Natassa: You were invited to set up this course a few years ago. How do you go about building a fashion knitwear course from scratch?
Adam: I have friends who teach in the U.K., so I started by taking a look around at how others were teaching, and I asked myself – What is the next step? How can we improve things? How can we make a difference in the knitwear industry? In France specifically, because when I first arrived in Paris, there was a big knitwear industry in the country. There were factories and spinners even. Everything died out in the 90s when production moved overseas. It’s the exact right time for it all to come back again. There is so much potential, but there is nowhere for small brands and young designers to produce!
“Independence is a big thing for designers now. Not everyone wants to be tethered to a big house.” – Adam Jones
Aya: So, your goal is to train creatives to understand the connection between innovative design and production and contribute to bringing it back somehow?
Adam: Yes! There are new ways of working as a knitwear designer that allows you to be very independent. Independence is a big thing for designers now. Not everyone wants to be tethered to a big house. They want to gain experience in-house of course, but there is so much potential for working freelance and finding new ways to collaborate. It’s already happening in London, but I think it’ll happen here as well.
Aya: You mean in the trend of what Loop Studio is doing?
Adam: Yes, they’re fantastic! But there’s nothing like that here yet.
“I tell students that it is completely forbidden to have any form of competition, I won’t have it on any level.” – Adam Jones
Natassa: Would you like to see your students do something more communal?
Adam: It would be great! You’re always stronger together. In the way I run the course, I tell students from day one – it is completely forbidden to have any form of competition, I won’t have it on any level. It’s totally collaborative. In many schools it’s not like that, you’ll be told – your classmates are your competition and you’ll be going for the same jobs. In my experience, there is a place for everybody. After all, your network is what matters most. Even for me, everything I do is through a network of friends. You need that philosophy if you want to build something. Having collectives is a really good idea.
What I’m proud of is that I have ten graduate collections with ten completely different identities. It’s their ideas, their universes. John [Bellord] and I just help them elevate it as high as possible. It’s their thing. You could imagine that collaboration leads to copying, that there are shared techniques and materials, but not at all. When you get rid of that competition, you also get rid of that anxiety over what other people are doing. I never hear, “I’m so worried about the others.” They’re only worried about their own work, and then they help each other.
Take the McQueen project, for example. The students had cleared out the entire hotel room to work on their projects. Whenever someone was done with their own project, they moved on to help someone else, and they didn’t stop until everyone was done. It was amazing.
Aya: That’s the mentality we need in the industry.
Adam: I think so, that’s how we make a difference.
Natassa: When you work like this, you also enjoy the process much more, instead of working out of fear.
Adam: I think the students are concerned about being up to the standard of the best they can be. So that’s the focus. You will be in competition, but only with yourself, and that is where I’ll be pushing you. Is that as good as you can possibly make it? Have you considered it to the fullest? I want them to be masters of their skills.
Another part of my battle is that I do feel that there is a bias towards knitwear. Knitwear is considered crafty. Knitwear designers are not really considered fashion designers, they are textile experts, they can make swatches and then the “proper” designers can decide what needs to be done with them. The woven designers always get the theme going and then inform the knitwear what is happening.
“My graduates are designers with superpowers. ” – Adam Jones
Aya: Is that what you experienced in the industry?
Adam: To a certain extent. When I was at Dior it was slightly different. I was right there from the start with John Galliano and I refused to be in the studio with everyone else. I had three machines, so I needed my own space to work from. I used to do a lot of sampling, and when John started a collection, he wanted to see me first, because he had that mentality. Other places really focus on the woven. I see so many knitwear designers getting underestimated. “Knitwear is technique,” is what they say, or, “Whatever you do with knitwear, it just looks fantastic.” It’s funny you say that, because when you look at the fashion shows, that’s not what I see. If it’s so easy to make knitwear fantastic, why aren’t more people doing it? People always find a way to undervalue it.
“I’m training my students to fight for their seat at the table.” -Adam Jones
Before students come here, they need to be really good designers. They need to understand shape, volume, and body proportion. Then we bring in a whole load of other skills. My graduates are designers with superpowers. I love innovation through material. I’m personally less excited about the off-the-rack fabrics. I’m also fascinated by the high-tech/low-tech approach, when you take a really innovative material and combine it with crochet, for example, that’s just so gorgeous. You can always do something new, in knitwear particularly. With all the experience I have, my students can still surprise me.
Knitwear designers are fashion designers with extra skills. I’m training my students to fight for their seat at the table. To not wait to be handed a theme, but to develop their own ideas and bring them to the meetings and share what they have to say. Don’t wait to be told what to do. You’ll see, people will try to put you down but don’t stand for it.
