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A Career Well Traveled

Neil Barrett is a veteran of Gucci and Prada, but it was a stint designing Samsonite Travel Wear that gave him the freedom to launch his own line.


MILAN, Italy — Neil Barrett may be known as the guy who created Samsonite's gimmicky Travel Wear collection--jackets with built-in neck rests and more that combined a backpacker's sense of utility with a fashion hound's need for style.

But the two-year job was just a means to an end for Barrett, who left Samsonite in August. "I had to have one major consultancy to pay the rent," said Barrett at his company here. These days, Barrett, 35, is being praised for his own successful line of post-minimalist men's and women's designer sportswear. In the same two years that he developed Travel Wear for Samsonite, the Neil Barrett collection landed in 160 top stores across Europe, Asia and North America, including Neiman Marcus, Barneys New York, Maxfield and Fred Segal.

The Samsonite gig also got the London designer's name in the press and demonstrated his flair for melding the practical with the stylish, a trait that's apparent in his signature line. "I left Samsonite because my own collection was making enough money," he said. "We broke even the first season. Now I have the luxury of doing my own collection."

Gigi Vezzola, formerly of Dolce & Gabbana, is designing Samsonite's Black Label collection.

Barrett is used to successful beginnings. Six years ago, he built Prada's menswear business from scratch. Before that, he was the senior menswear designer for five years at Gucci, which plucked him from his master's degree show at the prestigious Royal College of Art in London. (He also earned a bachelor's degree at London's St. Martin's School of Art.) In January 1999, Barrett left what he called his "dream job" at Prada to start his signature menswear line. When he debuted a capsule women's collection at the Pitti Immagine Uomo trade show in Florence last year, retailers requested that he expand the women's line.

One problem: "You have to believe you'll be able to wear it, or design it for a muse who is really close to you." That "muse" is himself and his own wardrobe. Hence, the spring 2001 line--his first full women's collection--is based on the men's and includes the same fabrics and silhouettes, recut to flatter the female form. "I'd be a fake if I tried to do a floaty, floaty women's collection," he said.

The menswear influences are subtle. A hip-slung pleated skirt is cut from the cotton traditionally used for men's shirts; the tricolor leather motorcycle jacket is curvier than the men's version; and the fine-gauge cotton and viscose sweaters have lower necklines and a tighter fit. He's added miniskirts and bustiers in basket weave leather. The clothes are priced about 20% below his former employers' collections, but they still share the same aesthetic. His leather skirts, for example, sell for about $500 to $650. Barrett has borrowed one of menswear's best ideas: Classic, timeless styles in high-quality fabrics.

"Post-minimalism, I had to add some detail to the garments so there would be some extra interest and a reason to buy mine--otherwise, I'm just another company," he said. "Our whole concept is to work on product, not P.R.," he said. "There's no hype."

And, unlike the Samsonite collections, no gimmicks.

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