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

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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.