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Bergdorf Goodman’s Bruce Pask and his Scandinavian retreat in New York
After three decades in the game, Bruce Pask’s love for the fashion industry is boundless. He is known for his disciplined work-ethic and thought provoking perspective. We took a Volvo 240 to Long Island to meet the hardest working man in menswear.
Long Island, USA
— This is my version of a Scandinavian lifestyle, says Bruce Pask of his second home in Bellport, a bayside community on the south shore of Long Island.
It is located a one-and-a-half hour drive from his apartment in East Village, Manhattan. Bruce gets there via one of his vintage Volvo 240s — one ’89 and one ’93 — that he bought from a car specialist in New Jersey who he has nicknamed ”The Volvo Whisperer”. The place consists of a traditional shingled cottage with a privet hedge, and a white barn which he describes as ”light, airy, sparse, utilitarian, and very Scandinavian”. When he bought the house fourteen years ago he had the Swedish ”summer house” lifestyle in mind.
— It seems to me that in Stockholm you are able to escape on the weekend out to the archipelago. We go out to our ”archipelago”, which is one big island, Long Island. You go to your retreats to get away from the craziness of the week. That’s how that part of my life has developed. I have these weekends that are very restorative, and then I come back to the city — energised, revived and excited to be back.
Bruce Pask has spent his entire adult life in the fashion industry; from his first professional steps as shop assistant at Paul Smith, to his highly influential years at various editorial positions at GQ magazine. After a successful period as a freelance stylist in the aughts, during which he styled some iconic Vanity Fair covers and features photographed by Annie Leibovitz, he served as Fashion Director of Conde Nast’s Cargo Magazine before doing an eight-year stint as fashion director of The New York Times’ T Magazine. Three years ago he took the helm of the most influential menswear destination in the world: Bergdorf Goodman.
Given his vast experience, you could imagine that his outlook on the worlds of media and fashion would be jaded and perhaps cynical. But after almost three decades in the game, Bruce Pask seems more inspired than ever.
— I love what I do, he says. I’m very lucky. In any career, I guess the least and the most one can ask for is to be challenged and fascinated every day.
The first time I meet Bruce Pask he greets me in the lobby of Bergdorf Goodman, the iconic New York department store on 5th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, just a few steps away from Central Park. On one side of the street, you have the women’s store, and on the other side, the men’s store. This is Bruce Pask’s domain. Three floors of the best menswear in world — from classic Italian tailoring brands to fashion forward streetwear, from Kiton to Kith. There is an extensive suiting area and an equally impressive sneaker area. And of course several shop-in-shops; featuring designs from Gucci, Tom Ford, Prada, and the like.
When he gives me a tour of the floors, it is obvious that Bruce Pask knows every corner, every rack. He greets his colleagues with the same gentle kindness that he seems to radiate at all times.
— We love this man, says George Glynos, a gentleman working in the tailoring department.
He is talking about Bruce, and continues:
— I’ve been in this business a long time, and I’ve realised that sometimes those with the most expertise are a little difficult to get along with. This man shoots that down. Bruce is one of the easiest people to be around, and he’s not taking his expertise for granted.
— Thank you, George, says Bruce, as we sit down in a couple of comfy lounge chairs close to the tailoring department. I start the interview by reflecting on the sense of wholeness that you feel in the store.
You come from the world of magazines and editorial, and it seems to me like this store is almost like a magazine.
— Without a question. I find that a great correlation. The minute I arrived here, I immediately saw this as an organic, three-dimensional representation of what a magazine could be. It is basically informative and heightening the senses and giving information in a surprising, delighting, titillating and, compelling way. All of those things that you try to get from the best magazines. That is certainly what we try to create here at Bergdorf Goodman.
Coming from the world of magazines, what were some of the changes you dug into when you started here?
— For me, the most important shift was in communication. How can we communicate within the context of a store? With a magazine, it’s rather literal — it’s with words. Within the store context, we have a very specific visual language, which I think is really elegant and rich. You want to have clarity but also maintain a certain level of elegance. That’s why visuals are so important to us.
In a way, it’s almost like a blog. You put out new content and change to keep up with the times.
— Absolutely true. You’ve got to remain compelling and interesting and intriguing and new. The thing that made me appropriate for this job is the retail landscape as I’ve seen it in my very short time here has changed, it really requires content adjustment constantly. I’m very used to the pace of creating content; needing to do that repeatedly and creatively and interestingly and compellingly. I think that has been really fascinating here.
