By Yang-Yi Goh | Photographs by Paul Wax
MATT SINGER SELLS himself for a living. This is not to suggest he is a gigolo; neither is it meant to infer that he is a “sell-out” of some kind, trading in his artistic merit for a six-figure check. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Since launching his eponymous label in 2009, the 40-year-old, New York-based designer has cultivated an aesthetic imbued so strongly with his own personality and idiosyncrasies that his products are effectively an extension of his being. The ultimate objective, Singer says, is to develop a kind of distinct signature style that few—if any—stateside brands have fostered.
“With Paul Smith, as an English brand, you can really feel his hand when you look at his products or enter one of his shops,” Singer says of the celebrated British designer. “I don’t think an American version of that exists, and I certainly aspire to create that world.”
Thus far, Singer has populated his emerging world with a small, eclectic array of products—in his online shop, oxford shirts and canvas briefcases mingle freely amongst suede backgammon sets, vintage watches, and hand-shaped coasters that read, “PUT IT THERE PAL.” His style is an eccentric spin on American prep, but his merchandise manages to refrain from being overly twee. Singer does not abide by the customary seasonal structure the fashion industry imposes upon itself; there are no “Fall/Winter” or “Spring/Summer” collections to be found. Instead, new items simply appear as soon as they are ready to be sold, and remain until there are none left to be had.
This tendency to experiment and break away from conventional business models developed during Singer’s nine-year stint with Jack Spade, the wildly successful label he helped found with Andy Spade.
“The great luxury I had was working for an incredibly creative boss like Andy Spade,” Singer says. “He was willing to question every sort of traditional accepted path. When people would say, ‘You have to put products in your window displays,’ or ‘You have to do X and Y,’ we’d go in a completely different direction.
“Having a really creative leader like that, who had a vision and allowed you to explore, allowed me to learn a lot and not be afraid to make some errors. It was the greatest opportunity I ever had to go, ‘What do you think about this idea?’ and almost always hear, ‘I think it’s fantastic, go ahead and do it.’”
Nowhere is Singer’s willingness to explore new ideas more on display than his website. The site is a curated reflection of his offbeat vision, featuring a handful of his favorite short films; a monthly selection of books from Idlewild Books, a local independent bookshop; and a collaborative project with eyewear designer Selima Salaun, which raises money for various art organizations and nonprofits.
“I don’t have a retail store, so the site became my way of presenting what Matt Singer looks like as a brand and a way to interact with people,” he says. “The site allows me to give back, in a small way, and to gather all the things I’m influenced by.”
While creating a strong brand identity is important to Singer, it doesn’t outweigh the importance of having well made, high quality products. With his shirts and bags, Singer’s signature touches and quirky style are present, but they don’t hit you over the head in a gaudy way.
“I don’t respond to details for details sake,” Singer says. “I don’t want to do a contrast stitch on a button hole because it would just seem contrived to me. I kind of want those style components to be a bit quieter – maybe only the owner knows about that blind embossing on the inside of the belt. With a shirt, I’ll focus on the placket and the pocket shape and a hand-turned collar.”
Rather than ostentatious detailing, Singer turns his attentions instead to the materials and manufacturing process. His bags, for instance, feature wax cotton handles from a seventh-generation family-owned company, and nearly all of his products are made in America.
“I try to celebrate the craft and the tradition of how things are made and share as much as I can about what materials and manufacturing I use,” he says. “You have to do things in a way that resonates with you. And I think that if you do that and you’re honest in your conviction, people will see that and respond to your work.”
People are certainly responding to Singer’s work. He beams while describing a thank-you note from one of his customers—the ultimate signifier of success for a man who wants nothing more than to make something, whether it’s a bag or a backgammon set, that “could become somebody’s favorite.”
One of Singer’s favorite things and biggest inspirations is ‘60s-era space exploration—his label features a model of the solar system with the sun as a tetherball, and Soviet space dogs are a recurring motif in a few of his products. It speaks, in many ways, to his overall philosophy in both business and life.
“There are some beautiful things about what that period was like,” he says of the Space Race. “The Russians were trying to beat the U.S. [to the Moon], so they were trying out all sorts of crazy stuff.
“I think that’s what the space thing does for me: It’s about putting yourself out there and challenging convention and trying things that aren’t necessarily safe. It’s about doing things in your own way.”
For more information on Matt Singer, visit http://www.mattsinger.net/