On Monday, the fashion industry celebrated the latest British Fashion Awards, which saw recent Central Saint Martins BA Fashion graduate Grace Wales Bonner win the Emerging Menswear award; Mary Katrantzou, who graduated from the MA Fashion in 2008, scooped the New Establishment Designer award; Stella McCartney, who left CSM exactly two decades ago, received the Brand award, and Thomas Tait, the winner of the first ever LVMH Prize was the lucky one in the Emerging Womenswear Designer category. We interviewed Thomas for our third issue, and to celebrate, we would like to share the full feature with you. Congratulations to all the winners of the BFA!
“To some people €300,000 might seem like an enormous amount of money, to some people it could seem like something that could go overnight.”
What do Raf Simons, Karl Lagerfeld, Phoebe Philo, Marc Jacobs, Riccardo Tisci and Nicolas Ghesquière have in common? Last year, they all agreed to award Thomas Tait an unprecedented €300,000 cash prize as part of the inaugural LVMH Young Designer Prize. Since winning the prize, the Montreal-born designer’s star has risen to the heights of international recognition, which has only been aided by the additional year’s worth of mentorship from the luxury conglomerate. It’s fair to say that all eyes are on Thomas Tait.
In person, Tait is less tortured designer, more boy-next-door – that is if you live in East London. He stands over six feet tall and teenager-thin, with pale angular features and a silky dark fringe brushing his eyebrows. His jeans look like they might be his decade-old favourites and his boxy grey sweatshirt echoes the effortlessness of his scuffed white trainers. He speaks in long, drawn-out words in a soft Canadian accent that has succumbed to the weathers of living in London for most of his adult life and sits with his long limbs crossed-over and tucked away.
We meet in the open-plan studio the designer has set up in the hub in the City, a stone’s throw away from the Thames and the ruins of Roman Londinium. The former office space is lined with wide windows, one of which bears the remnants of a sticky solicitor’s sign. There’s a notable absence of collaged boards and walls seen so frequently in designers’ workspaces – Tait doesn’t believe in mood boards, preferring to work in a sanitised environment laced with rails of his current collection and his striped leather accessories neatly arranged on the floor.
“I think people like to think that designers are some kind of fashion strategists or that we have some kind of blueprint as to what our career’s gonna look like – it doesn’t work that way for a designer.”
It’s far away from the creative hub of Hackney Wick’s Old Peanut Factory, home to a small studio Tait occupied when I interviewed him a few years ago, and even further from LVMH’s Avenue Montaigne slick showroom, where I bumped into him during Paris Fashion Week at the cocktail reception held for this year’s thirty shortlisted designers eager to follow in his footsteps. That night, le tout monde showed up to tour the carousel of booths assigned to each of the designers to create a mini-showroom for their collections. Editors-in-chiefs, design giants, CEOs, supermodels and even an overzealous hip-hop artist made their way through the maze of photographers, TV crews and publicists to seek out the designers nominated for the prize. Tait was there at the centre of it all, still wearing his glowing crown, only to leave shortly after.
“It was really nice,” he assures me, “but quite an intimidating setting to be in and, atmospherically, it’s not really where I feel most comfortable, so I wasn’t there for very long. I just remember that day last year and you could see the designers who are so tired, just stood in that booth on their very best behaviour, being hyper-social and hyper-networky all day. It’s an intense experience to go through, and I don’t think most designers are the kind of people who are used to speaking about themselves, so when you go the last thing you wanna do is pick someone’s brain when they’ve been standing doing that for 12 hours.”
As a finalist in last year’s prize, many considered Tait as the underdog. Compared to some of his competitors, sales and profitability were at the forefront of his appeal. What set him apart from the rest was his approach to designing runway collections and shows that radiate a sense of modern product design, attitude and spectacle that can’t quite be quantified by a list of stockists or stylistic references – in his own words, his work isn’t an “easy pill for huge amounts of women around the world to swallow.”
“The jurors were enthusiastic about his pure talent, vision and the philosophy behind his brand and what he wanted to do,” says the impossibly elegant Delphine Arnualt, the executive vice president of Louis Vuitton who dreamed up the prize to begin with. “I think it’s very brave and courageous to develop your own label. But you have to have a style and a vision that’s very different from what’s on the market. You need to offer your own personal style in products that are different from what already exists. Thomas draws very well and had prepared a book of drawings, displaying his brand and his style and I think that the jury was very sensitive to that. We also felt that he was the one who could really do with the help.”
