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I just got back from Project Las Vegas where I caught up with Matty Merrill from Distilled Clothing, one of the newest and most eye-catching menswear lines from San Francisco. I first met Matty back in June when I visited him in his design studio south of Mission and checked out the current fall collection. This time I had a chance to preview the Spring 2008 collection and was really impressed. It’s incredibly preppy, but in an untraditional way that combines different patterns and fabrics like seersucker and plaid, gingham bibs and collars on a pique polo, and mono-chrome shirts and ties in different pastels. Definitely one of the freshest lines for spring, innovative but something most guys could comfortably wear. After the madness of Vegas was over, I asked him for an interview to talk about Distilled, the spring collection, and his approach to design.

Andrew Tilbury for Cool Hunting
When did you start Distilled?

Matty Merrill
Two years ago my buddy Sep and I started Distilled. We met in college at Stanford. I moved to New York to become a fashion designer and he got his PhD in Math from Stanford. I studied product design with a bunch of mechanical engineers and product whizzes. I originally wanted to design art objects, like stuff you find in a MoMa Store, but the opportunities in fashion ended up grabbing my attention. I am obsessed with the "design problem" — creating a new detail or feature that is completely useful, making better clothes, of course.

CH
Form meets function...all that?

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MM
Yeah, but garments bring this whole new challenge in that they have been around since man was cold, so there is this amazing platform of experience. I just get to come in and add the brilliant details. That and the fact that the seasons are so close together which drive super rapid development is what drew me to fashion. I love creating 40 products every few months. In art objects it’s one piece every two years.

CH
And if you create something no one likes, they forget about it quickly!

MM
Getting the rug pulled out from under you is good sometimes and with the rapid trends of fashion it happens all the time.

CH
What do you think about that phenomenon of the rock-star designer? I’m thinking about Philippe Starck or Richard Meier.

MM
If you're able to build a brand around your own style—whatever that may be—you're in good shape. I definitely have not-so-secret dreams about making Distilled mops and shower curtains.

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CH
How did you come up with the name Distilled?

MM
Distilled reflects the idea that we distilled garments down to the best parts. Fit, function, and in our case, good art. You should definitely check out the artists for this season, all stencil artists like Adam5100 and Peat Wollaeger, for instance. The ones from the fall line are outsider artists who are not classically trained but make amazing stuff. One's a scientist from MIT, some street artists and this amazing artist named William Scott. He's autistic and draws his own utopian vision of future San Francisco all day. It's nothing but highrise apartment buildings and churches. He calls it, “Praise Frisco.” The group he works with is Creative Growth. They represent many artists with disabilities. They are inspiring as hell.

Continue reading here.

CH
Do you have any designers you look to for inspiration?

MM
I love Ettore Sottsass and Charles and Ray Eames. Ettore started this insane design group in Italy called Memphis, sorta half inspired by Graceland and half inspired by some ancient, cultural city in Egypt. They made outlandish furniture and products but best of all was this typewriter called the Valentine. There were plenty of typewriters out there but this was just so much sexier and smoother and red. It was the iPhone of its time but better. Have you seen the Eames' movie Power of 10? Best stoner movie ever.

CH
There's a lot of really good fashion coming out of San Francisco these days: Nice Collective, B. Son, etc. How do you think Distilled fits into the scene up there?

MM
When we first started two years ago I told store buyers we were the "sunny" Nice Collective because no one knew what to make of a fashion line out of San Francisco. But the best part is that we all use the same factories so the quality is solid. The number of resources we use is insane. Our line is not that big but we use five different factories, three dye houses, a cut house, four application houses—so many steps.

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CH
A lot of the clothing up there is very intellectual. There is always a philosophy behind it.

MM
Well we're deep people up here, I suppose. Maybe smart. Or maybe we just stay in during the cold summers and read.

CH
What clothing lines did you work at prior to starting Distilled?

MM
I started at a puppet shop making costumes and props. I made the costumes for some minor league baseball mascots and a super hero named Black Cougar.

CH
That's kind of ironic seeing that you were the Stanford mascot.

MM
Shit, dude. I never should have told you that. After that I got a gig at Tommy Hilfiger for 15 minutes, then as a men’s designer at Triple 5 Soul. That's where I really cut my teeth.

CH
When I saw your line the first time in San Francisco it seemed a lot more urban to me than the most recent collection. How would you describe Spring 2008?

MM
Slim, smart and buttoned up. This line was powered by mathletes, Holden Caulfield, and NASA control room dudes from the late ‘60s—very preppy, but in an innovative way with the addition of art. All the prints from this season are from stencil artists.

CH
One more question and I’ll let you go. The logo for Distilled has a stylized sketch of a turtle. Why the turtle, and who drew it?

MM
I did. Sep and I thought the turtle was the most spiritual animal. They're ancient. Some of the tortoises in the Galapagos are so old they are the last members of their species. They live forever. Pirates used to catch them for food and stow them in the hull for months with no food or water then pull them up and they were still kicking. How do they get through it? Meditation.

Interview by Andrew Tilbury

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