Well-Dressed

Zac Posen on Fashion, Fame, and Why He Won’t Design Clothes For Ivanka and Melania Trump

The designer tells Tim Teeman why he will not dress Ivanka and Melania Trump—and what fashion designers need to do to survive today.

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ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Zac Posen was pondering politics and fashion at the end of a New York Fashion Week at which anti-Donald Trump sentiment ran high.

“I think everybody has a political responsibility,” the 36-year-old multi-award-winning designer said in his sleekly designed, white-walled office in Midtown Manhattan. “Everybody has a voice, whether in fashion or any field.”

The handsome, charismatic Posen—designer not only of his own high-end and mass-market collections but Brooks Brothers’ womenswear line, and a judge since 2012 on Project Runway—may be a master of diplomacy, but he also speaks directly. Today, Posen joins other big-name designers like Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Sophie Theallet, and Phillip Lim in declining to dress members of the Trump family in protest of the policies being pursued by President Trump.

Having dressed both Ivanka and Melania Trump in the past, Posen told The Daily Beast he has “no current plans to dress members of the first family. Right now, I’m staying away from bringing my brand into politics. There are issues that are being questioned that are fundamentally upsetting to me—deeply: LGBT rights, immigration, funding for the arts, Planned Parenthood, and women’s rights. These are just issues that are very close to my heart, and I use my own private voice and funds to fight for them and in support of them. I think it’s important to use your voice. I think that every brand and person has a right to be vocal.

“I’m very upset with the state of affairs right now,” Posen said. “I always try to be optimistic. I think that freedom will prevail. And I don’t dictate who buys my clothing in a store.”

Posen also believes the fashion industry should be “cautious” in how it advocates for issues. “You can’t market or commercialize feminism as an entity. One has to be careful. I aim to be about powerful women in my clothing. It’s important that I support the amazing women that I’m able to work with. It’s a message about creativity and process. And being able to self-create is the message I want to share to the generation of young people being born now.”

The day we met Posen was dressed in a simple sweater and trousers, and sported a jaunty workman’s cap. A few days later, Leslie Mann would wear a billowing yellow gown of his on the red carpet at the Oscars, joining the celebrity likes of Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West, Uma Thurman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Naomi Watts, Oprah Winfrey, and Christina Ricci who have worn his designs. In 2015 Posen was named Designer of the Year by WWD and Variety magazines.

Posen said more than once that he is “very pro-woman” and that “working in the artisanal process today” was in itself a political statement in the sense of it being “reactionary to disposability and the speed of culture.”

Inside Posen’s office-cum-showroom-cum-design studio, the visitor is greeted by rooms and racks of beautiful clothes, shoes, and bags, from his high-end Zac Posen Collection and the more accessible ZAC Zac Posen and Truly Zac Posen lines he produces (he also recently redesigned Delta Air Lines’ uniforms).

Posen is particularly excited about a pair of $195 sneakers with his name on their sole. “It’s the smaller pleasures in life,” he said, smiling.

The popularity of his clothes is evident, surveying the racks: They are, whatever their price, designed both sexily and distinctively, with standout prints and design detailing. His showroom is a reminder that, for all the pricey couture on show when Posen exhibits his wares at New York Fashion Week—this last time as a gallery-style event of pictures and Posen walking with the models, rather than a runway show—that you can buy a bit of that Posen magic for considerably less than you might think.

When he was 21, Posen recalled that it was Neiman Marcus that first sent him out on the road to meet customers and hear what they wanted, where he understood the shopping habits and mentality of everyday customers.

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The meeting of art and commerce doesn’t make him frustrated. He is not thrown off when he sees the figures from Brooks Brothers about clothes either doing well or not. It is possible, he says, to be enveloped in both the creative process and financial reality. “Art and commerce is a balance,” he said.

As we looked over jumpsuits, cotton shirts, pleated pieces, and a fitted women’s trench coat he himself whipped on, he said the era and technology means that “it’s important to tell something more about me and my brand than you can convey on the runway.”

Behind the showrooms, Posen was even prouder to show me the atelier itself, with shelves and tables of materials, and staff diligently pinning and shaping garments.

“This is the heart of all of it,” he said. “It was important for me to find the right craftspeople. I want to make things of quality. I’m a big believer in handmade, tactile, crafted pieces. I want to keep that tradition alive. If that tradition dies, there’s nothing for fast fashion to copy. This is my other family here.”

The cutting and designing room, with tables littered with sketches and materials and staff cutting and cinching this and that, is the “heart of what I do,” said Posen. “At the end of the day this is the craft and artistry of what I do. Everything else around the brand, the multiple licenses and projects, is really about supporting this. I have multiple lines and am licensing multiple projects but I am still hands-on. It feels special. I don’t take it for granted.”

He does so much that sometimes, he admitted, it feels like too much, but he enjoys collaboration and being master of so much. “There are only so many hours in the day. I pretty much work seven days a week. But nobody ever said this life was going to be easy, and this is a life choice.”

***

Posen grew up, dyslexic and with ADD, in a creative household. His father was an artist, and his mother became a lawyer (and in 2010 for a short time was his company’s CEO). The family lived among “the original loft dwellers” in SoHo.

“I learned mathematics, profit, and margin very early selling lemonade on Spring Street, between Greene and Mercer: 25 cents a cup, and a whole quart for $20,” he said. “What I earned formed part of the seed money of my company.

