Derek Lam Talks Chicken...No, Really!

Derek Lam, image from Teen VogueDid 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.

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Derek Lam Fall 2010, from Style.comPart 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”.

Tod's Shade Bag, designed by Derek Lam, image from BagSnobIf 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 [2010] 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.

Derek Lam Fall 2010 from Style.comName one garment that you will never get tired of designing/interpreting.

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.

Derek Lam & Vanessa Getty at Foreign Cinema, from 7x7I 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!...

Louis Vuitton: Schadenfreude

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Louis Vuitton's Richard Prince Motard Firebird Bag from the Spring 2008 Runway.So we all know that I have some history with the house of Vuitton. My emotions surrounding the brand are in equal measure love and hate. Since we’ve parted ways I have continued to watch LV with mild interest and respect of a certain kind; respect for the creativity and quality that is still at the forefront of the product offering. In the past few months, however, I am sad to see the mighty house embarassing itself in more ways than even my jaded spleen could imagine. The Luxe Chronicles posted a similar essay on this subject last month, but with even more mea culpas in recent weeks, I am glad I delayed in writing a response...er, agreement.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the world can tell that the heyday of luxury must-haves has cooled off considerably, especially given the current economic and social climate. What is the use of a $2500 or even $500 handbad these days when it costs a fifth of that amount just to fill up a gas tank? Isn’t it a little gross to have something like that on your arm when millions of people have been displaced due to the earthquake in China, and not to mention America’s own mid-west? I don’t know any metrics off hand, but I would venture to guess that luxury sales are probably NOT comping against last year, never mind five years ago.

Bernard Arnault seems to be having a difficult time closing a deal these days, and Dana Thomas’ book Deluxe has probably blown the roof off for the true fashion insiders – the ones that actually care. For those that aren’t inside, it’s hard to see what the brands are doing to draw in that mass market like they did before. The notion of hip-hop stars blinging it up with labels seems incredibly stale. The same stars are wearing the same leggings and tops in every gossip magazine, and the latest crop of tastemakers isn’t appearing and everyone seems to be waiting around for the next luxury trend. Will it be of the Fendi Baguette or Jimmy Choo variety? No one knows. But if there is one house that is trying a bit too hard to make it happen for themselves it’s Louis Vuitton.

To be clear, I think Marc Jacobs’ continual creative leadership of the brand remains strong and exciting. It’s what the Vuitton executives are doing with it that is becoming an embarassment.

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Don't laugh...this is war!This April, Vuitton debuted the “Monogramoflage” – a new collaboration between Marc Jacobs and Takashi Murakami. While the collaboration is always fun and proved very successful for the house in the past (especially in its first edition in 2003,) this pattern proved to be a bit of a let-down. Where was the vivid whimsy of the usual Murakami humor? Apparently it’s time to get serious. Meant to be a symbol of the “war against counterfeiting,” the “Monogramoflage” was shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art with an installation of very real-looking counterfeit shops that “sold” actual authentic bags. The concept sounded interesting, but after the initial novelty wore off it just seemed very smug. Here’s this big, fancy, luxury brand fabricating a dirty, illicit scene for the elite art patrons to gain a sense of street. Aren’t we witty, clever and funny? Um…no.

As imagined, the monogramoflage has gone over like a lead balloon. No one’s really mentioned it since.

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The Coppolas for Louis Vuitton's "Core Values"The brand did create a beautiful, well-received film advertisement that took the arthouse cinema world by storm, and followed it up with some new print images. Equally beautiful, one can easily see that Vuitton is trying very hard to get back to its classic “goods for the luxury traveler” image that has been lost recently. The campaign is rightly called "Core Values." While I do enjoy and appreciate these images, the attempt feels incredibly self-conscious. The fresh riskiness that used to abound in older campaigns isn’t apparent here. Choosing such artistic icons as Keith Richards and the Coppolas doesn’t make the brand edgy, it just brings it back to where it should have been in the first place: the true luxury market. Just as a "core values" campaign ought to do! (ThreadTrend and StyleFrizz)

The Sex and the City Movie was yet another debacle, with the most over-the-top Vuitton bags gracing practically every frame – even gratuitously. Granted, the whole film was really nothing but one big product-placement storm, but no one could overlook the prominence of Louis Vuitton. The brilliant and spot-on New York Times review by Manohla Dargis even went on to say “Louis Vuitton co-stars.” She finished her review by saying: “There is something depressingly stunted about this movie; something desperate too. It isn’t that Carrie has grown older or overly familiar. It’s that awash in materialism and narcissism, a cloth flower pinned to her dress where cool chicks wear their Obama buttons, this It Girl has become totally Ick.” Right in the middle of the Ick? Louis Vuitton’s Motard Firebird Bag – probably the most memorable moment in the film, for better or worse.

This week’s latest is yet another dose of the proverbial omelette in the face of LV. The brand was forced to close its flagship in Hangzhou, China since “its products did not meet quality standards.” (New York Magazine, and StyleFrizz) Apparently this has something to do with swatching or some other technicality, but still. Something shady is going on here. Surely the Chinese government could have worked out an arrangement with the house to fix the problem rather than all the public embarassment? Better question: Didn't Louis Vuitton know about these technicalities? I guess not, or maybe it was beneath them to comply? The government seized all of the handbags in the store, forcing the company to close its doors there temporarily.

