Men’s Style Director suggests someone suave, sophisticated, slightly oily, skin tanned to the texture and hue of the Vuitton Monogram canvas. In the warmth of Paris summer, he’d be dressed in perfectly-pressed linens and handmade crocodile shoes. A cravat may be involved.
Kim Jones, men’s style director of Louis Vuitton, by contrast, is in down-at-heel jeans, trainers, a sweatshirt. “I’ve got really lazy – I just wear navy blue because it’s easy,” Jones admits and then utters the ultimate fashion no-no: “It doesn’t really matter what I wear”.
Then again, most of his Louis Vuitton design team don’t look like they should be at Louis Vuitton. I visit the studio 24 hours before its spring/summer 2014 show is unveiled in Paris. Several floors up in the label’s sleek headquarters on Rue du Pont Neuf, there’s an endearing scruffiness to the Vuitton men’s design studio, with bolts of fabric piled across tables, drifts of detritus, a lack of milk for coffee.
The epicentre of scruff is Kim Jones’ own office, and at the eye of a storm of bric-a-brac sits the designer himself, the man charged with f creating menswear for the world’s most valuable luxury-goods brand – £16.7 billion, according to the latest figures. If Jones doesn’t dress the part, he also doesn’t act it, which is refreshing. Indeed, before we sit down to talk, Jones whisks me through the studio where fittings for the catwalk show are ongoing, introducing me to show stylist Alister Mackie and most of the menswear team, before rifling through the racks and talking me through the collection in minutiae. I’ve been to lots of designers’ studios the night before the show, big and small. Jones’ level of bouncing-off-the-walls enthusiasm is, sadly, not standard.
There’s no grandeur to Jones, no world-weariness, no faux boredom nullifying the effort behind his work. He says “love” a lot: he loves his job, he loves selling clothes, he loves the opportunities that Louis Vuitton provides him with as a designer. And those opportunities are, it seems, endless – as endless, perhaps, as Louis Vuitton’s pockets are bottomless. Barely two years into his tenure at the house, Kim Jones has designed cashmere-neoprene wetsuits, a buttery kidskin life-jacket, and done just about anything that can be done to crocodile. For autumn/winter he created a fox-fur coat with leopard spots laser-etched into the pelt; for next spring, silk was woven with minute strips of mother-of-pearl in the LV logo to create an iridescent monogrammed tuxedo. It will cost around £68,000.
But for all that abundance, Louis Vuitton is, in Kim Jones’ own words, “a travel company”. That might sound a little like Thomson Holidays, but Jones means that the root of the brand remains in travel. The original Monsieur Louis Vuitton started business as luggage-maker and packer to Empress Eugenie in 1854, when copious clothes and the girth of the crinoline required an artful hand and extensive luggage for any kind of trip. Vuitton still put ‘malletier’ – trunk-maker – under their logo. Which is why Jones and Vuitton seem such a perfect fit: travel is in his blood. Jones’ father was English, his mother Danish, and although born in London in 1979 he grew up in Africa. “I’ve always travelled – I’ve travelled since I was three months old,” says Jones. “It’s something I could never not think of doing. I love going to new countries, I love going to new places. There’s very few places in the world I would not go back to.” He’s been in Bali for three weeks over the summer, then travels to Paris, London and America. There’s also a trip to Japan – his 70th over the past 10 years.
That wanderlust is the fuel for the Vuitton collections: his first for spring 2012 was inspired by Africa, the second, Jones’ oft-flown circuit between Tokyo and Paris. But the autumn/winter 2013 show was Jones’ furthest-flung yet. “We went off to the Himalayas,” he begins. Cause for pause straight away – Bhutan isn’t one of fashion’s favourite ports of call.
Jones’ collection for winter, meanwhile, was his most luxurious. It contained not only that leopard-etched fox, but the first Vuitton menswear collaboration with contemporary art: Jake and Dinos Chapman, modern art’s brothers f grim, turned their hand to luxury.
It’s quite fitting: the only place less likely to register on fashion’s radar than Bhutan is an NCP car park in Soho, where the Chapmans have their central London studio. The Chapmans aren’t strangers to fashion – they have collaborated with Lee Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney – and Vuitton has worked with everyone from Takashi Murakami to Daniel Buren to Richard Prince, albeit all across the womenswear collections. “That’s the really great thing, the fact we can actually do stuff like that,” says Jones. “I’ve known Jake for a long, long time and I really, really like him, and I love their work. Scary cute creatures are my favourite thing, and the McDonald’s-y stuff.”
