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New York minutes: catching up with Derek Lam

December 30, 2016
By Hannah Yakobi
Photography by Robin Gartner

Derek Lam is sitting on a couch in a Holt Renfrew VIP room in uptown Toronto. Like a true New Yorker, he is dressed in all black. The entire room is filled with Lam’s creations: a large display on a coffee table has the full set of fragrances from his latest collection, neatly assembled next to cookies that have Derek Lam 10 Crosby written on them; behind the designer are his clothes, filling multiple racks, and complementing multiple shelves with colourful purses.

During his visit to Toronto last month, Lam showcased his latest Derek Lam 10 Crosby collection and, for the first time, unveiled his fragrance collection in Canada that was launched in the States in spring. We had a long conversation about his creative endeavours, the trends this season and how they can successfully translate into holiday shopping, and the relationship between fashion and politics.

Derek Lam is on the cover of The Holiday Issue this month.

Derek Lam is on the cover of The Holiday Issue this month.

HANNAH YAKOBI: Welcome to Toronto! Really excited to meet you today.

DEREK LAM: Thank you!

What can you tell us about your new collection that you are here to unveil?

Well, we have the Derek Lam collection: the pre-spring collection is here and we are introducing spring for special orders. We also have our Derek Lam 10 Crosby that we are going to showcase this afternoon. That collection, I would say, is a younger, more spirited version of Derek Lam. It encompasses our new denim collection, as well as handbags.

Lastly, we have Derek Lam 10 Crosby fragrances, and that has been launched since spring but I haven’t really had a chance to talk about it to anybody in Canada yet, so it’s nice to be able to do that. It is really wonderful to partner with a store like Holt [Renfrew], that really makes a commitment to carry the world of your line.

I read that your latest Derek Lam Collection was inspired in large by Georgia O’Keeffe and her work. What about the resort collection? Where did you draw the inspiration from?

It really is the same inspiration. What I’ve done now is kind of narrow the focus to big seasons — spring and fall — and let the pre-collections be an introduction to what’s going to come forward. I think it’s really important that clients understand that there is a continuity, that all of these different parts aren’t just to get them into the store. It’s really a thought-out conversation.

A lot of designers have multiple lines, like yourself. Often, when they create a new line, there’s a specific reason for it: either to appeal to a different demographic, or to create a line that is more casual or more affordable. How would you describe the difference between your lines? What was your rationale to have all of them?

The Derek Lam collection is really about special pieces: still very refined, very intelligent, clothing for women to wear day in and day out. The intersection between the Derek Lam collection and Derek Lam 10 Crosby is my focus on design, my focus on architecture, my focus on contemporary lifestyle and art, and how that fits our culture.

The difference between Derek Lam and Derek Lam 10 Crosby is that everything is more dialed up: the colours are bolder, the prints are bolder, the silhouettes are just about dialing up the fashion.

I was watching the videos that you created for each of your 10 new fragrances and I read somewhere that the names [of the fragrances] and videos were based on what you saw from your window at 10 Crosby Street. They are really fun and relatable. So when you picked the different scenarios and different stories, how exactly did that come together?

Some of them are universal experiences and some are a little bit more specific to my personal experience. For Derek Lam 10 Crosby, the name of the collection and fragrances is really anchored in a place. This place is where my design studio was, and I was inspired by this amazing street in New York. It was a very, very New York street, very creative. Really a New Yorker’s New York. I would stare out of the window of my design studio and see people who gravitated towards Crosby Street: young, independent, fashion-forward, but living by their own rules. This has been the dominating inspiration for me. And so it is the same with the fragrance — it’s imagining these moments on Crosby Street, whether it’s a 2 a.m. Kiss or Blackout.

For Blackout, it was based on that experience in New York, when we lost electricity [in 2003]. There was a little bit of trepidation because of a fear that turned into, basically, a big city party. But then it also goes to something like the video of Silence St. — I think that New York is the most peaceful right after it snows, and there is very little traffic. You want to get out in the morning and experience how quiet, how silent it is, in this kind of chaos of the city. So yes, some of it is very direct and some is a little bit more like a dreamscape.

