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Haitian designer delivers on Hub fashion runway

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Haitian designer delivers on Hub fashion runway
Fashion designer Jeff Lahens poses with his wife Charmain and son Sy during Boston Fashion Week. (Photo: Don West)

Author: Don WestFashion designer Jeff Lahens poses with his wife Charmain and son Sy during Boston Fashion Week.

Jeff Lahens’ retro-preppy men’s couture left Hub fashionistas shouting for more during the young designer’s turn on Boston’s premiere fashion runway.

“Any Given Day,” Lahens’ collection from a quartet of leading haberdashers as well as his own line, featured stubbled models strutting to house beats. The combination of rugged tweeds and corduroys with color accents and hirsute attitude put a distinctly New Boston stamp on traditional menswear.

“Boston marches to a different beat,” said Sunny McDonough of Divine Beauty Cosmetics as the  lights came up on Lahens’ show during the recent Boston Fashion Week. “And Jeff captures it perfectly. It’s a clean, physical line — stylish and retro — as opposed to the structural look of what fashion is expected to be coming out of New York, Paris or Milan. Boston isn’t afraid to let loose and play a little bit.”

The 35-year-old Haitian-born designer and marketing maven cultivates disarray in the clothes he curates from brands like the hunting-inspired Ball and Buck, with its blood-red duffel coats and heavy chinos. The runway model, sporting the BandB look with a double-barreled shotgun over his shoulder, fired up the hip Boston crowd during his walk down the tent runway set up in the garden court at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

“I want to create my own path,” said Lahens, who was named Boston Magazine’s 2011 “Best of Boston Men’s Designer.” “We know Boston is not the fashion capital of the world and we’re OK with that. We tend to be preppy and reserved, but we’re also fun and confident.”

In Lahens’ world, the student-infused Boston style accommodates yellow socks, two-tone shoes and pork-pie hats with corduroys rolled up to mid-calf.

Looks like that may have been what prompted GQ magazine to dub Boston the nation’s worst-dressed city, but Lahens scoffs at the judgment of corporate fashion, whose dictates, unheeded, give rise to rank rankings. “In Boston, we’re more than what we wear,” he said. “Our fashion is who we are, what we think, and what we do.”

The fundamental conservatism underlying the Boston style led Lahens to structure his original ECC Life and Style business model, created in 2004, around the concept of bespoke clothes. In Lahens’ case, think Savile Row come to Savin Hill: Tailors taking a client’s precise measurements to curate a half-made suit held together with wide baste stitching that allows it to be easily taken apart and re-made for the best possible fit.

 “I believe in making clothes that are meant to last,” he said. “A Boston guy doesn’t go to the mall every weekend to buy suits off the rack. I want to create something that could be the one piece in his closet that he can use for dressing up or dressing down, perfectly fitted, elegant when it needs to be, casual when he wants.”

Dress Code Boston (dresscodeboston.com), the expanded design and marketing platform Lahens created in 2010, “allows me to market different brands, to create a look beyond dress code uniformity. I want to showcase looks that allow people to create their own personality, to cultivate their own.”

In his own designs, Lahens takes conventional menswear like a blazer and adds elements like bright leather collar and lapel piping, slanted pockets and embroidered buttonholes to turn something dowdy into something distinctive. Two of his blazers shown last week — one in pastel pinstripes with a Red Sox patch under the breast pocket, the other in black with a Bruins label — would have been unthinkable as tribute wear a generation ago.

In Lahens’ world, sartorial sports veneration has moved way beyond bulky warm-up jackets and frayed ball caps for loud white males.

Lahens credits his father, a civil engineer, for teaching him style. “My dad and my uncles dressed well and taught me to appreciate fashion,” he said. Growing up in Haiti, his fashion sensibility was more European than American. When he moved to the U.S. at age 19 to study computer science at Bridgewater State College, he found himself in an aggressively casual college milieu.

His inner fashionista chafed at the uniform that, at its dressiest, matched a polo shirt with jeans. That frustration continued with a job in the casual environment of a high-tech firm south of Boston. When the dot.com bomb hit and the company imploded, he landed a post in sales and marketing at First Financial, where a suit and tie better fit Lahens’ style.

“I always had an entrepreneurial mind-set and a passion for fashion,” he said. In 2004, while working in the financial services industry, he teamed up with brothers Aenis and Shawn Harris to launch ECC Life and Style, a fashion design and marketing firm specializing in bespoke menswear.

Two years later, he left his job to work full time in the fashion industry. “You have to do what you’re passionate about,” he said. “My heart was fully in it, but I wasn’t gullible or naïve. We had had some success but needed to push the business to create high-quality clothing at an approachable price.”

Dress Code Boston, launched last year, has allowed Lahens to expand his fashion reach by creating clothes from such lines as Drinkwater’s Cambridge, Bobby from Boston and Uniform Boston to clients like Celtics coach Doc Rivers and other sports and entertainment celebrities.

Back in the tent, as the models made their final walk down the runway, Lahens emerged from backstage. Tall and lean, wearing a blue shirt with double stars on the epaulets, a Haitian flag on one shoulder, a U.S. flag on the other, he swept up his son from a stroller and took a bow with his wife at his side.

Monica Cost, president of the brand consulting firm Evidently Assured, was among those applauding Lahens from the third row of the most popular fashion event in Boston in years. “I love the plaids and the bright prints with the rugged, outdoorsy fabrics,” she said. “The greens? Who else could have done that? Jeff has really captured the Boston style.”