“Designers need to take control of production and take matters into their own hands.” – Adam Jones
Aya: What you’re saying really reveals the complicated relationship fashion has with technical skill. Fashion doesn’t always recognise how important craft and collaboration and production are. We love the image of the designer who never had any education, spontaneously drapes silk on a doll and creates a masterpiece.
Adam: It’s funny because I saw something you posted about Pharrell at LV. It really struck me. I understand what they’re doing, they’re doing business. I understand we need to recognize the marketing potential, but at the same time, we do need to support the craftsmen too.
When I launched my own collection in 2000, I was instantly sold everywhere! At the time, there really was a market for an independent knitwear designer. But I had a factory supporting me. I don’t know if designers today would be able to find that factory. That is why we don’t see that many small knitwear collections. I think designers need to take control of production and take matters into their own hands.
I want to put knitwear center stage. Students often ask me, “Is it not smarter to be a general designer, rather than specializing?” To the contrary! There are so many design graduates each year, the only way you will survive is if you specialize. Most of the knitwear designers are English because that is where the courses are, but hopefully, they’ll come from us now.
Aya: Could you tell us more about the curriculum?
Adam: We work with projects. The first one is the technical project, right as they arrive. It’s one month, and it covers all the technical bases. Even people who’ve already done knitwear need to relearn, because they very often taught themselves, so they need to be sat down and get the 101 of all stitches and finishes.
After that, they go straight into the creative project, we call it the blowup project. They have to take an object that is very personal to them, which for whatever reason links to their creative universe, and they have to go as deep as they can into that universe. Blow it up. It’s all about texture and volume. Because often, when they come from their BA, they will be scared to move away from the stockman. They do that until Christmas, and we follow them very closely. We also have a factory in France that comes in and teaches them to link to a very high standard and play with it.
Then they help the second years. End of February, they learn to program and do a brand project at the same time. They start in March and present in May, but by that time they’re expert programmers. The students initially follow an introductory course with John, and then he coaches them individually depending on the direction their research is taking them. He also teaches them to use the machines by themselves as fast as possible.
Natassa: What do the students learn from a brand project?
Adam: It’s really important because I want their portfolio to showcase that they can adapt to a brand. Recruiters look for that and it’s a good skill to have. Otherwise, you only have your own little bubble.
Aya: You mentioned the students don’t need a knitwear background to apply to the MA. How do you recognize the potential of a good knitwear designer if they haven’t had a chance to showcase it yet?
It has to be someone who has manipulated material in some way, someone who is really into colour. Most of the time, even when they wouldn’t have had access to knitwear facilities, they will have knitted or crocheted something by themselves. They will have played or experimented with material in some way, even if it’s just embroidering upcycled hoodies, or whatever. You can see in their work that they were begging for it but didn’t have the chance. Justine [Janot], the girl who did the snake collection, taught herself to knit, and in her portfolio, I saw that she managed to do something very clever with very few resources. And indeed, on her first project, she blew it out of the park. Through the sketchbook, I can always tell there is something to work with.
“I wouldn’t know how to train someone to be creative director, but I know how to train someone to be the best at what they do.” – Adam Jones
Aya: I guess that’s the upside of the knitwear bias. Those who do come are very passionate and don’t have false expectations. In womenswear, there is a very glamourous idea of what a career will look like, which might cause people to apply for the wrong reasons.
Adam: It ties back to everyone wanting to be a creative director. I don’t even know what that means right now. I just think, let’s get on with it, I’ll just train some very creative people and we won’t call them creative directors, we’ll just call them very skilled designers. I wouldn’t know how to train someone to be creative director, but I know how to train someone to be the best at what they do. It’s also being able to recognize someone’s talent. It can be hiding in a detail, you could miss it if you blinked.
“I got very into meditation and energy healing etc. I am an anxious person, and that really helped me to calm down, tune into people, empathise and understand why someone might be stressed. It all feeds into my teaching.” – Adam Jones
Aya: I’m curious about your career journey. You seem like a natural educator, with an instinctive talent for recognizing talent and knowing how to grow it, but you only started teaching a few years ago.
Adam: That’s true. All I can tell you is that I have been designing for a very long time. I was at Kenzo, Dior, and my own label, and I was also freelancing and consulting for many other brands besides that. I was offered a bit of freelance teaching at La Chambre Syndicale in 2016. That is where I first expressed that what was really missing was a knitwear course in France. I mentioned the idea to Céline Toledano, and a year later she called me, “You’ll be very happy,” she said, “We’re setting up a program and we want you to run it. Just tell us what you need.” I did some benchmarking. I enrolled in the UAL PgCert in Academic Practice, a small MA in the Pedagogy of the Arts. I was going back and forth every month. I loved it, being surrounded by arts educators from across the UK, I was so enthusiastic! I loved reading about pedagogy and anything I learned could be applied directly to what I was doing here. I had questions come up as I built the knitwear program and I could just ask my lecturers directly. This really gave me confidence and taught me to think about assessments, about objectivity. Because fashion is subjective, so that’s a balance to take into consideration.
