Kim Jones: The unlikely new maestro of menswear

His colourful creations have set Paris in a spin, yet he takes his inspiration from tattooed criminals and football-terrace casuals. Kim Jones, the unlikely new maestro of menswear, tells Susie Rushton how he took 'geezer chic' to the heart of the high-fashion establishment
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The Independent Online

Today Jones takes the prime slot in Paris men's fashion week, with a collection for spring/ summer 2006 that he describes as "Chinese-reggae-rock'n'roll". It will be his third show there. Four years ago, shortly after he left Central Saint Martins, he first became a name to drop, although his bestselling designs were nothing more challenging than brightly coloured T-shirts printed with graphic logos or emblems (dwarves, dice, kooky phrases in retro typefaces) inspired by pop culture and his musical obsessions: ravers, punks, straight-edgers. Cheerful, cool and hard to find, these basic garments garnered Jones more interest than any of his graduating peers, who were earnestly pushing the boundaries of cut and construction. The photographer Juergen Teller and designer John Galliano bought them. Japan went crazy for them. And the hype generated around young British-trained designers began to mount.

Before long, The Face had named him one of the "100 Most Influential People in Fashion" while GQ nominated him for "Man of the Year" no fewer than three times. Corporate giants such as Topman and the football brand Umbro have since harnessed his talent to create collections. His own label now encompasses tailoring (in collaboration with Timothy Everest), knitwear and bags (another joint effort, this time with Mulberry), but overall, his aesthetic remains heavily influenced by sportswear. It is, after all, the no-effort style so many young men adopt.

"I don't think I'm that avant-garde or that way-out, because if you break down the clothes from how they're seen on the catwalk, there's stuff that anybody can wear," says Jones, 30, himself dressed in Nike hi-tops, baggy, knee-length, red, checked shorts and a white shirt of his own design. "I can see a guy who is 16 and one who's 60 wearing the same piece of my clothing. That's a good thing to achieve, and I think that's why it's been successful."

Sporty, retro-inspired casualwear that retains an air of credibility is hardly a new concept; witness the underground-to-mainstream trajectory of skate-inspired labels such as Stüssy, Supreme and A Bathing Ape. What sets Jones apart from them is that he has positioned his label at the very top of the fashion hierarchy.

The transition from British boy wonder to slick Paris-based operator appears to have been smooth so far. After his autumn/winter 2005 show, Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune concluded that he "raised a flag for casual dressing. From the glacier-blue hair through pale sweaters, there was an icy freshness to Jones's sportswear."

With his freckled, regular-guy looks and straightforward manner, Jones might seem like an unlikely candidate for fashion stardom. As we sit on his roof terrace on a hot day one week before the Paris show, it seems that Jones can't believe his luck. Back in March, he travelled to Japan for the opening of his first shop. "It was crazy. It doesn't feel real. It's been just four years since I left college and I've got my own company with people working for me, I show in Paris. It's not something I ever expected."

Born in London, Jones had an itinerant childhood, thanks to the career requirements of his hydrogeologist father. He grew up, he says, "all over the world – after I was born we went to * live in Ecuador, then Africa, the Caribbean. But we'd always be going back and forth to London." It was the capital that fuelled his hunger for British music and subcultures. "We didn't miss out on anything," says Jones, whose elder sister is a fashion designer at Oasis. "I always read The Face and i-D from a young age – when I was 14, I had all those pictures on my wall. And I always loved clothes."

At 16, Jones moved to Lewes, Sussex, and in 1992 took a foundation art course at the Brighton College of Technology, followed by a degree in graphics and photography at Camberwell School of Art. "It may as well have been a hippie commune," he recalls. "It was very unstructured." Highly focussed from a young age, after graduating Jones worked as a freelance photographer and graphic artist, often for record-sleeve designs. "But then," he says, "I realised that I really liked clothes and should've done fashion." Hastily assembling a fashion portfolio in just a fortnight, he applied to the MA menswear course at Central Saint Martins, with no real experience of garment design.

