Richard Chai’s Love Letter to Urban Warriors, New York

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Richard Chai (center), plus two looks from his spring 2011 collection. Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Richard Chai delivered a one-two punch this Fashion Week — a muted, flowing women’s collection on Thursday and then this morning’s volte-face, lighthearted, color-fused men’s collection at Milk Studios. After the menswear show, which walked at 10 a.m., Chai was greeted by editors and family lining up endlessly to congratulate him. When the crowd subsided, we sat in the lounge and picked his brain about the casting process, the high-fashionization of baseball caps, and exploring his creative whims in NYC.

I can’t imagine the workload involved with showing two collections in the same week.
After my women’s show, I treated myself to a quick bite to eat and met a friend. [Then] I started men’s casting; I was probably ten minutes late and I walked into my building and there’s models lined up the staircase. And I was like, "Oh, that's weird — they didn’t let them into the studio." I go into my studio and there’s another 60 models waiting. it never ends.

So you do your show casting pretty last-minute.
There’s a pre-casting that Michelle Lee does and says, "These are the right guys for your vibe," and then I meet them all, about 100 guys. I edit it out. That’s something that’s really important. Whether it’s women’s or men’s I’m always very involved with the casting. There’s certain signature models I use every season, but it’s always important to get new guys in there that we feel are going to be the breakout kids or kids we believe in or kids we feel have the spirit of what we are doing.

Was there anyone special you picked this time to work with?
The collection itself was really a mash-up inspired by so many different elements. There was a surf element, urban warrior, a bit of backpacker. The idea was just individual dressing, mixing up all of these patterns and prints together and not having it feel precious. At the end of the day, layering is really important in my collection. I was trying to make a spring collection that felt layered without being cumbersome or too heavy. So when it came to casting it was the same thing: I wanted to have them be individuals.

Your women’s collection this week was austere and muted. Your men’s was diametrically opposed to that. How was it working with such different vibes on two collections?
Last season’s women’s was really eclectic — embroidery, colors, and prints, different textures and materials mixed together. It was haphazard. Going into spring, I wanted to strip all of that away. For men’s, it was the opposite. Men’s was a lot starker last season, more linear. Going into spring I wanted things to be looser and easier. Designing for me is an emotional process. Sometimes I’m on the same page for men’s and women’s; sometimes it's just not. Creatively I have to explore those whims.

Some of the specific things in the show that stood out were the caps with the cloth draping down the back like The Clash’s eighties-Sandinista! era.
I loved this idea of a baseball cap with a tail in the back. It was dramatic. I was a kid who grew up wearing baseball caps. I guess I feel too old to wear them now, but I have a huge collection of 59/50 baseball hats in my closet. I also did this fisherman bucket hat.

Which is so early-nineties.
Exactly. That’s the urban side of me that goes into the collection.

The sweaters and tank tops that were woven striped patterns and would gradually turn into porous mesh really stood out.
There was an element that was Army-influenced and the element of fishing net. I thought it would be fun to mix them together. I loved the openness of them.

Unlike a lot of the more established designers, there seems to be more camaraderie with this newer generation. Many of your peers were here.
Robert Geller, Thakoon, and Phillip Lim were all here. We all have sympathy for each other and know what each other go through. I can only speak personally — I feel so fortunate. I couldn’t have this career in another city. No other city nurtures emerging designers like New York does.

See more: Richard Chai's Spring 2011 Collection