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Arundel native David Hart builds his menswear business

David Hart is a bit of an anomaly in the world of fashion. In an industry dominated by larger-than-life personalities, fickle taste and cutthroat politics, he prefers to play nice, stay cool and let his work do the talking.

"I really appreciate all the people that I've met and the relationships I've built," said Hart, 32. "I treat people the way I like to be treated. I really respect the talent of the people I've worked with. As a result, people respect me as well."

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His approach has ingratiated him with the fashion elite. It has helped him successfully shift from working for labels such as Ralph Lauren and Anna Sui to branching off into an independent neckwear line, David Hart & Co., to developing his menswear line, David Hart. He has earned positive reviews from the likes of WWD, attracted celebrity fans such as Alan Cumming and sold his collection in Neiman Marcus and other stores.

"I've never been a big personality," he said. Unlike, say, fellow Anne Arundel County native Christian Siriano, "I don't think doing television is something I'd be into. I kind of like flying under the radar and doing slow and steady growth."

Hart's style is anomalous, too. His menswear line has a contemporary colorful feel while maintaining a classic, timeless nostalgia. The mix sets him apart from the nondescript blue and black corporate suits that clutter menswear offerings.

The individualistic approach is notable because Hart wasn't born into a fashion culture. Creativity runs in his family, but Severna Park, the suburb where he grew up, wasn't exactly a hotbed of style. He remembers the days of going to the public library to consume all the fashion-related material he could get his hands on.

"It was pre-Internet," said Hart, who is model-tall, sports stylized dark-frame glasses and has a propensity to wear tailored suits and occasionally a hat. "It really wasn't as instant. You really had to seek those things out."

Growing up, Hart used any fashion opportunity available to him. He absorbed every morsel of information shared during his beloved home economics class at Severna Park High School. He was "blown away" by a Bob Mackie clothing exhibit in New York. He cut his creative teeth designing prom dresses and other garments for classmates.

And he felt comfortable going against the grain in a town just miles from Fort Meade and the Naval Academy.

"It was definitely a unique thing — especially being in Maryland with the military culture in the area. I was definitely different," he said. "People always thought my designs were interesting. I was never teased. I think people really wanted to see me succeed and pursue my talents."

Childhood friend Andrew Davidsburg spotted the potential during Hart's senior fashion show — the first ever held at the school.

"Dave designed a few dresses. The most spectacular was the peacock-feather dress he made," recalled Davidsburg, who now works as the marketing manager and partner for Hart's company. It "was an incredible gown that had hues of blue, purple and green and more peacock feathers hand-sewn on than I could count. It had a long tail that flowed behind the model as she walked across the stage… .

"As a senior in high school, whose crowning achievement was a seven-page paper on 'The Grapes of Wrath,' it was hard to imagine someone my age creating such a beautiful piece. It was truly a work of art."

Hart fondly remembers his high school creations, including his first dress, a floor-length gown adorned with purple and red sequins, which he made for a classmate's senior prom.

"I'm still proud of it based on my experience level," he said. "Looking at it now, there is probably some cringing going on, but it was also 1998."

Others quickly began to take notice of Hart's potential.

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At 17, he was awarded the Fashion Group International Scholarship Award and used the prize money to move to New York City to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Upon graduation in 2004, he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in fashion design, with a specialization in evening wear and tailoring.

Hart spent the next several years working for designers such as Anna Sui, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. During that time, Hart honed his skills and made the switch to menswear — an area where he saw a void. In 2009, he took a leap on his own. He launched an independent line of luxury ties, bow ties and pocket scarves. He then expanded his offerings when he unveiled his first full ready-to-wear collection of menswear in 2013 under the eponymous label, David Hart.

"It's very ambitious to come out and do something on your own," said Hart, who has settled into a Brooklyn apartment that doubles as his design studio. "I feel like I had reached a point where I wasn't growing anymore. I felt that the next logical step was to go out on my own."

He has seen a mix of perils and praise since then and endured them with the kind of aplomb that leads family and friends have come to expect. On the days of his fashion presentations — what are arguably the most important times of the year — Hart stays composed and cool. His voice remains at a relatively low octave, and he can be observed chatting collegially with models.

