September 24th, 2009
He’s been the hottest thing in menswear for years. He even made Umbro cool. But has Kim Jones finally bitten off more than he can chew? Iain R. Webb finds out.
“When I was approached I was thinking ‘Oh God, it’s a bit fuddy-duddy’,” confesses Kim Jones of his new bosses, Dunhill. “I remember my mum going to buy lighters from the Dunhill store when I was a kid… But the more I looked into it, the more it made sense, and the more I wanted it. To work at a fashion house that no-one has really had a go at turning around; and to have it become, in a sense, your label is a really massive honour.”
The coupling of Jones (impeccable East End street-cred, b. 1978) and Alfred Dunhill (impeccable West End credentials, est. 1893) certainly raised eyebrows across the fashion world. On paper it made little sense: Jones’ street-smart sportswear was surely an ill fit for Dunhill’s aristocratic English gent image? In fact, despite confused reactions from a couple of journalists at the Jones/Dunhill Paris debut in January, it looks set to prove a marriage made in sartorial heaven.
“You have to be modernist in approach,” explains the designer, who beat 39 other candidates to land the job of creative director. “That’s what Alfred Dunhill was.” Dunhill, he explains, took over his father’s horse harness business and started selling motorist accessories, like leather goggles for the Edwardian boy-racer. Dressed in an approximation of casual Friday drag – a whisper of designer stubble, chambray shirt, jokey T-shirt, chino-style trousers and trainers – Jones is on jocular form but gives short shrift to the cynics who think he can’t do tailoring: “They obviously hadn’t looked at my work properly. I never really have time for people who don’t take the effort to look.”
To all appearances, he’s settled in nicely. His new office at the Dunhill HQ in Marylebone is decorated with a zebra couch, a leather chair that once belonged to Winston Churchill and a wall of photocopied images from anthropologist Peter Beard and Vivienne Westwood’s Savage show. “It’s weird having a boss but I like to work to a brief,” he admits. “I sit with my CEO and we talk about what’s best for the Dunhill brand, because this brand isn’t my brand and I know that.”
Born in London, Jones had an itinerant childhood, thanks to his dad’s job as a hydrogeologist. It was big sister Nadia, now the Creative Director of Oasis, who got him started in fashion, passing him clothes and magazines. The walls of his many bedrooms from Africa to the Caribbean were papered with images cut from The Face in its 80s heyday, when super-stylist Ray Petri’s Buffalo was all that mattered in British fashion’s wet dream. “Nadia was a fashion student while I was in my teens,” he continues, “and she and her friends would head out at night dressed up, off to places like The Mud Club and The Wag. I thought they were the coolest people ever.”
Jones first became a name to drop eight years ago, shortly after graduating from the menswear MA at Central St Martins. His brightly coloured T-shirts – with retro typefaces or pictures of dwarves, dice and the like – were worn by everyone from John Galliano to Jurgen Teller. The Japanese in particular were mad for them. Just two years later, thanks to his workaholic levels of focus and a singular flair for putting “cheap-looking boys in expensive clothes”, he found himself with his own label.
Kim Jones the brand quickly won a cult following – his designs as trendy on the terraces as they were hip in Hoxton nightclubs. The clothes’ canny confidence, colours and wearability encouraged high street giants like Topman to jump on the bandwagon. Jones had huge success injecting some catwalk cool into the chavvy Umbro brand beloved of British footie fans. Over the last five years, he estimates that he has designed forty collections for the likes of Louis Vuitton, Uniqlo, Mulberry, Iceberg, Dover Street Market and Hugo Boss. “It is not just about money,” he insists cheerfully, “it allows you to be more creative – because you get to explore areas that you cannot reach on your own.”
Jones has put his own label on hold – for now. “This is a big, big task,” he says simply. “There are billions of meetings.” Getting the product right is his first priority. Image and advertising will follow. Jude Law is currently the face of Dunhill. “I think he’s ok for now.” He pauses. “I don’t know how long.”
Next month Jones will fly to Hong Kong and Shanghai to check out the brand’s megastores. “Dunhill is massive in Asia,” he boasts, proudly flashing the sea of visa and immigration stamps in his passport. “I did a grand total of 97 flights last year. Look! It’s completely chock-a-block, I don’t want to get rid of it!” The fact that Dunhill has overseas clout was a clincher for Jones when it came to accepting the position: “I didn’t just want to be a London designer – which is what Gareth Pugh or me or Giles Deacon just turns out to be in the end. So it was the way of getting me international.”
And what of the men in suits who employed him? How are they feeling about their decision now? “They’re ok actually,” says Jones, swivelling in his Wall Street-style chair. “They don’t really get it, but they know it was good and they could see the reaction. There was one very harsh review from Paris, but I think 90% were really good.” Jones used some of his own brand’s models on the runway. “They’re now in their mid-twenties,” he says, “so they are more appropriate, but they still look great.” Paris, he explains, was also about showing off the different Dunhill product categories: “We do brilliant pens, so we stuck them in the hats for a bit of an English eccentric mix. I was thinking of Ray Petri.” So, is Dunhill Man ready for bracelet-length sleeves? He laughs. “Well, they wouldn’t be like that in the store. A fashion show is never going to be 100% real life because it’s not as boring.”
Photography: Robert Wyatt
Portrait: Chris Brooks
Fashion: Way Perry
Words: Iain R Webb
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #18, Apr/May 2009