Not your grandfather’s brand? For Reid Baker, it actually is, given that the namesake of the brand is his family patriarch. Along with partner Ines Amorim, they bonded, among other things, over their love for stylish older Italian gentlemen while studying at Milan’s Domus Academy. After working for the likes of Haider Ackermann, Yang Li and Wooyoungmi, they went solo – or duo, as it were – in 2016 with Ernest W. Baker, a brand in which they strive to embrace their vision of an androgynous brand with a penchant for menswear, while creating a “farm-to-table” vision of fashion production by basing themselves in Portugal, Amorim’s homeland but also a vibrant European production region for textile and leathers. For the coming summer, they opened the doors between time with a collection inspired by the conversations Reid Baker had with his grandfather over lockdown, which also became the source material for the season’s film.
For spring 2021, Ernest W. Baker takes a more youthful approach, with a school uniform feel to the silhouettes. Previously, you described a more mature man. What changed?
In March and April, we spent a lot of time watching family movies of Reid’s grandfather, father and his childhood. Reflecting on the world situation at that time, we felt connected to the innocence, simplicity and naivety in the videos. Many of our previous collections were inspired by the very old, and we felt there were parallels between the very old and the very young.
For a lot of people, us included, the epidemic was a big awakening to what is really important. Being away from immediate family, or even when they were nearby, being unable to physically be with them really pushed this feeling of family. You see how important that is and how beautiful it is. Everything stopped, life sort of stopped and it was nice to be looking at these old family videos and seeing, really seeing Reid’s father, Reid’s grandfather instead of being half-watching, half thinking about finishing a collection, needing to follow up on something. It was beautiful to be able to pause, really soak this in and speak with him, interviewing him.
The video was very personal for Reid, an opportunity to ask his grandfather meaningful questions and reconnect in a deep way with him. As time went on, we felt it was quite inspirational to just hear a grandfather giving advice to a grandchild, and we explored the contrast between childhood and an older man reflecting on his path.
So this season nods to the circle of life – lessons passed from grandfather to grandson, reflections, memories and regrets, mistakes and good deeds – and this position of learning that we need to put ourselves in to grow. Not nostalgia, then, in either this collection or even naming the brand after Reid’s grandfather?
Our inspiration is formed from the past, yet reinterpreted with the goal of making our designs more relevant for a contemporary time. We love this challenge, and it has been the intention for all our collections.
The love that we received from our grandparents has inspired us to look at their histories to understand where they came from. Looking back at old family albums has been done out of enjoyment, passion and to pass on all the good that was given to us.
From the inception of the brand, it didn’t feel natural to have either of our names on it. There was something about giving it our names, and for us to be the face of it, that we didn’t love. We wanted the work to speak for itself and for the brand, not held down by our names and shortcomings.
It’s less intentional to hide than, say, Margiela, but it’s nice to be behind the scenes, creating a character, a figure and have it grow bigger than two individual people.
Us being in fashion felt a bit strange because growing up, we’d never related to the image of what fashion was. We’ve always been the outsider, so we didn’t feel that we could really be a part of it. Of course, now we’re making this world that we’re developing and it’s not glamorous per se. It’s stripped down to what we see as the essentials of expressing something personal and honest. In terms of garments, they’re stripped back to their most classic shapes, with simple yet expressive details.
So while the brand is named after Reid’s grandfather, a real person, we have moved beyond him to create a character who represents the values of simplicity and humility that he has practiced in his personal and professional life, a character that will evolve as times change and grow as we do. What felt like the most striking advice he was giving?
“Love your neighbours.” This simple, sage advice that Ernest has embodied throughout his life is more relevant than ever, as the whole world is connected and in effect our neighbour. We don’t interview our families often, so to hear honest advice from him in very simple terms was quite profound and very basic at the same time. The last few months have shown how our behavior can have such a powerful and direct impact on both those around us and those indirectly around us as well. We have a responsibility to our neighbors.
In the context of our work, we are not just making garments for profit. We want to create something special, unique and that can be shared with other people, even throughout time. The thing about having an authentic, strong identity and being sure of what we want to express is that you’re not going to hit the current moment of life. You’re transcending to the future, addressing a future customer who will recognize the work you’ve put in your work over time.
For us, making luxury clothing was incidental to appreciating good quality fabrics, nice finishings and clever little ideas that made the garments last longer and be enjoyed the whole while. We didn’t set out to partake in any elitist visions and have always tried to make our brand as democratic and accessible as possible while maintaining quality we could be proud of. That was also part of our reason for basing ourselves out of Portugal, rather than in the expected fashion capitals – let’s say Antwerp where we originally lived at the time we created the brand. To us, the impact that we saw in terms of travel, shipping and cost of living did not add up to what we wanted.
Ernest W. Baker was an ad man in the Fifties to Seventies, and that gives him insight on the social changes and the culture that have left a durable imprint that has lasted, for better or for worse, to this day. What is your takeaway from this, based on your conversations with him?
The culture of that time persisted for better and for worse. There were elements of that culture that we realize now were inappropriate, and could have been better. It is not for us to judge, but to look back, learn from their mistakes. We have to come to terms with the past, educating ourselves, and making decisions for the greater good.
I think my grandfather looks back and feels proud of his accomplishments, working hard to start a small advertising agency, acquiring local accounts and nurturing those relationships over the years, and working intimately with a diverse team of talented people – just as we are now, here in Portugal.
That’s why we’ve always believed in a slower process, in growing naturally, in refusing excess in production and hype trains. It wasn’t about being sustainable because it was a buzzy notion, but because it was the way we wanted to do business: the right resources, at the right time, without waste and at our scale. To be real and never force-feed our identity or create artificial belief in our worth.
Our experiences at other brands, working in Paris, Milan or Antwerp, we saw the detachment, and that’s something very frustrating — wasteful and difficult. As the brand started to grow, when it went beyond just creating a vision, we had to decide whether we wanted to stay in the glamour of it all, or create something that could grow larger than us eventually. It was a process of seeing how powerful it is to know our seamstresses personally or discuss production with a factory that had only ever interacted with agents.
There are a lot of issues we are awakening to now, and it is important that we continue this process in both our work & life practices. Listening to voices that have not been heard to so many years, with open eyes, ears and minds, it’s time to question why all this happened. We got so caught up in the speed of life. This can hopefully be a time where we can stop and question why things are the way they are. The time is right to realize why we can no longer be doing things the old ways. So yes, we’ve had the awakening, we’ve isolated the problem. Let’s find solutions and keep going after them, using the momentum in a positive direction, continuing to challenge ourselves and look for better, more equitable solutions. Supporting those causes, sharing with others too.