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Steven Alan Tells Us How He Went From Retailer to Designer As He Expands His Empire to Include Eyewear

After perusing his brand-new eyewear collection (which just launched in L.A.), we sat down with Alan to discuss his transition from a retailer to a designer, how his iconic reverse seam shirt came about, and launching eyewear without a licensee.

On Saturday, we decided to ignore the adage about men not making passes at girls wearing glasses to attend the launch of Steven Alan’s optical line at the designer’s Los Angeles-La Brea store.

The store is a lot like your very cool friend’s apartment: it's perfectly stocked with everything you didn’t know you desperately wanted, from a Daryl K zip-up jumper, to Postalco notebooks, to Dandelion chocolate bars, to--of course--Alan’s modern interpretations of traditional American mens and womenswear. The New York-based designer/retailer’s eyewear line fits his general aesthetic, comprised of very classic, almost architectural frames, but with color options and small details that modernize them. Perusing the frames—tucked into the front corner of the store between Lafco Bath Soap and Alan’s Reverse Seam Shirt—we wondered why we hadn’t channeled Daria years ago.

Alan sat down with us to discuss his transition from a retailer to a designer, how his iconic reverse seam shirt came about, and launching eyewear without a licensee.

Fashionista: Everything that is not you in the store fits really well with your brand. How do you decide what to carry? Steven Alan: Well, the first thing we did was have a multi-brand store. The second thing we did was represent designers in our showroom. The third thing we did was make our own stuff in our showroom. We still do all three things. [Alan opened his first retail store in 1994, began representing designers in 1996, and launched his first collection three years later.] There are a lot of commercially successful brands that we would never carry because I just don’t relate to them. They lack the soul that is interesting to me. It is not that a designer has to be small—some of the designers we carry are bigger—but they all feel independent to me. And a lot of the designers that we sell, we actually represent.

Do you still take on new designers? We do take on new designers, a few each season. Our showroom has a cap of 20 designers, so it just depends on availability.

How did you move from being a retailer and curator to a designer? When I started making clothes, I didn’t really have a design background. I would just buy a bunch of old shirts and bring them to the factory and say, “I like this collar, I like this cuff” and kind of piece together what I wanted that way. I would just end up with something. Hopefully I would be happy with it—of course, sometimes I wouldn’t be.

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Your Reverse Seam Shirt has become iconic. How did it come about? That was the first signature shirt we did. I knew I wanted to have the seam on the outside, and I wanted the collar to be kind of stitched so that it would stay down. I wanted the pocket to be narrow. So the first time I got it back, the pocket was on the inside and the seam was kind of twisted. When I get a sample back, I like to wear it a lot because before I correct something, I like to know what I’m correcting. Every shirt that we have done from that point on, we have always had some detail on it that is sort of a signature detail without having our logo on it. Is it shorter than traditional men’s dress shirts by design? I like that it doesn’t have to be worn tucked in. I’m short. So if I would wear an American men’s shirt it would be down to here [points at mid-thigh] and just look silly. I would have to take my shirts to the tailor and have them shortened. I designed the Reverse Seam to be what I think is the perfect length to wear [untucked]. We do make some shirts that are dressier that are meant to be worn [tucked], but the Reverse Seam in general can be worn [untucked] at an appropriate length.

Talk a little bit about your production process. For us, it really starts with the materials—the fabric is hugely important—and the cut. Those are the most important things, before we even start to think about how we are going to differentiate them. We work with mostly Japanese mills. Besides the pattern that is on the fabric, the actual way that it is constructed is something we spend a lot of time on.

How difficult was it to start designing for women? Designing the women’s line was more challenging because it completely changes every season. In the beginning, we approached it very much like the men’s line because I did men’s first. With [menswear], the difference between each season is very subtle. But with the women’s line, buyers would come in for the new season and say, I already saw this. I would say no, you saw a version of this that was in cotton, but this one is in silk, and this one is a little longer. With the men’s line, these subtle changes were standard. But with [womenswear], it forced us to really rethink things. A lot of the materials are the same but then, for example, we have this new lace dress

—I was definitely eyeing that earlier. We don’t have anything approaching that in the men’s line.

And now your optical line is available here [in the Los Angeles store]. Growing up, I hated wearing glasses because I thought they made me look too nerdy. Frames are so much more chic today. I’ve always worn glasses. I always tended to buy old frames because I preferred the hardware and the hinges on them to the newer stuff. For me it was exciting to be able to make my own [frames] in the style I have always loved and sell them myself because that’s not normally how it is done with designers. Typically, some other company designs [the frames], they license your name, sell them at optical stores, and pay you a royalty or something. We don’t wholesale [our frames], so you can only get them [at my stores] or on the website.

Click through to see more of the very cool eyewear.