was her measly intern, and they were both seeing other people at the time. She also thought he was into banging dudes because, well, he was a guy interning at Marc Jacobs…
Archival photo of Robert and Ana right before Robert won the CFDA Swarovski Award for Menswear in 2011. Photo taken by Tommy Ton.
As I listened to the CFDA and GQ Award-winning designer speak so sweetly about the love of his life, I started to think about his designs in a different way. In the past, I always felt it was lazy journalism that had caused Robert's work to get stuck with the "romantic" tag, because to me, his shit is tough and dark and street. But there was clearly another side that I had missed.
"I know it sounds cheesy, but love is a big part of my life, and all my life, I've been looking to find it. My whole existence, I've been trying to create beautiful things and to do that takes a certain sensitivity. You can see that mood expressed in my collections."
The juxtaposition of his machismo and his more sensitive side that came out when he talked about his wife gave me an insight into why his designs fascinate the arty fashion folks and the dudes like me who just want to look and feel cool. It's his ability to create things that are both emotive and rugged that makes his work powerful and puts it in a class of its own.
I have a hunch that the Hamburg native inherited his hunger for creating beautiful things from his father—which is awesome considering most of us only get an unhealthy obsession with a failing sports team, an inability to show emotion, and the propensity to be an alcoholic from our dads. Robert's father, Peter Geller, is a discreet-dressing photographer who lives in a windmill. When Robert was growing up, Peter worked for a magazine called Madame that required him to travel a lot and report on everything from Japan's royal family to LA's most eligible bachelors. One of Robert's favorite things to do as a kid was to hang out in his dad's studio during shoots. "The whole atmosphere was very positive," he told me. "I loved the people, the lights, the music, all of that stuff. My dad had a huge influence on me and being there actually made me want to be a photographer."
Before Robert attended RISD in his late 20s, he worked as an assistant for two photographers in Germany. Fashion first captured his interest when his sister took him to London Fashion Week as a birthday present, but at that point he thought he just wanted to be a fashion photographer. It was at RISD that he realized he wanted to start making clothes. “Running and organizing a fashion photo shoot is frustrating, but you can sketch clothes anywhere at any time.” After taking a class in patternmaking, he made the decision to become a designer.
Even though he’s doesn’t work as a photographer today, Robert has retained a photographer's approach to designing clothes, by capturing moments in time and filtering them through his own perception. "When I start a new collection," he told me while pointing to sketches of his designs on the walls of his studio, "I look to something within the past six months that's stood out to me. It could be anything, from a movie to a genre to just a time and place. I'm trying to create an environment where my clothes fit."
His latest collection for fall/winter 2013 recalls German Expressionism and 1920s Berlin. Even though NYC was pummeled by a treacherous shit-colored snowstorm during New York Fashion Week, the bad weather didn't stop a horde of elite editors and bloggers from showing up to see how the designer's wares would fair when they were mixed with a little bit of Fritz Lang. The inspiration was evident even before the show started, the runway was adorned with art-deco diamond patterns. Then the models marched down the runway wearing swagged-out wide-brim fedoras, layered silhouettes of coats over jackets and sweaters over coats, ashen shades of plum and navy under gray and black vertical striping, and the kind of elaborate seaming and anatomical constriction that only Robert can get, thanks to producing his garments in Japan.
But as good as the show was, the most beautiful thing I saw on the runway that night might have been two-year-old Luna Geller, the oldest of Robbie's two young daughters. Like Robert did in his father's photo studio years before, Luna was having a blast in her dad's workspace before the show began, prancing up and down the runway like she owned it. She wore a canary bow and even had a bit of the patented Geller-layering swag, with a heather-gray blouse on top of a plum-colored long-sleeve tee.
Archival photo provided by Robert Geller of him and Luna sitting at his desk.
Surprisingly, being a father to two little girls—Luna and her two month old baby sister, Anis—hasn't changed the way Robert designs. "It's more of a progression of life for me. I always wanted to have kids, and I wanted to be a father who could still relate to my kids," he told me. Being a dad has, however, changed his daily schedule. To make sure the kids only spend as little time as possible hanging out with nannies, the fashion couple divvy up the day. Robert gets to the office at 6 AM every morning, while Ana, who founded Fiftytwo Showroom in 2005 and now reps brands like Timo Weiland and Richard Chai, in addition Robert's, takes the mornings off. "My wife is in the industry, so she understands the timing of it," he explained as he pointed to her portion of the design studio. "She has her side, and I have my side over here. We go for lunch together and have our separate workday. It's perfect."
