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Geoffrey B. Small

Superlux hand made waistcoat in hand dyed pure Alashan cashmere woven by
the oldest wool mill in the world, Fratelli Piacenza 1733.

Scoute sat down with Cavarzere Venezia based, American born creator of hand-made garments Geoffrey B. Small during last Paris men’s fashion week to discuss his personal journey through the changing fashion landscape of the last thirty years and his status as the American designer with the longest running Parisian presence.

While tailoring Renaissance man Small’s past experiences and vision for the future are truly enlightening, let us go back a step and make explicit where Scoute stands regarding Fashion, that magnificent and horrible word that we sometimes fear to utter aloud, in the vain aim of avoiding being associated with frivolity and faddishness.

There has been talk of a Scoute aesthetic, a taste for the macabre, brooding clothes of designers that thread the dark corners of the world of, well, dressing up people to look dangerously cool. Some would say a thin veneer of ready-to-wear aggression, available to whoever has the fortitude of spirit and wallet to buy his entry into the black-clad elitist club. This derisive outlook overlooks the true center of what we stand for. What those brands, shops and the passionate individuals who are at their core share is not so much an aesthetic stance as an ethical one.

Consequently, we believe that presenting Geoffrey B. Small is not only an introduction to the work of an important designer but an exemplary illustration of that ethical stance. That his work looks different from what you would expect to see in Scoute is merely a sign that you should revise what are your assumptions regarding the magazine’s mission.

The Geoffrey B. Small narrative

Let us go back to a time far, far away when the Italian men’s magazine, L’Uomo Vogue, presented new and exciting designers, in tune with the world they lived in and devoid of the stultification that would stop them from morphing to continue to reflect it. This may seem ludicrous if you never had the chance to see the magazine in the 70s but it once presented something beside cocktail dresses worn by celedebutantes, star designers and dream weekends in Spanish villas reminiscent of the manicured emptiness Antonioni relentlessly exposed in his films. Two promising unknowns called Armani and Versace were unleashed in a terse, two paragraphs blurb at the back of a 1977 issue and they put forward new silhouettes, fabrics and philosophy that captivated the young Geoffrey. Here were designers that would turn men’s clothing design on its head and set the pace for what would be worn throughout the 80s. Since childhood, Small had continually expressed himself through illustrations;

Hand made jackets hang dry in the Cavarzere  sun as part of Small's special hand dyeing process.

drawing the “toys he could not have” (can a kid ever have all the toys he wants? Get your children a pen and some sketchpads!), a passion that evolved during his adolescence to sketching clothes he wished he could purchase, many of them found at the venerable Boston retail institution, Louis Boston.

“They were one of the very first retailers in America to start introducing what was really going on at the time in European design, especially Italy. I started getting serious about a career in the field, and wanted to work there and learn from them, but it didn’t work out that way…”

Most of Small's design pieces are dyed by hand, an arduous and time consuming process that is centuries-old.
Unable to secure employment at the exclusive store of his dreams, Geoffrey started working at The Gap, a retail company more open to hiring an inexperienced 17-year old boy. He enrolled at a local fashion design school, spending his days working the sales floor selling and folding jeans and his evenings beginning to learn the prosaic but highly useful techniques of patternmaking, construction and sketching.

The year of 1979 turned out to be pivotal for Geoffrey as, through his schooling, he was able to participate and went on to beat over 14,000 entrants, winning the ILGWU “America’s Next Great Designer Awards” the largest student design competition in North America. The following year Small’s talent was again recognized at the ILGWU, now boasting 20,000 entries, by a prestigious jury composed of the likes of Bill Blass,
Elsa Klensch, Calvin Klein and Geoffrey Beene.

 Geoffrey would go on to win more design competitions, often boldly disregarding the dominant American aesthetic of the times and surprising juries with his use of the brash silhouettes and understated colours inspired by the movement Giorgio Armani had started in Italy.

