Industry Insiders: Malan Breton, Couture Connoisseur

Who would have imagined that Malan Breton, a former contestant on season 3 of Project Runway, would come so far as a distinguished designer? Perhaps not even Malan himself. The 36-year-old fashion aficionado has taken his theatrical roots and tied (or shall we say, sewn) them into his collections, bringing a wistful and exquisite approach to his designs. A Malan Breton show exhibits live orchestra and ballet performances, a welcome change from the DJ-pumping, techno-blasting, glitter-flying shows-on-steroids of today. By stitching classiness and weaving sophistication into his designs, Malan makes couture that fits real women (and now men too)!

How did you get your foot in the door as a designer? I used to be the voiceovers for ESPN Extreme Sports. My contract was ending with them and I called my agent and said, “I’m not acting anymore, I don’t want to be a performer anymore and I have this passion for design.” I had this passion since I was a little boy and I put it to the side because it’s a very different world from being a performer. I decided to take all the money I had left from my contracts to my line, and it just happened. I was very lucky because I had a very close friend in the industry that told me who to contact and how to get things going and how to develop the line. I literally sat in my apartment for three months and learned how to sew on a sewing machine.

So you have no formal training? No, never trained at all.

How have your designs evolved since your first collection? The more I learned about fabrics and construction, the more the collections evolved. I really taught myself everything. Each season, as I did another collection, I learned more about it, plus, I did a lot of research as well. I always found undergarments for women incredibly beautiful, so I researched at great length lingerie and corsetry and things like that.

What is the theme of your latest collection? The theme of the latest collection went back to my childhood. My mother was a ballet dancer and kind of pushed me into it. After ballet, I ended up doing Broadway shows. This collection is me going back to my roots because I never really explored that in a collection. It used to always be about this kind of Hollywood drama concept, which I love and think is beautiful. There were always Asian influences there and different elements of my life, but never the part where I really came from.

What designers do you look up to? I look up to a lot of the old-school designers like Balenciaga and Dior. They were people that innovated fashion. Even Adrian, the costume designer from MGM, because he basically invented the bias cut dress. It’s pretty amazing what they did and where we’ve taken it. Fashion always evolves a little bit because of new fabrics and new prints and textures and even the shapes of people’s bodies. How exciting would it have been to be the first person to wear a heavily shouldered blazer? Then, 80 years later models, are on the catwalk with these big shoulder pads.

What big names have you designed for? I’ve worked with Martha Plimpton, Katrina Boden, Nikki Blonsky, and a lot of celebrities. I’ve dressed some old-school performers like La La Brooks, who was a famous singer.

Who would be your dream person to design a piece for? Michelle Obama is amazing. She brought class back to the White House. I wouldn’t say that the other women didn’t have class, but she brought an element of new designs like Jackie Kennedy did. I’d love to dress Nicole Kidman because I have such adoration for her as an actress. I would also say Cate Blanchett. Love her; she’s so stunning.

What positive trends do you see happening in the fashion industry right now? The industry is embracing the feminine body, which it hasn’t done for so many years, so I find that to be pretty amazing. Clothes have been feminine but they haven’t embraced the curves. Designs have been very up and down and narrow. I always design with the concept that women have curves. Look at the women in the 30s, 40s, and 50s — like Marilyn Monroe. They all had beautiful curvaceous bodies and then all that disappeared. Suddenly, there were a bunch of beautiful women on the runway but their bodies were like boys. It didn’t make sense to me.

How has the economy affected your company? A lot of stores really pulled back a lot, and there were orders that we had where people called and said, “We apologize but we’re going to have to sit out this season.” Some stores really suffered. You’d have to be blind to not notice there are stores in the city that have shut down and designers that have had to close up shop. I’m very grateful that I have a clientele that kept me going, but the buyers have come back this season. I think people are a bit more optimistic. Everyone was so afraid to spend any money, but people are finally opening up their budgets. They’re still testing me out, but they’re very excited about the line.

What can people do to stay fashionable amidst a financial crisis? Go into your closet and look at all those pieces that you haven’t worn for years and see what you have. There are pieces that you can layer or match with other things or even be creative and sew. Go to one of these stores that have affordable accessories and use those. Or even pop into Bergdorf’s and buy one jacket that you can wear every other day.

Next big project? I just launched the menswear line for Men’s Fashion Week in Europe. I have a couple of other divisions in the company, so I’m going to try and expand on those. I’m looking at branding myself in shoes and more accessories and handbags.

Go-to places in New York? I love the Standard Grill. Amazing, absolutely amazing, and everyone is there. I also love the Waverly Inn and Bar Centrale. I haven’t been going clubbing too much because being in the public eye I have had some problems with stalkers, and it’s scary.