Deveaux: Creative director Tommy Ton talks street style photography, museum-worthy Balenciaga heels, and sassy Samoyeds
Tommy Ton may have first come to prominence as a photographer during the digital street style boom, but the Canadian, self-professed fashion enthusiast has recently taken the helm at New York-based label Deveaux's womenswear division. Fans of Ton's vibrant fashion week portraits will be (pleasantly) surprised by the restrained minimalism of his early design work; we're talking pieces that one imagines will easily find their place within the wardrobes of a broad swath of womanhood. Over dinner and drinks on an enchanted evening in Hong Kong, we quizzed him on this most surprising of career moves, using high heels as home decor, and seriously addictive chino trousers. Yes, you read that right.
You went from well-known street style photographer to fashion designer. How did that happen, and at which point during your previous career did you go: "I want to design the clothes that I photograph instead"?
When I was a teenager and first became interested in fashion, I wanted to be a designer. Then I interned for a clothing brand and realised it was too hard [Laughs]. Obviously, like many fashion-mad kids, I filled sketchbooks with drawings and collages. But performing quality control checks, hand-embroidery, and rolling racks of clothes up and down the garment district in Toronto was tough labour, and put a dent in the glamour of designing for me.
How did your current role at Deveaux come about, then?
I dabbled in different areas of the industry, and stumbled into photography by accident. The founders of Deveaux became friends of mine, and when they shared that they wanted to expand their womenswear arm, I offered myself as the creative director. I'd always felt that photographing how people dress would come in handy if I ever decided to try my hand at designing. I sensed a gap in the market for serious, wearable American sportswear, like Calvin Klein and Donna Karan used to specialise in. A lot of designers these days put out ideas into the world that don't end up being made or worn.
It's cool how you didn't stumble into designing. You stumbled into photography, but were always meant to design — it just took a little while to get there.
Given that you initially found designing really difficult, what's changed? Do you think designing in general is less difficult now, or do you think that you're just more prepared?
As a creative director — like Miuccia Prada, Virgil Abloh, or Hedi Slimane — you don't really get hands-on with things. I define the aesthetic and values of the brand, direct my team, and allocate resources to make a product. The most important thing is that the team shares a visual vocabulary and we are all on the same page.
What do you think that you're trying to say with clothes that hasn't been already said? Because the fashion market is so saturated with brands old and new...
I feel like everything's already been said; it's just a matter of what's missing in the moment. Like I mentioned earlier, there was a time when these great American brands manufactured domestically and kept a firm grip on quality control. With globalisation, however...
Is Deveaux made in America?
Yes, most of the clothes are made in New York, while our knitwear is done in Los Angeles. It's very important that our product is closely monitored, especially at the prices that our clients are paying.
Is an American sportswear revival due?
It's time for a palate cleanse. It's not that the clothes out there now aren't 'real clothes', but what we're offering is a little more accessible and polished.
What have your years of fashion photography taught you about clothes and/or people?
It's certainly taught me about people's needs. [Laughs]. Women lead complex lives, and have a lot to juggle. It's nice to feel good in a pair of heels, but that doesn't mesh with a lifestyle of raising kids and running to work. The women I've developed close friendships with want flattering tailoring that makes them feel good. I like to think that good clothes are life-proof, and that's what Deveaux offers.
Life-proof? Oh, I like the sounds of that.
Yeah, when you've reached a certain age — and for me, that was my mid-30s — you don't feel like purchasing stuff that isn't practical or useful. We buy so much in our early 20s, and then look in our closets and wonder: "Why did I buy all this?". While Deveaux is bringing more product into the world, we're also trying to sell the idea of investment dressing, and building a wardrobe foundation full of versatile pieces. I feel like while certain designers target specific demographics, we're a bit more inclusive in terms of who we want to buy our clothes.
Tell me about the women in your life. What do they wear, how do they inspire you?
My sister is why I became interested in fashion. When I was 13, I was a total comic book nerd, but she'd ask me to help record Fashion Television for her on VHS. One episode was about Tom Ford's spring/summer 1997 collection for Gucci, and I was completely seduced by it! But it wasn't really until I worked in retail, selling accessories at Holt Renfrew that I became more confident dealing with female shoppers. It taught me what mattered to them when it came to clothes, and I find it particularly fascinating when I see people wear things they cherish repeatedly.
I'm sure your years on the shopfloor was a fashion education in itself, which leads to my next question. You're a self-taught photographer — would you consider yourself a self-taught fashion designer, too?
I guess so, yeah!
Are you of the opinion that a formal design education is unnecessary in this day and age?
I think experience, whether it's gained from working in the industry or through a formal learning setting, matters most. That's why it's hard to go from your young adult years — when most people attend design school — to becoming an independent fashion designer. I had 14 years of experience in retail, photography, and working with stylists, which is quite the education! I would prefer to call myself a fashion enthusiast, instead of a photographer or designer. One's enthusiasm for fashion must shine through in any role.
I love the idea of enthusiasm being a prerequisite for working in fashion. What are you most enthusiastic about when it comes to your work for Deveaux?
With Deveaux, it's about addressing needs. We want to give women clothes — whether that's sweaters or evening gowns — that you can wear more than once.
Should all design be motivated by need?
I didn't used to think so, but now I feel that everything one does should have intention behind it. We want to be inclusive and helpful to women. That's our mission statement.