Now having caught the eye of a few American recruiters he was tempted to make his entry into the world of NYC fashion houses but he quickly found out that, although the innovative silhouettes he inked on paper genuinely impressed his potential employers, the need of the American mass market meant he would have to tone them down so much as to make them undistinguishable from the comparatively bland American designs of the times. Geoffrey remembers with his typical humour a meeting with Stanley Kimmel, the president of Jones Apparel Group in New York (which now produces a large part of Ralph Lauren’s collections), to discuss his taking over the men’s design position, who, praising his sketches, proposed a few, minor, modifications: “Nice shoulders but we’d need to make them a little narrower! Excellent waist suppression but our clients can be quite portly, let’s remove some of it! Beautiful choice of wrinkled fabric, but highly inappropriate for the bankers and lawyers that need a more conservative suit!”, the final result ended up being so watered down that it was identical to what the company had been putting on the racks for years.

“My passion was never to do what was already being done by others, especially in the U.S.. I wanted to take it to another level. At the time, believe or not, Milan was the super-cutting edge of world avant-garde. They were doing what everybody was eventually going to do after them. And that’s exactly what I eventually wanted to do with my own work. I talked to other designer colleagues whom I met in various competitions—all of them prize-winners and they were all in the same boat. I realized then and there, that I would have to control my own production and run my own business in order to be able to design the clothes I wanted to. Nobody else was going to make it happen, except me.”

By this time, beginning to be able to sew, he decided to start a small laboratory business, making clothes for friends using an old Singer sewing machine and the space available in his parent’s attic. This focus on the use of the basic skills of the trade and a belief in self-reliance stayed with him to this day. 

Handmade late 19th century 14-button double-breasted
babysoft hand dyed Piacenza cashmere and silk jacket.

Without being part of the punk musical and artistic movement emerging in NYC at the time, Small, always sensitive to social undercurrents, soaked in the do-it-yourself ethic of those years and applied it to a calling of his own.

Do it yourself

These encounters with the business-minded but conservative American market only served to reinforce Small’s DIY ways. He opted to continue building his small company and trying to teach himself the tailoring techniques of past masters. This, arguably intransigent way of doing things, may seem counterproductive for a young designer trying to break through but Small readily admits that wanting to be a designer’s designer is, to him, worth paying a commercial price. Geoffrey was and remains the talented indie act that progresses at his own pace but remains relevant, thirty years later, having seen more high-profile designers come and go, without ever feeling the need to put down or attack those choosing a different way.

The intensive technical and business experiences of the 80s would lead him to become, at the dawn of 1990, the man behind the leading bespoke tailoring house in Boston. He offered, in his Newbury street ateliers, painstakingly constructed suits for men and women, counting among his clients such diverse individuals as the Governor of Massachusetts and pop act New Kids on the Block.

Geoffrey shows a deep respect for the intricate work of bespoke tailoring, “an honourable profession when done right”, as he pointedly reminds us. The relationship is personal and often extends over a long stretch of time resulting in numerous outfits reflecting the meeting of the tailor and client’s personalities, lifestyles and interests. To Small dressing someone is not a science where a golden ratio must be respected to ensure optimal results, but an applied art that gives credence to individual quirks. Here the technical meets the relational. “People talk with their clothes. They say who they are, or who they want to be. A great tailor has to get into people’s heads, know their bodies and their needs, and then create and execute the very best solutions for that one person. You have to really know your client. And you have to be a real master of your art and craft. Unlike runway ready-to-wear, you can’t fake it. You have to look your customer in the eye, right there in person. There is nowhere to hide.”

With that being said, Geoffrey after almost a decade and half of learning the tradition now felt ready to add to the fashion symphony a few notes of his own, and that is why he started showing ready to wear collections in Paris in 1992, notably presenting his second collection at the original Paris sur Mode salon organized by Jean-Pierre Fain, an alternative event held outside traditional venues, on the banks of the Seine. Fashion insiders had the chance to discover his work alongside the comeback collection by Roberto Cavalli and the very first Carpe Diem collection by Maurizio Altieri.

     Hand washed Piacenza cashmere & wool
     topcoat with real horn buttons. artisan-made
     in Parma.

