Lucile Guilmard: What are you up to these days?
Christopher Shannon: Well, I did manage to furlough myself. I’ve wanted a break for such a long time. Before the Covid outbreak, I really hated being on holiday, because I couldn’t relax at all. I was so overwhelmed with work and this constant responsibility. I thought to myself, “This is pointless. I am working all year on with no holidays in-between, and then I go on holidays and I can’t even enjoy it?” That’s when I realised that something needed to change. By the time you’re involved with different kinds of contracts, properties, and premises, you can’t really get away from things efficiently. I had known for a while that I did not want to carry on having a wholesale business. Bit by bit, I could see the holes in the whole system. Once you’ve seen them, you can’t unsee them. You can either carry on with the lunacy or try and make a change. I couldn’t change the industry, but I could change what I wanted to do. I liked being with my team, developing ideas, but I hated being at the studio and being dragged into work all the time. I just couldn’t stand it any longer. You cannot make any decisions with the type of brand that I have – we’re so reliant on collaborations. If you take it down to the wholesale business, there’s not much money made there. You are in boutique stores with small buys – it’s for the prestige. The prestige of what?
“When it’s your own company, you have to check where you are wasting money and what is making money. More and more, I realised that I was generating income for other people and not for myself. ” – Christopher Shannon
Τhe last time I did a show, I didn’t care what the audience thought. I thought, “Something must be wrong, I should care about this, but I don’t.” It’s different when you’re working for a brand, where you get paid for putting shows together. When it’s your own company, you have to check where you are wasting money and what is making money. More and more, I realised that I was generating income for other people and not for myself. That’s the kind of hole you’re falling into by being an independent brand. You pay for models, venues, storage, factories, multiple studio spaces, and apartments – it’s a lot of money to fund it. When the cash flow is good, you just keep going. I’ve thought about what Covid has done, and it has given me the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is. I kept hearing about people moving away, but how do you do that? Can you find teams and resources? And the answer is that you can. Realistically, you don’t need to be in London. The independent companies making money are not the companies showing at London Fashion Week. Then you start looking at the corruption of LFW, and it becomes hard to look at fashion the same way.
“The independent companies making money are not the companies showing at London Fashion Week. ” – Christopher Shannon
Olya Kuryshchuk: For me, the most shocking thing happened about two years ago. We went to Paris to visit the showrooms and find places that would support designers for one to two seasons. It was so eye-opening. There were brands we thought were doing amazingly in London, but their sales would be 40k. If they were doing really well, they would make 120k. They would have shows and crazy expensive presentations, while brands that have never had a show or a presentation would sell five million dollars.
CS: I’ve seen loads of brands that you have never even heard of.
“Suddenly, it was like what’s interesting doesn’t matter. Rather, do some party dresses that will sell on NET-A-PORTER, then you will get 200k. When you’re in some shitty studio in East London and that’s what it takes, you’re doing it.” – Christopher Shannon
OK: The press would be like, “Who?” These brands have decided to go straight on product and slowly build their business from there.
CS: I remember when I started, we did those initial shows. There was no men’s fashion week. And there certainly wasn’t a culture of London brands going to Paris to sell clothes that way, certainly not menswear brands. We sort of made it up as we went along. Initially, loads of Asian stores were interested, because they’ve always been the quickest off the mark regarding the type of work that was a little more forward. Later, there were some stores in LA. What has corrupted London in many ways was selling this idea that one business model fits all. It’s fucked up. It ruined lots of people’s work, especially in womenswear. Suddenly, it was like what’s interesting doesn’t matter. Rather, do some party dresses that will sell on NET-A-PORTER, then you will get 200k. When you’re in some shitty studio in East London and that’s what it takes, you’re doing it. But then, everyone is making party dresses and no one ends up giving a shit about party dresses because there are so many of them. It took people’s identity away. My early work was very streetwear/sportswear. At that point, no one else was doing that, so I felt very singular and slightly judged. However, I knew it was right, had desirability and looked good. I knew that I didn’t want to do tailoring and wasn’t interested in skinny leather trousers. I hated all those old references. Everyone got onto that bandwagon, and I knew at that moment that I could be pushed down a very dry road of just doing sportswear. When I think about it – I was never streetwear enough for the streetwear crowd, I was never fashion enough for the fashion crowd. That liberates you from belonging to anything. Once you belong to something, it’s a sinking ship. I just make a lot of things and work on a lot of ideas. Some of which have been commercially successful and have changed the tone, especially within menswear in London.
“Any time anything exciting happens in the world, people with money move in and try to exploit it. ” – Christopher Shannon
LG: So you would say not being specialised is better?
CS: It depends on what you want and the reasons why you want a brand. At this point in time, you know so much more at an MA level about going into the industry. You’ve seen so many people make mistakes. We couldn’t sell clothes six years ago without a wholesale account. Direct consumerism wasn’t as straightforward as it is now, which is exciting. I think multi-buy online stores have never ever looked dryer or less interesting to me. People have gotten so good at working with factories that it sort of killed what made London special. All the products look the same, whereas what people come to London for is rawness.
