(GQ) Nick Wooster might be known as the alpha male of American street style, what with the countless blogs dedicated to his perfectly fitted suits, love of all things camouflage, and serious salt-and-pepper facial hair, but the guy has a day job. And until recently, that meant working for a string of high-end retailers like Neiman Marcus and Park & Bond. Now Wooster is embarking on a new adventure, taking on menswear for the masses at J.C. Penney. We caught up with him as he finished his second month with the retail giant to talk about what he can bring to J.C. Penney’s menswear, what the brand already has in its back pocket, and how he ended up there in the first place.
Nick Wooster: I am.
GQ: Good, street style can continue to exist for another six months. So what was the genesis of you going to J. C. Penney?
Nick Wooster: One of my oldest friends, Mike Fisher*, is responsible for the look of J.C. Penney’s stores going forward and said, “you should meet Ron [Johnson, Penney's CEO] and you should come here.” I was surprised because I hadn’t really worked in that world before. The thing that sold me was Ron, who worked with Mike at Apple. He gave the most amazing presentation to investors about his reinvention of J.C. Penney, and when I watched it, my mouth fell open because he was articulating all the things that I felt about shopping and about stores. I’m so obsessed with Apple and the chance to work with the people who really created Apple retail is the retail opportunity of a lifetime.
I’m a kid from Kansas, so J.C. Penney was where I got all my clothes from kindergarten to around 7th grade. In those days–the ’60s and ’70s–J.C. Penney served the same function as all the specialty stores we know today. In the same way there were three television stations everybody watched–ABC, CBS, or NBC–everybody shopped at Sears, Montgomery Ward, or Penney’s. And Penney’s was always the fashion store.
GQ: What are you going to be taking on in the role as VP, Brand, Design and Trend for Men’s, both day-to-day and long term?
Nick Wooster: Every day is different, but the thing that I’m most interested in is that I want us to have cool stuff. At the end of the day, we have a great platform–we have 1,100 stores plus online, and here’s the thing: taste and great colors and the right fit don’t have to cost anymore. I can help us do that. Anybody can make a thousand dollar garment because you find the finest fabric and the finest mills and you churn that out. Peter Rizzo taught me that years ago when we worked together at Barney’s. I’m dating myself, but in those days Giorgio Armani was a $1000 a suit, and we used to make suits in Italy for $400. And he said, “Anybody can make a thousand dollar suit, the trick is to make the $400 dollar garment look like the $1000 one.”
GQ: So the opportunity to create on such a large scale, with the people at Penney’s, is what you are most excited about?
Nick Wooster: Yes, exactly. That’s exactly what Ron and Michael have asked us to do–make great products and don’t worry about the constraints of the past. That’s a really liberating situation. So people here are excited to be doing this on a daily basis, and in a way, it’s a really easy job because it’s like, just make it better.
GQ: Speaking of making it better, what do you think is the biggest challenge with J.C. Penney’s menswear right now and what do you they’re doing right?
Nick Wooster: I would say that what they’re doing right is that it’s so big. The size of the men’s business here is bigger than at other department stores. So it means that men’s here has a bigger platform and a bigger voice at the table than maybe at some other stores in the world. We’re not fighting for a seat at the table, we have a big seat at the table.
It’s easy for me to Monday morning quarterback, so out of respect for whoever came prior to me, I think that in the quest to commoditize prices the thing that suffered was the style or the, let’s just say, relevance and not focusing on the hallmarks of quality that really are essential. The Stafford name is a heritage brand–it’s been in existence for thirty years. I think that heritage is an interesting trend out there. Whether it’s Red Wing or Dickies or Levis, all these really great brands–I would say Arizona and Stafford are those brands for us. I’m hopefully a steward of those brands and will bring them to a new place.
GQ: When will customers be able to actually see all of these changes in the stores?
Nick Wooster: In September, we are launching JCP, which is going to be a new brand to JC Penney. We have a design room for each brand and this was a room that blew me way. It’s going to be all those things you want. Here’s the thing: there’s no great gingham shirt, there’s no great Shetland blazer, there’s no perfect chino, at least for me, but there will be starting in September. I can’t take credit for that, but I can tell you that it was my goal, and Ron’s first mandate with regard to the ready-to-wear, and they did a really amazing job. Right now, we’re working on it for spring, and it will be an evolution of that idea.
