Arnold Steiner isn’t your typical fashion designer. He isn’t sickly thin, he doesn’t dress in black, and he rarely has a dour expression on his face. In fact he seems downright jolly, like that encouraging high school teacher that we all wish we had. Or like a dad who enjoys fatherhood because he finally gets to play with his Star Wars action figures again. Perhaps not surprising then that he is the lead designer for Kiel James Patrick, that upbeat preppy brand with more smiles per square mile than a U.S.O. concert. Steiner designs happiness in an era when happiness seems in critically short supply. But with fast-fashion showing signs of wear, with the ugly reality of piles of last season’s clothes filling landfills, and with a glut of negative news bombarding us from all sides, he may just be the fashion designer we all need right now.
Steiner grew up in South Florida enmeshed in the world of clothing, both his parents having worked in the textile industry. His father and grandfather both wore Ivy style clothes but he himself wouldn’t discover it until 2010 as he, like many young men of his generation, searched for, as he puts it, “a refined look that had a sense of fun.” He would find that look by emulating the men of a bygone era. Men like Steve McQueen, Anthony Perkins, John F Kennedy, Chet Baker, David Hockney, and many others. He would also turn to books like Take Ivy and True Style for inspiration.
One of the reasons I like Arnold Steiner is that his road to the Ivy League look mirrors so many of ours. Surrounded by men in cargo shorts and t-shirts, he yearned for aesthetic refinement but never wanted it to come at the cost of taking his clothes, or himself, too seriously. And yet he is not a frivolous man. He has a deep respect for the roots of Ivy style. Roots which he says are increasingly being lost as the look spreads across the world and is absorbed into the fashion consciousnesses of designers and menswear aficionados who are encountering it for the first time.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Steiner some questions about the way he envisions the Ivy League look, his own work in the fashion industry, and how people who appreciate Ivy style can help preserve its core principles as it steps into the fashion houses of Europe and Asia. — PANI M.
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PM: You have designed Ivy inspired menswear for several brands, including your own. Can you take us through your design process? How do you begin working on a new item and what steps take you through to completion?
AS: My design process is never linear but I start by acknowledging the season and target audience I’m looking to design for. Next I begin with product research for the specific accessory or garment I’m looking to create. I believe more knowledge about what you’re making is crucial when creating a design. Knowing the material and construction helps in the design process. Next I pull elements of inspiration from multiple sources including fine art, historical references, photography, textures, color palettes and current looks in the market that are contributing to the conversation of modern menswear. At this point I begin to design using either traditional fine art tools such as my trusty pen and pencil or I use computer software to generate the design. Finally I create ready-for-production tech packs to translate the design to the manufactures. If all goes smooth the sample will be flawless but that is in the hands of the manufacturer.
PM: Obviously you’re an Ivy style aficionado, and this influences your design, but how would you describe your personal style? Are you an Ivy purist or do you like to mix it up?
AS: Being that I didn’t live in the heyday of Ivy style I think it would be very hard to claim I’m a purist, although I like to think of myself as someone who has learned a great deal from purists. Ivy style is has a major influence in the way I dress. It’s my main source of inspiration, standards in quality, fit, and style. I do also take inspiration from other forms of menswear and try to mix it up. Ultimately Ivy style was a way for students to have options apart from their parents strict dress codes and they mixed it up in the first place.
PM: Ivy style has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years – one of many in its long history – but this time it seems somewhat different than in the past. Instead of being confined to the U.S. and Japan, the Ivy style has infiltrated the fashion minds of Europeans from London to Milan to Paris, as well as to broader Asia. As evidence of this, Permanent Style, a London based global menswear blog, recently held a symposium in New York devoted solely to Ivy. And now we are seeing the emergence of aesthetic movements like “French Ivy,” which would have seemed unthinkable until recently. Why do you think Ivy is finding such a strong resonance in places that, even five years ago, would hardly have noticed it?:
AS: There are multiple reasons why I feel this is happening. For starters I feel social media has a big roll in the mass influence Ivy style has been able to reach these days. I also feel that the growth in efforts of people who contribute to the education of Ivy style has also helped its wide spread appreciation. This includes bloggers, writers, stylists and designers. Another reason is Ivy style, compared to other style movements, has a rich history and is well respected for the quality, fit, and style fashion enthusiast are learning to admire and respect. It can also be viewed as a laid back or refined and sophisticated style with a broad appeal and this is why it’s crossing over to more and more people across the globe.