Bruce Pask grew up in Yuma, Arizona, with a mother who ran a children’s shoe store and a twin brother who later became a set designer on Broadway. Bruce remembers going to the store with his brother Scott to buy GQ, Andy Warhol’s Interview, and the early iteration of Details Magazine.
— These magazines were my direct connection in the desert to this land that felt so foreign, exotic, and glamorous. Scott and I always cared how we looked in our very modest way. Back then, it was the era of the ”Preppy Handbook”, so it was all about that.
Bruce went to The College of William and Mary in Virginia, majoring in art history, minoring in economics.
— It was left brain—right brain. I remember decidedly saying, “I don’t want to learn how to type because I’m so pragmatic that if I know how to type, I’ll end up in some track of a career that I don’t want.”
One thing he did learn to use was a cash register, as his first job was working extra at The Gap.
— I loved it. I loved interacting with people. I loved being in a store and helping people, folding clothes, and the environment in the store.
After college, he moved to New York, where he started working as a stockboy and press assistant for the British clothier Paul Smith. On the weekends, he sometimes helped out upstairs in the brand’s shop on Fifth Avenue.
— It’s very common in New York that the showrooms for the designers are attached or a part of the store. Paul Smith’s showroom was in the basement of the Fifth Avenue store so a lot of editors and magazines would come and pull from the collection for their shoots. I remember meeting David Bradshaw. I was really so into his work at Arena and Arena Homme +. Jim Moore and the team at GQ would come in. Jim happened to tell my boss at the time that they were looking for an assistant, and my boss very generously told me that I should try to go and interview for that job.
Bruce got the job at GQ, and quickly worked is way up from fashion assistant to becoming fashion director Jim Moore’s shooting assistant.
— I traveled with him, worked with him on shoots, and really absorbed everything that entailed, from working with a photographer to working with celebrities and models. Coming up with concepts and creative direction. It was like going to graduate school. I learned so much there. I was at GQ for about 10 years.
Why did you leave?
— I left to pursue other interests, to have other experiences. I worked a lot with Annie Leibovitz for a few years on her editorials and her ad campaigns. We did some really legendary shoots that I’m really proud of. She taught me to look at clothing in a different way than when I was at GQ.
What was the difference?
— The element of naturalism, the element of character. It was much more theatrical. I did two campaigns for the TV show The Sopranos. We did vast, humongous shoots for Vanity Fair with George Clooney on the cover. It really showed me another facet of how to look at clothing.
It’s interesting that when you talk about the work you did with Annie Leibowitz, you still talk about the clothes. You’re not talking about the celebrities.
— Well, celebrities are the means, the tool. It’s just a part of the world that we were in. We were always on cover shoots with Jim at GQ as well. It was always somebody hugely famous. But aside from the visibility of their movies and their astronomical wealth, there was very little difference between us.
I would be so star struck to just be present on those shoots.
— A lot of times, the celebrities were really cool to work with and talk to. One thing I recognized immediately when I was young in the business; is that you have to prove your knowledge. People were very responsive when you knew what you were talking about. That was a big confidence builder. I also learned from the best — quite literally. Jim Moore is a legend. Annie Leibowitz is a legend. I worked with amazing creative directors at Condé Nast. Donald Robertson, who’s now @drawbertson on Instagram, was my art director. Ariel Foxman was a brilliant editor. Each one of them instilled in me very different points of view.
After a few years as a freelance, Bruce returned to Condé Nast, and started working for Cargo magazine, before jumping over to The New York Times’ T Magazine under the influential editor Stefano Tonchi.
— It was a very different magazine model at The New York Times than at Condé Nast where everything’s created in-house. With T Magazine you had this great freedom in that you have your subscriber base. You don’t have this urgent need to have a recognizable, commercial cover, which means you have the freedom to explore. We worked with great fashion editors, like Robert Rabensteiner who’s brilliantly talented. It was an amazing experience.
When Bruce started at Bergdorf Goodman he arrived at a changing retail landscape. As e-commerce becomes stronger, there is a consensus around retail that it is supposed to be an arena for experiences. I ask for Bruce’s take on the matter:
— I think first and foremost, by virtue of the fact that Bergdorf Goodman is one store and a destination in the city, it’s probably the most famous address for retail in the world, I think that certainly sets us up for great success. We continue to think of compelling reasons, installations, vendor assortments, exclusives, to entice our customer. To have them clamor and want to be in the store, which I think is certainly our goal.
