Did you know that Derek Lam and I went to the same high school? Yes, it's true. A few years apart, but the same school. St. Ignatius College Preparatory launched both of us on paths of creativity, fame, and stardom. (Okay, clearly one more than the other, but you get it.) So when the St. Ignatius alumni magazine Genesis asked me to interview Derek Lam for an upcoming issue, you can imagine that I got a little starstruck at this idea. Like...would he even talk to me? Well, he did.
How did I do it? I emailed someone and asked very very very nicely, and kept following-up. You know that adage about the squeaky wheel? It works. But be sure to squeak very softly and sweetly. Then, a lovely PR person will email you with the message that you get 20 minutes TODAY at 5PM Eastern.
And that, boys and girls, is all there is to it. Like Conan O'Brien said: "If you work really really hard and you're kind to people, amazing things will happen." Actually, it probably came together because Derek Lam is just a genuinely sweet person, full of fun, ideas, a love of fashion, fashion people, and his hometown of San Francisco. I send a thousand thanks to everyone at Derek Lam, and my good friend Jill Lynch for thinking of the whole project in the first place!
Published here with permission from Genesis magazine.
Part of your development began in your grandparents’ garment factory here in San Francisco. Was it understood that you would enter the family business from the get-go, or did your family try to encourage you into other directions?
I was only about 5 – I was a child. So there was no opinion about that. I just liked the familial atmosphere of the place. I knew it was great to be in a place surrounded by relatives working together. It was very comforting.
So when did you really begin to learn about garment construction?
When I went to Parsons.
Did you go to Parsons right from SI?
I went to Boston College for a year and a half and then transferred to Parsons.
High school is usually a time best forgotten for most of us (myself included.) But, is there something about your years at SI that you think helped to shape who you are today? Was there an experience there that really helped to shape your creative side, or was there an activity you were a part of that helped move you in the design direction?
There were two classes. The first was what was then called “Social Studies” – about people, what makes them do what they do, culture, defining who you are, with analysis and history. The second were my art classes. I had one teacher – Ms. Wolf? – Yes, Katie Wolf, she’s still there. – She is? Wow that’s amazing. I loved her classes. The last time I came home, my Mom asked me if I wanted my SI yearbook and I started flipping through it; I was like “I remember this person, and this person…”
I also really loved my English classes. They gave me a great love of literature and writing, and all of that contributes to the arts. (Notice I didn’t say science?)
I enjoyed the experience there because while SI is very academically motivated, they’re very good about educating “the whole person”.
If there are high school students at St. Ignatius, or anywhere, who are interested in fashion design, what suggestions do you have for them? Is there anything they can do at a young age to help cultivate their eye for design? Or anything they can do to get into the practice of design?
I’m not sure how you could cultivate it - I didn’t know what a fashion designer was at that age. I went to Parsons in New York City to study art. I had a curiosity about art and culture which then led me to fashion design.
Being in a place like San Francisco, there’s so much culture that gives people curiosity, the city reveals culture everywhere, which is all a part of art and design.
I know that film has inspired your collections in the past, such as In the Mood for Love in 2004, and Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud in the Fall of 2009. One of my efforts here in San Francisco is organizing a bi-monthly film screening called Style Cinema SF. We screen fashion films, or films that have some sort of a strong aesthetic. Do you have other favorite films that you return to again and again for inspiration?
Barry Lyndon – that’s amazing…The Shining…I love Chinatown. For me it’s about the cinematic quality, the story told with costume and atmosphere. I like to think of my collection as a movie with no parts. I want to create mood, desire, and fantasy - that same cinematic quality, and also prompt people to think “I can have that in my life as well.”
I also know that a lot of your collections are influenced by place; I wondered if you had a San Francisco collection cooking in your brain somewhere. And, what era of San Francisco history really speaks to you?
That’s an interesting question because my collection for Fall  I called “The Myth of the West”. I was thinking about the people who settled in San Francisco, who created a European city in the wilderness of the West. They were from the East, bringing their culture, values, etc., and created the mythology of “The West”. Cowboys, gold mining – our western legends. It’s clearly not an eastern, pilgrim culture in that setting.
I know that you worked for Michael Kors for years and you both are the capital-S in American sportswear. How do you see sportswear responding to the times right now? Is there still a place for luxury in American sportswear?
That’s interesting because a lot of Europeans say “why do you call it “American Sportswear?” because to them sportswear is what we would call “activewear”. Sportswear is made up of items that are easy to mix, and yes, have a basis in sports. (Riding, hunting, etc.) When you explain that there’s suiting, sportswear, and evening, then the Europeans begin to understand what it is. For me, it’s the most valid point of view on how to dress. Ultimately it’s the consumer who makes it work for them – how they use it in their wardrobes.
How do you incorporate the luxury? Is it in a design detail, the material, the fabrication…?
Yes, all of those things. I’m always looking for ways to incorporate luxury into items. I love to incorporate hand-work into pieces. I love working with modern mills - those who make bonded, technical fabrics. But I also love working with the couture mills. For me, luxury is a new point of view with a taste of the past.
Trench coats – I do a trench coat every season. They’re sexy, mysterious, and in New York, or I guess San Francisco too - you can throw on a coat and you’re dressed.
How do you define or compare the “Derek Lam girl” and the “Tod’s girl”? Are they the same person or is it a different personality, a different style?
Derek Lam is personal, it’s what I want to say – a dialogue with my customer. For Tod’s, it’s thinking about their brand. Tod’s is modern classic with Italian flare and a modern “pep”. I suppose the customer for both is looking for my signature. How is Derek interpreting something, what is perspective is Derek offering? (By the way, I’m saying this as one of my customers, I’m not talking about myself in the third person.) I design for both brands but filtered from within my own point of view.
Do you feel the pressure to create a popular “It” bag every season, such as a YSL Muse or Balenciaga Le Dix?
No…no, that’s a lot of marketing. Every season is a fresh start. I’m trying to determine what intrigues, what’s desirable to the customer. I think about what’s missing in their wardrobe. This is much more important than any commercial endeavor.
Plus, there’s really no science to it.
No there isn’t, or, that’s not my role. There probably is a science to it, but it’s someone in marketing who determines that.
I read in Women’s Wear Daily last fall that when you came to San Francisco for a visit, you asked your Mom to cook up some abalone with shitake mushrooms. What are some of your other favorite San Francisco flavors? Which places or neighborhoods do you always love to visit when you come here?
I ask my Mom for a “usual” home meal – whatever we would usually eat at home. So, while I really don’t have a specific request, I just leave it up to her. I love to visit the Ferry Building; I’ll go down there and have some oysters or just walk around. I love to see what’s going on down there.
The last time I came to San Francisco Vanessa Getty hosted a party for me at something Cinema? Foreign Cinema, yes, it’s one of my favorites. I had never been there and it was great. When I visit, I’m kind of like a tourist, rediscovering the city I grew up in. I also like the place that has California cuisine – up on Market Street and I can’t think of the name. Zuni? Yes, the Zuni Café. They have the best chicken! Yes, the chicken with croutons? Yes! Their food is so good! It’s always my first lunch or first dinner when I arrive in San Francisco.
The next time you visit you should try NOPA – it was founded by some of the people from Zuni. What’s it called? NOPA – N O P A – their roast chicken is amazing too. Where is it? It’s at Hayes & Divisadero. Oh – it’s close to Zuni, sort of. Yes, Hayes Valley-ish. Their chicken is divine – I sort of embarrass myself I enjoy it so much. That’s how Zuni is for me!...