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neil grotzinger nihl new york fashion menswear

The New York-based designer subverting masculine stereotypes

Neil Grotzinger’s label Nihl takes traditional tropes and throws sequins at them

Over the past few years, the menswear fashion schedule has quickly moved away from the stuffy, suited aesthetic that it became known for: particularly in London, where labels like Charles Jeffrey’s Loverboy and Art School are redefining what menswear can be. In New York, the name at the forefront of this new school of design is Nihl, which was founded and designed by Neil Grotzinger.

Shaped by his childhood growing up in Colorado (“It’s a very religious and militant part of the world,” he tells us) Grotzinger’s label looks to put forward a different idea of masculinity. “It’s really just about subversion of masculine stereotypes,” he says. “I utilise that framework and set it up for every collection but just establish different stereotypes each time.” This manifests in the form of intricate embellishments on items of clothing that have typically masculine connotations. Think wrestling singlets and shirting covered in a rainbow of sequins, as well as the frequent use of jockstraps as decoration rather than for athletic function.

While the brand is still fairly new, Grotzinger found himself one of the semi-finalists of the 2018 LVMH Prize, along with the likes of Eckhaus Latta, GmbH, and Dazed 100er Ludovic de Saint Sernin. For SS19, it also saw him invited by the CFDA to present on it’s NYFWM schedule, in what was the designer’s first show since his graduate collection. “I wanted to start doing shows again to bring this idea of performance and grandness. I want it to become understood as something that’s constantly progressing this dialogue forward,” Grotzinger continues.  

Here, we speak to the designer following his SS19 collection.

What was you path into the fashion industry?

Neil Grotzinger: I used to work for Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenberg as a technical embroidery designer. I would always design beadwork and embellishment for different designers, so that’s where I honed in on that skill, within the industry.

I was always working as a womenswear designer and I wanted to do menswear, but I got to learn that skillset really well as a part of all these womenswear teams. After a while, I felt like ‘okay, I understand this practice now and I want to apply to it what I want to do.’ I didn’t want to just keep working on dresses that I had no real relationship towards.

Your label explores ideas of masculinity. Why is that important to you?

Neil Grotzinger: It was one of those things that subconsciously I always had something to say about, but maybe it didn’t necessarily come to the tip of my tongue up until the point I was actually back in school.

The fact that I was a womenswear designer helped me to understand that in a big way, because I couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel as attached to what I was doing. It got to a certain point where I was always thinking about clothes for myself outside of work, and I always got a lot of gratification from that because I wasn’t just making something I could buy in a store. It was always about making something that I knew that I would never have access to.

“I was always thinking about clothes for myself outside of work, because I wasn’t just making something I could buy in a store. It was always about making something that I knew that I would never have access to” – Neil Grotzinger

What does the masculinity you’re creating mean to you? Is it aspirational?

Neil Grotzinger: I definitely think it’s aspirational. It’s about constructing the argument as well. I think moving forward it’s going to be more about how far into the gender neutral grey area we can go while still maintaining a sense of masculinity. At the beginning it was really all about just constructing the argument first so that people could understand this is what is required to get everyone to see masculinity as something else.

Do you think heterosexual men would be interested in what you’re proposing?

Neil Grotzinger: I think there are certain sized straight men who would be interested and certain sized straight men who do wear it – it’s not that it’s intended to be only for the queer-identifying person.

I think a lot of queer-identifying people immediately latched onto my work just based on having that same suspicion of like ‘I feel like no one is making this right now but I’ve always wanted to see it.’ That’s who is in my head when I'm designing, but if other people want to wear it that’s fine and I’m happier for it. Like, women wear my clothes all the time and they always look incredible – it has a broader outreach.

What was the starting point for the SS19 collection?

Neil Grotzinger: So the collection is titled Subservient Authorities. With each collection I like to take different archetypes within masculine culture and subvert them through hand beadwork or different tactile techniques.

For this season it was all about somebody who was in the military, or a footballer, or somebody who works on Wall Street, and transforming those characters into something that’s very effeminate to give it a different quality that you might not assume. I’ve used embellishment more subtly in this collection, it’s less full-on. I’m trying to feel out the grey area. It’s not totally erotic or covered in beads, it’s the grey area in between. It just has hints of transformation and embellishment.   

What was the idea behind the models wearing jockstraps?

Neil Grotzinger: It’s one of the most interesting things to me that has already been subverted by queer culture in so many ways. It’s technically an athletic garment, but when you use it as decoration it becomes so homoerotic. So it made perfect sense to me.  

How do you see the brand evolving in the future?

Neil Grotzinger: Going forward every season, we’ll always do a new variation on one particular thing that people really enjoy. I find that a lot of brands sometimes end up catering to their customer to the point that it feels like they’ve lost their aesthetic, but at the same time we have certain pieces that I think people consistently gravitate towards, like the leotards and the singlets.

I’m consistently trying to think how am I going to push the market forward, like always with an eye for desirability and sellability. What would I wear and what would I want if I saw it in a store. But also, what haven’t I seen on the floor at the same time. We’re identifying people and consistently giving them what they feel like they don’t have access to.