Interview - Jens Laugesen
Penny Martin: You have said in the past that your interest in fashion began with photography, not clothes. What directed you into designing?
Jens Laugesen: I think my initial interest in photography allowed me to gain a visual eye. When you take photographs, it is about shapes, textures, grains, composition, silhouettes and sometimes details. A bit like my design, which probably also reflects the black and white grainy world I learned to manipulate in the dark-room, spending hour upon hour developing my own photos and then developing an aesthetic in shades of 'non' colours. It was also in this period, when I was a very young man in my native Denmark, that I found the Nick Knight book 'Skinhead', which I bought at the time for photographic reasons, and has remained in my library ever since. Very interestingly, it has been a major influence for my present collection, and I have subsequently had the chance to collaborate with Nick himself. At that time I was heading for a career as genetic designer, because I was incredibly fascinated by the ethical problems surrounding the then emerging discussion about cloning and genetic manipulation. I think that it was then a need to get closer to something human, to the body, that made me change direction away from too theoretical and abstract ideas, to fashion. In some people's eyes these are very different areas, but not to me, as both areas are initially technical fields, with which you can allow your own intuition and abstract thinking to go new ways.
Penny Martin: Your early training was in Haute Couture Design at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, which some people might regard as the ultimate formal fashion education. Yet a decade later you were re-training on the Womenswear MA at St. Martin's. What influenced this apparent change of direction?
Jens Laugesen: I have always thought that you must know how to construct before starting to create. Especially in the post-modern world, deconstruction became the new design principle, with a more fragmented and random language. Too much de-constructivist design work is done without consideration of the initial construction. For me, the choice of undertaking a second MA in Womenswear fashion at Central Saint Martins emerged from the fact of feeling slight alien in the career I was in - working for different companies that were so deeply rooted in the last century, I started to feel a bit dead myself. It was a bit like the sinking Titanic, with people still continuing to dance and drink champagne without sensing that the end is near. I felt the need to make the journey for myself into the new century, and realised that as a creative person I would then need to start from scratch and research my own ideas instead of drawing inspiration from external visual sources that didn't really correspond to me.
Penny Martin: The word 'hybrid' is frequently used to categorise your designs. Why is it important to you to combine disparate elements in your work?
Jens Laugesen: When researching for my MA at Central Saint Martins, I wanted to research what would be in Fashion after De-Construction, which has been going on since the late 70s (British punk culture) through the 80s (Japanese designer) and the 90s (English and Belgian designers). I realised that de-construction is nothing but a way of analysing by revealing inner structures of a symbol and or an object. I felt that we should start to reconstruct all these different elements together in a new way that I named 'hybrid reconstruction', which was also the title for my thesis. In architecture and industrial design hybrid design has existed for years. In fashion this concept is only starting to emerge. The way I see hybrid garments is more like joining elements or material elements of different garments into new species of garments. A bit like cloned garments - this is also where my idea of morphing can be used not as a mechanical tool that creates virtual realities, but more as an abstract, intuitive tool that allows the designer to visualise new realities by discovering accidents in the process. Think if you want to morph a white shirt together with a T-shirt in a seamless way, not a 'patchwork' way, the possibilities are endless. As a creative tool I am interested in the process and not the outcome. For instance, when we did the video shoot (for GROUND_ZERO.03) with Nick (Knight) the other day, we discovered 'pixel-winds' in the process of transposing the video image onto the computer. It created extremely complex and fragmented images of the silhouette, allowing us to view four different angles of the same object in motion. I found it very inspiring for my own design process and way of thinking. I think instead of fearing both the machine and the computer, we need to learn and use its defaults for our own creative purpose. It is a bit like the roughness of punk when they used the cheap black and white photocopier because it was easy to access, and then created a true, rough and unfinished aesthetic, which for that time was a truly modern image.
Penny Martin: Can you describe how you approach the research and development stage of designing each new collection. What are your sources?
Jens Laugesen: I avoid any kind of retro revival. I think this 'fin de siecle' fear of The future forces people to look back into the past and to do 'quotations' and doesn't allow them to face the present. Since my initial training in the early 90s, I have seen the revival of the 60s four or five times and it just gets a bit uncomfortable when it comes back again. It looks dated because it corresponds to the sociological and physiological spirit of that time, to a body that is formatted by social codes and norms that no-one young and forward seeing of today can find interesting. I therefore try to draw my inspiration from day-to-day life and then to apply them to the garments I see people wear in the street. That is why my collection is predominantly made out of pants, T-shirts, jackets etc. Nothing too extravagant. The benchmark is how would this be worn in the street. I like to research from utility and function, and think that a beautifully stitched ornament or fastening that also has a function is more interesting than a graphic print, or lace and embroidery. But luckily there is space for everyone. I just want to make clothes from ideas that the design team I work with also gets excited about, and then communicate these ideas and emotions to the final consumer: the wearer. Design is about communicating ideas, emotions and abstract concepts.
Penny Martin: There is an overarching sense of continuity that runs through your collections: the (almost) monochromatic palette, the combination of tailoring with sportswear and luxury fabrics with washed-out cottons and the fascination with decaying Modernism. How do you ensure a sense of innovation and freshness whilst referencing past or on-going themes?
Jens Laugesen: I think the continuity comes from the fact that since leaving Central Saint Martins, I have been very focused on clarifying my ideas, making my aesthetic clearer in my mind and defining a true image for my label and brand. It has been a transitional period of leaving the enclosed environment of pure research, where you are protected from the world, and opening up to the world. The title of my MA collection was 'GROUND_ZERO:00', which probably made some of the audience feel slightly uncomfortable because of 9/11. But this concept and working title was actually researched months before the terrible accident, and it came from mathematics. When researching terms like deconstruction and reconstruction on the internet, one of the first things a search brings up is sinus curves. The deconstruction corresponds to when the curve goes down, and the reconstruction to when the curve goes up again. The 'Ground Zero' is the technical term that describes the zero point between the two, and I felt a bit like that. I was in between my past and my future, trying to deconstruct my past in order to reconstruct my future as a creative person. At the time of 9/11, I was researching how architecture has been the structural basis for the style of Modernism that characterised the 20th century, and was seeing the skyscraper as the modern 'cathedral' - a symbol of power, money and progress. The tragedy suddenly became a strong symbol of a transition in the world. I had a vision that in fifty years' time the tragedy of the twin towers would be seen in Art History as the end of the traditional Modernism and American Consumerism. It was this feeling that I am trying to express and understand through my collection. The following collections GROUND_ZERO_01 for S/S '03 and GROUND_ZERO_02 for A/W '03-04 just developed and expressed these feelings about a cultural zero point between the decaying Modernism and the point where something new will emerge from the chaos. The S/S '03 collection is called GROUND_ZERO_03 with the sub-title 'Faith in Chaos', and expresses the end of a trilogy. The collection references two of my biggest visual influences from that period. Both the stage design of the show and the very defined strict and hard edge silhouette is inspired by Nick Knight's raw but simultaneously extremely stylised image of a group skinheads under Bethnal Green bridge in the late 70s actually, the same area I live and work in now. The general mood of the show reflects on this very poetic and decaying monochromatic nihilistic vision of a futuristic Europe, pictured in 1983 by Lars Von Trier in his first film 'Element of Crime'. For me, this is a last look into my own and very personal past, bringing with me what I like from it, before forever turning towards the present and the future. The collection is about not fearing the present claustrophobic sense of chaos, but having faith in the creative process. It is a bit like being re-born, light will come. It was actually when seeing my collection on Camilla, my closest Collaborator, in the photo studio the other day with Nick that made me realise that I am ready to turn a page.
Penny Martin: GROUND_ZERO:03 FAITH IN CHAOS, your film collaboration with SHOWstudio and component part of your Spring/Summer '04 presentation, features you constructing your collections at the fittings stage. Please describe this process: how much of a collection is created at this late stage?
Jens Laugesen: I like to develop designs in a very organic way. It often evolves directly - discussing ideas on the body. Fittings are the first stage where an idea becomes real. We look at it on the white wall, and then it is photographed. This allows me to see the edging of the silhouette from a different perspective, not with my eye, but with the camera's eye. I document the whole process methodically in order to see how things work in real life. Traditional fashion design is about fantasy, especially in couture where it is about putting the woman on a pedestal. The person I dress has no gender, is very strong and chooses to dress for their own reasons, not for social or cultural reasons. It is therefore very important to see the clothes on a person.
Penny Martin: You work very closely with the stylist Alastair McKimm: what is his role in influencing the evolution of the garments and the aesthetic of the final show?
Jens Laugesen: Alastair is not a traditional stylist that comes in three weeks before a show to 'style' it with new shoes, hair and make up. In my design, thinking and styling is an integral part of the vision, and the styling evolves from the process of discussing ideas, fabrics, proportions, colours and detailing. Alastair works inside the design team next to Camilla and myself, and is included in most decisions from start to finish. There is no specific 're-styling' for the show since the looks are documented for months, worked on and evaluated in fittings and are just modified when needed. The look and styling evolves naturally from all our discussions.
Penny Martin: When you are working on a garment, on a model, to what extent are you seeing it in terms of the resultant spectacle of the catwalk show and how it will be captured in still photographs?
Jens Laugesen: Before a look reaches the show, it has already been 'straight-up' photographed by and evaluated 5-6 times, so nothing is left to the last minute. A show is the end result of a season of very hard work, with a lot of emotions, ideas and feelings. For me, the show should demonstrate this process, communicate the mood and help people to understand my aesthetic.
Penny Martin: Given that many designers are extremely secretive about their working methods, how do you feel about opening up this private, creative process for an audience to see?
Jens Laugesen: Actually quite confident, because the way I work is very personal, and I know that my ideas only evolve from my own research, my own creative process, which involves working on the stand, cutting into garments, and pinning them together in new ways: cutting into a generic garment like the Americana T-shirt this season or the military tank top last season, in order to create new kinds of garments. A lot of the work takes place directly on Camilla, and the aesthetic evolves from that. For instance, all the cut-out back panels on the T-shirt come from cutting into the T-shirt directly on the body, and the letting it evolve.
Penny Martin: In spite of the massive amount of press attention you are receiving, this is only your third official Womenswear collection. Can you foresee where it will lead you next?
Jens Laugesen: My aim is to develop my ideas with the people I work with, then build up a stronger distribution to the right shops to gain financial independence, to reach a core group of like-minded consumers. It is my aim to make all of this into a true international design business. I am actually quietly confident.