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.

Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on TV
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Life & Style
The exterior of a central London Angus Steakhouse
food + drink
VIDEO
Sport
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives in the rain during the qualifying session of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai
sport
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Arts & Entertainment
filmLife for Leslie Mann's can be challenging sometimes
Voices
For music lovers: John Cusack with his vinyl collection in 'High Fidelity'
voices...but don't forget rest of the year
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environment
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Apprentice IT Technician

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

    1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

    £153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

    1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

    Sales Associate Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit