Argentinian-born menswear designer Lucio Castro is having a very good year.
In addition to launching his own e-commerce shop, he's received his first major order from Saks Fifth Avenue, which is currently snapping up designs by hot young designers as part of its efforts to attract a cooler clientele.
Perhaps best of all, Castro found himself in the third group of designers to enter the CFDA Fashion Incubator, a mentorship program that has helped launch the careers of designers like Public School and Prabal Gurung.
Because Castro launched his eponymous line just three years ago, it may seem like he's achieved near-overnight success. But Castro has spent over a decade in the industry honing his skills, starting with his time as a BFA student at Parsons in 1999. He would go on to stints with Marc Jacobs, where he learned to appreciate the "glamorous" side of fashion, as well as DKNY Jeans and Armani Exchange, where he served as menswear director for six years.
Though Castro designed womenswear throughout his time at Parsons -- his final collection was even nominated for Designer of the Year, an award won in the past by the likes of Jacobs and Proenza Schouler -- he ultimately felt menswear was the most logical place to start his own business. "It's in my business plan to do womenswear, and I want to do it," he explains. "But to me, clothing is so much about the experience wearing it that I feel if I wear something, I feel like I can understand it and I can design for it."
"If I don't wear it, I feel like I don't have that sense of how that garment is experienced," he continues. "I can see how this gown is beautiful, let's add feathers, whatever, but it feels disconnected to my experience of wearing the clothes and to me that's always been a huge part of how something is worn, how is it experienced in life -- how do you eat in it, how do you go out in it, how do you hug someone in it."
As an independent brand, Castro found success early: His very first pitch email to a retailer was sent to Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony, who picked up his line immediately. "Which was amazing of course," Castro says. "But also, on the other hand, I became like Opening Ceremony. It was my showroom and my stores. So I always wanted to open another as well, I wanted to expand it and open it to a wider range so it wasn't so niche."
Cue the opening of his own online boutique, and the aforementioned Saks buy, which Castro is particularly excited about, as it will expose his designs to a much broader audience. When Castro officially enters the CFDA Incubator space later this year, he'll begin working on a business plan through NYU courses.
"They help you build the business plan and that's been amazing," he says. "They really help you look at your brand, how it's working, where do you want to be in two years or five years."
Beyond that, Castro is already excited about sharing a workspace with the other Incubator designers. He's worked from a studio in Brooklyn for the past two years, which he enjoys but calls "isolating." Working alongside such different designers has inspired new creativity in Castro. "There's a community that's really rich and it makes a lot of the ideas that are floating around much more interesting to me," he says.
Yet fashion design wasn't Castro's first love. In Argentina, he went to school for medicine before adding a second degree in filmmaking and directing. In fact, Castro is an avid cinema fan -- by his estimates, he watches at least one movie a day -- and has produced six short films of his own.
"It influences everything that I do clothes-wise, it's such a big part of my vocabulary," he says. "When I think of a garment, it has so many references to movies that I've seen -- some very conscious because I saw it last night, some are unconscious and I realize later that oh wait, I like this because of that -- so it's very, very linked."
Despite his early recognition as a menswear designer, Castro admits there are challenges to the field. There's the complaint carried by many menswear designers: That, because there are no dedicated menswear shows during or before the market period, brands are forced to show their designs after they've already sold.
And then, according to Castro, there's the fact that menswear doesn't photograph in the same exciting way that womenswear does, which means getting that coveted celebrity placement -- at the Met Ball, say, or a movie premiere -- doesn't carry as much weight. "Menswear is all about the fit, the touch, the hand feel [...] those two things are hard to photograph," he explains.
Still, Castro does have celebrity fans. Drake has worn his clothes twice in the past year, and Paul Rudd picked his designs for a stop on the Anchorman II media tour. Film buff that he is, he has a few dream clients in mind -- he specifically mentions Chris O'Dowd and Tom Waits on the music front -- but is also just happy to have non-celebrities wear his clothes. "When you create something and somebody decides to wear it, it's such a nice thing that happens, it's almost like your message is getting across," he says. "So it's really strange to reject that, you know?"
Castro sees his customer as being similar to himself: A man with a connection to the art world, possibly through film, who enjoys reading and reaching out intellectually. "He also has a personality, he doesn't want to wear stuff that will speak louder than himself," he adds.
One thing that makes Castro stand out as a budding designer is his staunch commitment to a completely transparent production process. From the farmers from whom he sources his cotton, to the Vietnamese tailors who sew his garments, to the Nepalese and Indian women who make his buttons, he knows where every element of his garments originated and the stories of the people who made them.
"There's an idea in fashion that when you buy a new shirt and it comes in a bag that it's been untouched, [that] a machine made it, but actually 1,000 people touched it," he explains. "I like that process to be exposed in a way that I want to be proud that my garments are made in really good conditions by really great people."
He's careful to explain that this doesn't always mean his garments are 100 percent organic -- there's a political process involved with certification, he says, that makes it complicated for many poorer manufacturers to obtain it -- but that isn't what's important to him, anyway. "It's more about that than just buying 100 percent organic cotton and feeling good about it," he says.
Those unique elements don't always work out either. There's a story about black buttons, made from lava stone that had been excavated from a ruined village site by a Guatemalan man determined to turn a volcanic disaster into profit for a struggling school. It's a beautiful story, and so were the buttons -- there was just one major problem.
"I didn't use them in the end," Castro says with a tinge of regret, "because they were impossible to wash in the machine -- they were really hard, but really fragile -- and they were dyeing the clothes because lava also has ash inside, so after awhile it started leaving black around the buttons."
If you're into metaphors, these buttons provide a good one for Castro's line: There's beauty with a cinematic backstory, a philanthropic purpose and a determination to succeed. Castro is intent on putting those buttons on a garment eventually.