Although things seem practically perfect now, getting there didn't happen overnight. Robert wasn't able to woo Ana until after they had both left the Marc Jacobs. Ana left the company to become the head designer of TseSay, TSE Cashmere's diffusion line, in 2002, the same year Robert joined forces with Alexandre Plokhov to work on Cloak.
"The Cloak office was on Little West 12th Street, which was blocks away from TseSay. One day we ran into each other on the street and just started hanging out a lot, going to lunch all the time. It was stunning how we got along really well."
Typical of Geller's romantic streak, it was their trip to Paris that sealed the deal. "You know, it's the City of Love. There were rainy days when we stayed inside and just talked or took long baths. It was in Paris that I knew I wanted her to be my wife, and a year later we got engaged." The couple had their marriage ceremony in 2008 in a small church with only 350 people on the tropical island of Ilhabela, about two hours from Sao Paulo.
While Robert was falling in love, he was also building the foundation for his career. Even on that love-laced trip to Paris, he was buying fabrics for the brand that would eventually be obsessed over. Cloak famously started perfecting the skinny aesthetic that was started by Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane, by pairing it with a somber "goth" vibe and obsessive detailing. "It’s funny, I thought we were making really skinny pants. But they actually aren't skinny at all compared to what’s coming out these days. Perception changes.”
Though Robert left Cloak in 2004 (the brand finally closed in 2007, and Alexandre Plokhov started his own awesome self-titled brand last year), he can’t help but reflect on the work and its legacy, if only because people keep reminding him. “And even now, not a day passes without me hearing somebody saying, ‘Oh my God, those Cloak buttons!’ We made beautiful metal buttons for Cloak. But when they were cast, they left just a little lip of metal, and it cuts the threads.”
Today, people hunt down Cloak garments with the same fervor of comic book and record-collecting nerds. “Because Cloak doesn't exist anymore, and we never produced that many pieces, people go crazy about getting and finding those garments. What’s been cool lately is that I’ve been hearing more about people searching for the early seasons of Robert Geller, so I guess there's a certain amount of time that it takes to get there.”
After being blown away by his latest runway show, I believe the work Robert is doing right now for Robert Geller will have an even greater impact than Cloak on the way guys dress themselves. For one, he is helping pioneer a new silhouette for dudes that goes beyond the slim look he focused on with Alexandre. “I loved the sleek look, but that was a very long time ago, and I feel it is time to move away from it. I still love skinny pants and skinny silhouettes, but not exclusively. I like pushing and pulling.” You can see his new ideas play out through all of his collections, where loose shorts are styled over skinny tights or four or five tops are layered over one another to create an exciting new and masculine shape.
Although Robert’s brand is sold all over the world in hip and haughty stores—like Barney’s New York and Odin—and it has been honored with awards and accolades, keeping it thriving is a constant and exhausting challenge.
“There are so many things you have to do to keep a fashion house running. You're competing with the Diors, the Pradas, the Jil Sanders—who all have tons of money that you don't have. There are moments when a store cancels all your goods on the way to them. Then there are other moments when you have a show and a store comes to you that you've admired for a long time because they finally realize your product is right for them.”
But as Robert works tirelessly to push the boundaries and reach of his clothes by honing in on the perfect silhouette and expanding his business, there is one thing in his life that he is completely satisfied with: his family. The day after he wowed a room full of fashion muckety–mucks at NYFW with a runway show featuring some of the most stunning (and expensive) pieces he’s ever produced, he opted for a much more subdued scene with the people that matter to him most. He and his wife dressed little Luna up in winter gear, making her look something like a midget Michelin Man, and they hit the hills of Fort Greene Park near their home and went sledding.
When he talked about the specialness of this day to me, his face lit up. He then got up from his desk and took me through his entire new collection in his studio, showing off his new plum-colored Common Project collaboration sneakers, mixed-leather jackets, dress shirts with bleed prints, and dotted and stripped blazers. At the end of it all, referring to his designs, I asked him what he thought was the greatest thing he had ever created. The fashion designer didn’t hesitate to say, “The love I share with my wife and kids.”
Yeah, Robert Geller is a romantic, through and through.
All photos by Miyako Bellizzi, unless noted.
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