Any time anything exciting happens in the world, people with money move in and try to exploit it. Like the MA Fashion at Central Saint Martins; It’s like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, isn’t it? It’s such an insane environment – so intense and particular. You’ll never be the same once you come out on the other side of it. Graduates aren’t necessarily the people that need to then be making commercialised ideas that sell ten thousand units at once. I think you have to choose what you’re in it for. For me, I started making money quite fast, so I didn’t have to think about that. I look back and realise how rare that was. Not everyone was making money, especially not in womenswear. What they say is that if you treat your work a certain way, you’ll get big orders in. But what is that? The ones who say that are not designers or art directors.
I think what I am doing is thinking about the last ten years, which is why the answers to what I am doing right now have become so long. I never really had the time to do this before. My collections are archived in some warehouses. When I finally opened the boxes and saw my stuff, I thought, “Wow, that looks good. Why does it still look good?” It is because it’s personal work which is the best kind of work because it is based on your instinct. That way, it stays alive. I can see pieces that are fillers that we would throw in to please a store. It’s a shame. I don’t know if this generation, MA students and graduates, think about stores that way or whether they think about their own work and presence.
“It’s the designers who should lead the industry, not the other way around.” – Christopher Shannon
LG: From what I’ve seen, it is about their own work. I have the impression that people are less and less interested in compromising just for the sake of making it. It’s almost arrogance, I would say. In my class, at least, people voice how they want to do it, and it will be done that way. No compromise.
CS: For me, that’s the way it should be. It’s the designers who should lead the industry, not the other way around. What has happened is that it has gone the other way around. The buyers are dictating, but that’s not the point. That is not why we go to college to learn about design and indulge ourselves in those ways. I feel like there’s a tipping point back. There are always exciting people that come out of CSM because it’s just such a place of lunacy. Seeing those people making their own paths, setting up their own e-commerce and forgetting about the rest of it, is really enticing to me. There is nothing less desirable than readily available things. Why would you like to look at the same stuff across eight platforms? Maybe if you buy a jacket to just go to work in, it doesn’t matter, but that’s not fashion. I don’t want to visit fifteen different multi-brand stores online and see the same eight brands. What’s the point in the stores being different, might as well just be one giant store with one algorithm-based buyer. Your generation has seen the mess of the last ten years. I think you’re fine as long as you hold your own nerve and be confident in your ideas. You don’t need someone from some stupid system to tell you that your work has value.
“London Fashion Week as an event makes money for people, not designers. The last people it makes money for are designers (…) On these platforms, they never tell you that 90% of the alumni are in debt. I managed to avoid that, but most people don’t. No one talks about it.” – Christopher Shannon
LG: From what I’m hearing from you, it sounds like it started on a positive note when you graduated, and then everything happened very naturally. Then one day, you stopped and looked back.
CS: Even before I stopped, I was already bored. I realised that I am not the person to be in that system. I believed in this idea that if you showed well on the catwalk, that led to a successful financial business. That’s not true. But, London depends on that. London Fashion Week as an event makes money for people, not designers. The last people it makes money for are designers. The lack of transparency around that is cruel. They bring you in to make something with your name on it to charge people 200 times more. It’s completely corrupt, as far as I can tell. That might have been fine years ago when people didn’t really understand it, but that has changed. On these platforms, they never tell you that 90% of the alumni are in debt. I managed to avoid that, but most people don’t. No one talks about it.
LG: How would you advise someone to do it the right way, now that you’ve come to this realisation?
CS: Don’t engage with the system in the same way. Create your own path. There are examples of great people who never got any support and went on to be more successful than those who did. You have to keep putting your work out and believe in what you do. It can be very tricky. Unless you have loads of money, then you can do LFW easily. I suppose it’s different for me because I never wanted to do that. All of that didn’t really exist in the same way when I was doing the MA. Suddenly, with more menswear designers coming through, it became a bigger thing. When I left CSM, I thought I would just go and get a job. That was the plan.
LG: Do you regret that?
CS: Not when I speak to my friends in the industry who have had jobs. They’re all bored, and they probably have more regrets because of not having done more of their own work. At this point, I’ve got a budget that can take me in any direction, and that is a really nice feeling.
OK: It’s interesting – running your own brand: you got bored, but so did people with jobs in the industry. So what kind of direction does that give to designers?
CS: I don’t want to be disheartening. You have different platforms now, you know what socials are. I think that the people who do smaller things will last longer. And also maintain integrity. Think of someone like Christopher Nemeth or Alaia. I think Alaia’s business model is really good, the quality is gorgeous. I know he’s not here anymore, but doing it in that very small way, finding your customer and not engaging in the oddness of hype.
Also, when we started, there was no one to ask. I have worked for people who had done shows, but they all went into the industry doing other things. When I started, I did not have a clear vision of what I could be, because there was no structure to it. Everything we did, we learnt on the go. I did work for Kim [Jones] for a bit, and he never got into selling clothes. He always just did projects. It was always about making money and visuals. Not a wholesale business. I think he knew, even at that point, it’s a miserable way to go. We all know that making clothes is really difficult.