Brit Ben Stubbington and German-born Robert Geller, two successful US-based designers, provide a revealing glimpse into their differing career choices in an intimate chat facilitated by the first Joe’s Blackbook Session of 2021. Both men are in reflective mood as they discuss their creative motivations, career evolution, and the advice they would pass on to emerging talent today.
Ben Stubbington, SVP of Design and Concept at Lululemon, has built an impressive career working exclusively for other people. In fact, his resume is a list of mega-brand names whose businesses have grown on his watch: American Eagle Outfitters, Banana Republic, Theory, Calvin Klein. Robert Geller, on the other hand, has remained staunchly his own boss since meeting pattern maker, Alexandre Plokhov, with whom he formed the label Cloak which developed a cult following in the early 00s, and won Vogue/CFDA funding and an Ecco Domani award. Geller debuted his eponymous menswear line at New York Fashion Week in 2007 and went on to win GQ Best New Menswear Designer Award in 2009 and CFDA Swarovski Award for Menswear in 2011.
Career of an independent designer versus working for a corporate brand
Seeing other people wearing something that he has created is what Stubbington finds most satisfying and perhaps why he has always been so in demand. He likens a garment to a piece of music or art, saying, “Giving it up to the interpretation of someone else, it takes on a life of its own,” and adds that he prefers to “accentuate versus create the personality of the wearer, enabling people to feel better.”
Working well with others has however been a feature of both designers’ careers, and going it alone doesn’t mean a lack of professional partnerships, especially in this era of collaborations. Despite the fact that Geller’s runway collections display a signature aesthetic––romantic layering, moody palette, and effortless cool––he has enjoyed a diverse range of successful collaborations. He values the experience of uniting with like-minded creatives, as seen in his long-running partnership with Common Projects, and a more recent one with Stubbington at Lululemon.
“I’ve been blessed,” says Stubbington of the people he interacts with daily. “Many of the teams I’ve worked with have made me the success I am.” He lists his previous bosses as mentors and friends, and now that he finds himself in their position, strives to have the same impact on those under him. “It’s a shared responsibility when you’re a leader. I have a firm vision, but I need to balance that with other’s visions. That makes better product. I try to be a teacher, student, mentor. There’s ying and yang, striving for equilibrium.”
The importance of attracting the right financial partners surely figures into an independent designer’s thinking in a way that has not troubled Stubbington. Japanese company So Inc bankrolled Geller’s menswear launch. They have since parted ways and currently his partner is Onward Global Fashion. But Stubbington says that funding concerns have also influenced his career decisions. “Fear of not having a paycheck every two weeks is also part of it.” His father was an art teacher and creativity filled his childhood, but he recognizes that his working middle-class background instilled in him the value of steady work. “It’s how I grew up,” he says.”
There is a certain freedom in executing one’s own personal vision and Geller offers the menswear market a slice of his distinctive and recognizable taste level. Whereas an element of disconnecting from the product is important in Stubbington’s job. He admits that while he must turn the creativity on, he cannot personalize it too much. He sees his role primarily as catering to the wearer, uses words like “curator” and “editor” to define himself, and considers flexibility one of his top assets. “Every season, every year, I have to reset myself.”
While the trials of being an independent creative trying to advance in a world dominated by corporate brands might seem pretty obvious, Stubbington warns that a career on the other side can be no less difficult. The level of dysfunction and toxic culture within one company proved so damaging that he suffered burn-out. He wishes that he had discovered meditation and yoga much earlier than he did, citing their benefits of consciousness, self-reliance, and gaining perspective on what’s really important in life. He also counteracts the stresses of his job with painting.
Starting out as a designer much harder in social media world
Both men believe that young designers starting out nowadays must confront hurdles they never had to, whichever career trajectory they plan, whether corporate or independent. “It’s so much more confusing nowadays,” says Geller. “So much self-promotion and noise. Who wants to always scream?” Stubbington finds the picture of perfection that everyone posts on social media problematic, and that designers should prioritize paying their dues, working hard, the getting there, rather than appearing to have already made it. “You’ve got to be your own hero,” he says, “but you’ve got to be humble.”
Affirmed minimalists, both Geller and Stubbington bemoan the sheer amount of stuff in circulation, and the inundation of logos and branding ushered in by social media era. But Stubbington thinks social media can be useful for designers starting out, especially if they aspire to the kind of career he has enjoyed. “Blind-Instagram people you admire. Many people, if they’re good people, want to help you, especially if they’ve been in this jaded industry for a while.”
Geller nods but adds the following caveat: “Learn and become good. People will find out if you’re pretending to be good.”
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry