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Nantucket Reds, Whites, and Navy Blues

For his clean modern riff on the classics, designer Michael Bastian finds inspiration in everything from Robert Rauschenberg to Jaws.

I got the idea for the wing logo on my polo shirts from a Robert Rauschenberg combine." Michael Bastian, former men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, is rifling through the packed inspiration board in his New York showroom and citing influences for the line of men’s clothing he introduced last year. "And I love this portrait of Rauschenberg," he says, pointing to a photograph of the artist tacked on the wall in between fabric swatches. Rauschenberg is about 35 in the picture, looking lean and a little ascetic in paint-splattered khakis and a sweatshirt pushed up to his elbows: "He’s elegant and unstudied at the same time."

Unlike others in this business, who name obscure influences that seem to have little to do with their actual designs (Joan of Arc, Siouxsie Sioux, Botticelli, and forties French film actress Arletty were all said to have inspired one designer’s recent collection), Bastian’s references are for the most part spot on. He points to a version of that Rauschenberg sweatshirt hanging on a rack nearby (Bastian’s riff is in navy-blue cashmere). Then he pauses, adding, "Oh, and there’s Jaws, too."

This, even within the always slightly surreal realm of fashion inspiration, is surprising.

Jaws premiered in 1975, when "style" meant polyester leisure suits and big lapels. The film made Steven Spielberg millions, but it was not exactly remembered for its costumes. Bastian takes out a book of photographs from the shoot, however, and his comment begins to make sense. The movie was filmed, as you may recall, on Martha’s Vineyard, and the cast (and crew) were all dressed in the quintessential New England summer wardrobe: well-worn sun-and-salt-battered cutoff chinos, chambray shirts, Nantucket Reds, nylon Windbreakers. All these pieces, variously transformed, make appearances in Bastian’s latest collection, which debuts this spring. A version of the chino shorts, for example, comes complete with boxers sewn in and hanging down off the hem ("the way the coolest boys in boarding school wore them," Bastian says); the Nantucket red fabric has been aged to the familiar faded pink—and then used to make a tuxedo.

"The look in Jaws is preppy before the Preppy Handbook went and spoiled it for everyone," says Bastian, who was born in Lyons, a small upstate New York town near Lake Ontario. "The clothes in the movie remind me of the old Yankee practice of buying something really good and simple and wearing it and wearing it, fixing it when it gets holes in it, and then wearing it some more. I think people are ready to return to that rugged New England ethos."

Tommy Fazio, the current men’s fashion director at Bergdorf’s, agrees. "American style has its own vernacular: the perfect khakis, the perfect button-down, the perfect cord." That’s not to say that Bastian is just producing the sorts of staples you can find at the Gap. "What makes him so special," Fazio explains, "is that he’s been able to tap into that American nostalgia and combine it with European luxury and details." Bastian’s cozy rag-wool crewneck sweater—that knock-around preppy standby often seen in the eighties paired with duct-taped Top-Siders or L. L. Bean duck boots—is done in exactly the right oatmeal color, but it’s made from four-ply Italian cashmere (his production partner is Brunello Cucinelli). His khakis are constructed from heavy but still luxuriously soft imported cotton. Shirts are cut long and lean with flattering darts, thick mother-of-pearl buttons, and hand-set sleeve caps—details more commonly associated with Italian houses such as Borrelli and Luciano Barbera.

"When I was at Bergdorf’s," Bastian says, "there was clearly a need for a new American voice in the men’s world—something modern and luxurious but also a little broken down and familiar. I like to start with something perfectly designed and executed, then I spend a lot of time knocking the edge off that perfection."

Stan Gellers, the senior editor at fashion trade bible DNR (which, among others, is hailing Bastian as the future of men’s design), believes the designer has found "just the right combination of Ralph Lauren, Thom Browne, and eighties-era Perry Ellis." Bastian’s suits are a case in point. They have classic natural shoulders, a high gorge, and a relatively small lapel, but the armholes are high and the cut is close to the body for a sleeker, V-shaped torso. The look is like something Robert F. Kennedy would have worn if Robert F. Kennedy had an Italian tailor. "Bastian does pure, classic American Ivy League style," Gellers says, "but always with an edge or a sense of humor to it."

In the spring collection, that sense of humor comes out in details like the formal pleats sewn into the casual plaid shirts (done in Italian loomed linen). And then there’s the Windbreaker. Made in blue nylon, with a white zipper and high collar, it’s just right for the Cape in May. It’s also a near-identical re-creation of the Windbreaker Roy Scheider wore in Jaws.

"When you look in the closet there’s a bunch of clothes, and then there are maybe ten things that you love and you live in," says Bastian. "Those ten pieces are the ones I want to design."

Available at Bergdorf Goodman, 800-558-1855, bergdorfgoodman.com, and Saks Fifth Avenue, 877-551-7257, saksfifthavenue.com.