A Renaissance for menswear

When Kent Nielsen traveled to Western Europe for three months in the early 2000s, the simple task of finding a pair of black pants turned into an exhaustive search for what he really wanted—the right style mixed with the right cut.

What he hoped to find were a pair of non-tapered pants that would fit his lean, 6 feet 3 inch frame, but all he discovered were clothes too large, even with the size tag reading small.

After visits to Paris and London with no shopping success, the 28-year-old Chicagoan became frustrated at the lack of options for men. Without any formal training in fashion design, Nielsen set out to change what he thought was missing from men’s fashion.

“In America, you’ve been punished for being in good shape,” Nielsen says. He found people were being forced to buy clothing made for body types other than their own. “I knew what I wanted,” Nielsen says of his pants’ designs. “I wanted a straight leg and a lower rise.”

Well aware that men are more limited in fashion than women, Nielsen, who graduationed from Loyola with an English degree, felt the need to design suits as a reaction to what wasn’t available.

Careful not to make suits so different that no one would want to buy them, he paid close attention to men’s suiting, analyzed the trends, and traveled to Germany, London, and the South of France in order to see what was out there that he could change.

“Unfortunately, for better or for worse…probably for worse,” Nielsen says, “this country is going too casual.”

This logic was the groundwork for the 2003 launch of Kent Nielsen, LLC.

Born in downtown Chicago, Nielsen later settled in Lake Forest where he began his company to provide Midwestern men with high-fashion suits. Nielsen’s fashion philosophy is about giving men choices. With a love for anything “expensive and potentially dangerous,”

Nielsen applies the same ambition to his designs that he does with racing cars, one of his hobbies. When he saw men were shying away from body-hugging suits and wore styles with tapered legs, oversized jackets, and baggy shirts, Nielsen realized there was little churn in men’s fashion, and set out to change what he thought was static in menswear—the fit.

The dark-haired designer isn’t the only one who thinks this is the case. Carl Westburg, Sales Specialist at Macy’s on State Street for Italian designer Z. Zegna, says there aren’t a lot of fashion options for men.

“Menswear in general is boring. There’s not much you can do. What he [Nielsen] is trying to do is to let men dress themselves,” he said.

“Back in the 70s, suit jackets had oversized shoulders and it didn’t matter that your shoulders were smaller than the suit’s designs. That’s what you were stuck with,” Westburg said.

Nielsen aims to change this as he focuses on cuts that hug the body and are tighter throughout the figure. At the Rush Street store Jake, where Nielsen’s designs have been sold, employee Marissa Gillman sees Nielsen's designs as part of the changing nature of menswear.

“Men can have more fun with fashion,” Gillman said. “Menswear designers are being more liberal. They’re focusing on details of pockets, cuts and style.”

Both Gillman and Westburg agree that modern men’s suiting is moving toward a European style, which includes oversized shirt collars and form fitting jackets.

Westburg explains that 70% of menswear found in traditional retail stores, such as Men’s Wearhouse, is made for one body type, instead of the individual customer.

“Nowadays, designers are marketing their clothes to that remaining 30% to show them there are alternatives.”

To Nielsen, fashion is sexy and stirs people up, and this philosophy seems to have caught on, as one of last season’s Oscar nominees, Hany Abu-Assad, wore Kent Nielsen on the big night to stand out and catch the ever-ready paparazzi lens.

Where did Nielsen’s creativity and independent thinking come from? Some might say it’s in his blood.

From age four, Nielsen accompanied his grandmother, an interior designer trained at Parson’s School of Design in New York, on shopping trips to the Merchandise Mart.

“When I was twelve, my grandmother gave me a buyer’s card. I was probably the only kid who could buy wholesale at the Merch,” he said.

As he walked the showrooms, not open to the public, he noticed items that stuck out to him. Amazed at the $75,000 price tag on an armoire, he began to develop personal tastes about what he liked, what he disliked, and found he was drawn to high-quality fabrics and design concepts. After several years of shopping trips with his grandmother, he became familiar with picking out fabrics and formulated a creative mind.

“Sorting pieces at the Mart is not that different than walking around the mill agents sourcing fabrics. It was an osmosis learning experience. Everything I’ve learned to do, I learned it from someone who knew how to do it.”

With his creative mind in place, Nielsen, who has a love for sailing, later studied film at Columbia College in Chicago, and briefly became involved in the local music scene. He realized he wanted to focus on fashion when he saw that less collaboration allowed him to get more work done. Because he wasn’t entrenched in the fashion industry, Nielsen researched men’s fashion, and throughout his European travels, he found himself in Italy and became inspired by the dapper style of high-fashion Italian menswear.

“In parts of Italy, the whole town is done up, with men wearing hats, and it’s not out of place.”

This kind of admiration for the fitted, fashion-forward Italian style is the driving force behind his suit designs. His commitment to providing men with just the right fit showed when he convinced a Midtown Manhattan factory to open on a Saturday and remake an entire order, after he was unhappy with the look of the initial designs. Nielsen flew to New York, picked up the remade order, traveled back to Chicago and delivered the new goods to retailers the next day.

“I actively seek out and make sure my stores are happy with me,” Nielsen said.

Three years after that shopping trip in Europe, Nielsen, who resides in downtown Chicago, has become a sought-after designer, with his latest success being picked up by Macy’s for their Designers of Chicago Shop after showing in Macy's Chicago Local Designer Showcase in Millennium Park this fall.

At the former Marshall Field’s spot, a variety of striped and solid-colored shirts can be found, made from different fabrics from simple cotton to broadcloth, a heavier, ribbed fabric. Royal purple and mango-colored jacquard ties are on shelf for $150, and black wool dress pants—with the signature Kent Nielsen boot cut—run for $225.

With mentions in publications such as Lucky, Maxim and Chicago Social, Nielsen, who also works in Internet and software development, is on his way to showing people there is an alternative to basic pants and jackets for men. His small, but growing business is flourishing as he’s acquired an office on Fulton Street, where suit and tie samples hang on racks that line the wall. Operating in this downtown space, Nielsen wants to give American men the chance to show off the figures they really have.

“I want to bring a sort of Renaissance for menswear to get some style, from a high-end perspective.” To Nielsen, shopping for menswear is about options. Without a variety of choices, men are left with a suit is just a suit is just a suit. “It’s like being a painter with a minimal amount of color to paint an interesting canvas,” he says.

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