Clean Structures: The Elevated Simplicity of Lucio Castro

by Long Nguyen

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Photographed by Christopher Lane
“It’s probably what every design student wants to do ultimately, to design something that represents what he or she is about,” says designer Lucio Castro, referring to the fact that he left behind a successful career at a big fashion house to strike out on his own for Fall 2011. “I had worked in the industry for a long time and was ready to start my own business. It wasn’t scary at all; it was exciting. I’m not attached to money or material things, so I wasn’t scared to let some luxuries go and accommodate my budget. Doing what I love is way more important to me than having a beach house. Both would be ideal, however.” Castro flashes an impish smile.

We sit in Castro’s studio, a cramped third floor walkup that he shares with a handbag designer. His studio is located in an industrial loft building on Nassau Avenue on the borderline of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. In the middle of the studio sits a large rectangular wood table surrounded by racks of clothes. Behind a large desk, in the middle of the studio, a stairway leads to a mezzanine level used as storage for garments wrapped in clear plastic, readied for shipment. The wood table overflows with swatches, sketches, buttons, books, photocopied lookbooks, and snapshots of Castro’s upcoming Spring 2013 collection that must be finished and sent to Paris for the sales season debut.

Fashion is one of the most difficult businesses to break into—an industry that requires the utmost personal perseverance and financial resilience simply to survive from one season to the next. And that’s only if one has the talent to attract people to one’s work and sell clothes. In my experiences over the years as a magazine editor, I have seen my fair share of successes and failures, each with their own particular anecdotes. I admire those who become inculcated into the pantheon of fashion due to their unwavering focus and determination. Raf Simons’ first show was in a basement off the Bastille, Alexander McQueen burst onto the scene with his Highland Rape show, Hedi Slimane quietly debuted his YSL men’s collection, and Tom Ford’s first collection for Gucci were began auspiciously. Castro’s launch brings these collections to mind.

But how does one get to the launchpad? “Mainly with personal savings,” jokes the Buenos Aires native, who was born in 1975 into a family who immigrated to Argentina in the ’30s. “I grew in a household made up of a Spanish telenovela actress mother and an Italian nuclear-physicist father. As I was an only child, we were more like a trio than a regular family. My parents were film buffs and they took me to see really great films when I was very young. Even though they were very different and came from different worlds, they found a common place in chess. They would play chess all day long—it was their secret ceremony.”

While Castro’s parents taught him intellectual propriety and gave him a cultural crash course, it was another family member who taught him about humility and instilled in him an appreciation for beauty and the finer things in life. “I remember being taken care of by my maternal grandmother Celia—I have her name tattooed on my chest—while my mother was working on acting jobs,” Castro recalls. “My grandma came very young to Argentina from a very poor family in Galicia, Spain, and she had a very hard life, but with me she opened up and became fragile, like a little girl. We were best friends. I was born when she was 68 years old, and I always thought how cool it was to get a new best friend at that age. And her house, which was built by my grandfather in the ’30s in Italian Rationalist style—and which façade I engraved in all the metal buttons of my line—was a constant playground. One of my favorite parts of her house was the main bedroom that she used to share with my grandfather until his death in 1970. When I was born she was already sleeping in the second bedroom, so to me this was natural, but now I find it quite moving that she could not sleep on the same bed that she shared with her husband for so long after his death.”

It was also in this bedroom that Castro discovered fashion. “The main bedroom was closed off, and I loved to go there and look inside the closet where my grandmother kept all my grandfather’s clothes, intact, hanging from the same hangers, waiting to be worn. This was my first real encounter with clothes. I was very intrigued to know this man, my grandfather, and I could not ask my grandmother about him because we were not really talking about feelings, so my only chance was to try to guess who he was by his clothes. The neck stains, the smells, the length of the pants. Clothes became the intriguing negative of a man I did not know. This is still, I think, the reason why I love clothes.”