Speaking of need-driven, versatile clothes. Do you think that fashion trends have become irrelevant?
Somewhat. The industry thrives on newness, but I feel like even that model of constant change gets repetitive.
The term 'inclusion' is thrown about a lot these days. How do you make sure to live up to that goal?
From the outset, it was important for us to showcase the clothes on people of different body types and backgrounds. So we street-cast our shows. Through my photography, I've learned that you should never fixate on youth culture. Buying power spans many generations, and there are interesting people of all age groups and lifestyles.
Where do you shop for yourself?
Most of my basics are from Uniqlo, and I sometimes get clothes from brands I work with, like Dries Van Noten. I also really like shopping on (designer resale site) The RealReal, because I find the way designer items are currently priced excessive. It's also a great way to rediscover and finally acquire those 'ones that got away' pieces.
That's a pretty sustainable way of shopping.
I mean, I don't shop at The RealReal just to be sustainable, but it's a nice side effect!
What's the item that you wear most from your closet?
I have these old Gap chinos that are cut perfectly for me. It's ironic because I design at a completely different market level, but because it doesn't feel precious, I can just walk my dog in them without worrying about stains.
Yeah! [Laughs]. I find that when you purchase something, and want to wear it often, you always worry about needing a replacement. So, if the price point allows, you end up buying...
Multiples of the same item?
Sometimes four or five! The Gap chinos are one example, as is a Dries raincoat that I wear constantly.
Is the Dries Van Noten raincoat your most prized possession. Is it the one piece you'd save from a house fire?
I don't know, I have too many things that I'd want to save, I wouldn't know what to take! [Laughs]
Well, for me, it'd be my dad's wedding jacket. He was so skinny in his mid-20s that my brother has never been able to fit into it. Only I can wear it.
Thinking along those lines, I'd probably save three pairs of Balenciaga heels that I bought from a sample sale. I flew the red-eye from Los Angeles to New York and took a one-day trip just to buy them.
You're kidding, right?
I'm not [Laughs]! They cost like seven thousand dollars each, but I knew that if I bought them, I could probably resell them to a museum some day. I consider them art pieces.
Three pairs though.
Three pairs, at a thousand bucks a pop.
And you flew all the way from L.A. to New York... for shoes... that you'd never wear.
Yep! When I finally get a proper apartment, I may frame them or store them in a glass case.
Which season are they from?
Fall/winter 2010, the collection that was inspired by interiors.
Oh, I remember these!
They're made of wood, bakelite, and plastic. They aren't very comfortable — I've tried them on. [Laughs]
Yeah, they definitely don't scream 'wear me'.
I mean, they don't align with my practical personality, but they're beautiful.
Can you be practical as a fashion designer? Or do you experience fashion differently now that you're in a creative role?
I think so. I've always been passionate about product, so the way that I design is very product-driven. The objective has always been 'easy-to-wear and accessible'. My photography work, which was almost overloaded with colour and texture, is a completely separate beast.
Is it fair to say that you've grown up aesthetically?
I've certainly grown up, but social media's also turned fashion into such a circus. It's probably why I find things which are grounded in reality more interesting now. When we put together collections for Deveaux, it's not about a glamourised image of women. It's relatable.
I hear you still do professional photography.
Yes, of course! I have a shoot tomorrow, in fact. I avoid photographing for Deveaux, though, because I've learned that it's not a good idea to attempt controlling everything.
Is photography officially your secondary gig now?
Photography is still my main source of income, and Deveaux is the passion project. I had major street style FOMO when I was wrapping up my last collection, but skipped London and went straight to Milan during fashion month because I didn't want to burn myself out.
I don't know how you used to do all four fashion weeks! Two is more than enough for me.
It's a lot. Four major cities each for men's and women's, plus some additional cities thrown in. That amount of traveling demands a lot physical and mental stability, so to have a 9-to-5 like I do now is pretty nice.
You seem like a really grounded person, what's your day-to-day life look like?
My days off are spent at home with my Samoyed, Mochi. He's a big ball of fun, requires a lot of attention, and even has his own Instagram account. I don't update it often enough, though. Here, I'll show you...
Oh. My. God. He's adorable! That's a great photo of him, you really captured his good side. [Laughs]
He's a bit of a flirt, he loves the camera.
Perhaps he knows that he's in the hands of a professional.
This family had him for three years and didn't want him anymore, that's when I stepped in. Mochi's high-maintenance, but he's so good that you can't get really mad at him... And everybody goes crazy over him when they visit the showroom.
What do you do, besides taking him for walks?
We watch TV together!
What are you currently watching?
I'm obsessed with Killing Eve and RuPaul's Drag Race, but American politics is the craziest show on TV right now. The fact that it's all real is a shocker. Is it weird that I'm so invested in it, since I don't usually care about politics, and I'm Canadian?
No, I think it affects everybody. Does it trickle into your work, though?
Each season, I pick up on a mood or on conversations I have with women. For fall/winter 2019, I was drawn to the idea of finding security and warmth in your clothes. Maybe it had something to do with everything that's happening in the world, who knows?
What do you talk to them about?
Last season, for example, I cast this wealthy-looking lady in our show. When I asked her what she did for a living, I thought she mentioned working for Loewe, but in reality, she was a forklift driver at Lowe's Home Improvement who also cut Christmas trees every holiday season. How cool and inspiring is that?!
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