Frank Muytjens

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen

Frank Muytjens
 

Frank Muytjens, New York 2015


 

A conversation with Frank Muytjens, J.Crew’s menswear master, about his life, work and inspiration.
 

Mart Engelen: You were born and raised in the Netherlands and I think you
moved to New York in 1994?
Frank Muytjens: Correct.
ME: Did you find it difficult to adjust to the American way of life when you arrived in New York?
FM: Actually it felt really good. I’ve always liked the mentality of New Yorkers. They are always polite and interested in what you do. The whole vibe here is
that you get plenty of chances, everybody is supportive and they like you to succeed and bring innovative things to the table. So that made it easy for me to adjust. But there were a few things I had to adapt to. For instance, the Dutch are very direct: I had to learn to cushion that a little bit: not just saying what you want but putting it in a roundabout kind of way. I now think this is a nice way to deal with issues. It makes things easier and more fluid.
ME: What exactly is the ‘American way of life’?
FM: People want you to be innovative and to stick your neck out. In Dutch
there is a saying: “Just act normal, that’s crazy enough as it is!” That doesn’t work here. You need to be a little crazy, you can’t be normal. You have to bring a little extra to succeed. That’s what I’ve always liked about living here.
ME: Is that still true today?
FM: Oh yes. Absolutely. Especially in my job. You need to be innovative
and on your toes at all time. Well, that makes you a mature and richer person. Because you are always learning. I am still learning and that’s something that will never change. If you give that up and think you are there, you’ll fail.
ME: Where do you get your inspiration every time you design a new collection
for J.Crew? Does art play a role in that?
FM: Art, nature, photography, architecture all play an important role. I always go back to the same sources but we are always able to put a new spin on them. Fashion history is also important in menswear. So it’s a combination of influences from different fields.
ME: You previously worked at Ralph Lauren, where heritage plays a very
important role. Did you introduce that when you started at J.Crew?
FM: Well, I think it’s important to combine it with a more modern element.
For example, I think it’s a challenge to bring a vintage garment from the past— with so much history—into the present. You update things, you don’t want it to become too ‘costume-y’. So we redesign it in a luxurious fabric, we change
the fit, etc., etc.
ME: Talking about art. Who are your favourite artists?
FM: Well, there are quiet a few: Jasper Johns, Robert Longo, Brancusi, Kiefer, Richter, Picasso, Twombly. All the guys in fact who work in a tactile kind of element. There are so many! In architecture I really like Le Corbusier. I drew a lot of inspiration for the 2016 spring collection from John Lautner. And there’s another architect, his name is Mickey Muennig. Almost all his houses are in Big Sur, California: everything made of redwoods. Still organic but in a more bohemian kind of way.
ME: Can you explain the new phenomenon of artists becoming fashionable
and fashion using art for its own benefit? Like LVMH whose new museum recently opened in Paris and the Prada family who opened their museum in Milan.
FM: That’s a difficult question.
ME: How do you look at it?
FM: Well, art and architecture are an emotion, a feeling and a passion that
inspire me. A while ago I saw a huge exhibition by Anselm Kiefer here in New York. I really loved it. Actually the first time I saw his work was at an exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1985 and I have been a real fan ever since. And to me it’s about the emotional process…I love visiting creative spaces like Castiglioni’s studio in Milan or Brancusi’s studio in Paris or even Rembrand’s house in Amsterdam. The history and energy are inspiring.
ME: How do you use this inspiration?
FM: Colour palettes, textures. It shapes my thought process. I look at my
fabrics in a different way. If I am inspired by Jasper Johns you will see a lot that is tactile. A black-and-white, greyish kind of tweed, etc.
ME: I have the impression that, say, twenty years ago fashion photography was a creative process and an art form. But we’ve kind of lost that since digitisation. And so inspiration had to come from somewhere else, and that was art, architecture, etc.
FM: That could certainly be one of the reasons.
ME: You mentioned in another interview that you are curating and editing all
the time. Meaning?
FM: We do that on different levels. It starts when we design a collection. The line arrives here in our offices and there are racks and racks of clothes. That’s where the editing starts. And we design more than we need. What you finally see in the stores is just a small percentage of the line we develop. But we have to give ourselves the creative freedom to circle back to those original concepts. And to make sure that those concepts come about. And to carry them through all the way to the stores. We also have different levels of stores. So we have to edit differently for every store.
ME: Where will J.Crew be creatively and visually three years from now?
FM: Well, it’s menswear. It’s in flux but things don’t change too often in
menswear and I wouldn’t want them to.
ME: What do you mean by ‘change’?
FM: I think that as a brand you need to know who you are and who your
customer is. We don’t want to alienate our customers by drastically changing direction every
season but at the same time we have to give them something new and they also need to know what to expect from us. We have to entice them when they enter the store. You can only do that if you take small steps. But we also have really great collaborations with outside brands like Macintosh and Alden, which give everything an extra layer.
ME: Thank you for this conversation.
FM: It was a pleasure.
 
—Copyright 2015 Mart Engelen
 
 
 

Frank Muytjens
 

Frank Muytjens, New York 2015