Justin Berkowitz might fly under the popular street style radar, but he’s been a beacon of personal style for me from the moment I met him. He dresses fairly simply on the surface, but his execution is precise and he always looks comfortable. Working in an industry often fixated on the present, Justin finds a way to blend the timeless and the modern effortlessly. While imitation should never be your style goal, you’d do well to take these five outfits into account as inspiration if you’re thinking of where to next take your look.
Like everyone else I’ve featured with this series, I’ve been lucky to call Justin a friend. He’s the sort of person that really listens to you and responds accordingly; he doesn’t come to the conversation with a personal agenda. When I lost a job two and a half years ago, he was nice enough to take time out of his busy schedule (as the men’s fashion director of Bloomingdale’s) to give me career advice over a drink.
My hope for this series is to give you a 10 minute respite from your day—maybe you’re just here to look at outfit photos, or maybe, like I was, you’re at a career crossroads and the information gleaned from these experts can help you as it helped me. Justin and I discussed how art and fashion intersect, Dries Van Noten’s legacy and unusual styling, the desire for a casualized wardrobe and how to properly build it, and much more.
I know you’re an art history major and now you’re the men’s fashion director of Bloomingdale’s. Can you tell me about your career path from college to Bloomingdale’s?
My mom is a women’s clothing buyer, and growing up there were always various fashion publications on the kitchen table. I was a naturally curious kid and would dive into them at a young age. By the time I was a teen, I was buying every magazine in stock at the local Barnes & Noble. I’m still not sure why they let me in, but I was lucky enough to study at Columbia, which marked the beginning of my career path.
As I was living in New York, I spent a lot of time interning in various roles at different fashion companies but my last internship, which lead to my first job, was at Harper’s Bazaar. Once I graduated, Bazaar hired me freelance in various assistant roles. Sitting next to an editor there lead to a conversation with one of her friends, and ultimately an on-staff assistant position at Teen Vogue, where I oversaw the samples coming in and out for the fashion shoots. From there, I followed one of my bosses to Marie Claire, where I worked in the accessories department for her. She gave me the opportunity to cover the watch market, which meant attending the big watch trade shows in Basel and Geneva. At one of those shows, I was seated next to Eugene Tong at a dinner. A conversation with him eventually lead to a role at Details, working on the fashion team as a market editor. It was there that I dove in headfirst into menswear by attending runway shows and appointments in showrooms and working with stylists and the fashion team to establish what we would be covering and how we would be covering it.
Upon Details’ closure, I got a call from my Bloomingdale’s predecessor, Josh Peskowitz, who happened to be moving onto a new role. I counted my lucky stars and have been thrilled to be on the team here since. My role is incredibly dynamic and that’s one of the things I love most about it. While everything I do is rooted in product, that can take a lot of extensions: trend forecasting, advising buyers on our assortments, selecting items to feature in our marketing, and planning out our windows and hosting events, which we now offer in a virtual format as part of our Bloomingdale’s On Screen series.
How does your art history education inform your career? What role does art play in fashion? Do you have favorite artists? How about movements? Museums?
I had a great professor in college who used to say that the students of art history gain visual literacy. As they’re learning about art, what they’re also learning is how to decode visual signifiers and how to talk about them. Those are skills I use every day. Looking at product is one of the core elements of my job and knowing how to talk about it is crucial. I also learned to appreciate craftsmanship and the core tenets that accompany it. Specifically, the use of the right materials, the application of a novel design sense, and the expertise associated with experience. These elements all apply to fashion in many of the same ways they do to art and architecture.
Art can play many roles in fashion but what is really important is inspiration. I’m thinking of an exhibition I saw at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Dries van Noten worked with the museum’s curator to highlight his designs alongside work from the likes of Francis Bacon, Victor Vasarely, and Christopher Wool. It was one of the most beautiful exhibitions I have ever seen and one that I will always remember, as it authentically brought fashion and art together. Bacon is a favorite artist of mine and I’m also a huge fan of Henri Matisse, David Hockney, Sam Gilliam, and Alex Katz. In terms of more contemporary artists, I absolutely love what Lou Fratino is doing right now.
One of the cool things about my work is that (in more normal times) I get to travel a fair amount, which has granted me the opportunity to see some museums I might not otherwise have discovered. My all-time favorite is the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art just outside of Copenhagen, Denmark. The space itself is incredible, as it’s an older villa with a mid-century extension. It features an outdoor sculpture park with numerous significant works overlooking a body of water, along with an extensive collection of modern works and thoughtfully curated visiting exhibitions.
