Girl's best friend

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British designer Jonathan Saunders on putting intelligent women at the centre of his work

Photography: Jonty Davies

Words: Lizzie Pook

Jonathan Saunders is a man in need of sleep. When we meet at a North London studio, it’s exactly two weeks, four days and 11 hours until his s/s 2013 womenswear show at London Fashion Week, so he’s been pulling a series of all-nighters. “Do you have grooming?” he asks hopefully, running his hands over the type of beard the average man would spend an inordinate amount of mirror-time trying to cultivate. “I haven’t shaved for weeks.”

He looks tired. But then, what would appear ‘dispossessed’ on most men – the wiry facial hair, the bomber jacket, the battered jeans – just serve to make Saunders look even more, well, cool.

The dog helps, too. Amber, the Battersea rescue Staffordshire Bull Terrier he re-homed eight years ago, is hurtling around the studio, pawing everybody in reach and clambering over any sofa or armchair available. “She eats everything she comes across,” says Saunders with a sigh. “She’s had numerous operations; they found a cassette tape in her, and an entire dog bone, split into three pieces.” Amber salivates proudly.

“That’s nothing,” interjects photographer Jonty Davies excitedly. “Our Jack Russell once ate a balloon, and when they operated on him to get it out, they found a rusty nail in his stomach; it had been in there for years…” Jonathan holds his hands up to concede defeat.

I can’t say this is the first thing I expected to be discussing with the man heralded as one of Britain’s true fashion visionaries. Born in Glasgow to conservative Jehovah’s Witness parents, Saunders started designing furniture as a teen, before taking a degree in textiles at Glasgow School of Art. On graduating, he left for London without a penny in his pocket to study at Central Saint Martins under the tutelage of the legendary Louise Wilson; the woman who taught Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane, and who has been described as the most influential woman in fashion.

Within two days of his graduate show, Saunders was approached by McQueen himself, who commissioned him to design a series of prints for his 2003 collection. Thus began a whirlwind career that’s earned him countless awards, endless industry plaudits and placed him firmly in the ‘Best of British’ category. That’s not to mention the famous fans, including Charlize Theron, Emma Stone, Christina Ricci and Poppy Delevingne, who clamour over his colour drenched designs and graphic prints.

However, Saunders is not a man to rest on his laurels. In a seemingly endless pursuit of self-improvement, he cites “learning” as one of his main motivations. When we finally get a chance to speak, sitting down over his third latte in an hour, it’s clear Saunders has an archetypal artist’s brain, skipping from subject to subject and veering off on tangents in his mile-a-minute Glaswegian lilt. But what is obvious is his boundless passion, a deep respect for other British designers and a niggling feeling that he can’t quite believe how he got here…

When you’re designing, what’s in your mind as the end product – a dress that will make a woman feel beautiful, or a statement you’re trying to make?

The woman has always got to be at the centre of it. Fashion is not a self-indulgent thing where you can just make what you want. You have to understand how it will make someone feel, whatever your taste. What’s exciting about British designers is that the design process comes from the heart, more so than on any other international circuit. I think that’s because the education system here is a highly creative process, it’s not necessarily business-led.

Do you think creativity is something you’re born with or something that can be taught?

It’s your brain. It’s the way you work, the way you notice things and what excites you. For me, I was always interested in making things. I certainly wasn’t brought up with the notion of being a fashion designer as a child. But I just loved creating: first furniture, then textile designs. I do think everyone has the capacity to be creative, though. It’s always in your head to be unlocked, but you need encouragement. There have been several people in my life who have encouraged me and who have given me the confidence to be creative.

Who in particular?

My best friend, Yvie. I met her when I was 16, when I hadn’t been to art school yet – in fact I’d never even been to London. I hadn’t experienced anything really, but I knew I wanted to do something creative and she always backed me. Lulu Kennedy from [design bursary] Fashion East helped me decide what I wanted to do when I left college; and Louise Wilson was a huge influence. What’s great about her as a tutor is that, irrespective of your taste, she’ll tear you to shreds. But she encourages you to find out who you are as an individual. It doesn’t matter what you’re into, she’ll encourage you to do it to the nth degree.

What’s the best thing about being a designer in London today?

London is a great hub for designers because of the cross-fertilisation of different creative processes. Art, music and fashion have always been something that Britain can be proud of, and that’s probably a testament to our multi-culturalism, too. Also, there’s this never-ending rebellion that creatives seem to have, though I’m still not quite sure what they’re rebelling against…

Who were your icons growing up?

