It’s not easy to catch the fashion world off guard. But when Zac Posen announced two years ago that he was signing on as the creative director of women’s wear at Brooks Brothers, one of America’s oldest retailers, he raised more than a few well-groomed eyebrows.
Posen, after all, is renowned for his eponymous couture line’s red-carpet gowns, which are worn by the likes of Coco Rocha, Oprah Winfrey, and Caitlyn Jenner. Brooks Brothers, with its long history of dressing presidents and hedge-fund managers, embodies a more preppy—and decidedly conventional—aesthetic. A few months after Posen’s first collections began appearing in Brooks Brothers stores, the incongruous pairing appears to be working. Posen has given the classic retailer a critically well-received refresh, bringing a more playful sensibility and bolder tailoring to basic suits and classic dresses. Brooks Brothers, with more than 250 stores in the United States plus a presence in more than 45 other countries, has introduced the designer to a wider audience—and sparked new ways of thinking at Posen’s own House of Z, which includes his three clothing lines and multiple collaborations (see "Project Posen" for more). "It’s been inspirational, and I didn’t expect it," Posen says.
It’s the latest creative risk for the 35-year-old designer, who was discovered at the age of 19 by the model Naomi Campbell. Fifteen years after launching his first line, Posen has weathered his share of fashion highs (winning the Council of Fashion Designers of America new talent award, dressing Michelle Obama) and lows (recession belt-tightening, critical backlash). After hitting a nadir in 2010, following a failed perfume launch, a disastrous Parisian show, and several high-level-executive departures at his company (including his mother, who served as CEO), Posen retrenched and started expanding his brand more strategically. That included signing on as a judge on Bravo’s popular reality-TV show Project Runway, a position he still holds, and launching ZAC Zac Posen, a lower-priced, trend-focused second line, as well as a bridal collection. Today, Posen and his roughly 60 employees work on everything from handbags to makeup. We talked with the designer about what he has learned as he has steadily rebuilt his brand and how he’s going to dress the robot-humans of the future.
Over the years, you’ve had your share of ups and downs in your business.
What have you gained from those experiences?
Fashion and the creative process are humbling endeavors, especially if you go through rough times. But it makes you stronger—a clearer creator and businessperson. You have to work 10 times as hard when you are in a rough time. You can’t control those times necessarily; it’s not always about your relationship to the work. It can be about the weather. [Laughs] The global markets. There’s something to be said about trying to let go of the ego and say, "I am so lucky to be able to create and to work with such talented people every day."
How did you learn about the business side of fashion?
My mother first instilled an entrepreneurial spirit in me when I was a young boy selling lemonade on Spring Street. And my business partner, Ron Burkle [the billionaire investor], has been instrumental in my understanding of how business works. Some people might say it takes up [creative] space, but it actually allows me to be more creative. I have had to be as creative in business as I am with my hands late at night, draping and preparing a piece of clothing for my studio the next day.
What was it like to take the creative helm of Brooks Brothers? Did you have to master a new design process?
The rhythm at Brooks Brothers is very different [from my own lines]. It’s faster-paced and a lot of clothing, and I work on collections 18 months in advance [versus roughly six months]. That makes it even more important to design classics that are trendless. It’s kind of a new level of corporate creative maturity for me.
How does channeling another brand and company affect you personally?
Something unexpected happened. It actually helped us build out our brand in our own company [House of Z]. It got me looking at how I would do luxury classics. You can also see the influence in my reintroduction of day wear and my use of cotton and gabardine in my [Zac Posen] collections. I’m finding the elegance in the casual side of fashion, striking a balance between artistry and glamour—the gowns and the evening wear—and wardrobe staples that have integrity and quality.
So working with Brooks Brothers has been rewarding from both a creative and business standpoint.
That’s why it’s important to take on these challenges. Obviously, there have also been financial benefits. It was something that I wanted to take on in order to continue to carefully and strategically grow my own business—and gain immense exposure [for my designs] in windows and stores around the world.
You’ve got a strong e-commerce presence for your own lines on your website. You even allow people to preorder items from runway collections. Are physical stores in your plans?
Of course, retail is in our future. I’ve always dreamed of what our retail would look like. As a teenager, I spent hours sitting in the Manolo Blahnik store in New York and watching how sales are done. I love being on the sales floor. But one thing I’ve learned in over 15 years working in my own company is that you don’t have to rush. Not opening our own stores has been strategic. First, you’ve got to build partnerships with retailers worldwide. That takes time. I would never want to open a store for the pure sake of ego or for the sake of advertising purely.
What is the store of the future going to look like?
I’ve always been a believer in the tactile experience, especially in luxury. You have to see, feel, wear, touch, and almost taste clothing. For fiscal reasons, [physical stores] will become more of a novelty, but they will become very special again.
If you look at where the fashion, apparel, and luxury industries are going, fashion and entertainment video content are merging. That means that it will become more seductive for brands to build out their channels online. What defines a fashion product will also evolve: It might not be a physical good; it might be virtual.
What is a virtual fashion product?
About 10 years ago, my mother brought me the idea to start creating virtual products for Second Life [fashion for digital avatars]. It was such an intriguing concept. [Laughs] I thought, Wow. We’ve started to see brands tapping into that, [such as] Karl Lagerfeld through themes in his clothing. You know, in the last hundred years, people have evolved their bodies through exercise, augmentation, surgery. In the future, we will see humans partially morphing into technology and into robotics.
And how will you dress these robotized humans?
I don’t know! I don’t want to look at it with a 1950s robotic nostalgia. It’s a scary thought, but also very exciting. There are [already] great technologies that can help people who are in need. One day, people will design their own robotic armor or body parts. I watch a lot of NHK World Japanese TV—the science and tech programming. And it’s in Asia right now. This is happening.
In this era of fast fashion, how do you distinguish a very talented dressmaker from a true designer?
We are definitely living in a cut-and-paste age, but it is clear to see where there is originality and integrity. The customer is becoming more educated, and in the near future, we’re even going to be able to buy [couture] clothing directly from our TVs. The more you educate a customer, the more discerning they get, and the more they have to feel that there is a real creative voice inside that clothing.
You’ve prioritized diversity in your runway shows. Why is that important to you?
I’ve always dressed and celebrated women of all races, ages, and body types. Early on, I realized that I could deliver this message through the red carpet. But [doing it on the runway] is important to give the fashion world a kick in the ass.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.