Portland, Maine–based designer Alex Carleton has had a long-standing appreciation for tradition — worn-in clothes, antique furniture, heritage brands — so his return to L.L. Bean Signature last year as creative director (where he was originally hired as a senior designer in 1998) feels particularly apt. He first attracted the attention of Ralph Lauren Polo while he was restoring antiques in Boston: the brand hired him to head up visual merchandising for its Madison Avenue store. After stints at Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch, and L.L. Bean, he left the company in 2003 to launch his own label, Rogues Gallery, built on an impeccably broken-in collection of vintage-inspired tees. (The label earned him a nomination for GQ’s Best New Menswear Designer in America last year.)
This spring has been a resurgence of sorts for Carleton. He scaled back Rogues Gallery’s wholesale operations last month and launched L.L. Bean Signature, a more youthful spinoff brand. "Guys who wear my clothes aren’t looking to make a huge statement," he explains, "He just wants something that’s reliable, comfortable, and transcends time and fashion a little bit." He also partnered with John Bartlett for the second RG/JB capsule collection, which will be available exclusively at Bartlett’s store this summer. We talked to Carleton about his vision for L.L. Bean Signature, the future of Rogues Gallery, and his latest eBay obsession.
What distinguishes the Signature collection from traditional L.L. Bean?
I was brought back on to help articulate and define this sub-brand; it was primarily about working with the fit and making pieces from the archives relevant to a younger generation. We brought back the featherweight hunting jacket for him and the shirtdress for her.
What made you decide to sign on for another round with the RG/JB collaboration?
It was so much fun the first time that we decided to keep it going. Both collections are cheeky and not to be taken too seriously. They’re just really creative capsules that are inventive and playful.
Rogues Gallery closed its New York showroom last month. What does the future look like for Rogues?
Right now I’m working on spring 2011, a smaller collection that I’m more closely involved with. We’re really focusing on our own retail and e-commerce outlets. We're opening our first multi-brand store on Cape Cod Memorial Day weekend.
What kind of a person wears your designs?
Anybody who appreciates classics. It's important to me that Rouges Gallery and L.L. Bean have longevity. That's very much how I think when I’m designing: something that you could pull out of a chest in fifteen years and still be able to pull off.
Who are your favorite designers?
I really love products that are not specifically designed. I love Dickies, Hanes white T-shirts, C.F. Hathaway poly-cotton white oxford cloth shirts, and great vintage pieces, like my navy blue YSL sweater. But I’m also a fan of Dior and John Galliano.
Where do you like to shop in New York?
I definitely buy a lot of used items. I shop at Dave’s New York in Chelsea and I’ll pick up flannels at Goodwill in Portland, Maine.
How would you describe your personal style?
I might wear a pair of old chinos that I’ve been working in with a newer blue blazer from Old England in Paris and a chambray shirt from L.L. Bean. I think it’s very much about mixing geography and eras, but putting it together in your own way. It’s very natural — I don’t think I look like I’m making a statement.
What trends are you appreciating right now?
There’s this ubiquitous nod to tradition. I like the juxtaposition of old-school labels, like Alden, being mixed in with newer brands.
Any trends you’re ready to see retired?
I do think that men’s apparel can become a little more relaxed. We’ve gotten a little suit-y. I’m definitely naturally more of a Carhartt kind of guy.
What’s one item you’re saving to buy?
I’m on eBay pretty regularly. My passion lately has been buying vintage patches from old marinas and outdoor motor companies and embellishing sweatshirts and flannel shirts. If I was going to buy something new, it would probably be a beautiful navy sweater from Scotland.
What should every guy have in his closet?
A white Oxford cloth button-down shirt and maybe a bottle of Eau Sauvage by Christian Dior.
What’s something you never leave the house without?
My Brittany Spaniel, Ranger. I got him when he was 8 weeks old and he’s 11 years old now.