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Neil Barrett: the man who invented athleisure

Words by Rob Chilton

The British designer talks to EDGAR about the revolutionary concept he created 25 years ago. Plus, Brexit, Post-it notes, and never being able to switch off

When fashion designer Neil Barrett wakes up, he creeps out of bed (“I’m not a morning person”) and peels off the paperwork stuck to his feet. “At night, when I’m in bed, I write ideas on Post-it notes in the dark and throw them on the floor,” he explains. “It’s nice to clean out my head so I can sleep.” But, having been written in the dark, do they make sense in the cold light of day? “Oh yeah,” he says. “Great ideas come out at night.”

Barrett tweaks his display at Harvey Nichols Dubai

Barrett’s latest idea is a menswear capsule collection designed exclusively for Harvey Nichols Dubai that is based on the Arabic keffiyeh scarf. “I looked at all the iconic, masculine prints and patterns from around the world and thought, how could I mash them together to create new patterns? The keffiyeh scarf is an iconic, pure image from the Arabic world that I’ve always loved – it’s perfect – and camouflage obviously is a timeless western image. I love putting two things together to create something new.”

It’s a technique that has been Barrett’s modus operandi his entire career. Most famously in his first collection for Prada 25 years ago, he presented a hybrid of sport and tailoring. Does Barrett believe he is the founding father of athleisure?

Barrett’s keffiyeh-inspired collection

“I believe I was at the very beginning of it,” he grins. “I’m not aware of who was before me. But the actual word athleisure came up way later, maybe 2005. To me, athleisure was so obvious. The coolest people always dressed like that and over the years it’s trickled down to become acceptable by everybody. Some things in life, when they’re right, they’re just logical.”

Barrett speaks to EDGAR editor Rob Chilton

Barrett studied in London before completing two, five-year spells at Gucci and Prada. Then, in 1999 he launched his eponymous brand. “I still love designing and I’m still excited by it,” he says. “I never stop thinking about design, ever. I’ll be on a beach on holiday and I’ll notice the tone of a pebble, it happens all the time. I can’t turn it off.”

Despite clocking up 30 years in the job, Barrett feels he is still acquiring new skills. “You never stop learning and that’s the beauty of any creative job,” he says. Perhaps the most important lesson he’s learnt in his three decades is learning to adapt, especially when the fickle world of fashion lets him down.

“The biggest mistake any designer can make is trusting people to deliver something on time,” he says. “I remember one collection, none of the shoes arrived. The day before the show I changed the press release and called it ‘Barefoot in the Park.’ We moved the show to the park and the models walked without shoes. Nobody realised what had happened. You have to deal with things.”

Still learning after 30 years on the job

Barrett works from a huge, tailor-made studio in Milan that is filled with polystyrene boards that he dyed dark grey to blend in with the black walls. “I like order,” he explains. “Everything is pinned on those boards: research, designs, historical notes, prints.”

He speaks Italian with a “really strong British accent”, which is a source of amusement for his colleagues. What’s his most-used word at work? “Hmm. Facciamo, which means let’s do this!” he laughs. One thing he hopes will not receive the facciamo treatment is Brexit. “Brexit will affect all designers regarding importation into Britain, prices will be different. Which is terrible. I think it’s a totally ridiculous, antiquated move.”

When he started his own brand in 1999, Barrett’s goal was to stay independent for 20 years, something he’s achieved in 2019, despite “flattering offers from most of the biggies to buy me out” over the years. So what happens in 2020? “Well, we have options and it’s now about choosing the correct one. A new chapter – it’s very exciting.”

Neil Barrett’s capsule collection is available exclusively at Harvey Nichols Dubai in Mall of the Emirates.

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