502 Brandon Mahler Interview

Interview: Harry Roberts
Photography: provided by Brandon Mahler

Brandon Mahler’s personal style is truly a reflection of himself, it’s a mix of colliding interests he’s invested his time and energy into for years. From fashion to music, authenticity has always been at the heart of what he does. We caught up with him as he was beating the rush home from work in an Uber, sirens blaring and the chaos of New York coming down the line. We chatted about vintage grails, his creative process and how brands can stay profitable whilst still being a well kept secret. 

HR: You’re the Global Visual Merchandising Manager at Aimé Leon Dore, how did you get to where you are now?

BM: When I moved to New York I started working at Drake’s, at the time I was working a lot with the London team, so there were times I would be getting into the city at 8:00 or 9:00am to get on calls, so I was hanging around the shop a lot. I became friends with a lot of the guys organically and through that got to know Ted a little bit. I think he’s a really good judge of character and understood who I was as a person and the work I was doing at Drake’s. I was lucky enough to be put into the friends and family campaign a few times, and you get to meet people on set. That’s kind of how it happened, it’s like one of those things where he knows and understands my taste, what I like and the things I don't, we see eachother on a very visual level. We had spoken about it for a few months before I actually went over there, and at the time a few things I wanted to do weren’t able to get off the ground, so I wanted to see what I could do at Aimé Leon Dore. I think it’s been a great decision on my end so far. 

HR: What does your job entail?

BM: A lot of it’s planning, building a lot of creative decks and circulating them with my team. We go back and forth asking ourselves what’s working, what isn't, what are we trying to do here? It’s also a lot of research and sourcing. In a way I look at other stores and the things people are doing and ask myself why’s it good, or why isn’t it? I often try to connect with my team from a creative or design based lens to figure out why; why would we put certain things in these places and does it belong here? It’s like an art and a science, but mostly it’s planning for the art. 

HR: How would you say it's changed since you started, what's the direction you've taken the store experience in?

BM: You know I don't want to change it too much from where it was. A lot of my job is looking for things that inspire me and that I can put into the shop, whether it’s art, a book, a ceramic or something, a lot of it is sourced through various channels. I kind of try to keep it the same because the thing we do is so very us, not to say we’re the first to invent anything at this point. But I feel like we see the same stuff, we get inspired by the same artists or the same books and all these things influence the overall picture. To that point though you do have to evolve as a brand a little bit, like any good company has to right? When they zig, you gotta zag a little and figure out what else, what else could I be influenced by and really put on?

HR: Is there a creative process you follow when you’re concepting a new space? Let’s say to complement a collection or upcoming event?

BM: Yeah there is, I try to connect with the people that make the clothes first and understand what they’re imagining. I think within the first 10 minutes of talking to someone I figure out where I want to go with that space. They needed to conceptualize their work and so do I, so I want to understand their world and what influenced them to create it. So I tap into my references that speak to these things, is it a book or a movie? My brain is filled with a bunch of useless shit I’ve gotten into over the years which helps get me there. A lot of people would make fun of a mood board now, but it’s a lot of mood boarding and putting different things together. In a way you're just throwing things at a wall to see what sticks, but it's more thought out and there’s a purpose to it. 

HR: You help craft the brand narrative of Aimé Leon Dore in the shop, what do you think makes for a great retail experience?

BM: Someone asked what my favourite store in New York was the other day and I kinda got stumped, because I feel like I haven’t had a good one in a while. Something that I really enjoy is the New York level of hospitality, which is a level of “I see you, you see me, if you need anything give me a shout”. I feel this is a very stereotypical New York thing, it can be like someone asking a stranger for directions and people will give them to you, but not really want to. I think you really can’t be too eager, that puts me off more than anything. If I go into a store and the person’s too eager or too on me, and everything you touch they’re like “Oh I love that piece”, like dude let me look at it first. So I think combining all of these things together makes for a good retail experience. 

I actually also love when I go into a shop and someone says “I don't love it on you” and then they respectfully tell them why, maybe the proportions are off, but could I suggest this instead?

For me it’s like just be nice, cordial, not too up in my business and know your product. 

HR: What places in London do you like shopping?

BM: Oh man, Margaret Howell, Harrods, I always talk about Harrods when someone asks me about London. They’re like “what should I do?” I’m like Harrods, just because I think it’s the coolest place in the world. Obviously the savile row stores too, I remember the service shocking me when I went there for the first time, it was so good. Often it's brands that I can’t get in the US, and going to the store and getting the full experience of a person's world is great.

HR: We know you’re a big interiors guy, where are you heading to source new items for the store or home?

BM: Yeah yeah, you get into it almost by accident because you like stuff that looks good. You start to pay a little attention to more things, and the way they’re set up and it’s very easy to become immersed in that world. I love eBay, live auctioneers, any kind of auction site really; I tried to do the marketplace stuff but it became quite time consuming. A lot of the stuff I just find as well, half the time it's not something that's worth heaps of money, I just find it really cool. I always feel like I’m always wanting something, but my apartment in New York is small, so I don't have a lot of room. I think lately I’ve been looking to upgrade my couch, do I want a nice Italian sectional or a Herman Miller couch? 

HR: What’s your take on authenticity? 

