Listening to: muise
At first, the men’s wear designer Mark McNairy’s fall 2014 show for his New Amsterdam line last month seemed like business as usual. Preppy men, and some women, of varying ages strolled onto the runway in wryly monogrammed grandpa cardigans, cuffed pants and caps before an audience that included Damon Dash and the N.F.L. players Victor Cruz and Mychal Kendricks in the front row.
Then came a sudden timbre change: the rapper Cam’ron, walking the runway with his girlfriend, Juju, waving to attendees like a member of royalty. Bored editors perked up. Standing onlookers crowded over the bench seats, jaws suddenly slack, clutching their free Heinekens.
Cam’ron was wearing a cape, part of a collaboration with Mr. McNairy that included styles in lumberjack plaid and camouflage and one lined with faux fur.
“It’s dope: I like working on designing,” Cam’ron had said backstage beforehand, as his friend Mr. Dash, who had brokered the cape project, hung out nearby in a calf-length brown fur coat.
After years in the business, Mark McNairy is now among the league of designers venerated by hip-hop artists. Credit Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
Jim Moore, the creative director of GQ, noted that Mr. McNairy’s show, only in its fourth season, has become one of the hottest tickets during New York Fashion Week. But Cam’ron’s appearance, and his latest tweak of “We Made It” name-checking the men’s wear designer and referring to those who don’t know him as “you broke and you phony,” heralded perhaps an even more important arrival for Mr. McNairy: into a pantheon of designers like Jimmy Choo, Versace and Manolo Blahnik who are venerated by hip-hop artists.
On a frigid Friday a couple of weeks before the show, Mr. McNairy, 52, in a nifty blazer, marigold cardigan, camouflage coat, Levi’s and headphones pumping out Miles Davis, stopped into his 14th Street showroom, BPMW, which is also his 50-50 partner in his New Amsterdam line. “This kind of thing is excruciating for me,” he said, referring to being interviewed. “I can’t sit still. I’m constantly doing like 20 things at once.”
Mr. McNairy had just returned from European trade shows and was headed to Japan for another collaboration, with Edifice. His curriculum vitae also includes a recently renewed creative-director relationship with Woolrich Woolen Mills and a shoe collaboration with Adidas.
“He’s one of the savviest collaborators,” Mr. Moore said. “It’s definitely something that has pushed his business along.”
Work was foremost on Mr. McNairy’s mind, not fielding questions about his childhood and design career, which he was slow to answer in his gravelly, cigarette-scratched twang. Friends and clients had warned that he’s not exactly warm and fuzzy (a nickname, McNasty, is stamped into the soles of some of his shoe styles).
“He doesn’t like to talk a lot,” the songwriter and producer Pharrell Williams said, “but if you engage in a conversation, should he be interested, he has knowledge.”
Gabriel Ricioppo, a partner and the creative director of the Need Supply Company, a boutique retailer based in Richmond, Va., that has been carrying New Amsterdam since February 2012, said: “I don’t ask Mark that many questions. He’ll get real short real fast. I just don’t bombard him, don’t harass him, and the conversation goes as far as it goes, and that’s cool.”
For his part, Mr. McNairy explained that he doesn’t pander for conversation’s sake. “People ask me to smile in a picture,” he said. “I can’t fake a smile. The camera makes me very uncomfortable.”
But spotlights are suddenly trained on him like never before. Started in 2008 and long considered an indie cult brand, New Amsterdam is now stocked by large online retailers like EastDane.com and MrPorter.com. In 2012, Mr. McNairy made GQ’s Best New Menswear Designers in America list, although Mr. Moore noted that Mr. McNairy has been in the industry for decades. Among his previous efforts: Finis, a women’s line he started in 1987 with Antoinette Linn, his ex-wife (and the mother of their 19-year-old daughter, Daisy); 68 & Brothers, an Americana line sold in Japan; and McNairy Brothers, an American-made men’s sportswear line also sold mostly in Japan until it sputtered after 9/11.
The rapper Cam’ron walked the runway for the fall 2014 collection for Mr. McNairy’s New Amsterdam line, wearing a cape that is part of a collaboration between the two. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
“We’ve been following him a long time,” Mr. Moore said.
Mr. McNairy’s current signature: funky prints, like daisies decorating plaids (inspired by his daughter) and yellow ducks swimming on camouflage. And there is the hip-hop fan base, which Mr. McNairy said was unexpected. Along with Cam’ron, there’s Pusha T, who walked in his spring 2014 show, and Mr. Williams, who has since hired Mr. McNairy to design his Bee Line and BBC Black collections.
Mr. McNairy said that he didn’t even like hip-hop when he first met Mr. Williams some three years ago to discuss Bee Line. “The whole thing, hip-hop, it was all about ‘me me me,’ ” Mr. McNairy said.
