Today’s interview is with Nathan Branch – a writer and photographer currently living in New Zealand. Nathan – whose writing I’ve followed for years – has an incredibly varied resume, with experiences ranging from electronic artist, to photographer, to department store worker.
The last bit is how I originally discovered Nathan and his writing – his family ran a multi-generational department store that operated for more than a century, exposing Nathan to the industry of retailing. His deep roots in the retail industry coupled with a critical eye and keen writing makes for some great reads on fashion, and I was happy to have the opportunity to ask Nathan some more questions about himself his passions, and his and his thoughts on the luxury industry. Enjoy meeting Nathan!
Who are you? What do you do, and where do you live?
I’m Nathan Branch. I live in central Auckland, New Zealand, and am presently working on a photographic project that’s an attempt at capturing this very transitional period as Auckland struggles to retain its unique, unpretentious character while also growing into a world-class city and international travel destination.
My partner and I have lived in New Zealand for less than three years, but we’ve already seen Auckland undergo an enormous amount of change as it welcomes an influx of skilled Asian immigrants while also working to establish greater trade relations with its Asian neighbours, especially China (which is a potentially huge consumer base for New Zealand’s agricultural and dairy products, which is NZ’s biggest export industry).
You have a background in retail – your family ran a department store in Michigan for many decades. If your ancestors were to see a modern department store today, what would they think?
I’m not sure my grandparents would even recognize what a department store looks like anymore. Things were less feverishly designer-brand oriented back when our family store was first founded (in the late 1800s) — it was more about the department store having a reputation for bringing in quality merchandise than it was about the brands they carried. If the merchandise didn’t stack up then the store’s reputation suffered, so there was a constant challenge to find the best quality products at a price that local customers could afford. Kind of like how the Selfridges store is portrayed in the PBS “Mr. Selfridge” series (yet on a much smaller and way less grand scale).
Today, department stores are just prime real estate where consumers search for specific brands they recognise rather than trusting the store’s own buyers to introduce them to items of quality and value. Each brand seems to have its own spotlit territory among the other merchandise, with names and logos prominently displayed and current ad campaigns hanging on the walls.
That’s not a situation my great-grandparents (and their children) ever had to deal with. The family name was on the door, and it was the family’s reputation for taste, quality and service that kept people coming back. That’s completely reversed in today’s world — consumers now trust the brands themselves for taste and quality, while putting up with whatever service is available at whatever store they frequent.
The continuing growth in online shopping only emphasizes this shift.
You’re obviously a very educated luxury observer, with strong opinions. What are your thoughts on Slimane and Saint Laurent? Will he be successful, and in 20 years is it more likely that he’ll be seen as a visionary, or something else?
I still don’t quite know what to think of Slimane as a designer, because he seems to come across as more a very successful and on-trend stylist than a traditional designer in the mould of Lagerfeld, Dior or St. Laurent. I’m not really sure how much cutting, draping and sewing the man does, yet I don’t think that’s necessarily why he was hired, so it’s probably not even an important point to consider.
I tend to think of Slimane as a pop-culture mood ring – like Marc Jacobs, he’s exceptionally good at sensing which way the wind is blowing and then hopping aboard that particular train before it leaves the station. The majority of critics (and fashion bloggers) howled in outrage over his “California Grunge” collection for Fall 2013, yet I can already see its impact on the streets here in Auckland (or, conversely, what he presented was already hitting the streets and he was among the first to recognize it).
He reached into the international zeitgeist hat and pulled out a very on-point rabbit. It may not offer anything new to the fashion conversation, but it will undoubtedly sell very well and that’s all his (major luxury conglomerate) employers at Kering (formerly PPR) require.
Twenty years from now, the fashion conversation will likely revolve entirely around Asian/Indian designers, and I’m not certain anyone designing for Western luxury brands today will have a lasting impact on that new future world.
Except for maybe Alexander Wang.
These days, luxury brand shops are everywhere….yet luxury has traditionally been something special, rare. How will major brands manage this balance between ubiquity and exclusivity in the future?
Honestly, I think it may be too late for the major brands. Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Chanel – they’re now hopelessly mainstream, no matter the prices they charge or the “special limited editions” they dangle in their windows, and they’ll just have to deal with that. Once a brand starts opening shops on every major street in every major city in the world, it stops being special.
