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Jonathan Saunders

After picking up the BFC/Vogue Fashion Fund award, the designer believes that showing in London gives him the commercial edge he needs to keep on growing.

Until last September, Jonathan Saunders’ proudest moment was when US Vogue featured his clothes on its cover in 2004, just months after the Scot’s London Fashion Week debut. But as he came out to take a bow after his spring 12 catwalk show, Saunders was humbled by the number of women on the front row wearing his autumn 11 range, a moment that has now surpassed the Vogue cover. “Shame I haven’t delivered spring/summer yet,” he laughs. “It’s not going to happen again.”

If the price is right

I tell him that I, too, would have loved to interview him today wearing some of his pieces, but the price points are a little too high for me. Pushing my luck, I enquire about the possibility of a diffusion line. Saunders bursts out laughing. “Oh God, alright babes, no worries, I’ll get on it as soon as I get back to the office. Cancel the winter fittings!” he calls out.

On a serious note, Saunders, who was awarded the BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund of £200,000 the day before we meet, is unsure about a diffusion line (he currently designs a range for Debenhams’ Edition concept), preferring to offer better entry-price points in his resort and pre-collections. “I don’t know, you know,” he muses. “When you look at Dolce & Gabbana, they don’t have D&G any more. We’re under much more pressure to keep things within our price bracket than the high street is. My focus is to make sure there’s value in the product. We just did a range of colour block, crêpe-de-chine pieces in the [autumn 12] pre-collection, which has the essence of what I’m about, but there’s a dress there for £495 at retail – a very different price point to what I’m used to working on.”

A quick look on luxury etailer Net-A-Porter shows a printed cotton and silk-blend dress from the current spring 12 resort collection retailing at £835 – a noticeable difference. The key, says Saunders, is in the colour block; print is far more expensive.

There’s the pressure, too, of his already heavy workload. “We do four womenswear collections per year, two menswear collections, some consultancy, so a lot of work and a hell of a lot of clothes.” Saunders puffs out his cheeks, eyes wide open. Not that he is complaining. “I’m not going to say it’s too much because it would start showing in my work and I feel happy with my work. [The number of collections] reflects our fast society, the globalisation of everything. But the recession has enabled a bigger focus on [the actual] clothes and on design. It made us strip it back a little. [Some] designers are doing presentations now [as opposed to big catwalk shows],” he says, going on to explain the commercial implication of this faster pace.

“So much of our business is resort and pre-collections now, which enables you to design from a category basis, to design a really beautiful sweater and make it work. It’s a different motive, and I think it’s healthy to have that. But this constant need for newness is exhausting. Will it implode? Who knows?

“Maybe what will happen is that the budgets we spend will be spread out evenly across the collections. At the moment, we still feel the pressures of the shows. That doesn’t reflect what the buyers buy. About 70% of their budget goes on ‘pre’ because designers approach the designing of it in a different way. It’s more buy now, wear now oriented. So resort isn’t just kaftans and chiffons, there’s knitwear in there. It’s an even spread.”

Independent streak

The pre-collections are particularly important to independent boutiques, of which Saunders has a healthy stockist base. The brand is also stocked in Harrods and Selfridges, as well as Matches and Browns in London and Bernard Boutique in Esher, Surrey.

In total, it has 110 stockists worldwide, a figure which has doubled over the last two years. “I’ve started with the printed jersey part of the collection to test the reaction of the brand, but it’s too early to tell yet,” says Helene Rappaport, owner of Bernard Boutique. “I love the way he reworks vintage prints, making them look current and elegant. Similarly, his silhouettes are 1960s and 1970s-inspired but with his fresh eyes, they look exciting and modern.”

It doesn’t seem to make sense, though, to devote more of your budget to a smaller part of your business. “It’s our advertising,” Saunders says of his catwalk shows. “None of us can afford advertising. Dries [Van Noten] has been doing it for years. They don’t have advertising but have an amazing business because they’ve been utilising that medium [catwalk shows] to promote their collections.

“But also, creatively, there’s nothing more exciting, and there’s nothing that drives me more than getting a collection together. I love it, you know. And it’s not a job. The fantasy is crucial. The romance, that’s what makes fashion. You’re not selling chairs. It’s about how you represent yourself. There has to be some romance, otherwise it’s just categories on a rack.”

Rocketing sales

If you’re not convinced by Saunders’ eloquent argument, then the figures speak for themselves. Sales are up 120% on last year and profits are impressive, too. I’ve been sworn to secrecy on the numbers, so you’ll have to trust me – they are very good indeed.

“When you look at the categories in the collections, separates are much more important, a much bigger part of the business. If print and bold colours are a part of your aesthetic, then working on a strong separates collection enables the customer to wear it in their own way, and I think that’s key to a couple of years ago when I was doing cocktail dresses. And then the penny dropped. Where is this woman going? She’s going to work. It sounds so simple but…” he trails off.

Learning as you go is a big part of what differentiates London designers from those of other key fashion cities, says Saunders. “My first show I was 24, so yes, I’ve been around for a long time, but it takes a long time to establish who you are,” he explains. “In Paris, designers work with a fashion house and learn the craft, whereas in London we come out of [Central] Saint Martins and build our collection in our bedrooms. Which is great because you learn from the bottom how things are made, how they can be made, so you make it happen. On the other hand, you are put out there very early on. I feel like I only really started my business two years ago.”

Menswear growth

Those last two years have included the launch of menswear, a category that will drive growth at the brand. “There’s a gap in the market for that kind of menswear. It’s simple shapes, colour and texture; it’s very day-focused and has a sense of easiness to it,” says Saunders.

“There’s an accessibility to it, that’s why it works. Menswear is a big part of the next 12 months.” He is reluctant to put a figure on the potential of menswear for the Jonathan Saunders brand.

“The key about menswear is to keep it focused as a brand identity. I don’t want to tick every category, to cater for every guy. I enjoy it, I have a customer there. I don’t care how big the business is. In terms of percentages, it’s not the focus. It should, in its own right, grow.”

Saunders also believes that being a London designer now has a commercial advantage, a belief that many would have scoffed at a few years ago, when the capital often played fourth fiddle to Paris, New York and Milan.

“The great thing about London now is that it’s not just a hive for ideas,” he says. “There are young, successful independent businesses coming out of it. Boutiques want special pieces, the customers want something that doesn’t look generic and people want individuality, they want an investment. So if something has a strong identity and a point of view, it will do well.”

With a standout spring 12 collection, I feel both excited and worried for Saunders’ autumn 12 show. How can he top last season’s beautifully cut, elegant collection of separates and dresses in gorgeous colours and prints? “It doesn’t have to be better or worse, it just has to be different,” he says, refusing to reveal any details before Sunday’s show. Not even a little nugget? “Nope,” he replies, cutting me off in mid-sentence. “Why do you want to know? Is it not fun to wait and see?” 

CV

2012 Wins BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund 2010 Returns to London Fashion Week

2008 Moves to New York Fashion Week

2003 Launches eponymous range at London Fashion Week

2002 Graduates from Central Saint Martins with an MA in Printed Textiles

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