By: Sophia Varga
Many successful American designers start off sketching pieces in workrooms at Parson’s or studying Oleg Cassini’s custom-made dresses for Jackie O at F.I.T. Not John Bakel. Growing up in a sleepy suburb of Long Island, one of five children, all equally over-achieving academics, Bakel gained entry into NYU where he studied physics, Arabic and History. Hardly the path one would normally take to achieve notoriety on the runway. Luckily in the world of fashion, normal is boring and Bakel’s natural instinct has landed him one of the most coveted jobs in the industry, as one of the design directors at Ralph Lauren.
To understand how Bakel went from studying equations of motion in undergrad Physics to designing beautifully crafted silk cocktail dresses, we must go back to the beginning. Moving to Manhattan after high school was a necessity. It was diverse and far more exciting than Long Island; certainly more stylish. Living on First and 10th in the east village after graduating from college, Bakel was looking for a job. A friend landed him a freelance position at Tommy Hilfiger, where he worked under Ginny Hilfiger and alongside the brilliant Rogan Gregory. It was there that his love affair with fashion began.
With no formal training in art, he developed his sketching ability through trial and error. Working with house designers at Hilfiger he studied the ins and outs of design from tailoring a shirt to figuring out which colors and fabrics made a collection strong and cohesive.
While the work was often daunting, Bakel proved himself a sought after designer quickly. Four years into his stint at Hilfiger, he was recruited by Gap as an outerwear designer and soon was at the helm of Old Navy’s denim line. Inspiration on a trip to Mexico gave him an idea on where to take denim. Coming home invigorated and full of ideas he put his concepts to work. Where Old Navy had previously had upwards of seventy washes for their denim, Bakel narrowed that down to four focusing on the quality of the workmanship in the hardware and design and bringing the most popular washes to the forefront. To keep the price point low as Old Navy is famous for, they bought an enormous amount of denim, keeping the denim mills overseas in business and making such large purchases that they were able to be the mill’s only client for a year at a time. The mills he worked with there were based in both the US and Japan. This relationship produced a superior product and was a massive success for Old Navy.
From Old Navy, Bakel designed for a four year stint for Polo Jeans and found his opportunities to consult multiply. Around 2003, Mavi, a wildly successful jeans line based out of Istanbul, Turkey bought Bakel on board to reinvent their denim lines. Here he traveled back and forth from the Middle East, all the time expanding his global knowledge of fashion. After Mavi, John consulted with Levi’s and eventually landed his current gig as design director at Ralph Lauren. Presently he’s working on their new line called Denim and Supply, Ralph Lauren, while also working on his own stunning, eponymous line. His favorite from his current line is a beautiful black confection with a dangerously low back and beautiful belt detail.
Bakel is inspired by the women he dates and works with; all women in fact. He described the women he designs for as the quintessential East Village girl, modern, hip and chic.
He needs no direction in his design other than his own and while some designers will welcome suggestions for a certain neckline or cut, that is not Bakel’s style. He designed two of his sister’s wedding dresses without any input from either.
He cites Hedi Slimane, Olivier Theyskens and Charles James as designers he truly admires, but was quick to say that instinct is his biggest inspiration. Of current trends, he feels an affinity for the current Navajo presence on the runway.
Today, Mr. Bakel is focusing on his women’s wear line, expanding his brand and working to develop a strong and long-lasting business model for the future.