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Kim Jones' Vuitton Journey

Kim Jones reflects on turning Louis Vuitton into a credible global menswear player and reveals why today’s collection represents a new chapter in his tenure at the brand.
An exclusive image of Louis Vuitton's Spring/Summer 2016 collection | Source: Louis Vuitton
By
  • Robin Mellery-Pratt

LONDON, United Kingdom — "If you look at fashion now, you do see that the street really leads everything in menswear: Valentino, which I love, Raf, Riccardo at Givenchy. I did a store guide with my team at Selfridges yesterday, and just seeing how big the Givenchy section had got — you realise just how big the market is now," said Kim Jones, the artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton , in a sun-dappled garden in London's Marylebone. "But I already know how big the market is through our sales," he continued.

Indeed he does. In his four years at Louis Vuitton, Jones has firmly established the Parisian megabrand as a global menswear player with a casual luxury aesthetic. “Things that people can wear off duty or on duty, feel smart, feel like that they’ve got something special on, that’s really important. I think that’s where the future is in menswear,” he explained.

On the evening we meet, the 35-year-old designer, who takes one of the briefest bows in the business and generally eschews the limelight despite a high profile group of friends, is unfailingly polite — but confesses that he is tired. An impromptu flower fight took place in his hotel room at 5 am last night, between his ex-housemate, singer Lily Allen, and Brit actor Douglas Booth, which was followed by a full day’s work. “Most of my day was taken up with Nile Rodgers because he’s doing the music for the show — and I’m quite fussy about it,” he admits.

Jones has a highly demanding work schedule. “It’s long days and I do a lot of my work at home because we have meetings all the time, so I’ll go home and have dinner and then start work again. I was explaining it to Michael [Burke, chief executive of Louis Vuitton] and Delphine [Arnault, joint director general of Louis Vuitton], I normally finish work at about two in the morning and then I come to work and it’s just meetings all day — that’s just how it is.”

Since he began his four-year tenure at Louis Vuitton in 2011, Jones has presented customers with cashmere bomber jackets in muted blues and their silken Spring/Summer counterparts, recast in vibrant pinks and oranges, both priced at around $2000. Then there were the leather varsity jackets with branded badges sewn on for pop-emphasis, that hung next to easy tailored suits, priced at around $2500, as well as jeans, tees, raincoats, shirting, shoes, sunglasses and leather goods. Louis Vuitton’s parent company, LVMH, does not break out financial results for Vuitton’s menswear, but market sources estimate the business currently generates about $200 million in revenue per year. “I think they’re just beginning to really realise how big it’s become and what it is,” said Jones.

Having pre-empted menswear's mass adoption of streetwear silhouettes and motifs, the London-born Jones had an auspicious start in fashion. In 2002, upon finishing the fashion MA programme at London's Central Saint Martins, his entire graduate collection was bought by John Galliano as well as being widely acclaimed for its avant garde streetwear aesthetic. "I travel a lot and I go to all the markets and I see how people buy. It's just funny, looking at everything and seeing how 'streety' it has become, because that's where I started out. I was kind of a bit before my time, I guess, in that element."

Jones swiftly built a reputation in the industry, debuting his own label in London in 2003, before moving to Paris Fashion Week in 2004. He designed his own label for eight seasons in total, while working at other fashion houses. "I worked behind the scenes with lots of brands, like Mulberry, Hugo Boss, at McQueen — so I'd always look at things from different levels," noted the designer. In 2008, Jones shuttered his own label to become creative director of Dunhill. For his work at the house he was twice awarded 'Menswear Designer of the Year' by the British Fashion Council, in both 2009 and 2011. "I was [at Dunhill] for three years. What I loved was the archives, and I worked with really great people, but it was just such a duty free mentality that you could make really cool stuff, but then if no one realises its potential, it's hard to push," he explained.

Although Vuitton had begun producing menswear collections in 2005, first under Marc Jacobs and then under Paul Helbers, who took over for the Spring/Summer 2007 season, the house had failed to forge a lasting identity for its menswear — until Jones' appointment in 2011. "When I actually left college, one of the first things I did was go to Paris and I did some prints for the head of the men's studio at the time for Vuitton. I thought, wow this is amazing; I'd love to do this. And then ten years after I graduated, I got the job. I think it was the perfect time to go there."

Indeed, it was a very conducive time for Jones to be given the resources and the reach of a megabrand like Vuitton. At the time of his appointment, the menswear market was beginning to show the first signs of palpable growth. At the same time, luxury was starting to adopt a more global outlook, taking note of younger, more urban demographics from all over the world: demographics that did not aspire to out-dated, western tropes of masculine style, centred solely on tailoring and the legacy of Edwardian dress.

Jones spent the six months prior to his Vuitton start date in New York. “I just did loads and loads of research and I sent 40 boxes to the office before I got there. The first day I unpacked everything and the second day I briefed the team, because we had two and a half months to do the show. I [asked] ‘have you got enough information?’ they were like, ‘yeah, we’ve never had this much!’ I’m a real, proper researcher. I collect so much stuff and everything in my life is really about my work.”

