Standing 6’2 with a calm disposition and polished aesthetic, Garrett Neff looks all the part. One of the world’s most recognizable male models for the better part of the last decade, Garrett has worked with some of the fashion industry’s greatest brands and creative minds. But ten years of participating in the creative visions of those around you fosters not only artistic appreciation, but also ambition, and having honed a critical eye over his tenure in front of the lens, Garrett was ready to helm a vision of his own.
KATAMA is the brainchild of the Delaware-born wunderkind whose adventures in fashion began, as is oft recollected by industry mainstays, with a “discovery” – and at an airport no less – but despite his countless travels, the inspiration for his swim line harks back to Garrett’s humble childhood. “I was looking through old family photos and seeing all of these fantastic trunks and vacation looks – rugged but sharp, tailored yet easy,” Mr. Neff tells me as his lips curl with nostalgia, “So I launched KATAMA as a way of introducing a style and an ethos I think is underrepresented in fashion.”
It’s believable, too. For all the fashion shows, the campaigns, the television appearances, Garrett retains the Americana you’d imagine lives in a boy from Wilmington. It is with this American ease that Mr. Neff unfolds his journey from model to designer, and lays out his five tips for making the perfect swimsuit.
What attracted you to design, and swimwear in specific, after being on the other side of the industry for so long?
A men’s swim trunk can be so many things at the same time. As a kid I would wear my swim trunks all day, morning to night, and through all of the outdoor activities we’d have going on during family vacations. Those ideas alone excited me. But I also knew I could succeed in the execution. Being, as you say, “on the other side of the industry,” I know swimwear very well. I’ve been the face and body of so many brands and have worn every shape and size bathing suit out there.
Of all the people you’ve worked with, does anyone stand out as a creative inspiration or role model?
I’m asked this often and I could go on forever. But Bruce Weber often comes to mind first. He has a way of taking photos that are both timeless and modern. I’ve shot photos with him many times, and the way he works with his team, and his loyalty to all of the people around him is so admirable. It’s something I’ve always paid close attention to.
Modeling is a very, very competitive space; how were you discovered, and what made you stand apart from your competitors on your way up?
I was discovered while connecting to a flight at Miami International Airport. I guess what made me stand apart is that I really took the opportunity seriously from the very start. I’m obsessive by nature and responded to that need to perfect every detail. I saw the hard work being done by everyone I worked with, and in turn was committed to keeping myself in great shape, showing up on time, treating the set like family.
In addition to being competitive, only a few people have staying power, what contributed to your longevity?
People say it all the time, but it really does help to love what you do. I think it’s clear that I have a great respect for the business and for the enormous amount of behind-the-scenes work. Also, having a great team gives you staying power. It’s important to surround yourself with the right people and people who also love what they do.
What has the most exciting thing been about enjoying a successful modeling career, and what has been the most frustrating?
The travel and the travel. For so many years I’ve been putting loved ones through the wringer trying to keep plans. It’s so difficult to schedule anything because the industry is nimble and surprising and when inspiration strikes or certain elements fall into place new work can appear. It’s important to say “no” a lot, but just as important to say “yes” to the right opportunities, even if it means letting down the people you’ve had plans with. I’ve been working on it a lot with my KATAMA team though, and at this stage there’s no one job that can make or break my career.
How do you think social media has changed the nature of the industry?
This is a huge question. But for our small brand, it has allowed us to test the waters without the same media barriers and budgetary needs that have existed for so long. I think it’s also given a newfound importance to print media. You have to create so much more content to stay competitive on social media, and your content is often sitting next to so much other content which is not as curated. So it’s refreshing to pick up a GQ or Vogue or V Magazine and get lost in theses pages editors have spent so much time putting together. The social media stream is endless and unnatural. There are no chapters, no beginning, no end. I’m not saying that it’s a problem, I think it’s a great tool, but I also think we should take care to find balance in our lives along with it.
Have you learned any lessons from modeling that have applied to starting your own brand?
