Michael Bastian toiled in fashion retail for many years before becoming a full-fledged designer. He now creates menswear under his own name, and has collaborated with heritage US brands such as Gant and Randolph Engineering.

Bastian’s chic, luxurious, traditionally American aesthetic earned him a Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) award in 2011. And it has now earned him an unlikely but inspiring short film series sponsored by chic, luxurious, traditionally American truck brand GMC.

With the men’s New York Fashion Week in full swing, the designer talked to BBC Autos about the ways that dashboards inspire smart watches, the retail benefits of watching men get dressed and how dogs can intrude on driver’s license tests.

Brett Berk: Car designers often take cues from contemporary fashion. Can you identify how your work in fashion might have been influenced by car design?

Michael Bastian: Last year I designed a smart watch with Hewlett-Packard, and the overall inspiration was car interiors. We wanted the face of the watch to feel like a dashboard, with analogue and digital elements, the font of the numbers, the way it glowed. Even the watchstrap is that perforated leather that you see in car interiors, and the tools you use to change the strap are inspired by car tools.

The other example was [my] Spring 2012 collection, which was inspired by James Dean. And he, obviously, was really into cars. So we had some literal references: the sports car that he crashed, the “Little Bastard”, was embroidered on a t-shirt and a slipper. We had an auto mechanic’s jumpsuit in there. We had racing stripes on a shirt.  

How are automotive and fashion design similar?

They’re both dealing with materials and colours, and something that has to relate to the human body. Clothes and cars are also two things that people take very personally. They’re a reflection your self-concept, how you want to present yourself.

As for differences, clothes are on a trend cycle, and people usually buy their cars to last longer than they would expect from a pair chinos. But the way I design menswear, I really hope that guys will hold on to pieces for 10 years. Really wear it and pair it.

You worked for many years in retail before transitioning to design. Do you think that car companies’ design departments should solicit more feedback from the companies’ sales staffs?

One good example: I would work with clients, and I would be in the dressing room with them, and they’d put on the suit and they’d put on the pants, and they would automatically be pushing them down around their hips, not up at the belly where your dad wore his pants. Even guys in their 50s, businessmen who wear a suit ever day, wanted a lower-rise pant. Or they were frustrated with how baggy the dress shirts were; they wanted a slimmer cut. They may not have been able to vocalise that, but I saw them implying that that was what they wanted.

So when I rolled into my own business, I took all of that. Maybe in the automotive world, someone who has spent time on the floor, someone who’s doing these test drives with these people, might be hearing something that isn’t always filtering up to the design team.

If you could bring a new material – no holds barred – into car interior design, what would it be?

It’s hard to do better than real leather. I like the way it shows its history. I would love to go back to that soft leather that you see in sofas, or a low suede.

But my real fantasy? I come from the coldest part of America, way in upstate New York, and I had a cousin who had a Jeep with shearling seat covers, and I always thought that shearling seats were the end for me. It’s just so cozy. You jump in your car on a cold day. Even a car that heats up really fast, you still have that moment where… ugh. It would be much more amazing to just hop into a beautiful pile of fur.

What’s the most embarrassing ting that’s ever happened to you in a car?

So, I told you where I grew up. It’s in the country. I’m taking my driving test for my license. What they do up there is, you drive around on the town roads, and then you drive on the country roads. So, I handled the town part, I handled the parallel parking part. I’m thinking, I’ve got this in the bag. Then we go into the country part.

We’re on this beautiful winding road. I ran cross-country in high school, and we used to practice on this road. And I knew that there was this house that had these crazy dogs that always chased cars. And we’re coming up to this house, and I’m thinking: please don’t do it, please don’t do it. Sure enough, we’re driving along, and out comes this big old dog, running right at us. And… I actually hit the dog.

I don’t hit-hit the dog – he bounces off the side of the car and runs away, like it probably happens to him 10 times a day. But, I’m like, “Why don’t I just hand you the keys right now? I just failed my test.” And the instructor goes, “No, you did the right thing. You didn’t swerve. You didn’t make some drastic move and go into the other lane like people might.” So, I hit a dog on my driving test. But I passed.

Of course, the dog was fine. I went running the next day, and he tried to get me again.

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