Help would be an understatement. Since winning the juicy cheque and year’s worth of mentorship, he’s caught up on production and established relationships with three factories in Italy that supply some of LVMH’s biggest brands. Previously, he struggled with the battle of putting on a show in September and only being able to pay for materials in August, when most Italian factories are closed, which usually allowed him only a few days to create an entire ready-to-wear collection. Although he’s not unfamiliar with the various strains of sponsorship schemes and fashion awards – his label was kick-started by winning the Dorchester Collection Fashion Prize of £25,000 and joining the British Fashion Council’s NewGen scheme – the last year has, without a doubt, been a meteoric development for the designer, and one that has saved his business.
“There’s not always so much you can control. There’s only so many venues in London and so many things you can do with the money – you do have to compromise every step along the way.”
“To some people [€300,000] might seem like an enormous amount of money, to some people it could seem like something that could go overnight,” he says with deadpan clarity. “That’s the truth. It’s something that can really save you, and it’s something that can go quickly when you’re a business, regardless of fashion.”
In a moment of self-reflection, Tait ponders the heavy price that starting an eponymous label comes at. “There are some things that you’re ashamed of – when you think of how many hours you pushed yourself and how many nights you didn’t sleep, and it’s not just you – it’s a team of people, some who are paid and others unpaid,” he says in a softer, retrospective tone. “The desperate lengths that you go to to keep your dream alive, which is a selfish endeavour because it’s your business. For a little while, I did ask myself, “What am I doing this for? It this some kind of highly expensive and elaborate arts and crafts project? When will this pay off? When will this be something that I’m proud of?””
If you haven’t guessed already, it did pay off: with a year having breezed by since his victory, Tait now has a staffed studio to be proud of – but that doesn’t stop him from considering the alternatives. “There’s a lot of people who have this false idea that you know, you’ll be fine –just keep it up for a few years and somebody’s gonna hand you a creative director’s position,” he says with a smile. “That might not happen. It’s a very, very rare occasion when a young designer gets offered that kind of opportunity and not all designers want to be juggling their own brand with leading a huge corporation. The sensationalism of fashion creates this false sense of comfort where people think that you can really get yourself into a huge financial mess and then some kind of magic trick is gonna clear out all the debt and you’ll become a big star. People have gotten so used to reading these kinds of stories that so many young people have this glamorous idea of what fashion is and it becomes a huge problem.”
Tait speaks of this from his own experience as a bright-eyed fashion student, and later as a young designer dealing with the collapse of the prepaid deposit system that stockists once employed when ordering collection. His own academic trajectory is stuff of CSM legend: the youngest ever student to graduate from the MA Fashion course at the tender age of twenty-two, following a three-year technical diploma at his hometown’s Collège LaSalle, where, he says, “they taught you how to make clothes and that was it.”
“There’s something attractive about being constantly positive about the potential of the not so distant future.”
Without any formal training in art or design, over six months he worked through the night on a portfolio centred on dark notions of posture and bone diseases – a million miles away from what he does now, he says. The portfolio made Professor Louise Wilson OBE sit up and take notice, and thankfully so considering he didn’t apply to any other colleges. Under Wilson, whom Tait thanks for giving him space to develop his very personal collection, he struggled and almost failed the first year before finding his feet with an all-black final collection of streamlined separates elevated by precise tailoring, sculptural panels and swishes of rectangular streams.
“When I started at CSM the last thing I wanted to do was to start my own label and become a starving designer in East London, which is of course exactly what I went on and did,” he laughs. “I had this idea that I would go to this really famous school and have a great time and develop my interests, but in the first year I was freaking out and felt as though I had such a difficult time trying to develop a project and present and package my ideas in a Saint Martins way and it just came off as disingenuous. I was looking at other students and seeing how they were making portfolios – most of the students and my peers had gone on to do a BA in design at an art or fashion school with a foundation course or a gap year. Some people had been in fashion school for six years!”
Having moved to London with the support of student loans, the realities of being a fashion graduate soon kicked in after completing the course. “It was 2010 and we were in the midst of the recession and it was eight months or even a year before anyone got a paid job. Some people were graduating with BA and MA, having won some kind of award at school, and being offered an unpaid internship at a fashion house in Paris,” he recalls.
Part of the problem, says Tait, is the infinite amount of fashion graduates emerging from art schools, often carrying the burden of student debt that runs into tens of thousands. “There’s no other place where there are this many fashion colleges, which is a plus and minus in a way because when you think about it there’s over eight thousand BA womenswear graduates every year in the UK,” he says with a sigh. “When you think of how many jobs are available that will be able to pay your rent in London, it’s a dangerous position to be in and it’s a lifetime of debt. It was a big reality check for a lot of us. I realised there were literally no jobs. If someone handed me a contract with a great salary, I would have reconsidered and done that for a few years to pay off my student loans, but that wasn’t happening, so I had to keep myself busy and that’s how the wheel started turning.”