BM: I always flip flop and go back and forth because I see it from both sides. I see it as a young person trying new things and wanting to explore things they think are cool online. But I think when I was younger, knowing what worked for me and what didn't came from more of an authentic place. One of my favorite things is seeing someone move to New York and seeing their weird progression and it happens very fast, they’re like “This is me now”. There's this kid I always see walking around Soho and he used to dress like pretty menswear when he got here, and now he’s wearing baggy jeans and Timbs. I think there’s a difference between taking inspiration from something, and immediately making it your personality, which I think a lot of people do because of the internet. When you see something online, I think you have to ask yourself how can I navigate it but still be myself, I think as long as you don’t lose sight of who you are it’s okay. 

The quest of personal style is also probably never ending, I remember doing an interview with a menswear blog when I lived in Houston and he asked “what do you think the end game is? And I was like “I don't know suits, what is the end game for anyone”? But now I think the coolest end game is probably when you stop giving a shit about this stuff. Like I don't need to buy another shirt my wardrobe is complete, I dont think i’ll ever get to that point though. 

HR: We’re seeing brands open club houses to engage with their customers, inviting them to participate beyond selling physical products. What do you think the future of retail looks like?

BM: Yeah I think a lot of brands will start to do this, when you think of the term lifestyle brand that actually hasn’t been around that long, and I don't think people really know what that means. Until recently I think the only true lifestyle brand in the mainstream has been Ralph Lauren. People want clothes to sometimes be a form of escapism, so you want to belong to something you genuinely might not be a part of. I think it's a good strategy but I don't know if I want to see certain brands doing that. 

I feel like this sort of plays into the bastardization of the word community now, with some brands being like “come be a community”, to me that just looks like a fraternity and you’re paying to have friends.

One of my first jobs was working at a tapioca cafe and on friday nights it was tuner night. All the guys in souped up imported cars would come by, and that was their everything and at one point that was huge. Was I really into it? not the car stuff, but that was them really putting their life into something and I think it's the same thing with skate shops and record stores. There’s something to me about trying to make a club for people, it just seems weird and off. 

HR: Yeah I think you really have to engage and observe what’s going on. Do you think that gatekeeping is then a necessary evil? 

Yes, gatekeeping is a necessary evil, I had to grind for this fucking point of view.

I totally understand an old head being like “you don’t understand how easy you have it”. 

When I used to work at ByGeorge in Austin, we carried Common Projects for a while and back when I was wearing those I remember having to really really try to get them, now you can just walk in, try them on and buy them. 

With any new thing everyone’s always sceptical cause where the fuck did this come from? Why, how, what’s up with this thing? I feel like you need to go out and find out about shit, I like being sold to and being like “whoa, I didn’t know this brand was that good”. 

HR: Do you think something can be profitable and still be a well kept secret?

BM: Yeah I think like if a brand doesn't try to expand too fast, and keeps things limited it’s possible. Exclusives are cool, let’s make X amount of this product, and then after it's sold out we don't have it anymore. That's why people like brands, they want to feel like they’re a part of something, and want to have a sense of belonging; I think that's a great way to do it. You can make something that everyone has, but then it can still be cool. There’s a lot of brands that do it well, look at Supreme or Palace, these companies are collaborating with giant fashion houses. They have entry point products so you can still get them and be involved, but also very top tier stuff that’s harder to acquire. 

Nike and Comme Des Garçon are a great example of stuff that’s very popular and everyone gets the sneakers. But how many people are walking around in double layer shorts or a jacket with a whole cut out in it, not as many. I think there’s stuff that's still popular going to multiple people with different tastes and backgrounds. You’re making money, but you can also make the art you want to make you know? 

HR: I think it’s a trick balancing it between the two and you can go down the boring commercial route, but then risk losing a little something. I saw you styled something for Greg Laboratory?

BM: Yeah I've always really liked his stuff, he’s one of those people that really really gives a fuck about the product. I’ve been wearing his pants before and people have complimented how well made they are, and these are people that like all different things. 

HR: We know you buy a lot of vintage, what are your favorite places to shop?

BM: Honestly my first love is always going to be eBay, but physically Front Street is good here in New York. Chickies is also really good, Intramural, which is no longer physical but they sometimes do pop-ups, I also really like Leisure Centre and Fantasy Explosion. I feel like all these places are very different and they are doing something that everyone can be a part of, as far as vintage goes. When I go into these places it can give me some sort of inspiration and help me put something together, whether it’s clothes or not. These places not only give you great product, but they’re a nice form of inspiration too.

HR: What’s the best vintage grail you own?

BM: I think my biggest attachment is nothing designer or anything, but it’s a band T-shirt. You know I feel like I’ve worked harder to get these things because I either had to find it, or paid around $150, cause I think that’s kind of crazy. My favourite type would be the Britpop stuff, just because I got a lot of it when I was younger. I have like 3 or 4 vintage Oasis tees I bought for $10 a piece, and those are now like $300.

My favourite one would be from this band called Galaxie 500, who are more of a slower shoegaze style band and they weren’t around very long. I bought it off this lady on eBay and she came into my work to drop it off and immediately b-lined for my rocker looking colleague who was head to toe in tattoos like “Brandon?”. The look on her face when he pointed at me was so funny, I could tell she was like “What the fuck?” because I was wearing Engineered Garments and Comme Des Garçon at the time, so I had a big striped shirt and military pants on. Knowing who that band was and being from Austin was crazy, so a lot of people were like that’s a fucking weird shirt to have. It actually also has a specific colour of dye that’s been banned because it was super bad for the environment. It was one of those things that when I saw it I was like “holy shit that’s amazing”.