His busy resumé of designer/art curator/cultural agitator now includes a new role: President of the Jury of the 35th International Festival of Fashion, Photography, and Fashion Accessories of Hyères. In this capacity, he’s been given firsthand insight of what the next generation of designers are like—and it seems he has utterly enjoyed the process. Ahead of the final announcement of the winners, Vogue connected with him via Zoom to talk creativity, authenticity, the importance of a good failure, and the advice he would dispense to young designers.
Hello Jonathan, how’s everything going in Hyères?
Well, actually I am not in Hyères as I’m stuck in Paris! So I’m doing all remotely; I’ve got loads of folders and swatches and perfumes and books, and it’s been a really fun day. We’ve gathered all the jury together on Zoom, the new normal—and it has been very exciting. The last time I saw the participants’ collections was at the beginning of the year, it was nice to see them come to life (and have them be shown) on models. It was a kind of role reversal, like if I were sitting for once on a front row.
Why is it important to support young talents in a moment like this?
I think that the moment doesn’t really change anything; I think we should always support young talents. The coronavirus doesn’t really make any difference, we should be doing this all the time. And today, hearing every one (of the participants) speak, you don’t really need to hear any trend forecast to tell you that the environment, craft, sustainability, and community are becoming some of the biggest issues. And I think that we as a fashion community have to work together—this is really the key. If we’ll work together, we’ll find solutions. And what has been really nice (in our jury meeting with the designers) is that you’re kind of looking at younger people’s work and they’re actually looking for tangible solutions, be it through community making or through being able to support local economies in different countries.
There seems to be a grassroots movement that is moving at a really fast pace. We’re living in the problem right now, and this problem will get worse, you don’t need me to tell you: You can turn on Netflix, you can turn on the news… We all as an industry, like the car industry, or like the publishing industry, or like so many other industries, we need to start kind of saying: What are the long term solutions that are going to be able to balance employment and the environment? Because these are two massive problems. We cannot create even more inequality through the balance of it. So ultimately… really, talking to the designers today my own viewpoint is that if we don’t increase biodiversity we simply don’t get behind it. (If we don’t change this) the pandemic will look incredibly easy (compared to) for what’s to come.
Is there a common thread that runs through the collections you’ve seen at Hyères?
What I thought was so amazing was that all the designers are incredibly honest. And the authenticity level in each designer’s work is there—and it’s in them. I quite like that it’s not a total defined thing; it’s more about experimentation. We sometimes in this industry like things to be overnight successes, we want designers to immediately start a business and we want what’s next. What what’s really nice here is that each individual holds his own court, and at the same time they have ideas that they are willing to experiment with. I think that we should allow that, it shouldn’t be like we want you to start a business tomorrow. I think it should be an experimental moment.
What are the qualities you’re looking for in a young designer’s collection?
My point is that I have to believe it. Ultimately, as much as the clothing has to be fantastic, the personality has to match the clothing. There has to be something that really tells the narrative. In any sort of product you have to believe the maker. And I didn’t want to talk about their fears for the future; I wanted them to escape into their world. I honestly think we have enough fear on a 24/7 basis, so I really wanted them to focus on what they really wanted to say. All of them were incredibly optimistic, and we have to be optimistic, we’re not in a Netflix series, we’re in reality, you can’t get addicted to the next chapter. So I wanted them not to be interrupted and saying what they wanted to say, to really watch them own the stage and be at peace for 20 minutes! I found them incredibly diverse, in terms of viewpoints, and that’s really humbling, I think. Each of them have a particular viewpoint; they do not compete against each other, which I think is really nice.
One common thread which I’ve noticed, to answer your previous question, is that they all have this obsession of ‘make.’ The collaboration with the Chanel Métiers d’Art has been fantastic in this respect, the results are amazing, it’s incredible what young people can do when very old established couturiers put expertise at their disposal— the jewelry, the glove making, the hatmaking (seen) through the eyes of young people. That for me was kind of exciting, this celebration of the art of collaboration.