"Our first show was a nightmare," Davidsburg recalled. "We worked through the night printing, editing then reprinting seating charts and it wasn't until literally minutes before the show started that we were actually ready."

But by September of last year, the spring 2014 collection he presented at New York Fashion Week was called "a tasteful and tailored take on tiki chic" by the Los Angeles Times, which labeled him as "an up-and-coming menswear designer worth keeping an eye down the road."

In February, at Hart's fall presentation, a signature piece from the collection — a purple tuxedo — mysteriously disappeared. Just minutes before the showing, Hart was stitching together a replacement garment. The scramble was worth it. His fall collection received rave reviews from bloggers and publications such as GQ and WWD, which wrote, "David Hart is one to watch as he continues to reinvent American classics with his infusion of chic nerdiness."

Much is at risk at these shows, Hart said.

"What people don't realize is that there is a lot of money going into these labels," he said. "One bad season can put me out of business."

Hart was so composed that his parents didn't even know about the missing tuxedo until a reporter told them last month. They weren't surprised that their son didn't crack under pressure.

"That's because he has his mother's personality," said his father, Douglas, a former deputy health officer for Anne Arundel County.

"He has a way of staying calm through it all," said his mother, Zetta, a retired elementary school reading specialist. "Does he have internal anxiety? Yes. Does he show it? No."

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Hart's collections have been sold in stores such as Neiman Marcus and boutiques as far away as Japan. Style influencers Nick Wooster, Cameron Silver and Patrick McDonald have been spotted at shows alongside Alan Cumming.

Celebrity stylist Cynthia Altoriso has been a fan since the two first met about seven years ago. Altoriso discovered Hart's designs while searching for a tartan tie for a portrait shoot with Cumming. "He's been in my life since then," she said. "We connected. I love to use his clothes."

Altoriso and her husband, backdrop artist Charles Broderson, regularly allow Hart to hold model castings and private showings in their Union Square studio.

"David is the most unassuming, respectful, sweetest guy," she said, adding that Hart is the only person other than her husband to have a key to her studio. "He does not have attitude. He's not trendy. He's not pushy. He's multi-talented beyond the clothes."

Sam Spector, a celebrity stylist who has dressed the likes of Neil Patrick Harris and Daniel Radcliffe, started working with Hart when he was just designing ties. The two have continued to work together as Hart's design offerings have expanded.

"As a stylist, I like to find and work with new designers that take fresh approaches to fashion," he said. "David and I met in person, and his process of design was perfect for my needs of developing interesting and new custom looks for my celebrity clients. David has an acute sense of what's right in fabric selection, silhouette details and production."

Hart wants to keep the momentum going. He eventually wants to further expand his brand into a household name with more of a global reach.

"I would definitely be interested in a licensing component," he said. "We'd like to open stores and give customers a sense of what the brand is through a store. It's about getting the product directly to the customers."

Hart's parents remain his biggest supporters.

"We're amazed by his level of success," his father said. "Coming from a suburban area — and coming out and establishing his company, I'm more amazed how he was able to knock on doors and get his foot in the door. That's one of the thing about David. He's persistent, but not in an obnoxious way. That's a skill he has. ... That to me in itself is an amazing thing. He's living his dream. And taking the risks."

David Hart

Age: 32

Birthplace: Baltimore. Moved from Arnold to Severna Park in 1991.

Currently resides: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Education: Graduated from Severna Park High School and from Fashion Institute of Technology with a BFA in fashion design, with a specialization in evening wear and tailoring.

Fashion experience: Worked for Anna Sui, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger before branching off on his own in 2009.

Other skills: Hart played the saxophone in his high school band; he's also taught himself to play the sitar.

Creative heritage: Hart's great-grandfather was a milliner in New York's Lower East Side. His grandfather was a photographer.

Style icons: "My grandfather, Rod Serling ('Twilight Zone'), Cary Grant, John F. Kennedy."

Social media: twitter.com/davidhartnyc, instagram.com/davidhartnyc

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