At a trendy sushi restaurant near the grand Place Vendôme in Paris on a bright spring day, one of our nation’s most important fashion designers is doing something else we Brits do well: being self-deprecating. Over black cod and unagi nigiri (his favourite), Kim Jones speaks of his achievements as if he’s won bronze at sports day.
“I’m more confident now, but it’s taken time to get there,” he says. “I mean, when I see my friends and they’re like, ‘Everyone’s talking about the collection,’ that’s nice to hear, but I don’t think like that.”
You may not recognise Jones if you saw him, something that’s testament to his low-key approach. Wearing a boxy denim jacket, plain white T-shirt and a pair of bright Nike Orbits, his hair smartly cropped, Jones could quite easily be mistaken for one of his interns. Softly spoken and with a habit of finishing every sentence with an apologetic “so”, his demeanour is like that of a designer at the start of his career, rather than a globetrotting fashion sensation.
But as the men’s collections artistic director at Louis Vuitton since 2011, the 35-year-old Londoner is indisputably one of the key figures in the booming men’s luxury market, consistently winning acclaim for his collections.
“It is rare to see a designer step so perfectly into new shoes. But this debut collection could not be faulted,” wrote Suzy Menkes in The New York Times, of Jones’ spring/summer 2012 designs, inspired by his childhood in Kenya and featuring bright Masai print scarves and functional sandals alongside more traditional holdalls and briefcases. “Its soul was the essence of Vuitton – travel. And vacation ideas that are usually translated on the runway as a polo, parka and tan travel bag had far more resonance,” Menkes added.
One of the jewels in the crown of LVMH, the French luxury conglomerate that also owns, among many others, Dior, Dom Perignon and Tag Heuer, the 161-year-old leather goods manufacturer Louis Vuitton is also the most profitable brand in the group’s stable. It is worth £18bn and posts annual revenues of just under £6.4bn.
And, as the label’s menswear designer, Jones has a lot on his plate besides sushi. The male market is becoming increasingly important for luxury brands. In 2014, the British menswear industry had expanded by a fifth since 2008, and is now worth £13bn. And that’s just the UK. This rate of growth means Jones has a sizeable international customer base to take care of.
While he might not yet suffer the same attention as Louis Vuitton’s artistic director of women’s collections (currently Nicolas Ghesquière, who replaced Marc Jacobs in 2013), Jones still has a high-pressure job, having to find the balance between creativity and commercialism. But he’s pragmatic.
“We have such a broad demographic at Vuitton,” he says. “We get lots of fashion kids, lots of classic men and some sort of older, cooler guys and some really traditional men, and I have to cover everybody. There are three or four collections in the store at the same time. I’m aware that I have to dress someone who’s either 16 or 60.”
Jones was hired by Louis Vuitton a decade after his graduation from London’s fashion hothouse, Central Saint Martins (John Galliano bought half his graduate collection). Although he was then perhaps best known for his sportswear, Jones’ appointment was one that made sense to many of those familiar with his work. The young designer cut his teeth working with brands such as Topman and Umbro.
But his first eponymous collection – an optimistic mêlée of leather varsity jackets, oversized jeans, perfectly cut checked shirts and bomber jackets adorned with Central American-inspired prints, shown during London Fashion Week in 2003 – feels remarkably consistent with the richly referenced, wearable pieces he makes for Vuitton today (albeit in far more expensive fabrics).
“The reason Kim Jones’ aesthetic works and has consistency is because he works at it,” says Judy Blame, the British stylist and jewellery designer who worked with the designer on his autumn/winter 2015 collection. “Everything he does is well researched. He immerses himself into every job. He looks at each client’s history and modernises. Even though his inspiration can often be the past, you never feel it belongs there. It’s about today and tomorrow.”
Following stints working at Alexander McQueen (the late Lee McQueen was a friend), Mulberry and Hugo Boss, Jones’ first big break into luxury came in 2008 when he became creative director at Alfred Dunhill. Bringing his trademark mix of youthful irreverence, tailoring nous and worldly intelligence to the brand, Jones’ A/W ’10 collection for Dunhill combined dense shearling bomber jackets, chunky leather hiking boots and luxurious fur-trimmed parkas with more traditional suits.
There was more of the same for his S/S ’11 collection, his last for Dunhill, when suits were worn with trainer-style lace-ups and the models carried leather-clad hip flasks designed to look like old books.
This same unbridled creativity is palpable in the collections Jones has produced so far at Vuitton. Melding commercialism (there are plenty of immaculately cut suits in his collections), an obsession with fabric (all the cloths Jones uses are produced exclusively for Vuitton: a rarity) and his passion for street and club wear, Jones understands that for Louis Vuitton to maintain relevance, his clothing must appeal to everyone, from art students looking to spend a month’s beer money on a T-shirt, to businessmen who need an entire wardrobe of classic suits, and thirtysomethings in the market for a smart new gym bag.
Travel is in Jones’ blood. Born to a Danish mother and an English father, a hydrogeologist, much of Jones’ childhood was spent living in exotic locations due to his dad’s work. The family moved to Ecuador when Jones was three months old and periods in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and the Caribbean followed.
As a child, Jones wanted to be a zoologist (his hero is David Attenborough) and you can see his fascination with the natural world in his collections. Each season a new, evermore exotic region is referenced on his runway. He has delivered clothes inspired by his travels to Japan, Texas and Bhutan among other places.