“It took a long time for me to be able to fully read, and so to have that creativity was instrumental. Creativity is a lifelong pursuit, and art and commerce are their own journey.”

Five years Lena Dunham’s senior, Posen took care of her when both were younger too, shepherding her to the progressive Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights on the subway. “I knew immediately she had it,” he said of Dunham’s talent. “I made her perform on the subway every day. We’d do her hair and she’d pretend to tell the weather, and we’d act out films and stories.”

Posen came out at 16 at musical theater summer camp. We both laughed as he revealed that: It sounds like the perfect surroundings for the big gay announcement. “But it wasn’t a common thing in that age group,” he said. “I grew up in SoHo, Lower Manhattan. I don’t think I had the same experience as a lot of people might have had outside New York. My parents were pretty open. I marched in [New York’s Village] Halloween Parade my entire childhood. I was around people of all backgrounds growing up.”

Although he had braces, an underage Posen was also successful begging to be let in to the hot clubs of the moment, like Jackie 60, founded by DJ Johnny Dynell.

“I feel very lucky to have experienced that,” said Posen. “At the time it didn’t feel that the underground part of New York City would go away, but it has certainly has evolved and changed. One of the positive advantages of growing up in New York was that those clubbing years were out of my system was when I was 22.”

Later, he studied at Central St. Martins in London, living in Bloomsbury, near University College London. “I have a real affinity for the U.K., I love history.” His partner, Christopher Niquet, has a knowledge of fashion and art history he is similarly impressed with. They have been together since 2008, and live on the Upper East Side.

Before Posen turned 30, he was “very much of the mind-set” that he was working to live and to facilitate a certain kind of lifestyle. Now, he said, he realized that his lifestyle was his work—and “I give it all my all with everything I do. It’s an important message to give: If you have real dedication, this is possible. I dreamt of this. You don’t know if it is possible, and it takes a real, serious commitment. This is a life choice. Just like when you’re in the fitting room with a supermodel, the level of precision when one is performing on television or in public means a level of care in the message you give.”

This recommendation to embrace fame and attention also comes with an urging to fashion designers to be cautious when they use social media, as they work in an industry with “lots of frivolity” associated with it.

“We have to remember we live in such a rarefied, lucky industry,” he said. “This is not how the rest of the world lives. We have to be aware of what we’re showing to the rest of the world.

“To be able to buy a plant, and plant it, that’s a luxury to me. I’m pretty balanced. I rarely party. To show that level of extravagance today is something I’d say—looking back on my own career, before the internet—that one has to be careful about because for the larger public, as intrigued as they are by that, it’s like looking into Versailles.”

Posen is referring to the early stages of his career: the extravagant shows in Paris, and, as The New York Times, put it, “a reputation for over-reaching.”

He appears calmer and more restrained now. His purest moment, he said, was when he’s draping inside his office, music on, door closed, “when I can start building.” And if business concerns mean he cannot always express himself as creatively as he would wish, Posen contents himself by knowing “creativity in its purest form is a lifelong pursuit, and I feel I will have other places, opportunities, and chapters where I am able to do that.”

Posen’s thorny path to profitability has been well documented in the media, “learning experiences,” as he puts it, which are part of running a business, part of fashion.

“My own experiences could have broken me, but different elements and times I’ve gone through with the company have made me really strong.” The times when the designer could be creative and disregard financial matters is over, he said.

Fashion itself is “a history marker” for Posen, who wants to make pieces unattached to any trend or moment.

Yes, his business is profitable finally, he said. “It has taken multiple lines, price points, collaborations, and global distribution. We’ve built a major awareness in Asia, the Middle East, South America. To be able to be self-sufficient is hugely important. We’ve been on our own two feet for about two years. It takes a lot of work, but it’s your responsibility.”

Next, Posen would love to design sets and costumes for theater. He studied to be a singer until he was 18. “That experience, which in my head I signed off on at 16 when I got my first internship in fashion, prepared me for the level of facetime and performance that it takes to be a designer today. It’s challenging to market ‘the reclusive artisan.’ People are interested in the creator behind it.”

Does he embrace the fame that all those red carpet dresses, and Project Runway episodes, have brought? “You have to. One has no choice, it’s my job. To be able to shoot so many hours every other day on a TV show or go to the Emmys wouldn’t work if you were miserable or uncomfortable. You can’t fake that.” Posen has learned a lot from Project Runway presenter Heidi Klum about what to put, and not put, in front of the camera. “Gardening and food are my Zen,” Posen said.

If he had to give advice to those entering the fashion industry, it would be that “patience is a virtue, this is a long ride you’re on, this is not a quick business. You have to nurture and grow it over a long period of time, especially an artisanal business. If you want to be a namesake designer, you have to be the face of the company and to the public. That can’t be a surprise today.”

If Posen has embraced that attention, and the challenge of building and maintaining a brand, he also seems happiest in the quiet white womb of his office or in his cutting room, overseeing shapes and cuts, refining silhouettes, and experimenting with materials, like a surgical gauze he points me to.

A designer like Zac Posen may well have to live more and more in public today. But his more vital oxygen is here, amid the quiet, controlled chaos of his atelier, immersed in the craft of creation.