“There are so many magical women here,” Jonathan Simkhai said, eyeing the crowd at Saks Fifth Avenue. The fashion faithful had braved a thunderstorm to meet the New York-based designer, who visited the Boston store on April 6 to raise some green for the Museum of Fine Arts and share his namesake label’s latest collection—and answer a few questions.
Now that you have had the opportunity to meet some Bostonians this afternoon, how would you describe their style? It has been such a breath of fresh air because you don’t always get to connect with the clients on a personal level…. Seeing how beautiful they are in all different shapes and sizes—tall ones, the short ones, the skinny ones—you have all the different shapes and sizes. And seeing what they gravitate towards, it’s refreshing because we spend a lot of time working with our fit model who’s 5’8” and a size 6, so it’s nice to see the 5’2”s and size 10s and see how things fit on the “real women.” They just all look so beautiful.
Well, you know, Bostonians are supposedly a bit more conservative or not known to be risk takers by nature. How would you sum that up after meeting all the women today? I’m not going to say the customers I met today were avant-garde or very “fashion” in the sense that it felt “over the top” at all, but they do have a very nice sense of style and definitely appreciate quality. They’re very smart and educated customers—put together but also effortless. It was just a very nice balance, especially the women I met today. They were seamlessly put together and extraordinarily elegant.
I think any Bostonian would be happy to hear that. Now tell us about your collection in general—do you have any standout piece that you are just over the moon about? The “must have” piece would be, I would say, some of the shirting with the pearl details. We have a few styles of cotton shirts, almost like traditional button-downs with a twist, and instead of shank buttons they have pearl buttons. There were also some details where the pearls undo and cut away at the skin in a way where it feels unexpected. We also did some distressed denim and went with the idea of being able to dress a white shirt up because it has a pearl detail to, you know, make something more dressy, but also be able to wear it more casual. That was something that a lot of the customers gravitated towards and has been successful throughout the season.
The MFA is the beneficiary today—do you have any affiliation with the museum? I do know they have an extensive textile collection that I appreciate. I love textiles, as I come from a family where my grandfather had a lace mill, so I’m very connected and feel very attached to fabric and fabrication, and I think it’s cool that they have it.
Something I always ask designers—what is your source of inspiration? Where does it come from? Is there a muse, is it architecture, the arts? It’s actually just so silly because designers, or me, get inspiration from the silliest things. The collections on the floor now were inspired by the Watts Towers. We used images and photographs taken of the Watts Towers and laid them into Illustrator. We then traced those lines and used that artwork created in Illustrator and sent it to lace houses in Europe. There, they programmed the machines to embroider the fabric to look like the Illustrator files, and the Illustrator files were of the pictures that we manipulated. So, my inspirations start with, often enough, architectural references, for fabric, and then I just see the idea of the summer and start envisioning, what does the Jonathan Simkhai women look like this season? What is she doing? Where is she? And I create a little bit of a story in my head. This season she was walking through the desert, and she had this sexy, sweaty look to her. She was wearing a very breezy, airy cotton dress, and it was flowing, and she had these scarves hanging…
Oh, I want to meet her. [Laughs.] She’s here. [Laughs.] And yeah, that’s just the premise of the visualization of place…like “oh she’s in the desert, okay, so…” and nothing feels desert about the collection, as there is no real desert anything, but that’s just where I envision her.
And the rest just meanders in, and you pull out this brilliant collection. I love it. Are you ever in a situation where you’re just stumped by either design or the process? And how do you get yourself back on track? What keeps you positive? I surround myself with people, friends and colleagues that inspire me and that I feel connected to and love, like Katherine and April. Everyone on the team is very much a family, so we get through it all together. There are so many different elements of the business, whether it be design or creative. I’ve been in LA lately, and then recently in the past three days, I was in New York. It was a very intense three days because I hadn’t been in the New York design studio for a few weeks, so I was looking at a lot of the pieces that they have been working on and seeing all the sketches come to life. But some of the things were a little off and needed to be re-tweaked and reworked, and that was done, but it’s a growing process and can get a little overwhelming. I woke up this morning in a panic like, I hope it all gets done…and I remind myself that there’s always enough time and everything will get done. It all keeps me going and fuels me, but also gets me. Waking up in a panic is not a good feeling, but meeting the women today was just something that gave me a lot of clarity and just got me inspired and excited. One area of it can challenge you and stress you out, but another part of it can fuel you and get you excited and re-motivate you, and for now, I’m fine. [Laughs.]