Ruth La Ferla of NYTimes.Com goes behind the scenes as designer Jonathan Simkhai prepares for the New York Fashion Week in September.
Jonathan Simkhai spends most of his waking hours chasing cool, an ineffable quality he might spy in a random pileup of deck chairs, their stripes meandering every which way, or in the image of a skateboard gang surfing the pavements of Venice Beach. Nothing is too crazy or far-fetched to escape his roving eye.
During a recent road trip in upstate New York, he came across a crumbling barn, its whitewash peeling to reveal a layer of slate paint underneath. “Its weathered look felt very elegant,” said Mr. Simkhai, who promptly reproduced the effect on a fabric in the resort line he unveiled last month.
Will its grainy look re-emerge for spring? Hard to say. The collection Mr. Simkhai plans to show in September, at the start of New York Fashion Week, is only now beginning to take shape in his head. Some seven weeks before showtime, the line was in its gestational phase, Mr. Simkhai gathering with magpie energy the sights, sounds and tactile impressions that inspire him. “Inspiration,” he mused, “that’s really just a reference point, a way of keeping the collection concise.”
As he talked, he perched on an ash-blond wooden table in one of the incubator offices provided by the Council of Fashion Designers of America as part of its initiative to support emerging fashion businesses.
His two previous collections, athletically breezy and sassed up with techno detailing, trained a spotlight on Mr. Simkhai, who was singled out at Style.com, Women’s Wear Daily and Barneys New York, among others, as a talent to watch. Just the same, Mr. Simkhai, who showed his fall collection at Milk Studios in February, found himself vying for attention with industry stars like Joseph Altuzarra, who was presenting elsewhere at roughly the same time.
The competition was formidable, but he held his own, parading checkerboard-printed T-shirts, patchwork leather sweaters and twisted tomboy basketball jerseys and baseball jackets to an enthusiastic crowd that included Tomoko Ogura, the Barneys fashion director, and April Hennig, a merchandise manager for Bergdorf Goodman.
These days, his office doubles as his studio, a space that was hectically animated by fabric swatches pinned to one wall, and a pair of mood boards. One outsize sheet of fiberboard was covered in magazine tear sheets showing casually posed models in loosefitting jackets, baggy striped shorts and pencil skirts; another was plastered with photographs of adolescents in the natty clothes and challenging attitudes of the 1960s London youth quake.
Those oddly assorted images can help kick-start a collection. “They are almost like a diary,” Mr. Simkhai said, “even if nothing in the collection ends up actually looking this way.” For the designer, such photo references serve as talking points, providing his line with a unifying narrative thread, a story that, in his phrase, “the salespeople can latch on to.”
Spoken like a merchant. But then the designer, who is 28, got his start in retail, assigned at 14 to create window displays and act as a buyer for Habana Jeans in Scarsdale, N.Y., near his home. That brief apprenticeship taught him to anticipate his customers’ wishes or, as he put it, sounding a bit like Steve Jobs pitching a product release, “to give the clients what they want before they know they want it.”
His first designs, conceived about four years ago, were improvised, whipped up for a handful of friends needing beach cover-ups that would see them into town. Snatching shirts from his own closet, he repurposed them as minidresses, a breezy button-down look that became the foundation of his borrowed-from-the-boys aesthetic.
That fusion of male-female themes can’t help but seep into his work. “I can’t get into the head of a girl,” he said candidly, “so I spend a lot of time thinking about what I would want to wear. Naturally it gets masculine.”
Inevitably the boxy shapes, leather T-shirts and track pants that are his roguish signature will find their way into his spring line. “As much as I like femininity,” he said, “there will always be a button-down shirt.”
Still, he is always testing ideas. Lately his outlook has grown more refined. “I’m thinking of adding longer skirts,” he said. “They just feel right.” And he is giving increased weight to practical matters. Sure, a backless dress is charming and will probably have a place in the line, he said, adding with a wink, “but I’m finally catching on that women wear bras.”
He is quick to mine his archives. “Maybe there was something slightly rushed in the last collection that I want to revisit,” he said. As often as not, seeds of future designs are embedded in his current work. “The day before a show,” he said, “I tell myself, ‘I definitely want to explore this look next season, or I definitely don’t.’ ”
The fall 2013 collection was in part a product of his fascination with ska, the Jamaican precursor to reggae embraced by young Brits in the 1960s, their look an amalgam of skinny dark suits and ties, graphic checks, porkpie hats and, for girls, tight shirts and minis.
Spring 2014 will expand on that motif. “Coming off ska, I thought: ‘Who was listening to that music? What did it inspire?’ ”
The answer, of course, was mod. “ ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘there is definitely a lot of material here.’ ”
An illustrative sampling is pinned to a black-and-white mood board on a far wall, dominated by images of clashing teenagers and those overturned awning-striped beach chairs. The photographs document the Battle of Brighton Beach, a hostile 1964 encounter between mods and rockers engaged in a turf war at the storied British resort.
Those images coexist with snapshots culled from libraries or lifted from the Internet, spied in passing through the window of a vintage store, ripped from yellowing tabloids or reproduced from Instagram screen grabs. The board is always morphing.
“Sometimes I take pictures down because they’re no longer relevant,” Mr. Simkhai said. Others remain, functioning as “place-holders,” helping him return, when necessary, to his original themes.
On the wall behind him was a cacophony of fabrics in sunbaked colors or alternating shades of indigo and aquamarine. “This all is very provisional,” he said. “I pull fabrics that maybe don’t make sense. I can be all over the place. I haven’t figured it out yet.”
He doesn’t doubt, though, that in time that zany collage-in-progress will form a cohesive vision. For now those swatches serve as place-holders, too, pointing the way, he said, to the next stop on the road.
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