GQ: Updated fits as well?
Nick Wooster: Absolutely. I would characterize before as maybe being big on a refrigerator. I think if you tried something on a year ago and if you tried something on today, across any division, any brand, you’d be surprised in a good way.
GQ: I think the collective menswear world will kill me if I didn’t ask this: How much camo can we expect in Penney’s?
Nick Wooster: [laughs] Well, it’s so funny, I want to say they killed the camo concept, but they didn’t, nobody did. Actually, there are camouflage Arizona slip-on sneakers for $15 that somebody sent me a text about, and I was like, “oh my god, I gotta have these things,” and they’re sitting on my desk, They’re absolutely amazing. I can’t promise that there’s gonna be a camo boutique, but camouflage is on my mind. It continues to be on my mind.
GQ: Other retailers have been using collaborations to build awareness and bring in new customers. Is this something you still feel has relevance? And would you consider doing it with Penney’s?
Nick Wooster: While I can’t say that there’s any kind of collaboration, we’ve certainly had a lot of conversations, so I think I’ll say, “stay tuned.” It’s funny, I just read an interview where Scott Sternberg said whoever designed Towncraft in the ’70s was what was inspiring him. That’s an interesting comment because he grew up the same way a lot of suburban kids did, and I think the people are interested in talking, you know, to us and about us, and we’re interested in listening.
GQ: Well there’s been a lot more conversation online about menswear, from street style to men simply having more access to product. How do you think this explosion in the digital realm has affected menswear?
Nick Wooster: For years, I think men’s was always referred to as the redheaded stepchild in a retail store, and maybe those days are over. I don’t know that anybody can say that it was due to any one particular thing, but I think for sure you cannot negate the importance of social media, but particularly bloggers. I feel like the menswear blogger is a special breed and by that I mean they really have brought menswear out of the closet and into the public discourse where guys are not afraid to talk about style, dressing, clothes. I think that just the rise of GQ.com comments on how important the digital sphere is to the whole conversation. It’s really mind-blowing and I still don’t even think we know yet what any of it means. I think we’re really still at the infancy stage.
GQ: Your Tumblr (nickwooster.com) is certainly followed by a lot of people. You said you think everything’s interesting and your blog certainly showcases that. What’s most inspiring to you right now?
Nick Wooster: I have the good fortune of being able to make a living in a really creative visual environment. It’s my obligation to look around and see what’s there. I can’t say it’s any one particular thing, because I think my blog is the Rorschach test of what’s going on in my head. I get interested in different things at different times. At certain times it’s movies. Lately, I’ve been reading novels. I never read novels–I’m usually only interested in non-fiction–but I’ve been reading Gore Vidal and then this amazing book called The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont, which is set in this prep school in the ’80s–an amazing book. The Tom Sachs exhibit at the [Park Avenue] Armory was also super, super inspiring, from the videos to the collaboration with Nike. Buildings always inspire me. Travel, to a certain extent, too. It just ebbs and flows with what the interest is.
GQ: And what would you say is the most exciting thing happening in menswear right now?
Nick Wooster: I probably sound like a broken record, but for me, Japan still seems to be that over-arching place. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get enough of the way the Japanese people seem to process information like American heritage. Vintage became such an amazing thing because the Japanese saw the intrinsic beauty of denim the way it used to be made versus how it was being made in the ’80s. They were the first to say it was something really valuable and precious.
Second, the fact that there’s a Wes Anderson movie out. And, the third one would be Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, because you know that’s going to be such a seminal movie.
I’m at a nexus where Japan is always there, coupled with those two films, and then maybe a little Tom Sachs thrown in. Those have been the most interesting things for me, in a while.
GQ: I think you just described your Pinterest board. We’ll have to put that together. Do you think there’s a reason we haven’t what’s happening in Japan happen stateside?
Nick Wooster: My guess is that as business in men’s is as dynamic as it is, you’re gonna find that more people, stores, and magazines will get the opportunity to spend more time there. What I said six months ago when I worked with Project was that, unfortunately, in the big department store/publishing nexus, Florence, Milan, Paris, New York were what everybody focused on. I was so grateful to be able to get the opportunity to go and bring it back. I bet that there will probably be more opportunity as business continues to grow…that more people will get the opportunity to see Japan. That’s an uneducated guess, but it’s a guess nonetheless.