Thankfully that wheel has taken him far, and perhaps further if he had hired a business partner early on. He stresses that designers pairing with financial minds is a much more frequent occurrence in America: “You see designers there setting up brands because they want to own a brand,” he says. “In London, designers start labels because they’re designers by nature.” For Tait, being a designer entails much more than crafting a well-executed collection. One his most notable achievements has been to put on a show during London Fashion Week every season since starting his label, regardless of major financial throwbacks and constant compromises. Each one has contributed a considerable air of energy and excitement to the schedule, which is quite remarkable considering his shows are usually held on the same Monday as Christopher Kane, Burberry Prorsum, Roksanda Ilincic and Erdem.
“I’m a bit of showman in terms of how I direct my shows,” he says with a smile. “I’ve always designed and sketched the runway show while I was designing and sketching the collection, so it was difficult for me to separate the two. It’s a house for the collection; an environment. I’m also attached to the idea that what you see on the runway is what you want to wear – something that you can buy in a store rather than some kind of elaborate art project. I strive to see it all crystallise in that moment.”
“I’ve always designed and sketched the runway show while I was designing and sketching the collection, so it was difficult for me to separate the two.”
The A/W ’15 show at Westminster University was benchmark for the designer. The collection itself drew on Tait’s ability to exaggerate the average. It was a dark line-up of voluminous, roomy tailoring mixed with textural touches of finely pleated leather, ribbed cashmere pyjama sets and sweaterdresses, satin apron tops and a number of layered looks balanced with and decadent touches of mink. It was made slightly more sinister by the slicks of black patent leather gloves and clinking ring-pull zips throughout and the eeriness seen the clothes was only echoed by the paths of light on which the models walked, each tracing its way over the venue in rectangular projections that disappeared as the models walked by in stilettos skewering plump crystal balls.
He decided to expel the “terrifying” photographers’ pit, often the source of noise and aggression, as a way of creating a calmer atmosphere and slowing down the tempo of the catwalk. “In London, a lot of the models are very young – some of them are in their first season or their first fashion show and I am often really taken aback by how violent the photographers can be towards them and the things they can say to 17 year-old girls. That’s not an energy I wanted.”
Instead, the lighting was cast to a narrow degree of almost-darkness, inspired by the theatrical lighting designer Michael Hulls, who is known for creating object-like three-dimensional spaces. Tait tells me that the lighting was also intended to immerse and hide the guests, preventing flash photography and the seen-to-be-seen spectacle of the front row.
“I went to a friend’s show on the Saturday before and nobody clapped when the girls came out because they were squished together and, half the time, people were looking at the show through their phones,” he laments. “Someone, if not a large group of people, put a huge amount of energy and effort, emotion, passion, talent and finance into making this moment happen, and you guys are sat on your phones. I find it so depressing, not just for the designer, but also for the people. Why are we doing this? Sat, looking at life through a screen? You’re a special person, sat front row at a fashion show – enjoy it! You’re privileged to be here! There are so few people who get to be in that position.”
For now, Tait is content with his studio and the parameters to which he is achieving his dream. Twice a year, his shows set alight London Fashion Week and despite the near-impossible time constraints on producing a collection in time, something tells me he enjoys the high-pressure conditions. “There’s something attractive about being constantly positive about the potential of the not so distant future,” he lets on. “If by nature you’re designing, you’re creating a product for the not-too-distant future and you’re always looking forward to something. When you think of someone who is suicidal, they can’t see past tomorrow and in this case you’re constantly looking forward to something that’s not now but a little bit later – whether that’s six months or a year.”
All eyes may be on Thomas Tait, but his are looking straight into the future.
Words by Osman Ahmed
Photography by Laurence Ellis
Photography assistant: Tom Ortiz
Stylist: Ellie Grace Cumming
Art Director: Luciana Britton Newell
Set Designer: Miguel Bento
Hair: Philippe Tholimet at Streeters
Make-up: Thomas de Kluyver at D+V Management
Make-up assistant: Andjelka Matic
Fashion Assistance: Molly Bridgwood
Casting: Eddy Martin for File and Parade
Model: Cheyenne Keuben at Viva London
Special thank you to Robert Kennedy from Dalston Pier Studio