PM: I can see what you mean. Ivy style seems like it is the perfect style for an age obsessed with sustainability and was poised to break out in a time of worldwide cultural interaction due to technology. Especially when the global pandemic is causing so many in the fashion industry to re-evaluate their priorities. Suddenly Ivy style’s insistence on quality over quantity, the cherishing of old clothes that can be worn for a lifetime, and its inherent frugality seem very current. Do you think Ivy style’s emergence in the broader world has put the final nail in the coffin of “fast fashion?”
AS: I do think more and more people are understanding the difference between well made clothing versus fast fashion through the fast spread of information we have, digitally. Ultimately it’s the touch and feel of clothing that allows one to truly understand the difference. That can only happen through experience and not solely through information shared, so it takes time. Fast fashion does play its roll as a reminder of what short lived garments are like. I don’t think fast fashion will ever go away, so I like to look at it in a positive way as being a stepping stone for those searching for better garments. People can experience an inexpensive version from fast fashion of a lesser quality garment in order to realize what well made products have to offer. This is the beautiful thing about Ivy style. On their road to learning quality and style people will cross paths with fast fashion and eventually find themselves learning about brands that offer exceptional products in the end.
PM: Speaking of the digital aspect of fashion and influencing, your instagram feed seems like a journey into a sartorial fantasy life. Perhaps you share some DNA with Ralph Lauren in that sense but instead of drifting into a general image of Americana you capture a sense of magic, a sense of the dreamlike and the unreal. Where do you think that aesthetic comes from?
AS: This probably translates in my work because of my background in fine art. As a fine artist I mainly loved to create surrealistic oil paintings even though I experimented with other forms of art. I like to use this form of imagination to spark interest in my passion for menswear. It’s my way of contributing my own artistic perspective on how to see something we have seen time and time again, like a penny loafer. I do feel that Ivy style is a magical thing that is timeless and continues to emerge over and over. To me that is the reason for injecting this sense of magic in my content. It not only comes from fashion but also film and music.
PM: This isn’t surprising to me, having followed you for some time you seem to bring a confident aesthetic to everything you do. Why has it been so important for you to express your sense of beauty and fun in so many aspects of your life; your art, your domestic surroundings, even your car, which is a classic wood paneled station wagon that Clark W. Griswold would be proud of?
AS: As an artist I have always been fascinated with the beauty in the mundane. The everyday things I’m surrounded by become very unique when looked at through the lens of my camera. I think when it comes to the aspect of confidence it has always been relevant to the world of style. It’s one of the reasons why some wear what they wear, because they feel more confident wearing certain garments. I most definitely feel different with different clothing. Self expression is important to me because it ultimately is my voice. As for my 87 Grand Wagoneer it’s my way of connecting with something that isn’t modern and has a nostalgic appeal that I like. The feel of the engine is quite different than modern cars and the wood panels are just cool to me. I relate to anything classic for the most part especially American classics.
PM: While we’re on the subject of what we can find on your Instagram, you recently made a post lamenting that with the newfound popularity of Ivy style, the true core of the style was getting lost. You suggested that as it spreads across the globe and gets re-interpreted ad-nauseam people are losing sight of what the style really means. Can you explain that and give us a sense of what it is that is being lost and how we can preserve it?