“It was exciting. Nobody from America had ever showed in Paris before us except Patrick Kelly, who had moved there and died very young, and Oscar de La Renta who of course was very classic and ladies-who-lunch. And nobody had ever tried to do Paris avant-garde from the U.S.. We were the first, and we had to go up against the likes of Comme, Yohji, Martin, Helmut Lang, the first-wave of Belgians (Ann, Dirk,), all of them pioneers. And believe me, they were kicking out tremendous work in those days; the best in the world. At the time nobody in the circuit thought Americans could even hold a candle in Paris…could create first-in-the-world design work, American designers were known strictly as giant commercial copiers who sold only in their home country. We were poor, went over there on a shoestring. But we were hungry, and focused on our Art, and made an impression when we started, and after a few years there was a wave of Americans showing in Paris from Jeremy Scott to Marc Jacobs, to Rick Owens and even Tom Ford. Prior to us, there was no one. We opened the door. People would ask us why do you show in Paris instead of New York? I always told them Paris is the most competitive designer arena in the world, it’s where the Art form lives or dies. Each time you get back in, it makes you get better.”

To this day Geoffrey B. Small stills present collections in Paris, now eschewing runway presentations to focus on the visceral experience of the showroom, an environment where the clothes, unadorned by theatrical flourishes, are there to be touched and viewed as they will be approached in shops and seen in the wardrobes of discerning wearers. Geoffrey remains to this day the American designer with the longest, uninterrupted presence on the Parisian fashion calendar (now on his 63rd Paris avant-garde collection), having been over the years praised by Collezioni, Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily and the perceptive Pierre Bergé. You may also remember a feature on his 2006 collection, “An Ode to Toussaint Louverture”, shot by the ever-present Karl Lagerfeld.

Tradition and modernity

While the Geoffrey B. Small story presented earlier may be construed as a run of the mill rag to riches narrative, replete with references to humble beginnings and concluding on the high note of Parisian consecration, it mainly serves to highlight his approach to learning and growth. Having taken to heart the mantra of Mr. Armani, who stressed the importance of knowing the entire process, Small took it a step further and elected to take direct control of it. Most fashion companies are run like typical corporations where the skills that are judged central to the brand, such as sketching and design are kept in-house and everything else, production being a major example, is subcontracted. In a sense this mirrors the transition from art to commercial art enterprise that such high profile conceptual artists as Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami, inspired by Andy Warhol, have perfected by coming up with ideas and overall designs and commissioning a third party to ensure production.

        Hand tea dyed Varese superfine pure linen                         hand made jacket and waistcoat.

While the final product is often of high technical quality, the value is mainly derived from the idea and the “branded image” of the artist. We are reminded of the exchange between Hirst and one of his collaborators handling the actual creation of a series of dot paintings, where she requested he sign a work she made for herself, knowing full well the value resided in the provenance of the signature and not the physical object.

Small has a different approach, like a traditional artist or artisan, he puts as much effort in the crafting of his garments as he does in perfecting the designs. “Most consumers and designers don’t understand that the making is the design. A designer is always limited by his production. You’re only as good as what your production is capable of making. The better we can make things, the better the things we can design. To design the best clothes in the world, you have to be able to be the best clothes-maker in the world. This has been our continuing mission since 1979.”

This applies to his supplier network as well. With almost a decade in Italy, not in Milan, where virtually nothing is made anymore, but in the rural hinterlands across northern Italy where the real guts of the Italian textile and clothing industry are found, he has slowly built up tight relationships with the very best fabric, material and accessories makers in the country—the absolute top of “made in Italy.” From the world’s oldest woollen mill and greatest cashmere house Fratelli Piacenza in Pollone Biella (founded in 1733), to the last remaining handmade button-makers in Italy (Parma), to individual medieval artisan specialists in shoe-making and metalworking design—Small’s ability to make unique, beautiful and valuable works continues to expand deep roots backed by an ever strengthening foundation.