Which brands are go-tos for you, and which new ones have you excited? Have your favorite brands changed over time, or have they stayed relatively constant for you? Has your style transitioned much over the course of your career?
Dries van Noten has been a hero for a long time. He’s a great example of a designer who shows unexpected pairings of pieces in a way that feels fresh and interesting, and who tends to create a great combination of special fashion pieces and practical wardrobing pieces. I tend to find that I am drawn to other creators who share a similar approach of focusing on craftsmanship: Veronique Nichanian at Hermès, Luke and Lucie Meier at Jil Sander, Pierre Maheo at Officine Generale, Jonathan Anderson at Loewe, and Christophe Lemaire. Other brands I often find myself drawn to are Massimo Alba, Massimo Piombo, Our Legacy, and Barena. In terms of new talent: Sefr, Post-Imperial, 18 East, Bode, and Federico Curradi are at the top of my list.
My love of the brands I mentioned earlier has been steadfast, but perhaps how I approach them has changed. I think some of that has come with age as well. I spent most of my 20s generally focused on a neutral palette that primarily played with texture. Overall, it was somewhat more minimalist, with navy being a prominent color. Perhaps I was a little less confident in putting things together. The past few years I have become more comfortable with mixing colors and patterns that make me happy. I also approach it in a way that is a little more offbeat, or really just for me.
How do you presently approach your personal style, and how has this changed since you started caring about clothing? How did you go about building your wardrobe and dialing in on your look? Has a world affected by social distancing changed your style?
Gallery: 10 Brands from Africa and the African Diaspora That Are Enriching the Fashion Industry (Harper’s Bazaar)
I mostly think about wearing things that make me happy and comfortable, and the question that’s top of mind when I get dressed in the morning is, “Does this feel right?” That can take a lot of different tones. The most important part is that concept of mixing I mentioned, since it’s what I think about when I look at myself in the mirror. I like the idea of mixing slightly unexpected colors, slicker and softer textures, bold and subtle patterns, plus the technical and the organic. Great personal style is about interesting and unexpected juxtapositions, and it’s not only about clothes. This applies to a lot of variables in life that shape one’s personal style. I’m curious about a lot of different things and I find that I like them even more for their differences.
In terms of wardrobe building, it’s important to identify the brands that make clothing that work for you personally and sticking with it. For me, that tends to be: Dries Van Noten and Our Legacy for prints; Piombo, Aspesi, Herno, and Officine Generale for outerwear; Massimo Alba for sweaters; Barena and Lemaire for pants.
In the past year, I wouldn’t say my style has changed but I would say I’m gravitating toward certain things in my wardrobe more. Items like easy pants and slipper-like shoes, including a clog, mule, or a Belgian loafer, are often part of my rotation. As the world outside seems a little more tumultuous, like many others, I am gravitating toward comfort and ease. For me personally, it’s more about pajama-inspired pieces than it is about sweatpants.
Menswear, and of course fashion, is cyclical. For the past few years, we’ve been seeing a return to tailoring and a step away from loud graphics, though tailoring has never really left the conversation. What sort of advice do you have for someone looking to update their wardrobe? How about for someone who wants to dress more like an adult?
I would recommend investing in great foundational pieces and mixing it up. We’ve spent the past couple of years seeing a return to tailoring, but that’s occurred simultaneously with an overall shift toward casualization. Historical ideas of formality no longer feel right and that’s especially true during this time, while we lead lives that are not as clearly defined by traditional schedules, occasions, and events. So, the key here is flexibility. The concept of a “work wardrobe” and a “casual wardrobe” have been thrown out the window. Instead, guys should be looking for great and well-fitting executions of pieces they love and that they will want to wear a lot. It’s helpful to think of the pieces as building blocks. The pairing of them together can make them more or less formal for a given need. For example, the right topcoat works as well over a hoodie and jeans as it does a suit. That same hoodie works with its matching bottom as it does with a wool easy pant. One of the most important pieces is shoes. A sneaker can be used smartly to make something more formal feel a little more relaxed, while conversely the right loafer can refine a more casual look.
NYC is in such an odd place, but it will always retain its magic and resiliency. Talk to me about why your NYC favorites are your favorites.