How do you keep your customers coming back?
— We’re always creating reasons to be in the store. Aside from having great merchandise, it’s vital for us to create these experiences that are not replicable elsewhere. We have areas devoted to special installations. We were the first to roll out Alessandro Michele’s new Gucci store concept. He took over our whole hallway on the third floor and installed the toile carpeting and his beautiful velvet mannequins. Off-White’s Virgil Abloh came here for a presentation. He helped create this three-dimensional architectural model of our floor that was a site-specific installation. I think that’s exciting for our customer. These days, Instagram moments are important. We enjoy doing them.
Let’s talk about social media. You are a recognizable character out there now, and you were among the first to be featured on The Sartorialist. When this started, did you realize the impact it would have?
— I was at The New York Times at the onset of Instagram. One could have looked it as ’one more thing to do’ — one more thing to add to the pile. I just made a choice to look at it as an additional platform for me to get a message out, rather than as a burden. We’re visual people in this business, so Instagram is perfectly suited to this world. The gift that I have, is my access to these events, these fashion shows and these places where not very many people are allowed. I loved it, and I just saw it as another way to get information out there. Not only do I want to visually represent it, I also want to inform. I think that comes from my journalistic background. One of the first things I did when I came here was to start our @goodmans Instagram. I was very proud when that account exceeded the following of my personal Instagram.
Another thing that’s similar to working with a magazine is all the shows, to travel around for all the fashion weeks. Has that changed over the years?
— There’s something about the theatricality of fashion shows and the expression of the creativity that I find inspiring and endlessly fascinating. I also think it’s an opportunity to exchange information with people. One of the great values of being at the shows is your neighbor on the bench. It’s as valuable as viewing the collections. I think we’re lucky to be in these venues where these designers are spending so much time and effort to create incredible experiences. I love it. I truly love it. I’m moved often and regularly. I feel very lucky to be a part of that.
You have a reputation of being an avid Fashion Week visitor.
— I take that as a compliment. As a fashion director, it’s vital to be curious. It is vital to be interested. I also think it’s just respectful to support these designers and companies that are staging the shows. I just think it’s our end of the bargain, and we have to show up and support that.
A few weeks afterwards, I call Bruce to ask some follow-up questions. He has just come back to New York after having spent ten days in Copenhagen, with a stint in Stockholm. I ask about his impressions.
— The trip really reaffirmed my love for Scandinavia. It’s a part of the world that I’m very drawn to, the aesthetics, the cuisine. There’s an order and consideration to it.
How do you view the Scandinavian menswear scene? Do you view it as one scene or as separate brands?
— I think there’s plenty of potential for growth. Everybody thinks of Acne as the biggest brand there, but then there’s smaller brands that have potential. But, I think there is a necessity to get them more exposure on a global scale. I discovered Hestra Gloves the first time they showed at Pitti Uomo, and found them to be a fascinating company. As much as they have a great heritage in Sweden, it was only until they came to Pitti that I found them. These brands need to be able to see people like me and the other buyers, fashion directors and editors that help them get the word out there.
Is there something particularly Scandinavian that you look for?
— For me, it’s less about a look. It’s more about a product. I do think each of these geographic areas has a look or a feel. But for Scandinavia as far as identity, I think of it in a very specific way. It’s very knit-wear-centric for me. There is room to establish a more clear identity I think, but I certainly have my eye on brands that I think could develop into something we could consider for the store.
What do you think of the potential for Scandinavia right now?
— People in New York are inherently interested in everything Scandinavian. People are interested in the design, architecture and cuisine. The ready-to-wear fashion is resonating with customers outside your geographical zone. But I’m very privy to the fact that people are very friendly and generous. I know that, in Copenhagen, they are meant to be the happiest people on the planet. When I think of Scandinavia, I think of people and a place that are incredibly pleasant. I think the area is having a moment, for sure.
BRUCE PASK Age: 50 Lives: East Village New York and Bellport. Long Island Occupation: Men’s Fashion Director, Bergdorf Goodman Background: Associate Fashion Director, GQ; Stylist; Fashion Director, Cargo Magazine; Men’s Fashion
Konrad Olsson is the editor-in-chief of Scandinavian MANBergdorf Goodman