For Spring/Summer 2010 he is going even further, for the first time being able to be completely involved in the making of the cloth itself, that he will, as before, later cut and sew. He has developed a unique relationship with Luigi Parisotto and his family, who collectively have over a century of fabric weaving and making experience. The Parisottos are located north of Vicenza, in the town of Sarcedo, at the foothills of the alps. Small describes their partnership as the collaboration of two master artists, going above and beyond a simple fabric supplier-designer relationship. Able to discuss thread count, types of cotton, linen or cashmere compositions and modes of yarn spinning and weaving, he can clearly share his vision for the completed product and has convinced his partner to create small runs of slowly spun, peculiar fabrics, with a tactile feel of beautiful irregularity reminiscent of pre-Industrial materials. To further relay that unique influence, Small foregoes the final steps of normal factory finishing and washing fabrics and handles this crucial part by hand himself, going as far as to do every piece in the bathroom of his apartment studio in Cavarzere. The normalizing process of washing and chemically finishing, helping to give fabric its smooth, even sheen is thus subverted, or rather brought back to its original form, and results in uniquely wrinkled materials, ensuring distinct results for each piece coupled with enormous reductions in carbon emissions and chemical impacts to local water and environment.

Taking advantage of his bespoke tailoring years, Geoffrey designs, cuts and constructs each garment by hand with the help of a small team of 4 highly trained, dedicated and disciplined designer-tailor associates. Casual, uncanvassed jackets with hand-stitched collars, real hand stitched buttonholes (a job requiring 8 to 10 minutes per buttonhole), hand finished sleeve cuffs
with working buttonholes and, ultimate rarity, hand stitched lapel holes.

Hand dyed
Varese low gauge  handmade pure linen trouser, vintage leather suspenders and straw, nut and wood buttons.

 The pieces, light as feathers, mould to the wearer’s body and stand as shining examples of the disappearing art of hand-made garments. To use an automotive example the typical designer suit would be a Mercedes, the result of a well-oiled factory process privileging cutting-edge machinery and a posteriori quality control with each worker handling a separate piece of the puzzle. A Geoffrey B. Small blazer or pair of pants is a lovingly crafted custom Rolls Royce, or better yet a Koenigsegg, each piece hand finished by a worker who is in fact, the designer himself, handling the whole process and ensuring a perfect integration of all parts, a time consuming labour of love that few are willing to even learn, let alone put into practice. Such an uncompromising, pre-modern, and in Small’s view, post-modern approach results in unparalleled quality but has its price; less than 500 Geoffrey B. Small garments are made each season and they can only be found at exclusive boutiques catering to a crowd of passionate clients, looking for the human magic of the unusual in a world of mass-produced repetition. By moving the fetishism to the process, Geoffrey has managed to remove it from the commodity, creating an item that derives its value from the quality and the spirit of its construction, materials and design.

The designer & the world in which he lives; an ethic of fashion design

I-D magazine in their classic “Fashion Now” books profiling top fashion designers often ask their interviewees their feeling on the possibility fashion has of changing the world we live in, most choose to dodge the question to concentrate on their love of pretty shoes. Geoffrey does not wait for you to ask; he dives right in to the topic and makes it the centerpiece of a well-rounded conversation. To him, designers are linked to the world they live in as fish are to the sea, while his peers may chose to live in a pristine aquarium he knows the world affects him and hopes to do his small part to exert a positive influence on it.

Hand dyed
Vercelli silk, wool & viscose waistcoat with
Varese silk & cotton superlight hand dyed trouser.

“Fashion is an Art. That’s why I do it. And artists have a responsibility to themselves and their audience. For those of us lucky enough to still be in this line of work–To speak the truth, not lie about it. And to do whatever we can to make life better for people, not just an elite few. And these days… there is plenty to do.”

Being based in Italy he has seen the ravages of delocalisation that has left large numbers of textile and clothing workers unable to find work after the closing of their factories. The labour market is not kind to people that only know how to sew a pocket once their initial workplace closes. In this light, his urge to get to know the full process and to become an iterative learner takes a prescient edge.

“For those of us in Italy who are still practicing masters of our work in all the related fields, our biggest

concerns are about finding and educating a new generation of masters who can carry the crafts forward. Otherwise, the skills and the know-how will be lost forever. I teach all the time. But it is very challenging today, and difficult to find young people willing to pay the real price necessary for achieving mastery in an Art. It’s a lifelong commitment, and it’s not about easy stardom or quick money. It’s a disciplined way of life that requires sacrifice, commitment, talent, passion and patience. And it’s not at all easy, especially in the current decade.”