And the jury, being also quite diverse, has tried to see their work from different angles. We have received boxes full of samples, perfumes, scraps of fabrics, drawings… it was really nice to be at the receiving end, instead of being the one sending out boxes—it’s a festival in a box! For once, I was the one receiveing a box—it was such a nice feeling to discover (what was inside) and become more intimate with things, and take our time a bit to kind of digest and re-understand where we are, instead of trying to always forget about it. It’s nice to get to know new people, their world, and listen to their viewpoint, sit back and listen, and hear what people have to say, because actually I spend most of my days talking—it was great to listen to people talking, instead of me barking what needs to be done!
Being on the jury side, did you see yourself in them when you were at the beginning of your career?
Yes, I actually did! I went through exactly the same process, I remember doing the same thing for the Woolmark Prize, which was a total disaster! I’ve lost many awards, I didn’t even get into the university that I wanted, so yes, my whole thing is that no matter who wins or loses failure and success go hand in hand—I don’t think I would be where I am today without a lot of failure, but I don’t see it as failure, I see it like something that teaches you to keep going.
So, what’s the one piece of advice you’d give them?
This would probably be my biggest piece of advice: to embrace failure, and to be ready and excited to fail, and to fail again. It’s a very good thing, because I think you learn from that. If you were told you were a genius all your life, then people would write you were a genius and that’s it, they don’t really tell you who you are, they don’t really go in depth into it. There’s nothing worse than the idea of the genius designer, it’s a sort of a very odd tombstone. And probably my other advice would be to never compromise, in this day and age you have to crack your own self (open)—and I think it’s really a moment now that, when doing or being involved in fashion, you have to really look at yourself and say, I’m so lucky in what I do. No matter in what capacity you’re working in this industry—editor, buyer, stylist, producer, whatever—we never actually slow down and say, god, we’re lucky. There are lots of people who are not in that situation, and if you want to participate in fashion I think you really need to learn how to be humble, because if not, you become a very isolated character which I think in this day and age no one really wants anymore—no one wants elitism, no one wants ideas of privilege, that is not modern anymore. With what is happening in the greater world, fashion isn’t the center of the universe.
This is certainly true, yet in order to survive young designers have to confront the business side of the industry. What’s your take on this?
I have a kind of a mixed viewpoint on this matter in this moment, because I actually blame the industry for the situation we’re in—I blame all of us. We tell young talents that the only way to get success is, and I actually went into this situation myself with JW Anderson: “well, now you start a brand, and you have to learn along the way, and that will equal success. You have to start your own brand to be successful.” That’s what we set out in the last 20, 30 years of fashion. What that means is that we’ve turned into a situation where we have business magazines for fashion, which then judge the viewpoint of how successful something is—not through creativity, even though it is based on creativity, but through the success of having to make money. But ultimately, in the end, without the creativity part in the first place, we end up stifling the creative process, so we end up coming to the end of the last decade where we kind of look at what fashion was—and it was a blur.
We forgot the idea of craftsmanship, we forgot the idea of make and the idea of experimentation, because ultimately the question that I was asked all the time—and I work at big fashion houses—was: “ Is it commercial, can you wear it, how much can you sell, will it be successful enough?” And I think that for young designers who want to start a business, I would keep it incredibly small, so you can keep it creative in this moment. I actually started my business during the financial crisis, and the great thing about the crisis is that you can keep it small, you can keep it agile, but keep it really creative. Own your audience, cut up the middle man, you know what I mean? Now is the moment to carve out your unique voice within fashion. And I think, yes, you do have to have business acumen, but in this moment right now, when the world is changing, I think it is really important to still believe in the utopia that fashion can produce newness—because if not, we’re just going to end up producing more and more gray clothing.And I don’t want to see that. We need to fall in love with fashion again—as I’ve done while working at my last show.
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