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SF Fashion Week

I met Jonathan Saunders on a beautiful San Francisco afternoon in January. The slender Scotsman, whose handsome features bear a strong resemblance to those of a young John Lennon, initially struck me as shy and reserved. However, after sitting down at a quaint little café on Maiden Lane, the young fellow, considered by some to be one of British fashion’s most promising designers, slowly began to show signs of his much talked about genius. First, I noted the eloquent and concise way in which he described textile processes. His articulate nature and the complexity of his inspiration were also apparent. But what really makes Jonathan far more intriguing than other gifted up and comers is his unaffected humbleness. He declares to me, ‘I am not an artist by any means.” Saunders seems to need neither titles nor praise. During our interview he did not even mention that he collaborated with celebrated designers such as Roland Mouret, and previously worked as a consultant for the legendary print label Pucci. Instead, he preferred to talk about controversial talent Chuck Close and his ability to change people’s perceptions.

Using fabric and print as the medium for his creativity, Jonathan Saunders pushes the envelope of fashion. A nonconformist at heart, he makes fine clothes for the privileged few. But, then again, those who gravitate to his creations are not quintessential trophy wives or tart Hollywood starlets. To the contrary, Saunders’ customers are sophisticated individuals, devoted to intelligent dressing. In reference to his signature high collars, angular shoulders and draped fabrics, the designer jokes, “To be honest, I don’t think a woman is going to wear of my dresses to go to a bar and find a man.”

Jonathan Saunders’ bid to cross new frontiers in textile design, creating a polished, feminine yet directional look is bound to create more ripples in the industry. Each of his textiles and prints, designed to flatter the body and emphasize silhouette will surely continue to draw new converts. So far Kate Moss, Kylie Minogue, and Halle Berry are sold, but the budding talent is just getting started. Here is an account of what Jonathan Saunders had to say about his philosophy, work, clients, label and future. Fashionlines reports…

F: How did your career in fashion take start?

JS: I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in product design. Then I went to St. Martin’s, where I learned about the industry’s side of things. I knew that a niche for textile driven fashion existed - like Issey Miyake and Comme de Garcons. When I started the label, I looked into textiles, which were not just conceptual, but also accessible to different types of women.

F: What kind of a woman do you have in mind when designing?

JS: I think there is quite a few of them. Overall, I design for women, who have an appreciation for craft processes. Not that I am saying there is couture level workmanship in the collections, but a lot goes into the positioning of the textiles. The textile is designed around each outfit and cut accordingly. The simplest way to explain it is engineered printing.

F: Why the shift from wispy chiffons towards more architectural looks?

JS: It is just knowledge. You know, I never trained specifically in fashion design and cutting. The earlier collections were about a large canvas painted with imagery. Then, structure came as part of an evolutionary process. I always saw trend as part of an engineered and positioned process. Many designers are trying to promote an idea of grandeur. We have a small company, we are trying to promote and grow. Things change and evolve as you progress. In time you focus on new things.

F: Your clothes tend to me more covered up. How do you feel about the trend towards bearing it all?

JS: I don’t think you have to show flesh in order to feel good about yourself. To be honest, I don’t think a woman is going to wear one of my dresses to go to a bar and find a man. It is intelligent wear. It is avant-garde.

F: You are non-conformist, with a knack for challenging tried-and-true formulas. What are you trying to achieve by pushing the envelope?

JS: I suppose it is all about challenging ideas of what women can wear and get away with. How you are perceived by someone, who does not know you, is what you wear. Print, color and textile design is a way of getting noticed without saying, “Hey look at me!” There is so much ostentation in fashion, so the point of my collection is being able to wear print and color in a way, which does not look ostentatious. It is a more modern way.

F: Your collections are often described as ‘modern’. How do you define modern?

JS: Modern does not have to be graphic. I love the Bauhaus, for instance, but not just because it is graphic and minimal and laden with abstractions; it is more because it challenged what was then considered as beautiful craftsmanship. Something does not need to be ornate in order to have a lot of workmanship in it.

F: You have been criticized for not making ‘pretty’ clothes. How do you respond?

JS: I find that to be a generally positive criticism. It is one of the reasons why we have had success - because we are considered to be so different. We generally get criticized for being masculine, you know the combination of graphic design and structured elements can render a boyish look. But, I think people are just reacting to what they associate with print label. They are thinking along the lines of Gucci, Missoni, Pucci and Versace. These brands are all about prettiness and sexiness, I suppose. So when you bring in the more masculine necklines it is a shock. You are never going to please everybody. If what I did was feminine, pretty, and sexy; how would I be different from everybody else?

Chuck Close is a good example. I am referring to him because I just saw his work at the MOMA. Art critics slated him because he was painting from photographs and his technique was unheard of. Don’t get me wrong, I am not an artist by any means. The point is, when you are trying to work out something new and innovative, the criticism is par for the course.

F: You mention Chuck Close. Are there others – past or present - who have inspired you? Any muses?

JS: I have never had one specific person in mind when designing. I don’t think there is one person, one thing, or one theme. The inspiration, the driving force of the collection, is a thousand things. It is the Bauhaus, but it is also Salvador Dali, Frank Lloyd Wright and chic women, who aspire to wearing intellectual clothes. You know, Ann Guggenheim and her preoccupation with fine art, but also her decision to wear attractive and sophisticated clothing.

F: Can you talk a little bit about your new collection?

JS: The conception of each collection is different. Usually we either start from the textile print side of things or the silhouette side of things. Ann Guggenheim had an exhibition in the 40s. One room had her surrealist artists, the other her modernist artists. And in the middle she had a combination of both. Until that time it was either or camp. There was no middle ground. You know like Chanel and Schiaparelli. It is that kind of mix that influenced this season.
F: What happens to the Aboriginal/ethnic prints of last season?

JS: The Autumn/Winter ’05 was about a look back on how cultures are expressed through crafts. But then again prints are all about interpretation. Some people would look at it and think it is nostalgic, while others may see something abstract. It is a subjective viewpoint.

F: Why London?

JS: From a greater point of view London is the best place for us to base the studio right now. A) It is the attitude. It is quite a cynical place which I think is quite good and really healthy. B) It has got so many amazing sources of inspiration there.

I do love the British point of view. From the fashion standpoint they are quite naïve and undeveloped, to a certain extent. There is no support infrastructure for the business to thrive and grow into a large brand, not that I see us being a multi million pound conglomerate. I am thinking more along the lines of Alaïa, who has recognition but serves a niche market. I don’t think Jonathan Saunders as a label will become anything else other than that. I think that is a good kind of goal.

Fashionlines agrees.




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