As Castro began to notice clothes, Buenos Aires began to tell him things about people’s personal styles. “In the ’70s and ’80s, Argentina was marked by the transition from a military government to a democracy. Still, the fashion was very ‘Western,’ and similar to what you would have found in the U.S. or Europe at that time. But Buenos Aires had, and still has, a very interesting relationship with the ‘West.’ Most Argentinians are second or third-generation European immigrants and that creates a sense of melancholy and loss, which is very characteristic of our culture. Tango completely exemplifies that. In my case, I think that my aesthetic is somewhat defined by embracing the aspirational distortion that is a part of melancholy. A melancholic person dreams of something that he or she feels they cannot re-create anymore. I like the idea of trying to re-create something that you really love and then accept all the differences and new exciting distortions that come up in this attempt.”

In 1999, Castro graduated from the University of Buenos Aires with a degree in Film, having concurrently studied medicine. “I studied medicine because my father was a scientist, and he felt that anything but science was banal. I studied medicine for five years, but during my second year as a graduate student, I enrolled in film school and graduated after three years—while still in med school.”

Castro then moved to New York and enrolled at Parsons to study fashion design, where he learned the technical aspects of pattern, cutting, and sewing. “For my thesis, I did a women’s wear collection, because my senior design instructor had a great knowledge in dresses, and I wanted to learn about it. I had done almost exclusively menswear collections throughout my years at Parsons. I also took tailoring and shoe design courses. For the women’s wear collection, I was nominated for Designer of the Year. It was based on this vintage silver ring I found that was very simple and had loose diamonds inside. You could hear them when you shook the ring, but you could not see them. I liked this idea of hidden luxury, which is actually a very “menswear” idea—what matters are the details. The silhouettes can stay simple and approachable. This still defines my aesthetic.”

Today, intricate detailing can be found on a Lucio Castro single-button light wool cotton short cut slim suit: the buttons are made in Ecuador from tagua palm seeds, which were used before the age of synthetic buttons. A light brown cotton linen zippered blouson incorporates a front flap closed with coconut buttons. And a gray leather zippered blouson utilizes fine line windowpane quilting—invisible at a distance—which makes the jacket thin and lightweight.

After graduating from Parsons, Castro spent a year working at Marc Jacobs, then moved over to DKNY Jeans, and then spent six years with A/X Armani Exchange, where he became the Men’s Design Director. Finally, in mid-2011, he struck out on his own. “At A/X, all our designs and samples were personally corrected and revised by Giorgio Armani and his patternmakers—the same he’s been using for many years. So the technical knowledge was endless. I learned a lot about what men like to wear. And I learned a lot about fit. For example, I dedicated a huge amount of time to perfect the fit on my T-shirts, which are a staple of menswear, and I feel that it’s usually disregarded. People talk about the fit of a tailored jacket but few talk about the right fit of a T-shirt.”

With his experiences at those major houses in hand, Castro was ready to make a name for himself. But, first he had to differentiate his label from the hordes. “My fabrics are very expensive, and fabric-sourcing is perhaps the most time-consuming part of my job,” Castro says about the uniqueness of his line. “They are mainly Japanese, Italian, or Indian organic. And I think that a great fit in a great fabric is already enough, but I still do believe in subtle and hidden detailing. All my rib trims are developed and produced in the UK with an amazing technician based there. My buttons are ethically made in workshops in Ecuador, Nepal, and India.”

Castro’s concepts behind his label had been brewing for some time. He admits he began thinking about his first collection a year before quitting A/X. The resulting collection fused elements of the intellectual rigidity his parents had instilled in him, and the common sense of his grandmother. “The first collection was based on Fernand Deligny, a French educator and philosopher who came up with the term ‘elevated simplicity,’” Castro says. “This term really described what I wanted my first collection to be. Elevated, because each fabric was of great quality, and simple, because I was interested in the idea of ‘wearability’ in menswear.”

Castro’s interest in concepts driven by cultural touchstones continues into this year’s Fall collection. “Fall’s concept is based in Aki Kaurismaki, a Finnish film director whose movies are deceivingly simple, but contain a lot of subtle details,” says Castro. “He also states that he writes and directs his movies drunk, but he edits them sober—that’s why the collection is called ‘Last Call.’ His movies are quirky, and I think that for Fall I allowed myself to be a bit quirkier, especially in the use of color and fabric. I made a short film for Fall ’12 in collaboration with Jarrah Gurie, and we used performance artist Run Shayo. It follows Run after he leaves a bar at 4 a.m. until he wakes up sleeping on a diving board by an empty pool in Bear Mountain. Film and fashion completely feed off each other for me. They both carry a narrative, they are both subscribed to a context and they both, almost always, talk about people.”