Some of the fragrances from the range. Photo: Hannah Yakobi.

Some of the fragrances from the range. Photo: Hannah Yakobi.

The 2 a.m. Kiss video specifically was nominated for the Tribeca X Award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Was it a specific story or was it just a combination of experiences?

I think the title is about that amorous moment, when your guard is down and it’s the end of the evening, you just kind of get that last moment before separating or moving on. What was interesting with the film was that the producers were putting a spin on it, and a very interesting spin. Everybody associates that last evening kiss with your mate, your husband or whatever. And in the film the experience is kind of identifying that [the character] can kiss herself and have her own moment. This is why she kisses her reflection in the window.

I thought it was almost like “love yourself before you love someone else”… It was quite philosophical.

Yes, yes, because in the film she’s kind of a pathetic character, but she is funny! I think it was really important with translating the fragrances. We are talking life-changing experiences, but we are also talking about experiences that are light-hearted and playful, and communicating the sensuality of fragrances in a very modern way.

It’s not a traditional kind of like, you know, a mysterious siren who needs a man, or she’s out happy in a field with puppies, and all those traditional fragrance connotations. I wanted it to be much more real.

And less predictable, right?

Less predictable, and really talking about who is it that I’ve been inspired by on 10 Crosby.

All smiles at Holt Renfrew: Lam says he really enjoys showcasing his work at the Canadian luxury department store.

The colours of the fragrances are so diverse. How did you choose all these different shades?

Everything was really intuitive. It was about thinking of the concept for each fragrance, and then it kind of came to me in terms of what colour to use. For a fashion designer, colour is a key to what we do. I love colour. So being able to interpret it into a fragrance, which is not always represented in that way, was a nice way to bridge fashion designer and fragrance designer elements.

You’ve done so many projects over the years: perfumes, shoes, purses, different types of clothing. At one point you even did wine. What was that like? And why did you decide to do it?

It was a one-off, so it was a special edition of wine. It came up because I, actually, love wine. It’s my preferred drink. And, in particular, this was a Californian vineyard, considered one of the very best wineries in the world, if not just in California. So being able to partner with something that was so interesting was just a pure pleasure for me. Sometimes a lot of what I do is just about what I’m interested in and using it as a point of expression.

You work a lot with your husband. What do you like the most about working with him?

There is the sense of security, because you don’t feel you are alone in a situation, and that’s great. It allows me to be more on a creative side of it, and Jan takes more of the business side. So it’s a nice balance.

Politics and fashion are always intertwined in some way. With the changes happening in the U.S., how do you think they will affect the fashion industry?

I think it’s too soon to say anything. We’ve had such incredible support from Michelle Obama, and President Obama’s just overall level of quality of being a leader has really inspired Americans and people around the world.

I did a seminar in Washington D.C. in October, called “Diplomacy in Design”. It was a state department launch. I met a lot of amazing diplomats, who were intrigued by fashion and wanted to know what does design mean in diplomacy and fashion.

Sometimes it’s kind of separated because in political life people think: “It’s very serious, it’s above the every day, because we talk about very serious issues.” But what I think has happened now is that people are in tune with every aspect of what’s happening in contemporary life: politics, art, design, architecture, travel. People are able to find that everything is intertwined. And that really is what I am most inspired by, it’s not just a thing, or a movie, or a book, or an exhibit — I’m always investigating what is happening in contemporary life and letting what I do become kind of a mirror that has my point of view, to reflect back and be intriguing to people.

During our interview, Lam was also gearing up for a runway show that he hosted at Holt Renfrew later that day.

It’s the holiday season. What would you say are the top three fashion must-haves?

Something from the fragrance collection, because we do have 10 fragrances. They are so playful, each one can really express well as a gift to any recipient. I think that’s fun, as it starts a dialogue.

A great pair of jeans. I think that is more of a self-gift. We have some really exciting denim pieces from the new collection.

And in terms of fashion: anything with colour. I don’t believe there is really any bad colour or colour that should be avoided; it just depends on whether it should be a shoe, a bag or something more playful. Colour is such an uplift, especially after the holidays: we are going into a long slog of winter!

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