The designer owes much of his success at Vuitton to his diligence as a researcher, as well as the pragmatism he applies when channelling his creativity into commercial ends. Both are traits that he put to work immediately at the brand. Jones’ début at Vuitton saw him reference his childhood in Kenya and a Masai blanket he had kept as a memento, to create lastingly influential scarves and print stories of blue and red plaits. The Masai print was an instantaneous commercial hit, according to the designer.

“[After the first show] I said to Pietro [Beccari, then vice president of Louis Vuitton] I want to take the whole team to Asia. None of them have been before. I want to go to China, Japan, Macau, Hong Kong and to see everything with them, so that we could get an understanding of that market, because that’s really important. You need to see what’s going on in reality, two of my team are going to America next week and they’re going to go and see all the stores and look at all the competitor stores and things like that.”

Jones’ insistence his team see the world for which it designs is not purely motivated by commercial considerations. The son of a geologist, the designer visited Ecuador at just three months old, before travelling extensively across Africa and down the Amazon –facts invariably raised in any discussion of him. Jones remains a voracious explorer and  an enraptured study of the cultures that inhabit our planet. The six seasons that followed his debut saw Jones take research trips to Tokyo, Indonesia and Thailand, trek the Bhutanese cloud forests, drive cross-country in search of Americana in the US and hike the Atacama Desert of Chile and reference the dusky majesty of Rajasthan, each evoked in specific collections through rich detailing, exceptional fabrication and technical innovation — of the kind only possible with the solid financial backing that a business like Vuitton is able to provide.

“When I see something and I really like it and I think it’s the right thing, then I need to find out everything about it. I pay for my own travel to go and do stuff to find something that no one is really looking at. For the last Autumn/Winter show I was looking at Chile, so I’ll fly down to Chile and go and really look at everything in the museums, at the landscape, so that you can give the customer something that’s ultra-special, that has authenticity and is different to a competitor.”

As Jones himself says, his work is his life. Beyond both producing and promoting collections, his nature dictates he see the world, especially the natural world, as a constant source of inspiration — one that can be both reverentially respected and translated into $billion sales for a global conglomerate.

There is a powerful synergy between Vuitton’s travel heritage as a purveyor of luggage and Jones’ personal preoccupation with traversing the globe. Not only are Jones and his team better informed regarding the lifestyles and homes of the global Vuitton consumer, but his experience of constant travel is evident in the product lines, reflecting the globally mobile nature of the modern elite. Functionality has played just as a key a role in Jones’ designs for Vuitton as the inspiration of far-flung locales. Variable, adaptable garments and bags, revelling in well-thought out practicality and expressed in luxury materials have become constant themes in his collections for the house. “With every single garment we think about every single thing. We put a lot into those garments and that’s how it gets to the next level I guess.”

Jones begins crafting each collection by focusing on the show,“What’s the music going to be? — That’s the starting point. I know what the collection is like and I know at what point an outfit comes out. I want people to feel good when they leave the show and to feel refreshed. A lot of fashion is a bit boring at the moment. I want it to be an enjoyable experience, because those editors are going to so many shows and it’s nice that they want to really come, rather than feel like they’re obliged because [Louis Vuitton] is an advertiser.”

"We have the looks done two days before the show, and then I get the commercial team [in to the studio] and we choose. We can't fit all of the show in the store, because we don't have the space, so we chose half of the collection that we really want to push. I'll bring in the commercial people into see the boards after every fitting as well, so they can get an idea and so we can work and get the best price for something, order the fabric so it can be an early delivery."

In an industry often divided along the lines of creativity and commerce, Jones is a rare type of designer; equally passionate and skilled at both. “You’re left on your own an awful lot there, which is a great thing and a privilege, but you need to inform people. We do twelve collections a year, basically one a month: some are small some are bigger. I have complete freedom on it all, as we’ve got into a groove over the four years which works — but I share the information with people because then they know what’s going on. Bags is a big discussion always, because it’s a really important thing. It is just being logical. My job is to sell clothes and to sell bags and to sell everything else that we do.”

However, today’s Spring/Summer 2016 show does represent something of a break with the past. In the exclusive preview of the collection shared with BoF before the show, loosely tailored shorts and an oversized tunic tee, decorated with bold stripes and riffs on Vuitton’s iconic V, demonstrate the continuing ease of Jones’ take on luxury menswear for the house, with a clear streetwear inflection — but no noticeable culture of origin. “The last collection was a kind of end to the way I’d been doing the shows about one location, I think. Everyone’s looking for the next thing all the time — it’s about keeping [it] fresh and interesting for the customer and also for the fashion world.”

"I wanted to do something more broad for this one — to close one chapter and to start the next one.”

Disclosure: LVMH is part of a consortium of investors which has a minority stake inThe Business of Fashion.

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