Aya: That is so good to hear, I think there is a lack of reflection around pedagogy in fashion education.
Adam: Yes. After I closed my brand, there was a lot of self-reflection. I got very into meditation and energy healing etc. I am an anxious person, and that really helped me to calm down, tune into people, empathise and understand why someone might be stressed. It all feeds into my teaching. Sometimes students are very anxious, and I have the tools to help them calm down. There is no way you can have a conversation about a sketchbook if the student is stressed and not breathing properly.
“If someone is in a terrible state about their work, you can usually sense their inner child is completely traumatized, so until that has been addressed until they’ve understood that there’s a part of them that’s paralysed, they can’t work.” – Adam Jones
Natassa: Artistic work is so personal, yet educators always think they can get away with any form of criticism by saying, “Don’t take it personally”.
Adam: If you have done any studying of the inner child, you can relate that back to teaching. If someone is in a terrible state about their work, you can usually sense their inner child is completely traumatized, so until that has been addressed until they’ve understood that there’s a part of them that’s paralysed, they can’t work. I’m lucky that the MA isn’t too big, I have 20 in total, so it’s manageable.
That is why I got into education. But it’s really part of a long-term plan for me, it’s not just education for the sake of education. I really hope to have a positive impact on the industry. If in ten years, I’ll have gotten my graduates into those higher positions, and have others work in very innovative ways, some of them are very heavily into sustainability, then I’ll feel that I’ll have succeeded.
Aya: How do you look back on your education in Brighton?
Adam: I had a great time, but we didn’t have machines like this and it wasn’t very pushed. I got to my first job and I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to do. I don’t want that to happen to my students. There is no time for that to happen. When I started my first job at Kenzo, my superior really took the time to explain everything and show me the ropes – but we only had two collections a year back then! We wouldn’t have time for that now. If you’re producing eight collections a year, you’re not gonna spend a month teaching your intern, are you?
Aya: Traditional fashion education is very much set up with the idea that technical skills can be learned in the studio after graduation, but perhaps the industry has changed too much for that to still be the case.
Adam: Also, if you have the right tools and skills, you are more empowered to give your opinion, speak up and say – actually, it’s not very clever how that’s being done. Instead of being overwhelmed, you can take a step back and know what the options are. You have the choice. Of course, it would be great to have a landscape in which the students can play, but they only have 18 months before they head out, that’s not a lot of time and they pay for their studies, so I want them to have something valuable in return. I want them to get away with hard skills and a clear idea of what they can do.
“Programming is traditionally associated with engineering, very masculine, and it can be a misogynistic field, but software has become accessible to everyone and in the hands of creative designers anything can happen.” – Adam Jones
Natassa: How is the internship organized within the MA?
Adam: They have a year to do a six-month internship in a design studio after graduation, and knitwear can also do a technical internship, with a factory or a spinner for example, because there is so much demand for those jobs. A few of my graduates found incredible jobs with a factory down in Monaco, doing creative programming.
That’s another interesting aspect of what we do. Programming is traditionally associated with engineering, very masculine, and it can be a misogynistic field, but software has become accessible to everyone and in the hands of creative designers anything can happen. People are becoming aware, and people from the factories are starting to visit our course and look for talent here. Creative programmers are very rare and very valuable. There is so much demand it’s not even funny. Not many graduates want to do that straight after graduation, but once they have had their experience in a luxury house and realise it’s a lot of photoshopping and listening to people talking nonsense about marketing, they might actually be happier and feel more challenged in a technical position. [laughter]
We had François Pinault visiting the studio the other day and a student was working using a new process she developed, one that combined programming and draping. It was very interesting to see her work and François said, “So you’re telling me that in the near future, we’ll need one of these in the studio?” I said yes – you probably have no idea how much money you spend on outsourcing some of these skills, if you could get a creative knit programmer in-house to prepare the ideas and build them up before sending them to the factory, rather than simply sending a sketch, you could be so much more efficient. Imagine all the money lost on sampling and the communication back and forth, it’s such a waste of time and resources. Don’t forget that knitwear is a zero waste material, you can knit the panels in the exact shape you want. You can make fully tailored pieces in knitwear.
It’s very exciting!