AS: Great question. When we talk about Ivy style we are talking about a quite specific time and place in the history of menswear. One may say its heyday is encapsulated within a time frame; a beginning and ending. Within that time frame there was a standard and style associated with it. I feel that even though it’s important for us to express ourselves stylistically we also need to respect the foundation of what was created back then. At some point I feel some outfits go astray from traditional Ivy style attire and become something completely new containing maybe one small aspect of the Ivy culture. This to me becomes an entirely new style and has no direct name. I myself learned over a long period of time and realized it’s not the easiest task to understand a style etiquette that I did not live through. With that said I feel that it would really help if those of us with information could mention it more in our content to help newcomers know some basics and where to find them. In that post I wanted to open up the conversation and get people to talk about what they considered to be the essentials of Ivy style. I noticed there where many different accessories and articles of clothing people found had importance, yet it sits in a comment on one post rather than continually being mentioned throughout multiple posts and creating a constant dialogue. What is being lost is the awareness of the brands who have been, and still are, making clothing associated with Ivy style and the stylistic approach as to how the garments should fit and be worn together.
PM: Ultimately I think you’re saying that it is on all of us – the Ivy enthusiasts – to protect the style and to ensure that it gets carried into the 21st century with its core features intact. What do you think it will take to get more Americans to appreciate the rich fashion history to which they are heir? Will they have to, finally, forget about Italian fashion brands to learn to love their own home-grown style?
AS: I believe that all things translate best with sincerity and that is what it will take. As long as people are sharing and wearing the great things the Ivy clothing brands made the more and more people will be attracted to this American legacy. I don’t think this is for everyone though, It’s there for those who are simply interested in it. If people choose, say, Italian style then it’s their choice to dress how they please. I don’t judge style, I just stick to what I believe looks best on me and is well made. What I can say is if you are interested in Ivy style, then when you are looking for a sport coat, please look at the American brands who created the staple relaxed look Americans love, featuring the 3/2 roll, soft shouldered, un-darted coat with patch pockets versus an Italian slim fit, darted, two button coat made by an Italian brand. Go to the source of the culture and support those who made it possible.
PM: What is the future of Ivy in the fashion world? Should there be room for innovation and re-interpretation of the aesthetic for the 21st century? If so, who do you think is doing the best job of creating an Ivy style for the next few decades?
AS: The future of Ivy style in the fashion world is exactly how we see it today. We see some purists continuing to carry on the traditions who lived through that era. We see some people with a good understanding of the style and we see some people who are still discovering it trying to understand the details and culture of the style. The future is non-linear but I do see it growing and evolving with every new day. I think in the fashion world Ivy style is always playing a roll in the influence of future menswear, whether deliberately or unintentionally. I do feel there should be room for innovation because innovation is what the purveyors of Ivy style were doing in the first place. The difference again is that we are talking about fashion that was created many years ago. The future for some is that it should stay the same and for others is that it should be opened for interpretation. When it comes to interpretation it’s a fine line to walk. But interpretation and deconstruction are two different things. We must truly understand the culture before we decide something that took many years to build needs something added or changed. Remember, Ivy style was created by some of the best American tailors who spent many years thinking of the best way a man can dress. So when I say I’m opened to interpretation I think it must be approached with the utmost respect. I also want to point out that in our current casual dress code people should not feel that being dressed up in a sport coat, tie, trousers and loafers is the only thing that Ivy students wore. Casual Ivy can definitely be part of the future for the younger generations. As for people that are doing the best job for creating Ivy style for the next century I would say first and foremost the people who have always been doing it such as Brooks Brothers, J. Press, O’Connells, Ben Silver, Mercer and Sons, and much more are still around and still driving the style forward. As for people I have recently found to be doing great things; the folks at Drake’s and Spier & Mackay.
PM: Anyone who follows your social media presence knows that you have a soft spot for vintage Ivy clothes, shoes, and accessories. Is there a vintage grail item that you would love to have in your collection but haven’t found yet?
AS: I’m on the hunt for a pair of Alden for Brooks Brothers Hand Sewn Color 8 Shell Cordovan Penny Loafers Made in USA – Size 8.5.