Old-School Menswear Designer Don Robbie Goes Hog Wild for the Redneck Look

Don Robbie, Mall Voyeur

Once upon a time, Don Robbie lived next to Brigitte Bardot and her sister right off the lovely Boulevard Raspail in Paris. At night he danced with glamorous drag queens who carried Yorkies. And he summered in Portofino, Italy, or in Greece, eating peaches and stopping traffic. Mr. Robbie was a well-known men’s wear designer, first for Pierre Cardin, then for Yves Saint Laurent. He was widely credited for bringing the “Ivy League” look to men’s wear during the 60’s when, he says, “Ralph was selling ties at Brooks Brothers.”

These days, Mr. Robbie, 74, lives in Blauvelt, N.Y., a sleepy Rockland County town. Mr. Robbie’s place is a rambling colonial with a spotless gunite pool. He’s cleared the furniture out of his living room–he wants no distractions–and he’s drawing as much as ever. But his tastes have changed a bit.

“To be a designer, you absolutely have to have a focus, and you condemn everything else along the way. You have to throw out so much that’s fabulous.” So what’s fabulous right now? “You’ve got to think redneck. Redneck, redneck, redneck!”

Most days, Mr. Robbie wakes up and gets dressed–perhaps in a pair of super-baggy cutoff camouflage cargo pants and a Butthole Surfers T-shirt–and then he heads to the Palisades Mall in upstate West Nyack to make his rounds. He begins to get excited in the parking lot: “It’s all four-wheel-drive cars! Bang, bang, bang!”

Mr. Robbie entered the mall behind a woman with dyed blond hair that was coming to the end of its permanent. She was wearing short denim cutoffs and a purple tie-dyed shirt. “Now, if Kate Capshaw is going to be in the Hamptons,” Mr. Robbie said, “she’s going to want to look like that!”

We found ourselves in the giant Target store, and he was contemplating a rack of Hallmark cards. “This is funnier, this is better than anything in Paris. Hello, reality. O.K., O.K., so it’s lower middle class, but it’s funny, and it’s cute, it’s warm, it’s happy. Pretend for a second that you had a slipped disk or something, and you got three or four of these goofy little cards. You’d feel good. You just would!”

Mr. Robbie headed off into the clothes.

“Look what’s here! It is not Calvin’s white on white on white on cream on cream on cream on beige! To be really cute, you wear baggy shorts and construction boots. You can get black and brown. $14.99! Let’s move in. You want a little stronger brown? $14.99! It’s heaven! Look how cute you can get! You want the stripes on the foot? Whatever you want! You can be a redneck–a darling redneck–for under a hundred bucks! It’s heaven! You know why? ‘Cause it’s America.”

Mr. Robbie stopped to gasp at the colors of the bath towels on his way out of Target. Next stop? A store called Rock ‘n’ Willy’s–teen rebellion headquarters. Tapestries, incense, etc. Mr. Robbie headed straight for an Allman Brothers Band T-shirt with a large orange mushroom across the chest. “The best graphics in the world,” he whispered. “Look at that work!”

Now he made a beeline for Barnes & Noble, where he spied a blond-haired, muscular guy browsing through the paperbacks. “I think that’s what we should have for President,” he said. “Oh, I love having a redneck President, but I don’t think he’s enough redneck. I would like Brad Pitt more. If we’re going to have a hunky, redneck President, well, then let’s have somebody who makes us all faint. Not Brad Pitt–but a Brad Pitt look-alike.”

Mr. Robbie moved past the indoor Ferris wheel to Eastern Mountain Sports, where he settled in front of a wall of North Face anoraks. “Now if they did couture, that I would design.” Mr. Robbie dropped his voice to a whisper: “Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.”

At the Abercrombie & Fitch store, enormous Bruce Weber photographs of square-jawed prep-school types, wrestling, lined the walls. “You see,” Mr. Robbie said, “the 16-year-old boy looking at the catalogue just doesn’t get it.” He meant the homoerotic subtext. Then something else got Mr. Robbie’s attention: “Jodhpurs!” he said. “Now those I like.”

