Hearing Robert Geller list the places around the world where he's lived is enough to make anyone want to buy the next available plane ticket to literally anywhere. He spent the first 10 years of his life in Hamburg, Germany. The next three in Los Angeles. Four years in Frankfurt. Paris for a year. Stuttgart for another. Two years as a photo assistant between Paris and Stuttgart after high school before he attended college at the Rhode Island School of Design, which is in Providence if you're keeping track. Today, he calls New York City home.
We're sitting in his second home, his showroom, on the border between SoHo and Chinatown. It's not one of the streets you end up on if you're just wandering through the neighborhood. It requires a more deliberate effort. Maybe it's a metaphor for how his clothing is just far enough off the beaten path of the mainstream for fashion obsessives to admire, yet close enough that it still feels attainable. Or maybe that's just the romanticism I've conjured in my head talking thanks to the prospect of talking to one of the faces of Four Pins' Mount Rushmore.
The rolling racks around us are mostly empty. Samples are in Japan for sales season now that New York Fashion Week has wrapped. The always coveted Common Projects collaborations are piled high in the corner. Robert isn't tired though. In fact, he's spritely, even though I'm late because of train delays.
He's wearing loose, textured grey sweatpants and a worn in beige shirt. His hair and deliberate stubble give off the vibe of that guy from an art class you took in college that was untouchable when it came time for peer review. Robert Geller may have actually been that guy if Robert Geller wasn't already cooler than that guy.
Throughout his formative years, he thought he was going to be a photographer. His father shot photos professionally for decades and still owns a photography equipment company. He grew up in studios and took after his dad, spending time in darkrooms: "I always liked that vibe. I love that atmosphere and I love the fashion aspect of it. From a young age, I was drawn to it, I don't know exactly what it is, but everyone is in a good mood. It's stressful, but there is a vibe there that's creative." He continued on that path to college at RISD after two years of photo assistant work before taking a fashion class his freshman year and essentially abandoning photography all together.
"I came to the point where there were some things frustrating me about fashion photography," Robert says. "If you want to be creative, you have to assemble a team, you have to have a model, the hair and makeup. You can't just wake up in the middle of the night and be creative. I like with fashion you can wake up, have a pencil and paper and create." Even though he was a year or so behind, he took to things fast and was one of two students allowed to interview with Marc Jacobs for an internship. Naturally, he was the one who got the position.
Marc Jacobs was a phenomenon in the early 2000s despite the team running the brand being relatively small. But it was through his time at Marc Jacobs that Robert met Russian designer Alexandre Plokhov, who was working as a pattern maker: "We got along really well. We were both into similar designers. It was kitchen talk. We would meet for lunch in the kitchen and talk about what we liked. He told me he had started a company called Cloak and had to put it on break while at Marc Jacobs, but wanted to start it up again." Once Robert realized that his full-time job prospects at Marc Jacobs might be slim pickings, the two got to talking, saved up some money and went in together as 50-50 partners on the relaunched Cloak.
Cloak was your favorite brand before your favorite brand existed, an urban blend of gothic, military-inspired clothing that has become a now legendary time capsule moment for the menswear set. Robert's time at Cloak was largely a learning experience—he was only 25 at the time he linked up with Plokhov. The brand took home a few accolades during Robert's tenure there, including the Ecco Domani award in 2003 and the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2004, but without the help of outside financial backing, Robert decided to part ways with Plokhov and Cloak.
They pull you in, check you out, circle back around to look at what you're doing and wait to see if you'll be around in a couple seasons and if it's still good.
"I was learning a lot from him," he says. "If you can think of it like a designer and stylist working together, I was more of the stylist, doing the collection colors and themes and the overall look. Alexandre was amazing at constructing the garments. There is no one better than him at that than I've met in my life. It was a partnership that created something quite cool."
While he wasn't keen on starting a new menswear brand immediately, he founded Harald, a small womenswear collection, and applied what he learned from his time at Cloak: "I had a tiny office on Broadway. I did PR, production, the photography and everything on my own. I didn't have fashion shows, didn't have fancy lookbooks." After a couple seasons, Robert received a call from Japanese production company S.O., which had heard of Robert through Cloak, with an offer to provide funding for a Robert Geller menswear label.
In its first seasons, Robert Geller was a success, finding its way into the right stores and the funding to cover its biggest expenses. 2009 saw him win GQ’s third Best New Menswear Designers In America competition—this was when there was still a clear winner—that awarded him a capsule collection with Levi's, the corporate sponsor at the time. In 2010, he was among ten finalists for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award and in 2011 he won the Swarovski Award for Menswear. He still has those awards sitting a mantle above the racks around us.
When I first got into menswear in around 2011 and attempted to read and learn about every single brand that ever existed, as one tends to do, Robert Geller found me more than I found him. And I guess that was around the time that everyone else did too. He effectively blew up. "I think there's an incubation phase of the first three or four seasons where the insiders get to know you," he says. "They pull you in, check you out, circle back around to look at what you're doing and wait to see if you'll be around in a couple seasons and if it's still good." Now, four years later, nine since the brand began and almost 15 since he first got into fashion professionally, Robert Geller isn't anybody's darling. He's a veteran. In an industry where almost every other fashion company, well-received or otherwise, eventually folds, Geller has made his brand and his look stick.
That look is the uniform of so many younger, fashion-conscious guys. While it has shifted and waned slightly, Robert Geller has stayed a part of the nucleus of brands that own today's look. It's dark, a bit moody, slim, cropped, layered and outfitted with tons of details. "We really are going more oversized and creating volume," he says. "Not that anything has to be super big, but I really like the flowy silhouette—a bit oversized with shorter pants. The cropped pants that taper in and stop above the ankles come from soccer warm-up pants."
Robert himself plays soccer every Saturday morning near his office and relates many of his designs back to sports. The silhouette that ruled F/W 15 goes back to the Nadi brothers, two Italian fencers who ruled the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, and how they dressed off the Piste. Talk about specific. "This idea of big, luxurious wool coats, they're leaving the gym, their hair is sweaty, but kind of styled," he says. "That sort of casual, luxurious elegance that they had back in the day. I was really attracted to that."
But this isn't Louis Vuitton's elegance. It's a toned-down version that relies on deep shades of grey and brown, mixed with flashes of color in the form of those graceful silks. It's a beautiful middle ground between the dystopian tattered uniforms of Kanye and Adidas' Yeezy Season 1 (which Robert was a consultant on) and his idols Raf Simons and Dries Van Noten. It's a look that could only be more Geller if he branded his name on it.
And yet, if you follow him on Instagram, you'll see that he doesn't brand himself that much. Littered between the fashion shots are photos of his children and wife. Just from casual conversation, you can tell Robert's a family man first. The ease with which he talks about designing clothing probably comes from the fact that he knows how much harder it is to raise a child than sketch out next season's designs. He may have moved around earlier in life, but his feet are firmly planted in New York. "I fell in love here, got married here and love the city," he says. "I found my groove and I can't imagine living anywhere else. It feels like my home." We wouldn't have it any other way.