What Women Want: Jonathan Saunders

Fashion editors queue up to wear Jonathan Saunders’ cleanly cut and uplifting designs. And his spring collection – part 1950s housewife, part Miami-resort vibrancy – is his finest yet. Harriet Walker meets him

Outside the London town house where I meet designer Jonathan Saunders, the world is grey and cold and wet.

But inside, the fashion desks of two of the UK’s biggest glossy magazines are queuing up almost in their entirety to make choices and place orders from his spring/summer 2012 collection, a punchy pastel confection of hand-embroidered kaleidoscopic paisleys on silk tulle, printed dirndl skirts and dresses, and wispy, minimally crafted organza blouses.

Saunders, 34, surveys the scene with a smile, recognising most of the women present as longstanding devotees of his blossoming eight-yearold label and greeting them in warm Glaswegian tones. He is an enviable shade of brown, just back from the British Fashion Council’s showrooms in Los Angeles, where young London designers are able to present their wares to West Coast press and buyers, and he blends in perfectly with the clothes around him, their vivid shades of peachy pink and grass green, inspired by Fifties housewives and Miami-resort vibrancy. “I had one day of sunbathing,” he says. “So I’m happy.”

But otherwise, it is straight down to business. He has had a frenetic year, with the launch of a menswear collection during Fashion Week last February, an inter-seasonal women’s pre-collection that buyers have snapped up and the main womenswear show in September. Add to this the unveiling of an “Editions” line with the department store Debenhams in January, as well as a post within the Italian house Escada designing its Sport range and a collaboration with the stationery brand Smythson, which is using the bird prints from his autumn collection on a range of notebooks and diaries, and there is some sense of how sought after Saunders is. And he designed the staff uniforms at Sir Elton John’s Grey Goose Winter Ball last month, a ritzy affair to raise money for the Aids Foundation ahead of last week’s World Aids Day.

“They’re like the autumn collection,” he says of the waistcoats and shirts. “A traditional, ornate and decorative print design combined with a modern, strict silhouette. I looked at William Morris and art nouveau, and then at a sophisticated Forties woman.”

That collection, shown last February, has become one of the most popular and widely written about – not to mention most conspicuously worn by the cognoscenti – of the season, embracing at once a clean but opulent sculpturalism in its strict and silken silhouette, as well as a classic and womanly look by way of 1940s pencil skirts and 1880s decadent bird and leaf prints.

“Trend is always a reaction against what you worked on the previous season,” Saunders says when I ask him how inspiration struck. “It’s a new direction within the ethos of what your brand is about, but a new interpretation of it. I think that what I wanted to offer my customer was something a little bit more serious in a way.”

Saunders is nothing if not serious about his work – so much is evident in his sliced and precise patterns, a signature lightness that never becomes frothy, and his attention to detail. But he also speaks about the clothes he makes with a businesslike sense of creating merchandise – a hangover from his original line of work in product design. “I’ve always loved making things and I’ve always loved being creative, but it’s always been product-driven,” he says. “I wasn’t sketching and making art. I’ve always been interested in the mix between between creativity and business, and I think, at the end of the day, you have to be convinced with what you’re saying in your collections but you also have to meet the needs of your customers.”

After growing up in the Burnside area of the city and graduating from the Glasgow School of Art in 1999, Saunders became yet another success story on the Central Saint Martins postgraduate course, where he studied printed textiles. He then created a best-selling bird of paradise print during a stint at Alexander McQueen, and worked for Chloé and Christian Lacroix among others, before showing a debut collection at London Fashion Week in 2003. References for this first collection included Vasarely and Escher; luxurious and expensive items were decorated with his characteristic screen prints, some of which incorporated no fewer than 18 different shades.

“I’m an ambitious person,” he says. “I think the more I learn, the better I get at doing it. But it’s balancing that confidence with the humility of listening to what your customer wants. It’s not just about what I think, it’s about what they want.”

Lulu Kennedy, founder of the Fashion East initiative for young designers, says: “I met him straight off the Saint Martins MA. In a matter of minutes I was trying on the clothes and calling the selection panel to say, ‘hey, we’ve got someone really special here’. He was incredibly focused, articulate and worked long hours.”

Saunders is part of a new wave of commerce savvy designers, who are well-suited to the current tide of financial gloom. He isn’t a larger-than-life industry diva – his quiet, considered manner makes that sort of behaviour seem passé, and he is tight-lipped about his personal life, preferring to focus on the work that has come to define him instead. His label doesn’t simply rely on a traditional luxury-loving demographic which remains unhurt by the economic climate, it is about speaking to a new generation of independent women, with sartorial tastes and needs that have not yet been met. “Jonathan has a very grown-up sense of chic,” Harriet Quick, Vogue’s fashion features director, says. “Pretty sundresses in jacquards and waffle knits for spring – they’re utterly modern yet with a desirable breeziness.”

Saunders’ trademark austerity comes with an edge of delicacy and sensuality that speaks to several different sensibilities. He showed his collections at New York Fashion Week for several seasons, gaining acclaim for his trompe-l’oeil, panelled column dresses that cinched the waist, before he was invited to come back to London as part of its 25th anniversary in 2009. There is a transatlantic functionality to his work which, crossed with British sentiment, makes for a winning combination.

“It’s a joy buying Jonathan’s collections,” says Natalie Kingham, an international buyer at the boutique Matches, in whose atelier I meet and speak to Saunders. “Women of all ages can wear them and easily style it to make it their own, and they will stand the test of time. He’s a very empowering designer.”

Saunders’ strategy is to focus on separates and knitwear, which build a wardrobe for those who wear them. And you don’t need to be head-to-toe in Jonathan Saunders, something he understands only too well. “Separates are key,” he agrees. “A knit with a colourful skirt is really key for me. Knitwear in general – an A-line dress, a flattering dress, is something that’s always worked really well. Something that feels special but that ranges through from occasionwear into daywear as well. There’s a modern femininity that our customer looks for – not just minimal, or masculine. I think it’s that balance.”

He finds that balance in the designers that most inspire him: Coco Chanel, Miuccia Prada and Balenciaga’s Nicholas Ghesquière. All have quietly revolutionised the feminine sartorial code through innovation, wit and a strong sense of their own aesthetic. Saunders is no different: his steadiness and elaborately pragmatic vision translate directly into clothes with a universal audience and an ultra-modern message.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

    Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

    Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

    Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

    £15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

    Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us