The polished, privileged SamCam set may be huge fans, but when ugliness is his world order, how does the Scotsman reconcile the two?
Photography Stefan Zschernitz
Styling Anders Sølvsten Thomsen
Red and white merino wool jumper Jonathan Saunders.
“Ah, fucking plank! I’m not one of his own!” Alexander McQueen snarled of UK prime minister John Major to a Vanity Fair reporter in a 1997 feature on Swinging London. During the optimistic 1990s, even the most political of designers were coopted into Cool Britannia’s scheme of cultural regeneration. British style may have a long history of subversiveness, but the establishment has always been ready to ride on the coattails of the most creative in society.
Nowadays, we are meant to believe that London is a hotbed for experimentation, with its legacy of famous names up to no good, whether it’s Vivienne Westwood’s punks on the King’s Road or Meadham Kirchhoff’s more modern riot grrls. But is high fashion’s rebelliousness getting a little lost in 2014, when cocktail dresses abound and designers cosy up to a Conservative government bent on turning the city into a playground for the super-rich? If London is a hub of wild creativity, it’s only until the bills have to be paid. Then it’s time to get serious, stop playing for shock value and start making something that can sell.
Off-white, grey and beige wool felt coat, silver and cream silk
and wool dress Jonathan Saunders.
Enter Jonathan Saunders. Right now, the Scottish designer, known for his use of vivid colour and bold silhouettes, is at the top of his game, celebrating ten years in the trade and on best-dressed lists in Vogue and Tatler. As one of the favourites of fashion’s more well-heeled set, with major stockists like Harrods and Harvey Nichols, you’d be forgiven for thinking Saunders is set on playing it safe. Then why did Tim Blanks write of the “grim dystopian flavour” of Saunders’s new collection on Style.com? “A/W 2014 is a little grittier than my previous collection,” the designer admits.
“It was made by taking discarded or found things and piecing them back together. But even so, the intricacy and detail within the pieces has lightness to it, like lace.” This lightness was accompanied by references to iconic performance artist Leigh Bowery, a key style rebel and player on London’s countercultural scene during the 1980s. And yet, it will surely appeal to customers like Samantha Cameron and Kate Middleton. Is it possible for a designer like Saunders to have his cake and eat it?
“I am definitely aware that I am willing to court ugliness, and I think my inspiration board always incorporates an element of ugliness or of the unexpected.”
“I love the fierceness in Leigh’s work, the idea of beauty coming from something quite dark or ugly,” Saunders says. “I think mainstream fashion is fascinated with this concept in some ways: you might see something that looks almost hard but is made from the finest of cashmeres. For me, I think what appeals to the likes of Samantha Cameron about my work is that when you take the looks apart and view them as separates, the pieces are classic in their silhouette, wearable.”
Beige nappa leather waistcoat with black collar, beige silk shirt
with embellished collar Jonathan Saunders.
There’s a certain disconnect inherent to British fashion design and its relationship with the rest of the country. It’s eccentric, but always palatable. It’s wild and anarchic, yet celebrated by politicians and reality TV stars alike. It’s dreamt up, often, by kids in bedsits with crippling student debt, but bought and worn by those with more money and power than anyone else in society. While British designers are training at institutions known for progressive experimentation, still piecing together Leigh Bowery mood boards, luxury fashion has become exponentially more exclusive, and its audience narrower and narrower.
Perhaps Saunders’s success is down to his reconnecting of the two – the way he combines a fresh, free-thinking approach to textiles with a knowledge of what modern, moneyed women want. And that isn’t always what we might expect from a designer. “I am definitely aware that I am willing to court ugliness, and I think my inspiration board always incorporates an element of ugliness or of the unexpected,” he concedes. “For this season, I wanted to take scraps, things that can sometimes seem tacky or ugly, and I loved the challenge of making them look luxurious. Success doesn’t limit you – it makes you feel more informed.”
Yellow and black merino wool jumper, olive silk trousers with
black and redside trim Jonathan Saunders.