I remember visiting Prague and feeling incredibly frustrated that nearly every shopping district carried all the same Western designer brands. It took me several days of hunting to find a leather goods brand that was actually designed and manufactured in the Czech Republic. The same for Tokyo – I visited department store after department store in an attempt to find something uniquely Japanese to take back to the US as gifts for my friends, but it was all the same brands that I could find at Neiman Marcus and Barney’s. I finally found a handbag counter displaying a Japanese designer, and the salesclerk literally apologized that it was “just a Japanese designer” and asked if I wanted to go buy something from Dior or Lacroix, instead?
No, I didn’t. Because what made these Japanese handbags particularly interesting is that I couldn’t get them anywhere outside of Japan (of course, the language barriers of shopping in a foreign country contributes to the problem – it’s likely I could have more easily found local brands if I could speak the local languages, or if I travelled beyond the major metropolitan centers, but still…).
What are some brands in the luxury space today that you admire?
I can’t say I admire any of the larger brands anymore. They’ve all sold their soul in one way or another. I have a grudging respect for Chanel because they have yet to go public on the stock market, which means they can still make all their own decisions and do whatever they want as a cohesive brand rather than as a corporate entity that has to answer to its shareholders (a la Prada, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Michael Kors and so on), but even Chanel has voraciously expanded across the globe, and they slap their bags (and lipstick) on every trending young celebrity in sight, which gets tiring after the ten-thousandth time you’re inundated with it.
Not to mention that Karl Lagerfeld could certainly stand to have someone tell him “no” every once in a while, especially “No, Mr. Lagerfeld, you might want to reconsider saying that.” I think his apology to Adele was the first time I’d ever heard of him apologizing to anyone, and that was because he’d just insulted a pop star with millions of adoring and loyal fans… fans who are potential big business for Chanel makeup products. I can only imagine the phone call Lagerfeld received after his “Adele is too fat” comments hit print.
The brands I’m really admiring right now are the new luxury brands – small, non-conglomerate designers and producers that are devoted to aesthetics and craftsmanship and aren’t interested in a bunch of hedge fund managers banging down their doors. They’re in business because they love design, and that they love to design.
Brands like Visvim, Nigel Cabourn, White Mountaineering, Margaret Howell, Barena – or even companies like Crane Brothers here in Auckland, a family run menswear shop that’s mostly bespoke but is now offering a more affordable off-the-rack line that’s made locally in New Zealand out of excellent British and Italian fabrics. That, to me, is admirable. Producers that do it for the joy of it, that have a very specific customer in mind and work to make both themselves and their customers happy. Their bottom line incorporates just as much emotional and spiritual reward as it does financial.
What is your view on “fast fashion”, especially in the wake of Bangladesh? Will we see a shift in consumer purchasing behavior and/or the industry?
Watching what’s been happening in Bangladesh is like watching a drunk driver blow through a stop-light and cause a bloody car crash where everyone dies except for him. All of that horrific loss of life was entirely preventable, and it happened precisely because major retail brands just want cheap labour so they can compete on pricing (rather than design or quality). They don’t care about working conditions, they don’t care about factory safety, they don’t care about factories bursting into flames, mass fainting spells among workers, toxic chemicals that poison water supplies – they care only about getting “affordable” clothing onto the racks and into the hands of their customers.
Consumers are the only ones who can break this cycle of death and misery in low-wage garment producing countries like Bangladesh, India and Vietnam, which means we have to be willing buy a little less while paying a lot more for our clothing and accessories, and we have to start giving a sh*t about who makes the clothing and the conditions in which these people work.
I find it baffling that some of the very same fashion mouthpieces who agitate for living wages, health care and the enforcement of workplace rules for runway & print models will brag about the steals they got at Target, Primark or Forever 21. Those bargains were manufactured by workers who earn less than a dollar a day, have zero access to health care, aren’t allowed breaks or vacation time, and their working conditions are exponentially more dangerous than a photo shoot with Terry Richardson. But the outrage gets buried underneath the low low price on the tag.
I’ve read articles where major brands are supposedly “doing something” about the situation in Bangladesh, but it sounds more like a Band-Aid to get the present hubbub to quiet down than a genuine push for real change. I could be wrong, but it’s not often that today’s fashion world catches the pessimist by surprise.
A major passion of yours currently is photography. Can you share some favorite photos that you’ve taken? Any tips you can share for photography amateurs?
