Made To Measure: Nigel Curtiss Is Taking a Bespoke Approach With New Label, Curtiss 1992
The best way to catch a glimpse of fashion’s future is to look at its start-ups. Established businesses are often locked into old-fashioned, unsustainable systems. They do things a certain way because that’s how they’ve always been done. Change is hard and slow. A start-up can ask, “What’s the best way to make it happen?” and then just do it, free from any inherited bad habits.
They’re not all run by kids fresh out of fashion college. Some of the savviest start-ups have seasoned heads at their helm – people who’ve seen the mistakes the industry makes and don’t want to repeat them. That’s exactly the attitude of Nigel Curtiss. A menswear stalwart, he’s worked in the industry for the best part of four decades, but the launch of his new women’s brand, Curtiss 1992, has allowed him to take a fresh approach to luxury.
From bespoke to Burton, via Comme des Garçons, Curtiss has worked at every level of the fashion industry. He started out designing and selling fabrics to the likes of Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood, Nigel Cabourn and Wendy Dagworthy, and remembers giving a talented student called John Galliano fabric for his graduate collection. It was the early 1980s and Curtiss’s unconventional look (“I was kind of lazy and long-haired and hippie-looking”) caught the eye of the Comme des Garçons creative team, who were plotting their first men’s catwalk show in Paris and wanted to use interesting-looking men as opposed to models.
He clicked with Rei Kawakubo, which led to him moving to Japan to work for her, first on product design (alarm clocks and perfume bottles), then on research and design for her men’s collection – he launched the incredibly successful Comme des Garçons Shirt. He left Comme to set up his own label, but after eight years, got tired of the wholesale model. “Every young designer has the same problem,” he says. “The big retailers hold them hostage and, if they sell to the small ones, there’s the possibility of not getting paid at all.”
He returned to Europe and worked at Yves Saint Laurent, Kenzo and Burton, but the desire to do his own thing never died. Wary of the established fashion system, Curtiss’s solution was to pivot to a different business model. Instead of wholesale, he would create entire custom wardrobes for private clients. “I do complete collections for guys – leather jackets, polo shirts, sweatshirts, sweatpants, suits, shirts, sports coats, jeans. I do it all custom. I have no stock. I’m not making lots of stuff, hoping to sell it and destroying what’s left or marking it down and it ends up in landfill. I have no stock. What I make gets sold and gets worn, and it lasts a long time as it’s all quality product.”
And so Curtiss found himself taking a sustainable approach to luxury before it was even called that. Now with demand for a new approach to consumption rising, it’s no surprise that the wives of his male clients began asking for a similar curated approach for themselves. So for SS20, the designer will launch Curtiss 1992, a women’s custom, luxury brand, with a smart, sustainable business model.
The focus is on tailoring – “My area of expertise,” says Curtiss, who was inspired by his fashion-executive wife. “She had a meeting with her boss and couldn’t decide what dress to wear. I said just wear a suit like every other executive in the room. Then she’s got a lunch afterwards and a charity event. The suit works for all three things and she doesn’t have to worry about being seen in it before. She says she feels quite powerful when she walks into a room dressed like that and she loves the flexibility of it. She said, ‘That suit is good for me for the next 10 years.’” In keeping with its aim of female empowerment, the brand will work with female creative directors and photographers and donate some of its profits to women’s charities.
As well as using organic fabrics, recycled yarns and ecofriendly finishing, he’s reaching his customers online and with a touring pop-up concept store. “It will be kind of like the shop goes on tour like a band,” he says. A packable shopfit will travel via truck around the USA and Europe. There will be stints at Art Basel Miami Beach, in LA before the Oscars, Berlin, London, Paris, Chicago. He has also figured out a way of using local tailoring talent to cut down on online returns. “We needed to find a way it fits the person so they don’t have to send it back, and they end up with something they want,” he says. His solution is to hook up with the best alterations tailors in the cities near to his customers. “Part of the package is that you get a card in the box saying, ‘This may not fit you perfectly, take it to these tailors and they will alter it free of charge.’” The idea is that the next time a customer orders, their details are on a database and they can choose to visit their local tailor again or have the alterations done before the garment is sent. “You anticipate what the problems are and you try to build a modern business,” says Curtiss. That’s progress.
Top image by Enga Purevjav. Taken from Issue 64 – BEST, FOOT, FORWARD – which is on newsstands now.