For the latter (A/W ’13), fur coats were stencilled with leopard print, puffa jackets were cut from deer leather and checked blazers were inspired by traditional Bhutanese patterns. These were presented alongside T-shirts, suits and pyjamas emblazoned with a bespoke “Garden in Hell” print, designed for Jones by the artists Jake and Dinos Chapman. A feast for the mind as much as the eyes, the collection felt wearable and commercial as much as it did avant-garde and intriguing — a balance very few designers are able to strike.
His autumn/winter 2014 collection was inspired by South America’s Atacama Desert. Stripes influenced by traditional Peruvian scarves adorned slouchy cashmere overcoats, while a bomber jacket in vicuña, a woollen fabric made from the beard of an Andean camelid (as eye-wateringly expensive as it is finger-tinglingly soft), formed the centrepiece of the show. “Kim Jones is providing Vuitton with real momentum,” wrote Charlie Porter in the Financial Times. “Four seasons in, he’s mastered a look that combines fashion with a luxurious practicality.”
The patchwork jackets shown in Jones’ S/S 2014 collection were inspired by boro, a Japanese refabrication technique; the pink and khaki jumpsuits in his S/S ’15 were influenced by the uniforms worn by the palace guards in Rajasthan. Over the past few months, Jones has spent time in California, Japan, India and New York. Last summer, he visited Mandalay in Myanmar, “It’s really beautiful,” he says, “and it’s nice that there’s no phone reception.”
In addition to spending much of his life on a plane (“one of my favourite places”), Jones spends a lot of time on the Eurostar train back and forth between his homes in London’s Little Venice (where his life is) and Paris (where his office is). It’s a hectic existence, and one he’s thinking about eventually giving up for a life in Africa (though the final destination changed to Los Angeles by our second encounter).
Jones lives with his partner but doesn’t see much of his family. “My mum died when I was young and the rest of my family I don’t see so much,” he says. “I lived with Lily [Allen] for a while, and she’s like a little sister.” Jones’ older sister Nadia worked with Allen on her vintage fashion venture Lucy in Disguise, and was creative director at high-street brand Oasis for 14 years. She now lives in Australia.
Jones might not be recognisably famous himself, but he is well connected, counting Kanye West, Michael Stipe, Kate Moss, Harry Styles and the Beckhams as friends. “It was both David and Lily’s birthdays on the same day recently,” Jones says. “I was invited to both but it was the 30th of a best friend. You miss those special occasions.”
Kim Jones with David Beckham and Louis Vuitton chief executive Michael Burke
For many years, Jones has been called a “club kid” and while certainly he spent time in his youth in nightclubs – not many people in fashion didn’t – he says the title no longer applies. “I haven't been to a club in maybe seven years,” Jones says. “I think the last time was one of those after-show parties. I never go out any more. It used to be so great but now I’m always disappointed. What’s the point? I sometimes go out in Cape Town just to see what’s going on, but not so much. It’s funny, because when we were young we went out every night. It was a different way of living but you can’t do that now – I don’t have the energy.”
Nevertheless, it’s his time in clubland that has inspired his latest collection, perhaps his most personal to date for Vuitton. A homage to fashion designer and artist Christopher Nemeth, who died in 2010, Jones’ autumn/winter 2015 collection plays on the patchwork aesthetic of Nemeth’s work. Best known for making clothes out of salvaged fabrics and found objects, Nemeth – alongside Vivienne Westwood, Rachel Auburn and Stephen Linard (designers whose clothing Jones also collects) – was one of the most important designers of the hugely influential Eighties London nightclub generation.
He made clothes to be paraded around by the nocturnal creatures of London: Leigh Bowery, Steve Strange, Judy Blame, all of whom have inspired the much younger Jones.
The new season collection is produced in collaboration with Blame and takes inspiration from four prints he found when rummaging through the Nemeth archive, the most prevalent of which is the oversized rope motif that Jones has laser-etched, printed and flocked onto camel overcoats, pea coats and jumpers. Teamed with cashmere denim jeans, these clothes pay luxurious tribute to Nemeth’s street-ready aesthetic.
“[The Nemeth collection] was something I wanted to do for a long time,” Jones says. “I had the opportunity shortly before he died to meet him and we spoke about doing something. I kept in touch with his family and said, ‘When you feel ready, let’s do something.’ They were really open and obviously they were involved with the process.
“I also got Judy involved, and then I had [stylist] Alister Mackie. The thing with fashion now is that it’s become so commercial and so fast that I think people forget that it’s still possible to do things that are quite personal and have a feeling to them.”
Not that Jones is unaware of the commercial imperative. Jason Broderick, fashion director at Harrods, says, “menswear has seen a dramatic change in recent years and sportswear has become more and more important. Kim has pioneered this trend and Louis Vuitton has benefited from several truly fantastic collections with his design. I can’t give [sales] numbers, but we are certainly pleased with the results.”
It’s the same on the other side of London’s Hyde Park at Selfridges.
“Kim is clearly aware of the commercials and understands what men want,” says the store’s buying director, Sebastian Manes. “He knows exactly who his customer is and what makes him tick, with just the right mix of functionality and desirability. The consistency and continuity of design are important – making Vuitton a label that men enjoy collecting. I’m working on my own collection! I’m very proud we have an entire Louis Vuitton universe at Selfridges and am pleased to see a British designer shaping the future of menswear at an international level.”
“International” is an apt word for Kim Jones. Before he moves to Africa, or LA, or both, he’s got a few more years to come at Vuitton. “I’ve just signed a contract again, so I’m staying,” he says, laughing. “I’ll get a few more collections under my belt.” And what a belt.