JOURNALISM

Prestige | Runway | Interview | JONATHAN SAUNDERS | Autumn/Winter 2012

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THE PRAGMATIST

Since making it onto the cover of Vogue in 2004, JONATHAN SAUNDERS’ bright fabrics and fluid lines have become an integral part of Britain's fashion offering. ALISON CATCHPOLE catches up with the designer at his London studio.


HURRYING ALONG ON yet another rainy morning, I almost miss the entrance to the Jonathan Saunders creative hub, an anonymous four-storey house on a busy road opposite Angel Tube station in North London. Somehow I’d expected it to mirror the colourful geometric prints for which he’s famous, but in its way it’s as understated as the handsome Scot who sits across from me in his office-cum-studio, dressed in jeans, trainers and a pale grey sweatshirt.

 

“London fashion designers in general are having a great moment,” Saunders enthuses in his soft Glaswegian burr. “They’ve always been viewed as credible, they’ve always been viewed as inspirational, but in recent times I think what’s exciting is that they’re managing to balance the creative side of things with business and having commercial collections.”

 

Saunders walked away with this year’s British Fashion Council/ Vogue Designer Fashion Fund award, worth £200,000, a clear vindication of his unique innovative style and the kind of brand creation that, he argues, has sometimes been missing from the UK’s approach to fashion.

 

“I think what happened in the past with British designers is that they would peak. They would have an amazing reputation, but they wouldn’t be able to expand the range and provide a proper service to their retail partners.” This award, then, is Saunders’ chance to see if he can change the pattern — and of course he’s an expert in patterns. “I think that’s what was really exciting about it; you know, I really believe in the mileage of this brand because, by its very nature, you can visualise it in so many different fields. You know, accessories, homeware, all those things could lend themselves quite well to what I do.”

 

What Saunders does, and has done so successfully, is to generate a distinctive, wearable output with a real brand identity — what he describes as “a generic train of thought” in a highly competitive industry. Given his innumerable celebrity clients (including Hollywood actresses Emma Roberts, Jessica Alba, Eva Mendes and Sarah Jessica Parker), things are going according to plan. When Michelle Obama visited 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s wife Samantha Cameron presented the First Lady with a Jonathan Saunders print scarf.

 

Recent diversification into menswear looks equally promising: the first presentation — hosted up a winding staircase near Covent Garden’s St Giles church, and then repeated a week later in LA — showcased an eclectic mix of bold colours, geometric stripes, dots and tiny rectangles, to an admiring crowd including David Furnish and Johnny Depp.

 

Jonathan Saunders grew up in Glasgow, the son of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “I love Scotland and I love the work ethic there, and I love their pragmatic attitude towards work. It’s so real. You can go home and then the minute you say anything remotely pretentious you get ripped to shreds. It’s a very grounded culture.”

While he rarely goes back now, his Scottish roots are in evidence in his own work culture: from age 16, Saunders has been managed by his best friend, Yvie Hutton, who now runs the studio and its team of 12. In an interview with UK Elle in April, she described how she supported him through the painful period of separating from the Jehovah’s Witnesses and his parents.

 

Saunders studied textile design at The Glasgow School of Art, followed by Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. “Glasgow School of Art is a very creative college — there’s a lot of cross- fertilisation between different fields, especially fine art and design, and so it’s very much about the conceptual side of things. I would study fine art and then would develop that into print designs. Then I came to Saint Martins and I had a crash course in frivolity, even embracing the disposableness of fashion and how that was OK.”

 

His stratospheric success is still something he’s coming to terms with. He talks candidly about the practical difficulties of being a designer brand competing with larger companies who manufacture in quantity. “I’m very daywear-focused in what I do, as opposed to being cocktail-occasionwear driven, and with that comes the need for quantity. The sweater that we did from last spring/summer literally sold out the minute we got it into every single store. We had no facility to make it again, to meet the demands of the customers, so the goal is to get it to a level where I can do that.”

 

Perhaps it is part of Saunders’ background as a craftsman that allows him to see his business so analytically. “You go through your apprenticeship as a British designer — I feel like I’m going through my apprenticeship — in the public domain in a different way from in other cities. In Paris, you learn for years and years with another designer before you start your own brand. In New York, big new young designers start with an infrastructure: sales managers, financial directors, all of that stuff. We don’t really do it that way here. “I think what’s wonderful about London and how you grow up as a London designer is that straight from college you’re put out there as an international brand. You’re on Vogue.com, Style.com; international buyers look at your show, international journalists look at your show; you leave Saint Martins or you leave the Royal College; you set up your own brand, and you’re doing it from your bedroom. That’s what’s wonderful about London, but it’s also a challenge to take it to the next stage.”

 

As Saunders and his Staffordshire bull terrier Amber get ready for a team meeting, I take a quick look at next season’s mood board inspired by, of all things, a modern take on Fritz Lang’s science-fiction-film masterpiece Metropolis, thanks to an exhibition Saunders saw in Los Angeles. “I have lots of ideas at the moment. Giddy colours. I saw this exhibition in LA and it’s just one amazing piece called Metropolis. It’s an infrastructure of a city with these strange electric cars that go through it, and I loved the colour combination and the kind of Toytown feel. It’s one of the inspirations for the Resort collection, and it will help with menswear as well.”

 

With such unexpected new twists, and all the energy he exudes, it very much feels like this designer’s incredible journey has only just begun. 

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