Professor Louise Wilson, the MA course director, recalls Jones' interview at the college. "We took him because he had those eclectic, magpie research skills that are unusual. He was obsessed with record sleeves and colour – which he still is. He did stand out, in that year, he showed a lot of commitment."

It was this eye for obscure, uncontrived references that marked Jones out, early on, from other men's designers. "I think I do have a bit of a photographic memory," he says, "and I think it helps that my references are based on culture, rather than fashion." As commercially canny as he is observant, after leaving Central Saint Martins, Jones was soon working on collections for Topman and Umbro.

"Kim was the first designer we had collaborated with, and it needed to be credible," says Simon Jobson, a brand manager at Umbro who says he was given an early tip-off that Jones was going to be big. "He's known for his sportswear, but he doesn't actually like football – but he loves the culture and terrace fashion, and we wanted part of that." Jobson adds that his brightly-coloured collections for Umbro sell "extremely well", with shoe designs in Japan selling out before the deliveries even arrive.

With his mainstream presence assured (Jones is about to extend his Umbro contract), and despite the regular 12-hour days he has to work, the designer is revelling in the creative freedom that high fashion offers. For his autumn/winter 2005 signature line, his research focussed on a book about American convicts (Conversations with the Dead by Danny Lion), Russian criminal tattoos and the psychedelic fashion illustrations of 1980s artist Antonio Lopez. The result – pale-grey overalls, cheesecloth shirts, short double-breasted jackets and chunky sweaters cropped just below the pectorals – has a swaggering, ultra-masculine silhouette, in contrast to the slimline tailoring seen on other men's catwalks.

While his clothing designs are surprisingly simple, it's his ability to create an overall look that's captivated the fashion press. For his convict-themed autumn/ winter show, Jones asked the set-designer Simon Costin to construct a metal gangway, while make-up artist Peter Philips painted realistic tattoos on torsos and Guido coloured hair a startling shade of white-blond for a cast of macho, clean-cut models.

"In fashion now, the clothes are secondary, because you have to create the image before you start selling clothes," says Jones. "People don't say, 'This is a nice top.' They'll say, 'I've got a Kim Jones top, or a Raf Simons or a Margiela top.' It's not like the flashy 1980s, where it was all about Armani or Gucci. People want their clothing to represent where they're coming from."

Professor Wilson remembers that Jones was as precise about the casting of his models for his Saint Martins show as he is today. "He was obsessed with having the right boys for his show. Even then, he had a make-up artist, and the models had carefully parted hair and plasters on their cheeks. It's such a straightforward aesthetic, but he builds something up around it."

By his own admission, Jones has worked hard at meeting the "right" people within the closed ranks of the fashion industry. "I wasn't afraid to just go and see people. If I wanted to work for a company, I'd just call them up," he says. One key collaboration has been with Dazed & Confused stylist Nicola Formichetti, who says that he "fell in love" with Jones' graduation collection of preppy sportswear. "His college show was effortless, and the colours were fresh – everyone else was doing weird constructions," says Formichetti, who has styled Jones's shows ever since. "People like his clothes, boys and girls, because it's very wearable. And he's managed to work with the right people. He's a nice boy, people like him. He deejays, he's created 'Kim's World' around it all. He's having fun and it's very positive and people want that."

Jones' ambition, he says, is to build his own brand into a major international concern, and listening to him talk about "sell-through" and "global brand presence" it's clear that despite his down-with-the-kids interests, Jones has his sights set sky-high. Now in the inner sanctum of cool – he's way too discreet to reveal which celebrities buy and wear his clothes – does he ever worry about falling out of fashion's favour?

"Well, you have to just learn how to evolve, don't you? I always read that I'm the man of the moment but I've had that moment for a while now. We've expanded, with the move to Paris. But," he says, with a shrug, "if I finished doing my own label, I could carry on doing my own consultancies, no problem. So I don't worry."

Kim Jones is available from Browns, 26 South Molton Street, London W1, tel: 020 7491 7833