Narrative is central not only to Castro’s conception of his collection but there is also a story to each specific garment. Inspiration like the pedagogue Deligny or Kaurismaki’s films aside, the clothes in the first two collections are very linear in silhouette and the chosen fabrics reinforce this sense of structure. The Fall presentation on the roof deck of the Hotel Rivington this past February contained a short, one-button cotton jacket with a contrasting shawl collar; light gray cotton jeans; four-pocketed olive and deep navy heavy-cotton suits with sharp cuts and strong shoulders; wool polo knits with contrasting cable sleeves and matching pants; and a navy blue slim lapel single-breasted suit with a grey tie made with raw threads.

Modernity in design is a process of sloughing off excess. The straightforward and linear silhouettes of Castro’s clothes allow customers to appreciate how each garment is made. “I think that when you present a clean structure other details are enhanced and are enabled to flourish,” says Castro. “It’s like in cooking when you have a really great ingredient and you want to present it as purely as possible. My fabrics and fit are very special and, to me, it’s important that they are not obscured by a complicated design.”

Case in point: a light blue denim jacket from the first collection hangs near me on a rack in his studio. The low patch pockets resemble those of a safari jacket rather than a jean jacket. Instead of patch pockets on the chest, there are large, functional pockets below the waist. Lacking pomposity, the clothes contain fine details like organic fabrics. This jacket personifies what precisely attracts customers to Castro’s clothes.

Philip Salem is the owner and buyer of Owen NYC, a designer fashion boutique in the center of the Meatpacking District shopping arcade, which also carries Tim Hamilton, Robert Geller, Patrik Ervell, and Timo Weiland on the men’s side. Salem bought Castro’s collection from the Opening Ceremony showroom, and says that the line sells well. “I love the great tailored fit and the contrasting colors that really demonstrate a structured fit that is dominant now,” Salem says. “The leather quilted jacket, the nylon jackets, the fitted button shirts, and the range of T-shirts in different colors really cater to the diverse clientele that come into the shop. The knitwear are great sellers, as well. It’s really the kind of clothes that a customer would want to have for a long time.”

And it’s this longevity that Castro strives for, not only in style, but in quality. He considers the endurance of a quality product as a way to be conscious of the environment.            “I think the best and most conscious way to consume is to buy the very expensive products that can last for a very long time,” Castro says, “like well made leather shoes with wood platforms. Real fur as opposed to hazardous fake fur that has all the pretenses of caring, but, in reality, is really detrimental. That’s why I use real leather, which is actually a byproduct of the meat industry in Argentina. The leather there is top quality and so is the handling and manufacturing. For me the ethical production means that I feel responsible in every aspect of the construction of my garments. It is made in a place that is both specialized and also careful of the environment. I am an independent designer and I know how hard can that be, so that’s why I like to support other independent factories and workshops. It also places more importance in each garment and each detail. It also allows me to control each part of the process.”

For Castro, it all comes back to culture and inspiration. He lists off his muses, which range far and wide, from the very obscure to the widely celebrated: Martin Margiela (the designer), APC, “what old people wear at retirement houses,” outsider artists, The Museum of Everything, Louise Bourgeois, Sigurdur Gudmundsson, Robert Bresson, Kaurismaki, Woody Allen, JD Salinger, Raymond Roussel, Cesar Aira. “Of course there are millions of influences,” says Castro. “Maybe the most direct are the ‘looks’ of the actors in films from the Nouvelle Vague.”

In the end, one thing ties together all the influences and feelings of Castro’s clothes: subtlety. “My clothes are not about loud noise,” Castro says. “They have a sound but you have to get close to them to hear it.”

 

Photography: Christopher Lane at ChristopherLane.com.

Style Director: Long Nguyen.

Assistant Fashion Editor:  ZaQuan Champ.

Models: Georgeo Frazier, Michael Grillone, Justin Hopwood, and Jason Morgan for SoulArtistManagement.com, New York.