For the Chapmans, Vuitton must be kind of a fashion McDonald’s, the logo equally ubiquitous and instantly identifiable as the fast food chain’s insignia that the pair branded a series of wood carvings with in 2002. Although there was no logo in the Vuitton/Chapman collaboration. Instead, Jones asked the Chapmans to offer twisted visions of mountain monsters. “It was a very vague suggestion that we might like to put some of our imagery on some of their imagery,” says Dinos Chapman, vaguely. Incidentally, Dinos is singular – on the day our interview was scheduled, Jake was in hospital following an altercation with a floor that left his arm in stitches and a sling. Although he did commandeer a Chapmans-print Vuitton scarf to serve the duty. But I digress. “Kim said, ‘We like your monstrous animals from your prints’,” continues Dinos. “So it was very obvious what we should do… I don’t think Kim would have asked us if he didn’t have an idea of what he was going to get.”
“It was just really right for that season to do it,” says Jones. “Those crazy animals from the Himalayas really fitted in with what they do, when there’s enough of a fit, it really works. Timing for me is a lot of what we do in this industry.”
The global menswear market is growing at the rate of 14 per cent a year – almost double womenswear growth. The timing, then, couldn’t have been more right for Jones to up the ante. Especially considering that consumers are now demanding more from their brands: more clothes, more ideas, and more luxury.
“Menswear has become a significant part of the Harrods business, with shoppers seeking luxury, exclusivity and an exceptional shopping experience,” says Marigay McKee, Chief Merchant of Harrods, a store that tripled their Louis Vuitton menswear sales space earlier this year. The fact that more luxury, in turn demands more money, doesn’t appear to be an issue. “We do this,” says Jones, plucking at the Chapman-print jersey T-shirt he’s wearing (a special one-off for Dover Street Market Ginza). “Which is an easy price-point thing, to buy. But we thought it would be much more interesting to make it dressy and evening. That real super-luxe lifestyle.”
That meant reinterpreting the Chapmans’ design as foppish clobber in a multitude of fabrics – prints, sure, but also jacquards and brocades. The design, an elaborate chintz animated with the Chapmans’ grotesques, was called ‘The Garden in Hell’ – a reference to the retina-scorching scarlet chintz that plastered the New York apartment of celebrated Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, but also a neat riff on the Chapmans’ own oeuvre. Some wag at LV HQ must be happy. Come January’s menswear show, all ‘Hell’ broke loose at the finale, the design cut into rakish brocade tuxedo jackets, floppy pyjamas, and silk dressing-gowns. Later, Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton’s artistic director – and, effectively, Jones’ boss – took his bow at the house’s womenswear show in March sporting a set of the pyjamas, the ultimate seal of approval.
Vuitton being Vuitton, the collaboration had to result in a bag: an intricately embroidered suede holdall. What would it hold? “I imagine the best use for one of those bags is to carry a lot of money around,” deadpans Dinos Chapman. Indeed, the price tag on those Garden in Hell bags run to roughly the heft of a signed Chapmans print. “There is a shared territory,” says Dinos. “If you buy a print, the artist won’t have actually touched it, but you are still buying into that artist. So, you know, it’s relatively cheap – and I suppose the people who are buying the bags are the kind of people who would buy the work. So I don’t think it’s a new market, it’s part of the same market. I don’t really know who would buy one of those bags, apart from someone who would also own maybe a sculpture. It completes a circle. You’ve got the sculptures, you should really have the bag.”
It’s a new variation on the old ‘seen the movie, bought the T-shirt’ adage, in a new league of creativity and expectation. Only a handful of the bags will be crafted. “When people are buying something at that price, they don’t want millions of other people to have it,” states Jones. “The really good thing about Vuitton is that they do understand those different levels of customer. There are things that different people require from them: my demographic is from 16 to 80.”
That wasn’t always the case with Jones: his own-label menswear, founded in 2002 after his graduation from Central Saint Martins, was influenced by the London club scene. Sports-orientated, the skew was closer to the 16-year-old end of that spectrum, likewise his collaborations with Topman and Umbro. None of them seem very Vuitton, but Jones’ approach today, mixing the high with the low – say, a seemingly simple white plimsoll crafted from a mind boggling mix of python, crocodile and lizard – is born from that sportswear background. “Years ago I thought it was important to mix everything up,” says Jones. “I’m interested in that idea of personal luxury, where you know what it is, and people that are interested in it know what it is, but it doesn’t have to be overstated.”
Really what Jones’ collections are doing is charting his explorations not just across the globe (“You don’t live very long,” he adds. “And I’d really love to see the whole of the world before I go”) but through Vuitton’s world of luxury. In his scruffy navy-blue trews, it’s a world that seems as alien to Jones as Bhutan. “We shoot our advertising around the world,” says Jones, smiling and slightly incredulous, “and customers say, ‘Oh we booked our holiday to go there because it looked so great!’ It’s nice that you hit those points. And I’m very aware of trying to please, to actually facilitate people that actually have that lifestyle.”
It’s easy to see his collections as postcards – or even love-letters – from that universe. Wish you were there? Join the waiting list.