The office of Perry Ellis creative director Michael Maccari is on the site where the Hippodrome Theater used to stand in midtown Manhattan. Harry Houdini once made an elephant disappear on the Hippodrome stage. And it’s in this location where Maccari is practicing his own brand of magic as he reinvigorates the Perry Ellis brand.
Maccari recently presented his second runway collection at New York Fashion Week to excellent reviews. He has breathed new life into what Perry Ellis the man and Perry Ellis the label represented in the 1980s and has done so in a way that is respectful of the past while pushing forward into the future.
Equally magical is the way that Maccari finds inspiration from such a diverse array of sources. With a pedigreed history that includes stints at Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, J.Crew, and Armani Exchange, Maccari has a substantial background to draw from. He also has a substantial closet. And a storage space. And a basement. And a parents’ basement. “The nature of the business—the nature of the beast—is to collect,” Maccari says. “You always want to be able to hold onto it for that right time to reinject it. You know you’re never going to wear it again, but you can reinterpret it and it can inspire something.”
Indeed, tucked into a closet in Maccari’s office is the first sweater he ever worked on at J.Crew that he rediscovered at a flea market years later. “It was 20 years ago and now [that sweater] makes sense again.”
We spoke with Maccari about the things he can never have enough of and how his excessive collecting helps him find new inspiration.
With so much stuff, how do you find something when you need it while you’re designing?
So much of this process is intuitive and feeling the right direction. Then once you do, you’re like, “Oh I remember I used to have that great thing.” Then you go on the hunt to find whatever it might be. In that process you find other stuff that might work whether it’s about color or fabric or a silhouette. It might not be that quintessential thing that you were looking for but you get to other things in the process.
What are the things you can never have enough of?
Outerwear is a big one because it really defines a silhouette, the personality of a given season and the personality of a collection. Then sweaters are, for me personally, really important. I think that’s because when I started, I designed sweaters first so it’s this first love. Then there’s the shoes. I just think shoes are inspiring on a whole different level.
[Maccari picks up a New Balance Deconstructed 696.] This is the perfect example of this mashup of a really technical thing that’s then completely merged with something crude and raw and natural and then becomes something totally different. That’s the process. You’re not taking something and just knocking it off.
I’m also striving for the perfect T-shirt all the time. It’s that simplest piece that you know you’re putting on everyday and you’re wearing the closest to your body. It has to be right. The bigger picture of menswear is you’re constantly trying to refine something to get it more perfect. I feel like with T-shirts there’s so little in them so the simplest thing becomes the hardest thing to get right.
How did your fascination with outerwear start?
I was never so much about tailored. It was more sportswear. As a kid I can remember wearing shirt jackets or jean jackets as the suit hook-up as opposed to an actual suit. That probably evolved into the bomber silhouette because of its roots in military and because of how it translates to active and because of the million ways you can reinterpret it. I know it’s one of the biggest silhouettes now but over the course of my career I’ve always been trying to bring that back and now timing-wise it’s the thing and I don’t really see it going away.
What about when people look at two different garments and are like, “I can’t tell the difference”?
I think the subtlety of that is what makes menswear menswear. In women’s there’s these obvious shifts—long, short, slim, wide. But in men’s it’s always the hidden details—the inside pockets or the right zipper. All those things that kind of get men excited, and they don’t even know why. It’s up to us to educate them, like here’s this new detail you’re going to want and feel comfortable with and appreciate. Then we can get them to buy something new because of that.
Is there one sweater that stands out for you?
I always go back to my first sweater job at J.Crew and we did these hand knit, heavy gauge, big shape sweaters with very simple stripes. I remember doing them and thinking they’re the simplest thing and they’re the coolest thing. Now it makes sense again. That hand knit vibe gets to the beauty of what sweaters are, the craft of it. The thing that makes a sweater a sweater is that there’s this stitch and you’re creating the fabric. With hand knit ones you’re making the fabric by hand.
How many sweaters do you have?
I cannot even begin to think about it. There’s probably some abandoned bins at my parents’ house. There’s some bins in a storage locker. Some bins in Shelter Island. Then in the apartment there’s a wall closet full of sweaters. It’s probably around 500 sweaters. What was the last sweater you bought and what resonated with you?
I just wore it yesterday. An Acne wool turtleneck with a pocket in navy blue. The fact that it had this pocket was interesting. Then I put it on and it felt really comfortable. It was wool but it didn’t feel heavy.
Are you drawn to all kinds of footwear?
Yeah, I’m not one of those sneaker geek guys. I don’t really care if that’s the sneaker to have. I like it for pure design reasons. I will wear them. But I also like to keep them looking really new. I think that’s the sort of the Virgo in me, keeping something pristine. In shoes I’m more hyper about it than anything else. The flip side of that is I have vintage army boots that look amazing because they’re fucked up. It runs the gamut in shoes where you have these pristine dress shoes or beautiful sneaker creations. Then you have stuff you wear every day because there’s a comfort factor. Then you have super beat up and vintage [shoes] which of course aren’t the greatest on your feet. You shouldn’t be wearing them but you do because it’s cool looking.
Do you like to break in your vintage stuff yourself?
I would love to be that guy, but I have too many things to wear in between. But I always admired those guys that have that uniform. The person who gets the A.P.C. jeans and wears them everyday and works them in and they totally become theirs. It’s the same way with that Tricker boot. I just have never been that guy. I have too many options.
Although as you get older I think the menu gets smaller. Then this is where the real excess comes in because it’s more versions of the very same thing. But I think that goes back to what I do, which is try to perfect that thing. There’s always a way to improve.
Tell me about your T-shirt collection.
We have a couple of bins that are just marked “T-shirt company” because at one point we were going to start a T-shirt line. Those are things that we may have never worn or have grown out of or are baby-sized. But something about them—whether it’s a graphic or a color or a frayed neck—stood out.
But this is where I do get very systematic because literally my base layer is a navy T-shirt every day. That’s the one kind of consistent thing that I do have. It’s like a second skin. The sleeve must land in the right place and the neck has to be the right opening. It has to be the right length. I probably have 100 navy T-shirts and they’re probably all the same one, the AX one. [Maccari created the pima cotton T-shirt for Armani Exchange and it became the brand’s best selling tee and a personal favorite of Giorgio Armani himself.]
Where do you think this attitude of never having enough comes from?
I think when you get on this mentality of buying for work, of buying for the next thing, it starts to roll into every aspect of your life. I am always looking for that next thing. It never stops. It’s to that point that it could definitely be considered an illness. [Laughs.]