NEW YORK — Of the many terms that can be applied to the homespun art of Norman Rockwell, “fashionable” generally isn’t among them.
The Stockbridge-based illustrator, who died in 1978, captured vignettes of small-town America: a stolen moment at a swimming hole, prom dates at a soda fountain, families gathered for dinner. He garbed his subjects in the utilitarian uniforms of working men and women of the mid-20th century.
But designer Michael Bastian sees the work of Rockwell differently. So differently, in fact, that he unveiled a collection for the company Gant that’s completely inspired by the fashion found in Rockwell’s art.
You read that correctly. The quaint paintings and illustrations of Rockwell have been turned into a line of clothing called “Stockbridge” which received a flashy unveiling before New York Fashion Week. The clothes will be in stores (Gant has a store on Newbury Street) in August.
“We went back to the paintings and what we found, without many exceptions, is that what guys were wearing in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, are kind of the same things that guys are wearing now in the teens,” Bastian says. “Very little has changed. Menswear remains steady. It’s a difference of a pleat versus flat-front pant, or two buttons versus three in the jacket. But the bones are all there.”
Despite Bastian’s unlikely fashion muse, his collection is getting accolades.
“Given the designer and where the men’s market stands right now, I think Rockwell was a pretty savvy choice,” says Justin Berkowitz of Details magazine.
One of the most striking ensembles in Bastian’s Gant collection is an exact replica of the outfit worn by the central figure in the 1943 painting “Four Freedoms: The Freedom of Speech.” The painting was part of a set that Rockwell created, inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address. Bastian re-created the soft brown leather bomber jacket, blue plaid shirt, and khakis worn by the man in the painting speaking at a town meeting. The cuts and the silhouettes were updated for 2013, but the clothes are undeniably similar.
“That guy looked like a guy you could see walking down the street right now,” Bastian says. “But I also liked the idea of focusing on a painting where Rockwell was dealing with more serious issues, such as the freedom of speech. These are the images that people don’t immediately associate with Rockwell.”
Aside from a baseball jersey that was re-created from the painting “The Dugout,” the remainder of the collection is less literal than “Freedom of Speech.” Bastian says he was striving to capture the Americana of Rockwell’s work and the feel of New England, while making clothes that would appeal today.
“You have to make it modern,” he says. “Otherwise people won’t touch it.”
Bastian will take his models and the clothes to Stockbridge in April to shoot an ad campaign for the collection. The Norman Rockwell Museum has plans to display a portion of the collection this fall.
The idea of a Rockwell-inspired fashion collection can be traced back to a trip that Bastian took to the Rockwell Museum in the 1970s. Since being hired to design for Gant in 2010 (he also designs a line under his own name) he says he has kept a mental file of ideas. The Rockwell concept surfaced when Bastian, who grew up in New York but spent summers on Cape Ann and went to Babson College, came across a book of Rockwell’s illustrations. He then bought several more, and started researching the stylistic details.
Stephanie Plunkett, deputy director and chief curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum, oversees the collection and has extensively studied his work. But in her 19 years at the museum she never looked at Rockwell’s work in terms of its fashionable qualities.
‘Rockwell . . . had an eye that precisely captured what men were comfortable wearing.’
“I never would have thought that a fashion designer would have picked out those paintings for inspiration,” Plunkett says on the phone from Stockbridge. “But one of the aspects that isn’t surprising about it is that Rockwell was so careful about the way he dressed his subjects.
“The clothing was meant to convey a particular idea, or underscore a concept that he was working with. He used clothing to display a mood, or to show something in particular about a person. And I think fashion does that as well.”
Simon Doonan, creative ambassador-at-large for Barneys New York, also thinks it makes sense for Bastian to use Rockwell as a source of inspiration.
“Men’s clothing is divisible into certain categories,” Doonan says.
“Ivy league, jock, biker, outlaw, cowboy. So Michael Bastian is riffing on 20th-century style. It’s Americana. I totally get it. There are very few people who go outside of those archetypes and invent wacky new things. He’s hitting on something that men are comfortable with.”
As menswear companies with long histories such as Red Wing , Pendleton , and Woolrich go back into their archives to reinvent themselves as classic purveyors of American style, the idea of Rockwell-chic sounds surprisingly logical. Gant, which was founded in Connecticut in 1949, was popular for its shirts during Rockwell’s lifetime.
This isn’t the first time that Bastian has used New England as inspiration for his designs. His Fall/Winter 2012 collection was inspired by his years at Babson. Last year, he described the collection as “a big sloppy valentine to Boston.”
His Fall/Winter 2011 collection for Gant focused on a fictitious gang of Vermont cross-country skiers. Last month, during New York Fashion Week, Bastian showed the collection he designs under his own name, which he said was inspired by “the dark side of New England.”
For that, he chose another New England painter, Andrew Wyeth, as his moody muse. Unlike the Rockwell-inspired collection for Gant, Bastian said the clothes for his own line were envisioned as something worn by “a hypothetical loner stuck in a Maine village with nowhere to shop but second-hand and hunting shops.” Still, there are no direct re-creations from Wyeth’s paintings.
No matter the tone, Bastian can’t seem to escape the idea of classic New England. Just please don’t call it preppy.
“It’s more about style,” he says. “Rockwell wasn’t about fashion. But he had an eye that precisely captured what men were comfortable wearing. There’s a certain way that men in Massachusetts dressed in that era. It was timeless. It was classic, and what Rockwell did was create a historical record of that in his work.”Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.