On the eve of his must-see show at London Fashion Week, Jonathan Saunders reflects on ten years in the business, celebrity fans, and wearing the same jeans for three weeks.
Jonathan Saunders has been to six countries in the last four weeks. After our interview he will fly to Brazil, returning to the UK the following day then jetting off to Hong Kong the day after that. “My poor dog doesn’t even know where I am any more,” laments the Glasgow-born designer.
He is in Edinburgh on a damp day in a quiet space in Harvey Nichols. In the adjacent room his team are preparing a special show for some of his loyal Scottish customers. Yvie Hutton, his managing director and his best friend since he was 16, pops her head around the door to say a quick hello.
She’s nipping back to her hotel to change ahead of the show. Saunders asks her what she’ll wear. “What we discussed. Not the Natasha. Embroidered skirt, jumper.” “Nice,” he responds. “Am I fine like this?” She tells him he looks gorgeous.
He does. Stubble, cheekbones, pixie-esque features, white T-shirt, pale jeans. “I’ve had these jeans on every day for three weeks,” he jokes. “That’s disgusting. Not only is that unimaginative but it’s unclean...” The accent is as rich as if the 35-year-old had never left his home town.
“I can’t get dressed at the moment,” he says. I think it’s because I’m making so many decisions about clothes all the time. On a day-to-day basis I might make 20 or 30 decisions about clothes. So I just cannot even bear to get dressed.”
Not that he’s complaining. Business is good, he’s rushed off his feet and if that means spending three weeks in the same pair of jeans, so be it. He’s affable, light, witty. Tomorrow he will show his autumn/ winter 2013 collection at London Fashion Week, and his is one of the most hotly anticipated shows of the whole event.
It will mark ten years since he launched his eponymous fashion label and unveiled his debut collection at LFW for autumn/winter 2003. It’s been quite a decade. Vogue put one of his dresses on the cover a few months later and things have just kept getting better from there.
Raised in Glasgow by his Jehovah’s Witness parents, Saunders’s early life was “all bibles and brown furniture” and “anything materialistic or frivolous was frowned upon”. It’s not difficult to see where his love of colour comes from. His transition from home to the fashion world must have been like the moment Dorothy woke in a land of Technicolor and took her first steps on the yellow brick road.
He gained a BA in Printed Textiles from the Glasgow School of Art then an MA with distinction from Central Saint Martins. Saunders showed in London first before moving to New York Fashion Week. However, he returned to London in 2009 and his collections have grown in confidence ever since.
Early in his career, his was a world of prints; bright, bold, labour-intensive and critically acclaimed. He opted for simple, sharp silhouettes designed to act as a canvas for his creative use of colour and pattern. However, recent seasons have seen these simple cuts evolve to the extent that the form of his pieces – often separates with a smart daywear slant – is as accomplished as the print.
Today his designs are worn by an army of high- profile women, from Michelle Obama, Samantha Cameron and the Duchess of Cambridge – the Countess of Strathearn in Scotland – to young Hollywood royalty such as Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller and Emma Stone. Possibly even more significant is the fact that fashion insiders clamour to wear his designs.
It wasn’t always so, at least not to the extent it is now, but if Saunders spent the first half of his first decade in fashion finding his feet, he’s spent the second half building on his successes, and it’s been in the last few seasons that he has really found his groove. “Four seasons ago I did a spring/summer collection and I saw loads of people in the front row, all the editors, all wearing my things,” he says. “I’d never had that before. People always appreciated what I did, that I had an identity and they understood the artistic references and the concept of the brand. But they’d never wear it! All of a sudden I just saw them all and I felt so satisfied. I knew I was doing something right in terms of translating the ideas into the clothes.”
It was, he says, the point when he truly felt like a fashion designer. “Only four seasons ago!” He laughs hard. How did that experience change his attitude? “Confidence. Completely. When I came out of St Martins it was all about being cool, about who you were hanging around with and that creative, insular bubble. It was about what people thought of your designs within the industry. For me, to become a designer you have to see people wearing your clothes.”
And they do. His designs are flattering and distinctly grown-up and as such, “real-life” women want them. Vogue has cited a “sharp but feminine modernity, which is now an identifiable Jonathan Saunders knack”. His clothes have veered from trippy housewife to icily ladylike via elegantly clashing kaleidoscopic prints and sophisticated silhouettes. Most significantly, his creations look best on women, not girls. “That’s the customer, isn’t it?” he says. “How old does she have to be to be able to afford a £900 dress? Let’s be honest, there’s obviously this small, niche group of girls who are 21 and loaded but I prefer the idea of it being a working woman who has earned her buck and wants to wear something that’s expensive and luxurious and feel special.”