New York retains that magic because of the people that live here. I keep referencing this concept of the mix and that translates here, too. The cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity in this city, I personally feel, are really what makes it so great.
That said, there are some places that just feel so New York to me and that’s the reason why they are my favorites. In some ways, I couldn’t imagine them existing as they do anywhere else. One of those places is Lincoln Center and specifically the David Koch theater, home to the New York City Ballet. Between the famous fountain, the architecture by Phillip Johnson, the incredible performances, and the occasional art installation they put in the lobby, I know any night there is going to be magical. I feel that way too about the stadium at Forest Hills. It’s an outdoor concert venue in Queens that was built in the ’60s and curates incredible musical talent. Attending at least one concert there is something I’ve done the past several summers, and a tradition I’ve really missed this year.
I have two restaurants that come to mind. The first is a very small French place in the Village called Mimi, owned by three young and incredibly friendly guys who have an exceptional approach to food, design, and creating a beautiful experience. A good friend used to live down the block, and the restaurant’s bar became our hangout spot. The other is an Italian place in the West Village called Malaparte. I moved earlier this year from the West Village to Brooklyn, but that restaurant was one I was at regularly. One night, it was pouring rain and the restaurant’s manager offered to give me and my partner a ride home after we finished our dinner. It’s this type of charm that makes that place feel so special.
In the past year, Brooklyn Bridge Park has become a favorite location. Pier 6 is a short walk from my apartment, and it’s got that bit of magic that is special. To get there, you pass through a few windy walking paths and a small field of overgrown wildflowers which lead to large lawn where on any given night, you might encounter a family picnic, a first date, and a yoga class—all occurring at the same time. That lawn has a great view of not only the Statue of Liberty, but the entire east side of downtown Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Do you have any advice for young menswear buyers on how to hone their craft? Do you have any techniques you’ve implemented over the course of your career that still hold true for you today? What makes for a good buy?
I think a strongly developed foundational knowledge in the industry is super important, as knowing what came before can help guide you in understanding what’s to come next. I likewise think it’s important to critically engage with many forms of fashion media and with the arts. Together they help develop a strong sense of personal taste and a foundation for aesthetic decision-making. Using both of those in combination with the data to guide a selection is important.
A good buy balances a strong fashion POV—one that translates across an enticing product assortment, mannequins, and marketing—with more basic, essential wardrobe pieces. It’s important to consistently provide the customer with something new while also having the tried and true.
Has the pandemic changed how Bloomingdale’s buys or displays its offerings? What does the future of retail look like for Bloomingdale’s given the new landscape we are being forced to live in?
At Bloomingdale’s, we’re seeing the effect of our customer’s changing lifestyles reflected in how they are gravitating towards our advanced and luxury offerings, from designer sneakers to luxury knits to upscale skincare. People may not be spending on experiences like vacations this year, so they are looking for an escape or indulgence. As we are all settling into this new way of life, men are continuing to look for comfort but also want to look polished. We’ve been seeing the trend toward casualization happening over the past several years already, so it’s been a matter of building on that momentum in our offering and showcasing it in our editorial content. Since Bloomingdale’s is a multi-category retailer, we are in a unique position to meet this shift in our customer’s lifestyles across the board.
This is coming to life at Bloomingdale’s 59th Street, where we are launching two exciting new shops. The first is the Comme des Garcons Pocket Shop, which features the CDG Play collection of clothing, as well as sneakers, accessories, and fragrance. We are also launching our first Ermenegildo Zegna shop, featuring an incredible range of luxury sportswear and soft tailoring. While very different aesthetically, both speak to a certain sense of timeless comfort that feels right in the current climate, whether through irreverent twists on classic designs, or top-notch craftsmanship executed with top-of-the-line materials.
Another example is our holiday gift shops, specifically the “Give Happy” shop and our Carousel holiday pop-up. At the end of a challenging year for our customers, the holidays are a great way to connect with loved ones through the art of gift-giving. For our “Find Your Happy Place” Carousel pop-up, we’ve partnered with tastemakers Matt Hranek and Yolanda Edwards to curate an elevated assortment that provides a much-needed retreat at the end of 2020. Guests can find special finds from brands that our curators discovered during their past travels. The goal here is convenience, so we’re a one-stop shop for their gifting needs, but most importantly approaching it with a bit of fun. As we head into 2021 and beyond, the Bloomingdale’s experience will continue to emphasize comfort and convenience—we’re meeting our customers however and wherever they want to shop.