To the uninitiated, the Mark McNairy name may seem like one of the many propelled towards success only by the powers of the internet. If you were not paying attention — and be honest, you probably weren’t — you missed his stint at classic American style emporium J. Press and a series of both womenswear and menswear lines over the years. Praised most often for his off-kilter take on otherwise basic pieces, McNairyʼs work is sometimes written about in dumbed-down tones that focus too much on the attitude behind the clothes and not the clothes themselves. Scratch a little bit deeper and you’ll find an authentic knack for capital D design and a genuine sense of humour in McNairyʼs takes on everything from chinos to dress shoes.
Bee Line, his collaboration with Pharrell Williams and Billionaire Boys Club, grew into a full collection from a much smaller footwear project. Bee Line sees McNairy explore what happens when you merge traditional menswear with streetwear, with a healthy dash of McNairyʼs trademark injection of fun into tweed, leather and nylon. The range of puffer jackets, corduroy shirts, and brogues definitely evokes a certain sense of maturity in terms of construction and fabric, but still feels youthful enough to appeal to a guy more used to tshirts and Nikes. We sat down to chat with Mark about Bee Line, his creative process, and more.
Pharrell recently described you to us as the “Southern gentleman Junya Watanabe”; would you agree with that statement?
I am Southern. I’m not necessarily a gentleman; sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not. And I think Junya and me share the same sensibilities. I remember when I was doing 68 & Brothers (that was around) when Junya first started. I saw this shit and I was like, “Oh, awesome.”
It was interesting to hear that, specifically considering how much of what influences Junya and a whole host of Japanese designers is remixing influences that they pull from American culture; and here are two very similar sensibilities arising independently around the same time.
Do you recall how your aesthetic approach first surfaced?
Not really, that just comes from what I know. I mean, I grew up really interested in athletic clothing in high school. Then I got interested in vintage clothing. From there (I got) onto Brooks Brothers button-down shirts and still with vintage military chinos. And I guess Ralph Lauren is obviously a huge influence. I kind of think of what I do — or maybe what I did do, which may be the same — is a mixture between Commes des Garcons and Brooks Brothers.
Definitely. So, doubling back to your point about not always being a gentleman, how do you feel about the fact that for some people the ʻMcNairyʼ attitude or stance is a part of the package?
Mmmhmm. My personality definitely shows in the clothing; but I’m actually a pretty nice guy.
Once you get to know me, at least. I’m well aware that I may come across like an asshole, but it’s more shyness than it is being an asshole.
Which people are especially disinclined to understand in the fashion industry, right?
Right, and I don’t… I can’t play that game. I don’t have the gift of gab. It’s like… I’m trying to think of this quote from my daughter’s high school yearbook… “I’m intolerant of useless conversation.”
Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Again, drawing from what people typically comment about you, and since we’re here talking about Bee Line — what do you dislike about melding your creative process with somebody else?
I only work with people I like. I mean, I turn down a lot of collaborations and projects because I don’t like what the other person or company does or it’s just not my taste. You know, I’ve been doing this for a long time and I learned that with anything, not just collaborations, from factories to fabric people, to sales people, if I don’t like them then I don’t want anything to do with them.
On that point, what made you green light working with Pharrell and Billionaire Boys Club on the Bee Line?
I’m a fan of Pharrell and I’ve always liked Billionaire Boys Club. There were a few different connections, and a few folks suggested we work on a shoe collaboration. I’d just come back from Europe at that time and we were supposed to meet, but I was still waiting for samples. Pharrell was on his way and same day, the boxes of unsorted samples arrive and I’m by myself, pushing these hundred-pound boxes down the hall.
So he gets to my space, and I’m a sweaty mess and out of breath. There are some shoes I definitely want to show him and they were in these unsorted boxes; I just couldn’t find them. So I end up getting frustrated and just picked up a box and dumped them all on the floor. And I’m pretty sure Pharrell thought I was not with it.
You were just trying to get the job done.
Yeah, exactly. After that, things came together and we talked about working together on a special collection based on how things went with the brogue boot we did together.
What aspect of the project are you most happy with?
I think my idea came through really well. You know, we had meetings and Pharrell gave me his perspective on the direction, what his vision was. And we were on the same page. I told him the same thing, which was ‘Billionaire Boys Club for grown-ups’. I don’t know if I want to use that word, but the kids are getting older and want something different basically.
It’s similar to my shoe business. A lot of the kids who buy my stuff have never owned a proper pair of shoes; they’ve worn sneakers all their lives and my shoes are an introduction to proper menswear.
A little bit of a left-field question, but, you know, the whole ‘fail early and often’ mantra that’s really popular in design circles never seems to get talked about in fashion. Could you comment on some of your previous missteps and what you learned from them?
Hmm. I’ve failed many times. I started in this… I mean, I was in sales originally. I loved clothing, but I was in sales. Selling clothes I didn’t even care about. From there, I started a women’s collection and learned as I went, really. I knew nothing about being a designer or running a business, doing production, sales, anything. I was 26 years old and had my own business. On the outside and from the onset it looked successful.
But on the inside?
A little more of a chaotic mess. I was trying to run a business and be a designer, and be a salesperson. And yeah, I’ve failed many, many times. But, it’s true, if you don’t try, you’re not going to succeed ever.
Is there something about trying to go at it alone that maybe sparked your appreciation of collaboration?
I wouldn’t say that, no. I just like to make shit. And I can only do so much for my own collection, know what I mean? In terms of size, I have to stop somewhere. So, things like Bee Line, and Woolrich, they allow me to explore a whole other range of ideas.
The thing too, is that with things like Woolrich, I enjoy the limitations, same with Bee Line. With my own collection, I can do whatever I want. As far as collaboration itself, there are different reasons for each one. For me, Bee Line is really about reaching out to a different customer. Woolrich too, and it also helped me out with my own collection.
It reminds me, I go to the Meadowlands Flea Market every weekend. And it’s a really, really shitty flea market. But I find cool stuff there, just randomly treasure hunting or whatever. And so, recently I could feel a kid behind me, like a 12-year-old kid. He finally got the nerve to come up to me and was like, “Are you Mark McNairy?” and I said “Yeah”. I mean, a 12-year-old? I had no idea that a 12-year-old really would even pay attention to my stuff, let alone know who I am.
Do you ever experience any sort of creative block?
Yeah, that’s one thing I don’t suffer from. There might be moments of it, but if I set to work in my way I get over it pretty quickly. Usually, I have so many ideas… if anything, it’s about slotting it into the right place. If it fits into my collection, perfect. If not, it may be for Bee Line, or Woolrich, or whatever else I’m working on.
Do the smaller, one-off projects you do get treated the same way you treat something like Bee Line?
The shoes, for instance, I’ve got my collection, but then I’ve got so much more in the way of materials. I mean, if I took every material I could work with, there’d be thousands of combinations. So, it’s fun to sit down with somebody like Chris Gibbs from Union and take a bunch of things, talk it over and come up with a different perspective. Like, he was really successful with the brogue we did with black leather and royal blue bottoms and they’re not necessarily my thing. I don’t dislike it, but when I’m designing, almost everything comes down to whether or not I’d wear it.
So, there’s almost an element of say, market research there for you?
Right. That adds… listen, it’s a business. I mean, I don’t feel like I work. I don’t work, for the most part. But it is still a business.
This interview first appeared in issue 27 of ACCLAIM Magazine. Purchase here.
Words and interview — Jose R Mejia
Photography — Aaron Richter