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Behind the Collection: Rogues Gallery

by Grandin Donovan
Alex Carleton has harpooned the white whale of hipster style.
Favoring woodcut fonts and graphics, and a heavy dose of maritime iconography, the silk-screened, garment-dyed vintage tees of his Maine-based Rogues Gallery have been soaking up a tidal wave of success. And now, the collection is expanding.
German-born but New England-raised, Alex worked in furniture restoration before moving to New York and starting at Polo. But the romance of New England proved too strong, and in 1998 he moved to Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and signed on as L.L. Bean's senior designer. Starting Rogues Gallery as an "after-school job" with a small group of assistants from Maine College of Art, he has since brought a Nor'eastern style to boutiques worldwide. Here, he tells Refinery29 how his designs went from a local bookstore to Bono's closet.
Casting off.
"Winters are long here—and dark—and I definitely had a lot more free time on my hands. I started getting back into making stuff, and using my interest in history and collecting junk, and put that together with some apparel design concepts, and that pretty much was the origin of Rogues Gallery."
Flavored with sea salt.
"I started doing a lot of intense local research, using the local maritime museums—Bedford Whaling Museum, Mystic Seaport—and traveling throughout New England. We were going straight to the historical sources and creating graphics based on that. I wanted to use vintage T-shirts because they had a lot more character, but the shirts I was getting were pretty nasty, so we started to garment-dye our own."
Rising tide.
"We had some exposure at some stores that were visited by a Vogue editor and one of the buyers for Barneys. That's when it really started to pick up. We weren't set up properly for conventional manufacturing because we were doing it out of my house, trying to silkscreen T-shirts on a cliff on the coast of Maine in the middle of winter, having to get kerosene heaters going, wearing Carhartt onesies, and ink is freezing in the was pretty insane."
From rowboat to man-of-war.
To meet demand, Alex moved to an industrial location in Portland. A supply shortage of vintage shirts prompted him to explore producing his own new ones—but with a quality and look consistent with the "exhumed" shirts—rather than buying from another manufacturer. "I worked with some factories to develop proprietary fabrics and colors, and that really sparked the growth of the line. Today we have approximately 30 running styles, as well as accessories where we work with local people." The premium-exhumed line still makes up about 35% of their T-shirts.
Loading the hold.
"Every season I ask myself and the small team here, 'What is new about the T-shirt?' We start by developing a color palette that relates to whatever story we're interested in talking about, whether it's a huntsman or a whaling story. And then we'll start incorporating new ways of labeling or marking the T-shirts, and then of course the graphics."
Freedom on the high seas.
"I think we have a pretty free approach to the process, and that's something that is really important. I've experienced a lot of boredom within the process of consensual, corporate design by committee, and I think one of the reasons why Rogues Gallery is working for people, and remains interesting for [me], is that it is very personal."
Last season's catch.
"Fall was interesting. We doubled our assortment from spring, we introduced pants, we did outerwear—we did a shit-load of product because I was interested in really conveying a head-to-toe Rogues Gallery look, which could be defined only by presenting it. It started with an interest that I had in the Civil War. I went to Gettysburg and did a lot of research around mid-19th century civilian and military clothing. We aren't overly thematic, so it's not like you just walked off of a movie set. Staying connected to the end use is really important—we don't want a kind of rarefied, conceptual line. The line needs to be relevant [and] wearable, and you need to feel incredibly un-self-conscious in it. Men's fashion often says too much. We are into being more understated."
Sails and sea bags.
"For spring we worked with some girls here in Portland on a collaborative project where we developed a bag made out of recycled sails. We made them down on the waterfront. Going forward, we just made a new bag out of recycled camp blankets, horse blankets, beacon blankets, Pendleton blankets, old Navy blankets..."
Dredging up inspiration.
"I'm a huge collector, and I'm trucking around the NE all the time. Rummaging, going to flea markets—I'm totally into old shit. So I'll collect something, especially old textiles, and we'll say 'Ok, we're gonna do a limited-edition of, like, 200 vintage Americana blanket bags.' The new stuff that we produce in the factory, it starts with an idea, maybe it's an old mailbag, and then we'll do more of a utilitarian twist on it. The Barbour jacket, for example. There's something a little too pedestrian about the average Barbour jacket, for us. So, how would we treat that idea? Well, first of all, give me black oilcloth. Give me a liner that's grungy, that's dark, that's fucked-up plaid. Let's do logo rivets and shanks, or trims that feel more aggressive than what you would find in a gentleman country clothier's. I'm interested in the origins of clothing, whether it's a Jersey sweater, an Aran Isles sweater, but then how do we make that modern, how do we make that cool, how does it become Rogues Gallery?"
Rogues Gallery is available at Odin and Oak in New York and at Scout in Los Angeles;
Photographs by Michael Kolster, Rogues Gallery 2006
Rogues Gallery's Alex Carleton reveals how he makes graphic ambergris from classic Americana.