On our way out of the mall, Mr. Robbie looked back inside, through the Target store. We could see the indoor Ferris wheel in the distance. “Look at that,” he said. “It just goes on forever. I would never want to be stuck in Paris again. It would be terrible.”

The Boys of Fekkai

Ah, Friday afternoon at Frédéric Fekkai Beauté de Provence.

The décor is seriously Provence. Ladies who look like they just finished lunching in Madison Avenue cafes walk gently over the earthy tiles and leaf through magazines and chat with their hairdressers. How does it look? What should I do? A little off here? Mr. Fekkai himself–a newlywed, didja hear?–snips away.

But near the hair washing and drying stations, on a small bench with yellow cushions, sit two men in matching Fekkai robes. It’s Billy Karlin, a 32-year-old insurance salesman, recently separated from his wife; and Ryan Keep, a 25-year-old Wilhelmina model-actor from Tennessee.

Mr. Karlin has shaggy, sun-kissed hair, thick eyebrows, strong features. He comes up from Washington, D.C., once a month. “I get my haircut, manicure, sometimes a facial, and a massage,” he said.

Mr. Karlin has been getting highlights and manicures on and off “for a while.” Not that he likes to blab about it. “I am still not all that thrilled to tell my friends I am coming up to New York to have all of this done,” he said. “My girlfriend loves my hair and she drives a lot of, you know, what colors I do.”

Mr. Karlin said he gets his eyebrows waxed (to keep them from becoming one long eyebrow) and he has had his back waxed (“the most painful thing ever!”), but he is mainly passionate about manicures. “The first thing that people see are your hands,” he said, “and I can cut my nails to be the same that they will be when I get a manicure but, you know, it’s the cuticles and stuff. I probably got my nails done for the first time when I was getting married eight years ago. I love getting my nails done … I have manicures more than once a month, not every week like most women would, but, like, two to three times a month. The lady who does my nails in D.C. is great. I sit there and just talk to her and I think she probably likes it, too–getting the male perspective. I was married until the past year or two. I have always done the hair, but everything else I have stepped up more regularly since my separation. There is no question that it helps your confidence level. When you walk out, you know you look good, you feel better.”

Mr. Keep, the model seated next to Mr. Karlin, has shiny dark hair, blue eyes and clear, tanned skin with freckles. He is very pretty. For him, coming to Frédéric Fekkai is an “investment.” A two-year investment at this point. He gets manicures, facials, highlights. And he just started doing pedicures.

“I think I had planned a trip to the beach, and I decided the toes needed help!” he said. “I have to look out for the image I have already started. I don’t wax. I don’t do a bikini wax or anything like that. Ha-ha-haaa-heh.” Mr. Keep is pretty hairless. “Maybe I should! I don’t know. You know, I think everyone looks in the mirror and does the modeling thing. Everyone wants to be desired. Maybe I need to come here more than a guy who sits at a computer all day, but when he goes home he has to look at his nails, too. But my older brother has manicures all the time and he is a Baptist minister in Texas! And my younger brother does facials, too.”

Then Mr. Keep sighed. “I could spend all day here!”

Could someone explain what is going on? Ronald Braso, senior stylist at Fekkai, tries: “We are getting a lot of guys who take care of themselves,” he said. “It almost becomes what you should be doing. But men don’t want anything that requires major maintenance. It has to be easy and it cannot look obvious–it cannot look like it was done.”

Do you do anything in particular?

“I clip my chest hair because it looks good,” Mr. Braso said. “It is something I didn’t even think about doing five years ago.”

Motivation?

“Some women like the hair–they think it is very masculine. But you look in a magazine and you see a beautiful swimmer–you know, someone in the Olympics. How weird would it be to see someone in the Olympics with a big hairy chest and a hairy back?” He laughed. “They want to look like stars, like American royalty, like anyone in the newspapers, in the magazines. There is this sort of silent change that goes on of what is O.K.”

Translation? If your boyfriend already uses your Kiehl’s products and hasn’t asked for the name of your hairdresser yet, he will.

–Alexandra Zissu

Old-School Menswear Designer Don Robbie Goes Hog Wild for the Redneck Look