Today his work feels accomplished, polished, vibrant. It is “not referential,” and as such retains a very unique signature. It’s no wonder, then, that Vogue editor Anna Wintour sits shoulder-to-shoulder with the most powerful people in the fashion industry in the front row of his shows.
His aesthetic, he says, has evolved over the last decade: “When you’re a young designer, you put all of your ideas into one collection. It’s a method of showing the world your ideas. Then as you became more experienced you get more humble when you realise that actually, what you’re doing is for the customer. It’s not about you shouting out about what you want to do. You listen to the person who wears your clothes.”
There is little time in today’s fashion world to pause for reflection, so it’s important to Saunders that he makes the time to listen. That’s one of the reasons he’s here today, I suppose; to meet the people who wear his clothes and answer their questions.
Every year he designs four women’s collections and two for men. He creates a high street line for Debenhams and does various bits of consultancy work. The days of fiddling around with prints in his tiny Brixton studio are far behind him and his is an increasingly powerful brand, a growing business, a serious game.
“I’m more confident as a designer but the more salaries you are responsible for, the more the pressure increases. I’m not quite at that stage where I’ve got a commercial collection that I don’t need to worry about, a no-brainer that just sells. The decisions that I make affect everybody’s salaries and that kind of pressure, I feel it.” He cracks a mischievous grin. “But then I just drink a bottle of vodka and it’s absolutely fine...”
Saunders has a cheeky, dry sense of humour. When I ask him if his customers have evolved with him, he answers: “Definitely. Well there are more of them for starters.”
With more than 100 stockists and rapidly rising sales (they shot up 120 per cent in 2012) his label is looking decidedly healthy. To have built it to this level at just 35 is impressive. “To be going for ten years and to be respected more now than I was at the beginning is a good place to be,” he says. “For a lot of designers, it’s not forever is it? Someone can be hailed as the most relevant person in fashion and then ten years later, not so much.”
I ask him about his personal highlights of the last decade. “I’ll never forget that Vogue cover,” he says, quick as a flash. “I didn’t even think of myself as a fashion designer and then I was on the cover of Vogue. Going to New York was another point in my career where I really learned a lot about how to be a designer. And then coming back to London for the 25th anniversary of LFW. I felt like I was coming home, like it was really personal from then on in terms of my collections.”
He’s in a strong position at the moment but the way Saunders talks implies that he feels he’s still evolving, still striving. He tells me that he’s never happy at the end of a collection, that he’s always ready to try something new and different.
“I came from textiles. I came from Glasgow and went to St Martin’s and from that moment onwards I always felt like a bit of a fraud. I think that that made me hungry to try and prove myself. Sometimes I’ve proved myself in a bad way and made mistakes that I’ve learned from.”
What kind of mistakes? “Oh they’re endless. The first collection I did, I was so naïve. I didn’t expect anything from it and therefore I think the honesty and the simplicity of it resonated with who was looking at it. Then I just s**t myself and realised that people were looking at what I was doing and I became super self-conscious. Then you start trying too hard, and I went through a phase of trying too hard for three or four seasons.”
Since each season reacts to and evolves from the last one, clues as to the collection he will show tomorrow – the one that will go on sale in the autumn – might be found in his current collection, for spring/summer 2013, which is arriving in stores now. It is, he has said, “the hardest collection I have ever done”.
At its core were outfits that transformed completely when the models turned their backs. A simple beige top, for example, was paired with a garishly metallic skirt, both of which had a matte black back. That twist of interest, that unexpected detail is one of the things that makes his work so fresh. When he created each piece, he said, he had in his mind “a Michael Clark disco girl” – and the collection had critics dancing to his tune.
So where does he go from here? “You’ve always got to challenge yourself. I don’t ever want to be safe. You can be pigeonholed as a designer. Some designers have collections which are similar every season and they build up this really loyal customer base. Then you get the designer who loves to try something new every season. I want to be that person.”
Saunders is that person already, I think to myself. He has been for quite a few seasons now, since he proved that there is much more to him than killer prints, since he saw half of the British fashion industry wearing his designs in the audience of his show, since he firmly established himself as one of the most exciting British fashion designers working today. Here’s to the next ten years.
• Jonathan Saunders shows his AW13 collection tomorrow at 5pm, www.londonfashionweek.co.uk; www.harveynichols.com/edinburgh