The two big takeaways have been to have patience with the creative process and to keep insane attention to detail. These can often go hand in hand. These details—say the exact stretch of a fabric or the font of a label—help achieve specific looks.
How did you arrive at the look and feel of Katama?
The style is always combining what I see in old family photos and also my modern sense of what is missing in the market – it’s sporty, outdoorsy and practical, yet sophisticated and exciting. Of course, as our brand grows, it’s also about what our customers are responding to and how we can keep giving them what they enjoy in new ways.
How did you learn about the design and manufacturing process? Where do you produce your pieces? How difficult is it to find high-quality manufacturers at reasonable prices?
I have learned a lot from my business partner Geri Gerard, she’s a member of the CFDA and makes clothes for some of New York’s top luxury houses. We started making samples and producing in New York exclusively, but have since expanded to sampling and producing in LA and Portugal. It’s a lot of coordinating for our small team, which is growing soon, but the variety allows us to get the best product and value from manufacturers that specialize in the respective products.
How did your marketing strategy develop, and how have you continued to develop it? Many entrepreneurs in the fashion space would love to get the kinds of press and magazine placements that you’ve enjoyed — what was your process for getting eyes on the brand?
Of course, it helped to have pre-existing relationships with many editors and influencers. But that can really only take you so far. We’re insanely proud of the product we create and made sure others experienced the value of our product as well. Before we even got in the press, we had our friends test the product. Did it help that some of them worked in fashion and media? Sure, but their endorsement came from the most honest place.
We’ve also done pop-ups in Miami, Provincetown, and Montauk (at the Surf Lodge) – places customers can wear their trunks right off the rack and onto the beach. It’s so important that people don’t just hear about the quality of our product, but can speak to it personally. Being that we don’t have a stand alone store it is super helpful, again, to have face to face time with customers and connect with them in a place that feels so authentic and natural. It’s helpful for the feedback but also helpful for people to see what we stand for and connect us back to an experience they’ve had when they see Katama next.
How has business development worked for your brand — from fashion shows to pitching to buyers, how did you get Katama in stores?
What is more valuable, having strong retail partners, or having a strong e-commerce presence? As a small brand, having our own e-commerce presence has proven extremely valuable. From a retail perspective, that’s really the most that I can speak to because that’s where all of our focus has been.
As a guy, you must have worked with some of the top female models over the years, who is the most fun/silly on set?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the best, most driven women in fashion. We’ve had a lot of fun. Karlie Kloss, Gigi Hadid, Grace Elizabeth (for Italian Vogue cover with Steven Meisel) and Imaan Hammam are a few of the recent ones, but the list goes on and on.
How do you continue to stay in top shape over the years, what does your routine/nutrition look like?
It’s nothing groundbreaking — running, gym classes, working out with a trainer. Nutrition, frequency, variety, these are also really important things to consider.
What has been the most interesting shoot or project you’ve worked on?
I’ve been the only talent on studio shoots with multimillion-dollar budgets and 60-plus person production teams, and I’ve been with small teams outdoors making it up as we went along. I’ve really been able to appreciate it all. But I think those early shoots where I was meeting with some of the best photographers really stand out as the coolest. Shooting Lagerfeld’s collection on my first paid job, with Karl Lagerfeld in the Chanel mansion in Paris while also staying there. And for sure, shooting Calvin Klein Underwear advertising with Bruce Weber in Miami, and VMan at his place down in Golden Beach, are probably the top.
Garrett Neff’s Five Tips for Making the Perfect Swimsuit
1. Find or make the right fabric you want to go with the fit you want. Just because you love a fabric doesn’t mean it will work with everything you try to do with it.
2. The piece must be practical and durable.
3. Design and source trims that help tell the story of your brand.
4. Fit, fit again, fit a few more times.
5. Use the great factories that you trust, and know that the longer you work with one factory, the better the trunks will get over time.
Garrett Neff is an IVY Member (NYC). Connect and collaborate with him here.