I always loved [Thirties Italian designer Elsa] Schiaparelli. She was so involved with the art scene and so brave for her time. She was graceful in her use of print, textile and all the things that were controversial and exciting about fashion. And because she was a woman, she understood the balance between an idea and reality; what you want to create and how it can be worn.

Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron have both worn your designs. Is it important to you to get that kind of recognition on a world stage?

It’s important to me that intelligent women want to buy my clothes. That’s flattering. It makes you feel like you’re doing something right.

So who exactly is the Jonathan Saunders woman?

Interesting question. We sell to 120 stores around the world; all different markets and all different women. So you can have a woman in New York, a woman in the Middle East, a woman in Hong Kong; they all have different approaches to wearing clothes. But I’d say they’re all drawn to the artistic process involved with fashion, they’re looking for something that has an element of craftsmanship to it. It’s colourful, graphic and eye-catching, but there’s an accessibility to it because the clothes remain simple.

You obviously have a strong work ethic. Do you ever worry stress will affect the way you design?

I often feel overworked. But because of my background and the fact that I didn’t learn draping in college or do pattern-making courses before I started my label, I often feel like a fraud. I work hard to overcompensate for that. I’ve made so many mistakes; it’s taken me a long time to work out what I’m about, so I feel like it requires that level of effort to learn from those mistakes and just keep on going.

What did working with Alexander McQueen and Christian Lacroix teach you?

When I left college, I felt completely out of my depth. But I like a challenge, and I like to get a job done. Coming from Glasgow School of Art, going to St Martins and being surrounded by people who were already in a sort of fashion guise, I felt completely out of place. I was threatened, worried that I wouldn’t fit in within the industry; that I wasn’t ‘cool’ enough. But those experiences taught me that the people you’d once looked at in magazines were genuine people; people who worked really hard and whose main aim was to create something new and interesting.

You’ve done several collaborations (with Pollini, Topshop, Target, Escada Sport…). Who would be your dream collaborator?

I’m really interested in how a brand can be multi-faceted in what products they provide. So, for me, Hermès is amazing. It’s a whole world, spanning everything from an ashtray to a towel to an incredibly made jacket. There’s something timeless about it. Not that they’d ever be interested in collaborating with me!

Fellow Scottish designer Louise Gray has said Scots are obsessed with colour. Is this some sort of rebellion because of the infamous Northern weather?

[Laughs] Is it the misery, you mean? I actually spoke with Louise about this. The thing is, Scotland is a great place culturally and creativity really does thrive there. But I also think it’s because we’re quite bolshy people. We knuckle down, we make mistakes, but we just battle through it. We make brave choices, too. If you work with colour then you’re making a real commitment to something; it’s not like a black tailored suit. Music is also important to us. That, and a night out; Scottish people tend to like a drink. Not me, of course… [smirks]

What music did you grow up with?

For me it was grunge: Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But rave culture and house music were also starting to happen, so I had this weird mix of those two conflicting things.

Is there anything we should be keeping our eyes out for at London Fashion Week [Saunders’ show takes place on 16 September]?

Since I graduated, I’ve always had this dream of showing at Tate Modern. Finally this year we’ve been able to make that happen. I’m so excited.

What will you do to relax once it’s all over?

See my friends, my sister and her kids, catch up and talk about anything except work.

Is there camaraderie between designers at London Fashion Week?

There’s a lot of camaraderie between designers in general in London. When we all started out, doing it from our bedrooms, it was vital that we had the support of each other; sharing stories and experiences, and helping each other out, because we wouldn’t have survived otherwise. What’s good is that there’s no competition between us at all. The worst thing we could possibly do is be generic, or look like anybody else – we’ve all got a real problem with that – so we’d never do anything that vaguely resembled each others’ designs. It breeds a good relationship between us all because our main concern is to make sure we are nothing alike.

So it’s not all backstabbing and bitching like we’re led to believe..?

Not at all. Some of my closest friends are designers who show in London. We’ll support each other if we’re feeling swamped, which is often the case. I do four women’s collections and two men’s collections a year, meaning most collections overlap and there is never, ever a quiet moment. But that’s the nature of fashion. It’s not a difficult job, it’s an amazing job, it’s creative and fun, but the challenge is trying to do everything in the time given because there physically isn’t enough. The trick is working out how you wing it…