In 2014 designer Zac Posen became the new creative director of one of America’s oldest fashion brands, Brooks Brothers – recruited to head up their womenswear collection. Since that time, the designer has updated the classic Brooks Brothers look we’ve come to know and love, while remaining true to the DNA of the almost 200-year-old brand.
To celebrate Posen’s three-year anniversary with Brooks Brothers, we sat down with the designer to talk about how he went from making dolls’ dresses out of yarmulkes to dressing the world’s most famous women.
There aren’t many fashion designers who make waves among the movers and shakers of society before they’ve even finished their studies, let alone put their first collection together. But then Zac
Posen isn’t like most others.
Born and bred in New York, this is the man who first started designing dresses for dolls at the age of four, and would steal yarmulkes from his grandparents’ synagogue to use as fabric. Posen grew up in the creative enclave of SoHo and had neighbours and school friends such as Lola Schnabel, daughter of artist and film director Julian Schnabel.
He also interned for fashion designer Nicole Miller when he was in his sophomore year – the equivalent of year 10 – and was an apprentice at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for three years. At the age of 16 he enrolled in the pre-college program at the prestigious Parsons Design School in his native New York. This was all before starting university; he was accepted into London’s distinguished Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design. Its alumni include John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney.
All of this was a prelude to Posen’s magical entrance into the wider world of fashion. The story of his rise is like a classic fairytale, but it is also entirely of our times, involving models and society girls at a celebrity-filled party. Posen’s career continues to accelerate in this way – referencing the past and the glamour of a bygone era while embracing modern (social) networks and the darlings of Hollywood.
December 2000. Posen had created the dress of the season, even though it hadn’t been on a runway and he hadn’t yet finished his studies. The 20-year-old had designed it for his friend Paz de la Huerta, a mock version of a dress for Naomi Campbell, who had spied his work on the aforementioned Lola Schnabel. The complex web continued when the dress was then borrowed by actress Jade Malle to wear to Kate Hudson’s New Year’s Eve wedding. Making dresses for society girls and celebrities launched Posen’s career and gave it momentum.
“I think that they were feminine, fresh, and New York hadn’t necessarily seen dresses tailored in that way before,” says Posen. “Everything is a question of timing.”
When he returned to New York he set up an atelier in his parents’ loft and, courtesy of GenArt’s Fresh Faces in Fashion New York, received a $20,000 grant ahead of his first runway show in 2001. Within three years he had received an award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and became even more popular with celebrities such as Natalie Portman, Claire Danes, Rihanna and Beyoncé.
In an astute move he reached a wider audience as one of the first designers to create a collection for
Target. Posen also signed on to be a judge on Project Runway, which he has now been doing for six seasons.
“I want people to understand the creative process and that fashion is a business,” he says. “You don’t get handed opportunities in this industry, you have to be willing to work from the ground up and work well under pressure.”
Posen is close to his family, who represent the two sides of his world: creative and business. His father Stephen is an artist while his mother Susan is a corporate lawyer. His relationship with them is detailed in the documentary House of Z, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
“It’s not all runways, lipstick and fishtail gowns,” Posen says in the film. His mother and sister were involved in the early incarnation of his business, which involved receiving an investment from Sean “Puffy” Combs, but have since been replaced with new management. However, he still cites his father and sister as mentors.
“They taught me about the creative process,” he says, “and how important it is to be patient and resilient.”
Posen has learnt a lot of lessons over the past 16 years. “Every day I learn something new,” he says. “The key is building a strong team around you, and learning how to delegate.”
The heart of his business remains strong and consistent. “I feel like in order to be a designer, you really have to love women and their shape,” he says. “Dresses can be constructed in so many ways to accentuate a woman’s form. Draping is always the initial step of my creative process; I love bringing the fabric to the form and really understanding the woman’s shape and body.”
It is a timeless concept that has served him well. Most recently Posen was named as Creative Director for the womenswear range for Brooks Brothers, one of America’s oldest clothiers. “My goal is to be able to update the classics while keeping the DNA of this almost 200-year-old brand,” he says.
While one hand always references the classics, the other embraces modern means of communication. Following the popularity of his recipes on Instagram, Posen is releasing the book Cooking with Zac. Along with gardening, it’s how he enjoys winding down from the high-pressure world of fashion. Posen is, after all, a thoroughly modern man.
Words by Natalie Walton
Brooks Brothers is available in selected David Jones stores