The fashion world has become a way for him to communicate his concern to others and act as a mirror in which we may contemplate the present. As an American concerned with the direction his country of origin was taking after the tragic events of September 11, he was the first in Paris to come out publicly against the upcoming invasion of Iraq (January 2003), in January of the next year he presented the “Brumaire revisited” collection, a Napoleonic-themed show that preceded a slew of similarly inspired collections or pieces by the likes of John Galliano, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Dior Homme and Undercover. While the influence of this landmark 2004 collection on the fashion scene is undeniable, it also allowed Small to get across his position regarding pre-emptive wars and aggressive international policies, a subtext that was not as easy to recuperate as the beautiful 18th century military outfits displayed on the runway. Finding much inspiration in the garment designs of the past and faithful to his method of assimilation followed by innovation, he managed to apply the same mindset to his messages. The middle-ages were recontextualized in the years following 2006, as Geoffrey compared growing social inequalities to a form of new global feudalism, explored the place of women in current social hierarchy, discussed the growing problem of illiteracy in modern societies, and introduced some of the world’s first clothing designed to address global warming.

Spring/Summer 2010 saw Small put the idea of a leading-edge sustainable wardrobe, sturdy, comfortable, multi-purpose and unique enough to resist years of faddish changes to the foreground. In these times of economic and political uncertainty, a client may never know when he can purchase clothes again and these new garments will remain wardrobe staples long after the world has underwent post-apocalyptic changes rivalling the Mad Max universe, or so we hope. Suffice to say that once you have tried them on, the thought of wearing them day after day does not sound like torture but clothing nirvana.

The new direction: a visual story inside that
may be more poignant than the exterior.
Above: special exclusive vintage lining (Como), handmade working buttonhole sleeve cuffs.

Special real horn buttons are finished by Small 
with 2 different types of West German sandpaper.
"We spend more for our buttons, than most
designers spend for their main fabrics--it's part
of our Art."
“To me today’s avant-garde is about the inside of clothes, how they feel and how they last, how they protect you. People cannot afford to only deal with exteriors now. It’s not about the outside anymore. Of course, it has to look good, it has to fit, and it has to be cool—but there are landfills of that kind of stuff available right now. And the customer knows it. Show me something that will keep you alive and comfortable if you lose your house tomorrow, a tragedy faced by 1 in every 50 people in the world in 2008. I feel a lot of cool designers and stores are still back in the late 90’s/early 2000’s mentality, but I lost interest. Been there. Many of them are my friends. But I am really on to a different thing. Every piece I make now has to be comfortable, really comfortable–good enough to sleep in. For ten years. It has to have a visual 
story inside that may be more poignant than the exterior...

I spend more on linings and buttons than a lot others are spending on their main fabrics. The idea is to have no carbon or methane footprint, no plastic, poly, chemicals, landfill problems, unsustainability, animal cruelty, human exploitation or slavery in its manufacture. We have a higher component of handwork in our clothes than any collection showing in Paris. Handwork is carbon neutral and builds craft and gives dignity to people who do the work….Something that’s worth every penny you spent, doesn’t hurt anybody, lasts you a lifetime, makes you feel good, and yes, looks really good too, every time you put it on. That’s the new direction fashion needs to take, and that’s where I am focused. The world’s greenest designer concept at the Paris collections-level.”

While not every designer discussed by Scoute makes his principles as explicit and readily intelligible as Geoffrey B. Small, it is this shared ethos that draws us to their work. They have respect for tradition that follows the dictum of learning, imitation then followed by innovation; they treat seasonality as a way to build upon a corpus of work instead of an ever-changing attempt at aimless renewal ; they value craftsmanship and technical knowledge and they realize that a broad cultural horizon that goes beyond fashion is the way to bring soul to a design thus capturing that indefinable quality that makes a garment a passageway to the wearer’s individual expression. Human rapport is central and not mediated by countless faceless entities; creators participate in the whole process, from fabric weaving to dealing with store buyers.

   Expensive pure silk Bozzolo Reale Milan threads used for handstitched buttonholes
and hand detail work.

"It’s about 30 years of work, people, and resources, putting it all together, and making the very best clothes we possibly can with everything we’ve got. Then raising the bar one more time even higher for the next time… that’s what makes it fun.”

Interviewed by Maxime B.
Photos courtesy of Pierre Gayte and Geoffrey B. Small

visit www.geoffreybsmall.net