I have to wonder what everyone’s thinking over at the Pont Neuf headquarters in Paris. Is Vuitton’s current stream of misses making up for its many years of hits? Is this just an indication of the market’s growing impatience with the gimmicks of luxury brands? Or, is it Jean Beaudrillard’s fourth order of similacra wherein the copy has come to replace the original?

Could this be the beginning a teutonic shift in luxury fashion? Or is it just slipping?

Louis Vuitton Spring 2008 Runway Detail from Style.com by Davide Gallizio, "Monogramouflage" by Takashi Murakami, Louis Vuitton "Core Values" image - copyrighted by Louis Vuitton,

Luxury: Our Stinky Semiotics

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I am often asked where I get the inspiration or ideas for my posts. I'm never organized enough to keep a notebook or anything, so I rely memory, and this is usually fine because my ideas come together in layers. I think about one thing, see something else, and then another thing comes along and all three of them seem to just come together in a (more or less) good way. Of course, sometimes things get sent to me too, and then by the mystical powers of the universe something else comes along almost immediately and the two marry perfectly...hence this posting.

This morning my friend Randall forwarded me a car crash of an article from the London Daily Mail, (I say "car crash" only because it was altogether fascinating, funny, messy, and disgusting at the same time...and I just couldn't look away) entitled "The £23,500 Handbag". The article concerns the obscene amounts of money designer handbags are costing these days, and how having enough money to actually collect them seems to mean one loses all reason in the bargain. Discretionary incomes and intelligence quotients seem inversely proportional where "It" bags are concerned. It is indeed a frightening state of affairs.

This afternoon, I read Julie Fredrickson's latest (and totally brilliant) post honoring the death of Jean Beaudrillard - the French philosopher best known for his work on semiotics, and Western culture's "procession of simulacra". (Don't worry - I looked this up...Julie is way out of my league on this type of thing! No wonder she's my blog-crush...) I don't pretend to have a fluent comprehension of post modernist philosophy, but from my limited knowledge of Beaudrillard, the irony of his passing during the season of our most expensive arm candy trend cannot be overlooked.

Just what does a £23,500 handbag looklike? View the Louis Vuitton "Tribute" bag - a patchwork hodge-podge of different handbag pieces from other Louis Vuitton collections. Looking at it, it doesn't really seem that much design was involved in this item at all, that the pieces were merely thrown together and a chain attached. The Bag Snob wrote a post about this very bag this past February, stating: "Is this a joke?...Tribute to what? Marc (Jacobs)'s insanity?" I love it. Finally, someone other than me thinks that Marc Jacobs is the sometime equivalent to the Emperor's tailor. Twice-yearly, I am convinced that Mr. Jacobs knowingly sends unflattering, unwearable designs down his runways because he knows that no matter what he sends out, people will buy it in bulk and call him "a GEEEENious...", and he can then laugh about our consumerist myopia in the privacy of his Paris apartment. And now we have a Tribute Bag costing, as the Daily Mail article stated: "nearly £3,000 more than a Mercedes C180 Coupe SE."

Because what kind of status symbol is a fancy car these days anyway?

Enter Monsieur Beaudrillard. Our fashion objects (mainly handbags, shoes, and other accessories,) are more invested in symbolic communication than ever before. Past societies relied mostly on costume to define the social distinctions, yet in our era where ready-to-wear and contemporary brands are affordable by all, (and designers have lines at Target,) it is left to the accessory items to carry the weight of symbolism. Today we call someone "well dressed" if they have an important handbag and shoes - never mind the bespoke. Even still, most people can scratch together enough funds for your less-expensive designer pieces such as your basic Louis Vuitton Monogram bag, so those that can afford the more exclusive items pay a pretty penny to acquire them - just because they can. Then they buy another, and another, and another. Consumptive society isn't just consuming, it's acquiring. If you buy one of what I have, I'll buy five others in different colors.

If you push this far enough, the fashion trend trickles down to the late adapters who cannot get the must-have item, either because it's too expensive for them, or it's no longer available. Enter the counterfeiters, and Beaudrillard's four orders of similacra:

  • the era of the original
  • to the counterfeit
  • to the produced, mechanical copy, and through
  • to the simulated "third order of simulacra" whereby the copy has come to replace the original.

Of course, by the time we get to the fourth order, the fashion is generally two seasons ahead and no one notices that much. It's like street fashion becoming high fashion, and vice versa. The whole thing creates that wonderful creative soup known as style, individuality, and trend - don't think Marc Jacobs doesn't know this!

I believe in the original; call me a Luddite, but as an artist I firmly believe in the beauty of hand craftsmanship. As someone who knows luxury goods inside and out, I know they are worth their high prices, especially if one appreciates this kind of beauty. The Daily Mail article was upsetting to me (and to the seventy-odd people that left comments) because it was about people acquiring these objects not for their beauty, but because of their symbolism as compared to their fellow consumer. It's as though the handbag is talking, saying, "My owner must be doing something right if they can afford me...and yours? Well...best of luck!" The inherent communication is brutally frank, and comes across with little appreciation for the object - just appreciation for the acquisition.

What can one do? This seems to be the way business gets done in this industry - and this isn't exactly new. Costume and adornment have always been the way society divides itself, it's just that now the division is a little murky due to the indiscriminate power of the almighty dollar, or Pound, or Euro... But there it is, the internationally stinky semiotics of modern fashion.

Image from The Bag Snob