An interview with Jonathan Saunders

Jonathan Saunders says that he hasn’t looked at himself in the mirror before leaving the house for about two years. “I don’t have the time and honestly I just cannot be bothered to make another decision in the mornings. I just find myself staring blankly at a rail of clothes.” The result of running a label that is stocked in more than 80 stores in over 20 countries, Saunders works on six collections a year whilst also managing a number of consultancies. “I think people think that I should dress in a jolly way, turning up to things looking like David Hockney but…I’m just drab,” he grins.

The Glaswegian designer recently celebrated the tenth year of his eponymous ready-to-wear label. Sat at his desk on the second floor of his conventional London studio, he nods to all four corners of the room when talking, pointing out his handsome workload. On one wall there are two large A0 poly boards with fabric samples and sketches for the womenswear collection thoughtfully tacked onto them. On the opposite wall exists a sprawling mass of images that will go on to inspire his men’s collection. On the other side of the room are the swatches and ideas for the other projects he is currently in the middle of. His major task however is in finding a new home for the brand he first set up quite by chance in 2003.

Known principally for his use of bright colour, Saunders didn’t grow up necessarily wanting to become a fashion designer. In 2008 he told Vogue Living that, “my early life was all Bibles and brown furniture.” The gloom of his home city provided the backdrop to his time studying printed textiles at Glasgow School of Art. He moved to London after graduation and went on to complete an MA at Central Saint Martins in 2002. His subsequent reputation as a talented print maker and textile designer soon followed. “Glasgow is a wonderful place with wonderful people,” he says, “but it is very drab. It has amazing architecture, design and music and it’s quite a creative city but there is a very Scottish mentality of never drawing attention to yourself or celebrating your success. You just don’t ever have illusions of grandeur and so getting on the bus to London as soon as I could was a reaction against that.” As a teenager, Saunders jumped in-between two subcultures; influenced by grunge with its more slackened, unkempt aesthetic, he was also open to the lustre of the growing house music scene. His look for most of the nineties – an undercut, paired with a host of acid house t-shirts – characterised the dichotomy.

Like a lot of his peers (Christopher Kane, Louise Gray, Richard Nicoll) Saunders was 25 when he showed his first collection. “A lot of London designers seem to start their companies at a young age and what that means is that you have no other choice than to learn the intricacies of running a business by just getting on with it,” he says. “People start labels with no infrastructure and with nobody to do things for you and in many ways that’s wonderful. It means that you learn as you go.” His time at Central Saint Martins, with its womb like art school spirit, didn’t quite groom him for “the real world” and the particulars of running a fashion business. “I didn’t feel prepared when I graduated at all but thankfully the course didn’t dwell on the business side of things – I would have been so bored if it did. Learning how to balance having a label with a business and how to balance being a creative person within the confines of the timings of fashion is something that you cannot be taught. If you had a year to develop a collection it would be a different story but you’re trying to do something that takes time and consideration in a period of time you don’t have. Every season feels like I have never done it before.”

Although he officially launched his menswear line in 2012, he showed a series of men’s looks as part of his spring/summer 2004 collection in September 2003. The collection drew on the work of the Italian thirties futurist Vasselli, M.C. Escher and nineties rave culture. The four looks featured t-shirts and vests with engineered graphic prints in a vivid palette of bright blues, greens, yellow and violet. “It has always been something I wanted to do because when I started, I never saw myself as a menswear or womenswear designer. I was doing textiles. Creative things inspired me and I wanted to bring them together and I never had any idea that it might have longevity.” A couple of months after the show, one of the dresses from the collection appeared on the January 2004 cover of British Vogue, worn by Natalia Vodianova. “After that, I abandoned the idea of doing a men’s collection because all of a sudden I had shops wanting to buy my womenswear. I really had to focus on learning how to do that”

His menswear collections are personified by their unpredictable colour arrangements, engineered print and patterned textures. His spring/summer 2014 offering photographed here, was inspired by the wardrobes of Tokyo businessmen in the 1980s and the show notes spoke of the collection having an elegance and maturity that has been rooted in playfulness (best noted in the degrede spot print and awkward colour palette). The collection uses vinyl-coated cotton and the translucent silk-Lurex from his womenswear pre-collection.

The designer often refers to garments in his menswear collections as “product”, something he does less when talking about womenswear. “When you’re designing for a woman, you think about a look. You think about the whole thing, whereas with menswear I often think about a piece of clothing.” He says the approach is more pragmatic, sensitive and detailed. “I’ll think about a jacket and look at developing a lapel or a trouser. You get excited about a pocket jet or a contrast colour inside a single-breasted jacket. Things like that are very much about the piece of clothing as opposed to the look. With a girl, the length of skirt will determine what heel will look good with it, is it worn with a long top or a tight knit? All of the proportions are crucial and you have to think about that stuff. For my sort of menswear, that isn’t important.” Initially Saunders didn’t worry about his lack of menswear training and thought that designing men’s clothes would be relatively easy. He would just work on designing prints that could be translated onto men’s clothes and once he had perfected some basic shapes, he could offer them up in seven or eight different fabrications. “With womenswear that just isn’t possible, it would get boring really quickly and so my approach with the menswear is more subtle. Good menswear feels quieter – there’s a more sober approach and it’s much more about detail and craftsmanship. I did think it would be easy but then when I started fittings, I realised how the fit has to be perfect for menswear and I am still learning how to do that.”

This development is the actual reason he started making menswear again. As soon as a delivery of knitwear samples for his women’s collection had arrived, he tried a jumper on, only taking it off five days later. “I really liked it. It made me feel good and the more we were going through it all I thought, this is what we should do for men! It was really that simple.” At their unveiling, Saunders’s message was clear – this was not just going to be a diluted version of his vibrant, patterned vision seen in his womenswear. The sobriety of a jacquard weave or self-colour mohair replicated what could have been a more obvious print in the women’s collection. “A lot of the stuff in the first men’s collection I had developed for the womenswear but often with my womenswear collections, the expectation is that I will do something all singing and all dancing. So some of the those fabrics and themes we did in menswear instead.” He notes, “everything has got to have love in it and a reason for being there. Otherwise it’s fucking pointless.”

Saunders is shrewd. “It is important to realise that you are not an artist putting up an exhibition. You’re not hanging up your singular point of view and then inviting people to come and look at it. As a fashion designer, what you’re really doing is designing objects people have to interact with, wear and use which means that it’s as much about them as it is about me. It’s humbling to understand that.” Fashion is an area of design that is unique: product development and the functionality of elements are considered, but not at the expense of the emotional encounter we all have with our clothes. “Does it make you feel sexy? Does it make you feel sophisticated? Does it make you feel confident? There’s no other area where design needs to do that other than fashion,” Saunders says.

Published in VARÓN VOL.8 S/S 2014
Jonathan Saunders S/S 2014 photographed by Nicole Maria Winkler
British Vogue, January 2004
Jonathan Saunders S/S 2004