Masculinity, zen, militarism, and geo-politics are woven into the suits of Abasi Rosborough. Founders Abdul Abasi and Greg Rosborough are rebellious designers with an eye on the big abstractions. The pair does everything from incorporating Buddhist notions of the void into suit design, to paying homage toward political rebels like Julian Assange. The one thing they’re not doing? Schmoozing with the likes of Anna Wintour.
CONVICTS recently caught up with this pair of rare individuals and got their thoughts on just about everything under the sun.
Could you tell us who you are and where you’re from?
I’m Greg Rosborough from Tucson, Arizona. I’m a menswear designer and I started a company with Abdul four years ago, we do our version of progressive tailoring that’s informed by movement and the human anatomy.
I’m Abdul Abasi, I was born on earth, currently living in New York City. I came here for design school and with Greg Rosborough we created Abasi Rosborough.
Talk about the beginnings of the brand?
The suit that millions of men around the world wear every day was designed 150 years ago in Victorian England, and here we are now in the 21st Century still wearing that garment. It doesn’t work for modern life to some degree, it’s not dynamic it doesn’t allow you to move and flex and do all the little things that we do on a daily basis that are maybe not so glamorous, like putting bags in an overhead compartment, going to the grocery store, walking your dog or whatever.
You both met at FIT, but you didn’t start the label until a few years after you graduated. Can you talk a bit about your backgrounds and what led up to this?
Typical sort of lower middle-class story: I grew up in DC in the suburbs and when I graduated high school I had these aspirations to be an artist but unfortunately we couldn’t afford for me to go to college so I enlisted into the military. After my second enlistment I was at the crossroads wondering if I should re-enlist and maybe retire, or go back into the civilian sector and really create the life I want. So I applied to FIT, got in, and that was the start of my journey as a designer. After graduating I went on to work for Engineered Garments, which is Japanese-founded brand. The Japanese have this Zen philosophy about how they approach things, and it was a great learning experience, just learning about the soulfulness of garments, the wabi-sabi, the imperfections, the things that are felt and maybe not seen. That still guides me today.
So you two aim to redefine men’s suits. What’s the overall goal for that vision?
All men are wearing suits, the suit is not going anywhere. Businessmen will still need to wear this thing that symbolises respect and sophistication, as will the politician – but do they still need to be wearing the same one that was designed in 1870? No. Greg: I think part of being a contrarian or being a rebel is seeing all these rules, knowing all these things – this is what politicians wear, this is what businessmen wear, this is the ultimate sign within Western society of respect and dignity and sophistication, depending on the context – so why don’t we just try to upend that and break that idea?
More importantly than just the suit, I think the way that we design clothing is about this notion of creating garments that work with the body, that are enclosures around the void that the body occupies, but that allows it to be completely free. So thinking about the functionality and the use of the garment rather than the form itself. I always use this analogy but the iPhone, right: everyone has an iPhone in their pocket, before the iPhone came along we had all these clam shaped flip phones, we had all these different iterations and then when the iPhone came out it completely revolutionised communications and interface and the way people used technology. Now Google has a phone that looks like the iPhone, Samsung has a phone – so they created a new architecture of the phone and the beauty of it is that in essence it’s a shape, it’s just a completely flat shape that allows the user to interface it in any way. We want create a new lane, create a different architecture of how clothing is made and worn.
Abdul, are there any parallels between your career and the military and the design work that you do now with AR?
We always speak about this but in the world and historically the warrior has always been the alpha male, the epitome of masculinity and manhood. Most garments in western culture are derived from a military piece of clothing, it’s designed to function in high stress, death defying scenarios. It allows for movement at the highest level and it also is armor, it’s protection. The spirit of what the military does is always imbued in what AR does. We speak about the convergence of military, sport and business at an apex. That’s where Abasi Rosborough sits. So I don’t think anything we do is overtly military but I think that spirit are always signifiers of our design and our collections.
How do you test the suits out?
One filter that we do that’s not necessarily military but just personal: I was living in Bed-Stuy for four years, and in Bed-Stuy if you are wearing something that is a bit too creative and flamboyant people will call you out on the spot. We call this the grocery store test: if you are going to a Bed-Stuy grocery store, can you have something that is aesthetically interesting enough to wear, but not get called out for being too flamboyant? We always tried to ground it in the reality of being avant-garde but not so esoteric. There are a lot of things that look really nice on camera or look good on a fashion show but that a person couldn’t realistically wear.
Given the current sociopolitical climate and your collection Dissident, how do you feel about the intersection of fashion and politics?
All you saw on the news for about five months was Trump vs Hillary with just horrible rhetoric on all sides. Then the election comes, the result comes, and that’s when we designed this Dissident collection. Everybody was talking about protest and rebellion? Is it musicians, artists? No. The only true true rebels in the twenty-first Century are guys like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, because they risked their lives to release government information to better all of us. That is the most rebellious act you can do. They were receiving death threats on a moment by moment basis. So if that’s the true rebel, part of the collection was also how can you pay respect to what those individuals were doing. We were thinking about rebellion but not just as far as punk kids on the Lower East Side, we were thinking of who are the people out there risking their lives and how can you pay homage to them.
Starting a label in New York is a big jump, was there a ‘fuck it’ moment for you guys to step up and start the label.
Well, there was a fuck it moment. It was extremely scary because you feel financially vulnerable and the world is built on capitalism. But we just went for it and cleaned out the savings. It was a gamble but also: I don’t have children, don’t have a mortgage, don’t have any major major responsibilities other than to try to make something happen. So that was the moment to do it and be fearless. My dad is a basketball coach so he sent me about fifty inspirational quotes.
How do you guys get your escape from fashion? Some people travel, some meditate, what do you guys do to get away from it all?
I can speak for myself, I am heavily into meditation and philosophy and you’ve heard this a million times but we’re not curing cancer, we’re making clothes right? I don’t think we are so inundated with fashion parties and schmoozing that we feel like it’s a drain. I also sometimes hesitate to call ourselves fashion designers because I think that has a connotation, we are just about solving problems and making people’s lives better through apparel. But being in New York there are many ways to distract yourself, we love speaking about art, going to talks, reading books, I am heavily into yoga and he plays sports and runs. We take trips. Anna Wintour is not my best friend.
It’s funny, because the escapes also become the inspirations. My escapes are reading, movies, running the dog, walking the dog, coffee shops, just the usual stuff, hanging out with friends. The escapes all kind of tie back in and it becomes part of the narrative that we discuss. My favorite movie I guess the last few years was Interstellar, I always like to think about space and I’m very inspired by Elon Musk. So I guess that’s an escape too, to read about those kinds of things in the science magazines or online.
What would you be doing if you hadn’t started this?
I would have definitely have been something in the arts. I’m really into philosophy and physics, so if I wasn’t in the design field I would probably be doing something dealing with the notions of existentialism and reality and all these concepts that are intangible. I love just sitting and thinking about that. I would have been very at home in the time Socrates, inquiring about why we are here and what do things mean. For me, money is necessary but I’m not trying to make five billion dollars. I am more about helping people and humanity at large, so I’d probably be doing something like that.
If I wasn’t doing this, if I had stayed in Arizona, I might be a basketball coach. Every summer up until I moved here, eight summers in a row, I was a basketball coach in the summer at summer camps. It’s just fun to teach. I always imagine that once all this is said and done and I’m in my sixties and want to give back, I would love to be a professor. That’s a cool role, because I think professors should be people with a ton of life experience and who can translate things back to kids who are about to start that life experience.