I wish there were simple tips I could offer when it comes to photography, but it mostly seems to be a long journey of trial and error studded with sporadic episodes of growth and epiphany. I recently signed up for an online photography instruction course with a professional photographer out of Malaysia, and working with him has been a necessary, if somewhat brutal, experience in improving my own skill set.
The instructor points out my mistakes, encourages me to use my camera in different ways, and prods me into stretching outside my usual creative boundaries. It can be difficult and frustrating, but the more willing I am to accept his criticism and listen to what he tells me (I signed up for the course because his talent is obvious), then the better I become.
So, probably the best tip I can offer would be to forgo the latest piece of camera gear that’s just been released and sign up for an online photography course instead, or take a class if there are classes offered near where you live. If you can’t afford a course or can’t find any classes, then the next best thing is to find a photography group, or even just one other photo-loving person, to meet up with on a regular basis.
I grew by leaps and bounds when I started hanging out with a photography buff who lived in my apartment building in Auckland (before he moved to Australia). He knew so much more about cameras and photography than I did, and the great thing about camera geeks is that they generally *love* talking about cameras and are delighted to stumble across someone else who enjoys photography as much as they do. He even invited me to go out on a couple of picture taking ventures with him where I watched what he did, asked questions, and listened to him when he took the time to point out things I might be doing wrong.
So #1) there’s no shame in admitting that you could use some help, and #2) there’s no point in getting prickly or defensive when someone who’s a better photographer than you are points out your mistakes and errors. Easier said than done, I know – but not impossible.
As for picking some favourite photos of my own to share, my favourites tend to be the ones I just took, so that change constantly: however, here are a few recent pics I like:
You recently moved to New Zealand. Can you share some of the motivation behind your move?
My partner and I visited New Zealand a good number of ago and fell in love with the place. It possesses a wild, natural beauty that’s like nowhere else (for example, the Lord of the Rings movies? New Zealand really does look like that) an we told each other that if we were to ever sell our house and leave the United States, New Zealand is where we’d end up.
And here we are.
It doesn’t hurt that the coffee culture is fanatic and fantastic, the locally sourced food is terrific and the people are mostly of the laid-back and friendly type. While there are certainly disadvantages to living so geographically removed from the majority of the population on the planet — i.e. international shipping charges, ugh! — as economic and social tensions start to escalate across the globe, being geographically removed could turn out to be more a blessing than a curse.
Can you share a piece of life advice?
The goal of artistic expression is not to be the best there is, but to be the best you that there is. When I head out into the day with my camera, it’s self-defeating if I spend all my time trying to take pictures like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Garry Winogrand or Jill Furmanovsky or . . . or anyone else who’s not me.
I certainly love the photographs of Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand and Furmanovsky, but if I continuously follow someone else’s photography-style recipes, I’ll never create any dishes of my own (if you’ll allow me to mix metaphors).
I’ll share two quotes that I wrote down in a book and I look at them every morning:
“You can’t copy anybody and end with anything. If you copy, it means you’re working without any real feeling” — Billie Holiday
“If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed” — e.e. cummings
What are some of your other hobbies and passions?
I like to cook (hence my happiness with the quality of New Zealand’s agriculture and my over-reliance on cooking metaphors); and I recorded a couple of quirky electronica albums about ten years ago under the name Aalacho and seriously enjoyed the process of making music and collaborating with other musicians, but then we sold our house in 2006 and started moving from city to city, so I got rid of all my music gear as constantly tearing down and setting back up a home-recording studio just wasn’t feasible. But now that we’ve landed in New Zealand and are presently house hunting, I’m hoping we find a place soon where we put down roots and I can eventually get back to recording.
I also dream of establishing a fruit tree orchard in the backyard, brewing our own beer in the basement, learning how to make the perfect cumin gouda in my kitchen – typical aging hipster type stuff, I guess, but mostly because the concept of climbing Mount Everest or dog-sledding in Alaska sounds really cold and uninviting.
Finally…please share something surprising about yourself!
What, it’s not surprising enough that I want to make my own cheese and brew my own beer? If my twenty-something self had read those words, he’d be downright shocked.
I really enjoyed hearing more of Nathan’s thoughts on the business of luxury, fast fashion, photography, and more. What I truly appreciate about Nathan is that he has a true opinion, and he’s willing and able to explain rationally why he holds it. Thank you very much for Nathan for taking the time to be here today, and for more of his thoughts, please visit his blog!