Named one of GQ's Best New Menswear Designers in America for 2013, Ernest Sabine — the man behind the label Ernest Alexander — is feeling larger than life, quite literally. The Arlington native's mug can be seen on billboards around the country, part of a new collaboration with Gap that launched last month featuring GQ's top new designers. A 37-piece capsule collection for Gap ushers four designers (Aviator Nation, Baldwin, and Bespoken also made the cut) into the mass-market spotlight. But for Sabine, whose grandmother and great-grandmother were seamstresses in Brockton, beautifully hand-crafted goods will always be close to his heart.
To go from a boutique brand that was seen as part of the maker movement to being in a store like the Gap — what's that like?
It's pretty wild to see us, an independent label, on a national platform in such a big way. It's been awesome. I was walking down Fifth Avenue yesterday afternoon and I didn't even realize where I was when I walked by 53d Street and I looked up and saw a 12-foot blowup of me. I was pinching myself.
We're still, very much so, an independent boutique company behind the scenes, but at the same time, trying to do big things. We're growing and growing but want to keep that personal feel and touch to everything we make.
We make 100 percent of all of our goods right here in the US. That's something very special to me and my brand, it keeps you in touch with the product and process of how it's made.
And in this campaign, you are presented as the face of the brand. Is that weird?
It's really weird and my wife is getting pretty sick of me. She keeps rolling her eyes [laughs]. People from the second grade have e-mailed me and said, "I just saw you on a billboard on the West Side Highway.'
How did you fall into fashion?
I'm not a traditionally trained designer, I didn't go to fashion design school. I studied art history in undergrad and worked in advertising and actually ended up in business school. I had this change of heart and didn't want to do something finance oriented, I wanted to do something product-based. During the '09 economic crash, I thought we don't really make much here in America and how great would it be to create a company that creates jobs and promotes production in the US.
With that background, you must have had a more realistic idea of when your brand could be viable. What was that moment for you?
GQ put one of our bags in their magazine. It was the first moment of seeing our stuff in print in a national magazine. To be honest, even now I never feel comfortable. I think if you feel too comfortable, that's probably a bad sign.
You're from the area.
I'm a Boston boy at heart and still come back a lot. I grew up in Arlington and I lived in Boston for a while after college for a year.
No accent though.
No, but I can switch it on if need be. I went to Belmont Hill, an all-boys classic private school. It was a preppier environment — coat and tie — but I grew up with a normal background so I was coming in from a different angle. My parents really saved and put a lot on the line to send me to a nice school and I think from a design-influence perspective, I have those classic New England preppy inflections but always with a bit of an outsider's edge to it.
Do you think it shows in your work today?
At an early age I was really into clothes but my mom had a strict budget. I remember for back-to-school she gave me $40, and when you wanted a pair of new sneakers — man, you had to make that go a long way. I remember Urban Outfitters had just opened in the early '90s and going there feeling awesome, looking for the coolest T-shirt. It's funny because I remember going to the Gap at the Arsenal Mall and not being allowed to spend over $20 total in 1992. And all the cool kids at school were doing 'Gap jeans day' on Monday.
Was that an informal uniform requirement?
All the cool kids would wear white Gap jeans on Monday. That was the coolest. I remember the day I finally achieved getting a pair. It was a big moment. I was a repressed clothes hound from a young age, but I think it was good that my parents set rules and budgets because it made me learn to strive for more.
You grew up with relatives in the garment industry. Did that affect your interest?
Then, I didn't realize how much it influenced me but in retrospect, it did. My grandmother and great-grandmother came from Latvia on a boat in the 1950s and ended up in Brockton. They both were seamstresses and there was a lot of clothing production in the area. They'd sew by day and make really high-end dresses to send to New York but they'd bring the patterns and extra fabric home to sew one-offs of these beautiful dresses for my mom, who was a young girl at the time. I grew up in a house filled with amazing '50s and '60s dresses stored in closets, like an archive. I think that idea of hand crafting was embedded on me at an early age.
Do you think womenswear and accessories are in the brand's future?
It's definitely on the horizon at some point. The women's market is a whole other beast, it changes really fast, so I want to be careful and when we do it, we do it right. We did a limited-edition women's collection with Club Monaco last year that did really well so I think the style can translate, but for me it's not a question of "if" but a question of "when."
When you say "made in America," where specifically are you making the line?
About 90 percent of it is in New York City and the rest of it is within five miles of New York. It's a nice little ecosystem that we have. Our design studio is on 28th Street and our main factory is only a block and a half away in downtown Manhattan. With that, we can really control the quality and do things a lot faster in terms of production, and you can really know the people who are making your pieces.
Anything you need to buy for yourself this fall?
Like most men, I'm a needs-based shopper so I don't buy my sweaters until it's cold and I'm pretty bad at planning. There are a couple key pieces on my horizon that we're making and I'll probably make myself a double-breasted wool trench coat for the winter. I think double-breasted is really coming back and it's something that's dressy and smart, especially as a top coat. It'll be my key staple item for the season.
Is your customer typically a city dweller?
We tend to gravitate toward a city guy, but it's really just someone who wants to wear something unique and different and is not afraid to add a little style to their wardrobe but keeping it within classic boundaries.
I think guys especially nowadays are dressing better and better. Even when I go back home and visit my folks in Boston, walking around on Newbury Street and the South End, it's amazing if you compare it to
10 years ago how guys are dressing now.
Oh yeah, men's shopping has really stepped up here.
You have these great stores — classics staples like Louis but now you have newer ones like Ball & Buck on Newbury, who are really bringing menswear and accessories for lifestyle to the front and center.
Any other goals?
From a business perspective I'd love to open a few more stores.
How about in Boston?
Yeah, Boston could be great, like on Newbury or South End. We'll see. Don't want to rush into anything . . . but I'd love to open more retail because there's something so nice about having your own environment that you create the aesthetic and can take a picture of your brand within a space. It's that direct customer dialogue that I think is just awesome.