Pusha T saw nothing incompatible about that ethos with Mr. McNairy’s designs. “There’s the braggadocio nature of rap,” Pusha T said. “From a fashion perspective, it’s always been competitive. Maybe at one point it was who is the fly guy who has the freshest sneakers. Now it’s more about streetwear.” He pointed especially to New Amsterdam’s camo print (“Camouflage is like a man’s floral: it started with G.I. Joe when I was a kid,” Mr. McNairy said), and praised the designer’s direction on his big runway moment.
“I was nervous, but Mark was like, ‘Man, get down to the end, and make sure they see what you’re wearing,’ ” Pusha T said. “ ‘Just be you, and that’s all you need.’ ”
Mr. McNairy grew up in Greensboro, N.C., the oldest of three children. His father, Holly, was a service technician; his mother, Pat, a homemaker. His sister, Lisa McNairy Gordon, two years younger, died a decade ago from cancer. His brother, Craig McNairy, now works for Mark, running the New Amsterdam web shop.
Young Mark amassed a large collection of G.I. Joe action figures (“their clothing and all the accessories were the coolest,” he said), until his mom threw them out. Fashion, however, wasn’t exactly dinner conversation. “I didn’t know who Schiaparelli or Geoffrey Beene or Balenciaga was,” he said. “I was coming from North Carolina, where it was Lilly Pulitzer and Woolrich and Brooks Brothers.”
In high school, Mr. McNairy took a particular interest in Brooks Brothers, still such a personal fashion totem that he likened a meeting with the company to “meeting Springsteen.” There wasn’t a store in North Carolina then, he said, so he ransacked the local vintage stores for button-down shirts, calling himself a “fanatic.” But he was more obsessed with music, collecting thousands of LPs.
“I wanted to be Phil Spector and make records,” he said.
More looks from the fall 2014 collection for Mr. McNairy’s New Amsterdam line. Credit Fernanda Calfat/Getty Images
He attended the University of North Carolina Wilmington for five and a half years, graduating in 1984 with a business degree. “I wanted to drop out of college, move to New York and go to engineering school. It just didn’t happen that way.”
He did move to New York, in 1986, but for a sales job for a manufacturer and wholesaler in the garment district. Though devoid of glitz, it was good preparation for the string of enterprises that followed. “You can sit around and design all you want, but if you can’t get it into the stores, it’s absolutely nothing,” he said.
Continue reading the main story In 2005, through an introduction from Andy Spade, who had carried McNairy Brothers in his Jack Spade store, Mr. McNairy took the position of creative director at J. Press, where he said he infused the retailer’s staid Ivy League style with humor and Southern prep. Though Mr. McNairy said he clashed with management over the direction of the company (he wanted to do one-offs with indie labels like Engineered Garments, projects that never materialized), he said he learned a lot about fabrics and tailoring there.
“I’m self-taught,” he said. “I’m a maker more than a designer. I just learned from shopping and the factories and digging.” Indeed, he seemed most at ease when visiting his West 39th Street factory later, fingering his beloved bolts of fabric. He doesn’t sketch or use computer-aided design, which he believes neuters clothing. “I can always tell when something was ‘CAD-ed’ up — there’s no soul,” Mr. McNairy said.
Sensing the break to come with J. Press, he began working on New Amsterdam (named in homage to New York), introducing it in 2008 with a collection of men’s brogues made in Northampton, England, in traditional shapes but with quirky colored soles and stitching, many of which were on the feet of show guests. By the fall 2010 season, he had a full men’s collection that impressed buyers and editors.
“His love for music, preppy culture and pop art” all comes together, Mr. Moore said. “It was a space that was missing in men’s wear.”
“There will always be a little bit of Ivy League pedigree in his work,” he said, “but it’s tweaking it and turning up the volume. He’s irreverent.”
To wit: a gunmetal watch that Mr. McNairy designed and was wearing during the interview said, “Relax” (ribbing Rolex), on its face.
Mr. Ricioppo described a “strong street attitude” in the designer’s work. “It also helps that the celebrities and musicians continue to keep his name out there.”
Indeed, Mr. McNairy and Mr. Williams have become good friends, the musician said, which is partly why he asked the designer to create his attire for his wedding to Helen Lasichanh last fall: a tartan suit for the ceremony, and patchwork tartan pants for the reception. (Mr. McNairy’s wife, Lia McNairy, with whom he has a 5-year-old son, Ryder, and who has worked at the bridal label Melissa Sweet, made the bride’s tartan gown.)
“I realized I could have gone to any of the other designers or an ordinary seamstress,” Mr. Williams said. “But Mark is the kind of person I love to associate with and love to be around: freethinkers who are untethered by what is going on. And who maybe go in and change things.”