It's not that Kim Jones doesn't have presence; it's just that he doesn't have airs. No pretence. No stereotypical fashion drama. Lounging back in a leather sofa on the seventh floor of the Louis Vuitton maison on George Street, Sydney — head tilted back and slightly turned to his side, staring at you with soft eyes — his lack of ceremony elicits false familiarity. He's wearing a casual check shirt over black trousers anchored with Nike mid-tops (a wardrobe staple and a brand that he's collaborated with frequently). His disarmingly relaxed persona makes you feel like you're talking to a friend. A good mate, in fact. But a mate that so happens to be the conductor behind one of the biggest names in menswear. Scratch that. Fashion, in general.
In town for two reasons: (a) celebrate the launch of the Louis Vuitton men's pop-up store in Westfield Sydney; and (b) accept the GQ Australia award for Best International Designer of the Year (but not necessarily in that order), I spoke to the men's artistic director of Vuitton about balancing commerce with creativity, the value of pop-up stores, and why waiting for a collection to drop is actually a good thing.
With your spring/summer 2017 collection — given your collaboration with the Chapman Brothers and the integration of their animal sketches — there's a real punk, almost animalistic edge, to your offering. And I feel that currently in menswear, anything that's seen as anti-establishment is perceived as cool. Do you think you can be cool without being nihilistic?
Yeah, completely. I mean the next collection we're doing is very different. For me, when I was doing spring/summer 2017, it was five years since I've been at Vuitton and my first collection was about Kenya and Tanzania, and what it was like for me to grow up there as a kid. And now I was drawing inspiration from what's happening in South Africa, especially the kids that are around 25 who have grown up after apartheid, so they can actually mix together and they're creating quite a punky interesting style there. Obviously it's 40 years since punk came out, but you know, punk is very mainstream now. It doesn't stand for what it did stand for. So for me, it was nothing antagonistic about it. I think the message I was thinking was, "Hey, this is mainstream. This is here, and it's here to stay."
So the idea of a pop-up has its origins from the street. Why is this important for the luxury customer to get this retail experience?
It's just really to present the collection in a different way, to put them into the context of just being solely about this one collection. You know there's lots of facets at Vuitton, so you can go to a big store and be quite drowned out by lots of things, but this is just to focus on what the collection is about and to celebrate what we've done with the Chapman Brothers; especially because we collaborated with them for the first time in autumn/winter 2013 and loved that collection so much. And because I wanted to do more animal prints this time, they were the perfect people to ask to do it again.
You've previously mentioned that it's important to keep the brand attainable. Is that still the focus right now?
Yes. I'm just reinforcing what we do, making it stronger. You know, the men's business is doing very well, so I just want to keep on making it grow and making it better and better. It's my job to do that. When you work in these big brands, that's what we have to do. You look at what's happening at Gucci and all those brands that are doing lovely work, you have to think about what your strengths are, and focus on that.
Working for a big house like Vuitton, there's obviously some kind of commercial pressure to make sure your collection is successful. And, being a creative person, you want to express yourself through your clothes. How do you manage that tension between creating commercial collections and expressing yourself?
If they get too commercial with me, I just say what I think and then just go on and do what I do. I feel like I know what will work. Do you know what I mean? Because things like creating the Monogram Eclipse are things that I've wanted to do for quite a long time....
Which has been very successful.
It was huge, it sold out really quickly. I think of things in terms of what people want. You know, how many bags are men really going to buy? So I want to create things that people desire, something that they feel they need to have.
Where's the next city for a men's pop-up store?
Well we've got one in Berlin at the moment and there's one in London next week, and then there's one in Beijing in January, as well as one in Milan. There's a lot. Our collections are doing really well and it's a good way to get that message out there to people. It's nice. It gives me a chance to visit places that I don't necessarily get to visit, and see who our customers are in different parts of the world.
The current spring/summer 2017 season has witnessed the birth of the whole see-now-buy-now movement. What are your thoughts on that?
I'd rather see what happens with that. I don't know how sustainable it is. I can understand that for more of a high street brand. I think for us it's kind of impossible, because of the quality level that we have attained. We have the highest quality level in the industry, so for us, it wouldn't really be where we want to go. Occasionally we might drop a bag that's available after a show, but when you start doing ready-to-wear, there are different fabrics and different components like buttons and zips from different places, and it becomes a bit of a dangerous gamble to make it all available straight away. I'd like to wait and see what happens. But you know, how many people in the world want to go out straight after a show and buy a look? I know lots of people who work in fashion who want to wear it straight away, but they can get it straight away anyway. So, it's an interesting thing to watch and see.
how many people in the world want to go out straight after a show and buy a look? I know lots of people who work in fashion who want to wear it straight away, but they can get it straight away anyway.
There's also something to be said about waiting...
There are a lot of people who are aspirational customers at Vuitton and they're willing to save up the money to buy it. I used to myself, so I know what it's like. It would kill me if the thing came out straight away and I couldn't afford to buy it. Like, "Damn, what can I do?" They're not going to let you pay for it in six monthly instalments.
Do you have any favourite pieces that you'll be wearing from the spring collection?
I love the mohair pieces but I don't think I'll ever wear them myself. I have one of the safari trenches and a few trousers. I don't make things to dress myself; I make things to please the customer. The customer is always number one.
How would you define your customer? What keywords would you use?
Huge and from different demographics. There are lots of self-made successful men that really enjoy buying Vuitton to celebrate how hard they work. I like these pop-up stores events because I get the chance to meet a lot of our important customers and see what they do, and hear about what they love about the brand. It's a privilege to be able to do that.
What about the younger customer? The Millenials. How much do they influence you?
A lot. Fashion is quite a young thing, so it's important to have young people shopping and buying the brand. And we're a very expensive brand, so we want people to understand the value of what they are buying. You know, if you buy something from Vuitton, it's going to last your whole life. Men are more faithful to their things, more so than women, so I think it's important to communicate the quality of what we do to young people.
With social media being as prevalent as it is now, have you ever looked at someone's Instagram feed and found inspiration in what they were wearing?
I find the Explore feature on Instagram quite interesting to see pictures that you don't look at normally. I wouldn't necessarily say that it influences what I do, but you sort of find interesting people with the same interests as you. I mean, there are pictures that I'll screen-grab and put on my mood board. I use it as a visual diary. I only went on Instagram because I don't see my friends enough because I'm always working a lot. So it's a good way to stay connected.
You work with a lot of artists and illustrators. Do you consider fashion art?
I don't know. I think everything in the creative realm is sort of in that world. I wouldn't say that it's as high as art. Does it command as much money as art? Probably not. I mean a couturier is an artist because they make people look entirely fantastic. Look at Alaïa, he dressed Tina Turner, who's not very tall, and he made her look incredible. Being able to make someone look the most beautiful and best version of themselves, is just an exceptional thing to do.
The Louis Vuitton men's pop-up store in Westfield Sydney is now open till 18 December 2016.
The Louis Vuitton men's pop-up store in Westfield Sydney
Audio review of the Louis Vuitton men's spring/summer 2017 collection
Check back every Monday for another @MusingMutley column from Norman Tan, Editor-in-Chief of Buro 24/7 Singapore. For more columns from @MusingMutley, click here.
CONNECT WITH NORMAN:
Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat: @musingmutley
CONNECT WITH BURO 24/7 SINGAPORE: