Givhan: I’m Robin Givhan. I’m the fashion critic for The Washington Post, and welcome to this installment of A New Line. I am thrilled to be here with designer Derek Lam. Derek started his women’s wear line in New York in 2003; he is a native of San Francisco. His designs have been exhibited at the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, at the Kennedy Center, as well as at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He has been honored by the CFDA for his women’s wear. He has also been part of the Vogue CFDA Fashion Fund for New Designers, and he has dressed his share of celebrities, which we will ask him about.
Before we get started, though, I want to tell the audience here and also everyone watching online that you can tweet questions for Derek using the hashtag #newline, and I will pose some of those questions later in our discussion.
So, I thought I would start with really what has been sort of the sad fashion news recently, which was the death of designer Kate Spade. And one of the things that really struck me about the reaction to her death was that people had such a sense of familiarity with her; they felt that they knew her. And they felt that the brand really represented her; that the sunniness of the brand certainly must have implied the sunniness of her life.
Givhan: And some of that—a lot of that—comes from social media. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about sort of the role that social media and branding plays for you as a designer, and how much of yourself you put out there, how much of what we see on, say, Instagram is really you, and how much of it is just a very well curated version of you, to sort of the challenges of authenticity versus also trying to remain a sane human.
Lam: Well, we’re never going to be sane, [LAUGHTER] or remain sane, especially in this business, but I think initially, when I was doing social media—and I still my own Instagram site, it’s called @thedereklam, versus @dereklam, which is done by the company, I was kind of like trying to create a very curated experience, and then I realized that, you know what? That’s not what social media’s about. It can be if some people choose to, obviously, they make a very kind of glamorous, interesting brand-building story. But I felt it was more important for me to be a little bit more authentic about what I like, what I don’t like, how I want to present my work, or express what interests me, whether it’s something historical or something that was happening in real time, if I was in a museum or something.
Givhan: Do you interact with customers, fans, on social media, or do you try to stay a little arm’s distance?
Lam: I try to stay a little arm’s distance. I got a lot of—
Givhan: That’s probably wise.
Lam: Yeah. You know, especially learned that certain subjects you just kind of have to avoid.
Givhan: Such as?
Lam: I think politics, [LAUGHTER] especially these days. Very divisive. You know, when the administration was voted in and I was so disappointed—I’ll be happy to say that even though it’s politics—that it was not Hillary Clinton, so in the heat of the moment I wrote some things that I’ve come to regret, and I got a lot of negativity as a reaction. Strangely, it left a lot—it was—I didn’t even know what was going on at the moment, but I had so many Russian feedback, like, from Russian women—
Givhan: Oh my god.
Lam: Yeah. And I was, like, this is crazy.
Givhan: You knew before anyone else knew.
Lam: But, you know, and now when you hear the stories, you’re like, oh my god; here I was corresponding with a robot. [LAUGHTER] A bot! And I was like, who is this really attractive Russian woman with two kids and she knows American history and politics—and it’s truly—I was like amazed. And of course, now we know that it was—most of it if not all was fake, yeah.
Givhan: One of the things that came out of the recent election was this very kind of politicization of fashion, much more so than it had been in the past, with designers deciding, or saying that they did not want to dress the current First Lady, or they would have issues with it, and the Women’s March, and all of those things. How did you finesse your own personal desire as Derek Lam to be involved and to speak your mind, with Derek Lam the brand that has to serve many a client, regardless of where they fall in the political spectrum?
Lam: Well I would say, I own my own company; I own my name; so I’m not working for a brand. And I’m not a huge conglomerate, so I feel that—again—I need to be more authentic and say what I want to say, but be very respectful of people. So, I have less kind of worries, or I don’t have anyone looking for my shoulder saying you can or cannot say this, or you can or cannot post this, which is an incredible freedom. But with that, you have to be really careful.
Someone had asked me if I would dress Melania Trump—this was right after he was elected—
Givhan: It wasn’t me.
Lam: No, it wasn’t [LAUGHTER]—and now I’ve come to look back on it and it was kind of a trick question, because it was that heat of the moment, right after the elections, and me and some other designers said no, we would not choose to do so, in the same way that we did for Michelle Obama. And, the writer’s argument was that, well, you can’t prevent someone from wearing your clothes, and she was absolutely right. But I think that people don’t understand this, that sometimes—most of the times when people reach out to you at that level, they’re asking for your direct input, doing customization, making something special, and my point of view was like, I’m not holding anybody back from wearing my clothes, thank you, but I didn’t feel the need to kind of go further than that.
And I got this double-spaced, typed letter from someone in the Midwest, someone—
Givhan: Was it in all caps?
Lam: It was all caps. [LAUGHTER] And she was basically, the last line was like, well, you’ve lost half of the buying audience, you know, the clients in America. And that was when I was kind of, oh, god, yeah that—maybe not half, but 30-something percent, 40-something percent? And then I was like, uh, those things kind of like are a little bit freaky, and then you have to walk away.
Givhan: Has your opinion changed over the course of the last year?
Lam: Of Melania Trump, or just the—
Lam: Yeah, I think there’s incredible sympathy. [LAUGHTER] Sympathy. I’m here if you need me. [LAUGHTER] I mean, I think that she’s doing an amazing job. I do miss the fact of not having a First Lady that really represents the best in American fashion. That’s something that’s always been a tradition, and you know, as designers and as fashion companies, we benefited from.
Givhan: And you say that meaning that Mrs. Trump tends to wear a lot of European rags?
Lam: Yeah. I mean, I think that it’s really interesting, because before it would be such a taboo idea, concept, that the First Lady was wearing anything but American, just like the Queen of England is wearing anything but English, you know?
Givhan: I mean, Jackie Kennedy was famously sort of taken to task for her affection for French design.
Lam: Yeah. And she just had it copied. [LAUGHS] Copied in New York. So, a lot of the things we take for granted have one out the window. So.
Givhan: You said that you own your company, which is an extraordinary feat in the fashion industry these days. And one of the things that I always remember in a conversation that we had a long time ago, when you talked about your very first collection, which was not presented on the runway, was presented in the showroom.
Lam: Right. The one that bombed.
Givhan: And the fact that nothing sold.
Lam: No. Nothing.
Givhan: Can you just sort of share that story, because I think it really illustrates, one, how difficult this industry is, and how challenging it is for anyone to find a customer.
Lam: We knew—Jan and I—who is my CEO and founder and also husband, so it’s a whole family—really strange dynamics. No. No, we knew that we had enough money for two seasons, so the first season—
Givhan: And this was all self-financed?
Lam: Self-financed, yeah. With family help as well—Jan sold his apartment in Paris—I mean, it was all kind of self-financed. And we knew we had enough money for two seasons, and so the first one was put out there, and I think in hindsight that it was kind of everything I’d thought I always wanted to be, or thought the brand should be, because at that pint we had done a whole year of creating a business plan, theoretical focus group, really trying to like figure out, okay, what is the next thing that people want from a brand.
Givhan: And how did you see your brand at that point? How did you define it?
Lam: You know, it was right after 911, so there was a lot of darkness in New York and in the fashion community—of course, every community, but in the fashion community, because we were centered in New York. So, it was a very dark collection, I’ve come to realize. It was very pragmatic; it was very, maybe a little bit just cerebral, too thoughtful, introspective, I think would be a good word. And not succeeding from that first collection, which I thought was the everything that I could give to it—Jan and I looked at each other and said, “Okay, well, we have one more season to go. Start writing your resumes.” [LAUGHTER] And we did say that if we weren’t going to succeed, after the second season, that at least we had something interesting on our resume. We did it; we tried.
Givhan: And I should say, this was not like Derek deciding straight out of design school, out of Parsons, I’m going to start a collection. I mean, you had spent a significant amount of time working for Michael Kors, you’d worked in Hong Kong, so you had a lot of experience.
Lam: Right. Yeah, I had about 12 years outside of school experience, since leaving school experience. It was one of those things, it was one of those moments personally that I felt like—okay, if I didn’t do something that was going to really make me scared, that I would probably be fine working for another designer, working for a house, and being anonymous, and I was like, but that’s not scary enough for me. And you know, I was in my—we were in our early thirties—34, 35—so, we were scared, but we were still confident, because we did have a career behind us, and a nice career, and grew up a little bit, you know, before we decided to jump head-in.
Givhan: And, what did you learn between that first sort of disastrous collection and then the next one, which got wonderful reviews?
Lam: I think—because one of the amazing things was that when you’re starting something you have all the tie in the world to theorize and to business-plan it out, and to create mood boards—but then, once the second season comes, you only have like four months to do it, so it becomes after that much about instinct. And I say that to all designers who actually come through the door of Derek Lam. I say, “You know, you will have plenty of time the first season, but really, the second season is when you’re going to be challenged to think less and kind of just go into it, get into it.”
And that’s basically the case, where I was like, “I’m just going to do what I really am attracted to at the moment, which was color, which was print, which was this idea of femininity, but sensual, but also modern at the same time. And I think that kind of was the success of the first season.
Givhan: People talk a lot about, like fashion, like so many other industries, is being disrupted and is being disrupted at the speed of light, and there is that sense of just constantly being on this treadmill of having to create, create, create the next collection, and the downsides of that. But it almost sounds like there is at least perhaps one good aspect, which is that it requires you to operate much more so on instinct than in an over-thinking thing.
Lam: Yeah. Muscle memory. So, it’s like athletes, and you just keep practicing, practicing, and it becomes second nature.
Givhan: When you started to build the brand, you looked globally—
Givhan: As opposed to here, domestically. So that there was sort of New York, and then you sort of skipped Chicago and went straight to Paris. Why were you thinking along those lines about going globally, sort of right away, and what is the difference between being an American designer serving an American market, and being an American designer serving a global market? Or is there a difference now?
Lam: I think in the past—
Givhan: That was a test question.
Lam: Yeah. Let’s take it from the back, and—it used to be something that the American designers were basically catering to an American woman, American audience, because there was a particular lifestyle that American women had that Europeans didn’t share, or people in the Middle East, or Africa or Asia didn’t share. But now, the world is so global, and when people say, “Do you see a difference between what a woman wants in Tokyo or Shanghai versus New York?” I’m like, “No, I go to Seoul and everybody looks like a New Yorker, like a really chic version of a New Yorker.” And, yeah, I think, because it is a global culture we’re talking about. It’s not so programmed for kind of smaller—what am I trying to say?—like, by individual cultures. Now the culture is just kind of everywhere.
Givhan: And do you think that’s true across the board, or it’s true for the customer who can afford Derek Lam collection and is interested in that sort of top of the pyramid of fashion?
Lam: Obviously, the part would be the sales is driven by a particular segment of the population, not so much by country or region, but maybe by the kind of financial freedom they would have to indulge in fashion. But, for example, on my Instagram, I’m always amazed at how many people follow me, and I don’t sell in India. A lot of people in Angola follow me, and still—
Givhan: You’re huge in Angola.
Lam: Huge in Angola. Russia. So, I’m always kind of like—I think—
Givhan: All those bots in Russia.
Lam: Yeah. Now they’re working for me. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, so.
Givhan: What does that do to sizing? I learned this week that the most popular bra size in the U.S. is 38C.
Givhan: I know, isn’t that fascinating? I mean, and that sounds like everyone talks about the American physique as being larger, and getting larger.
Givhan: How is that translated into your work, and how does that translate when you’re designing for both the American market and, say, Japan, where people have a much smaller physique?
Lam: Size is—
Givhan: Do you do plus sizes?
Lam: We do. We’ve now done—doing three larger sizes than we have. That was in the last year. Because that was really like the stores saying, “Listen, there’s a whole segment of the population who really wants your clothing, specifically, but can’t fit into it.” And we were like—in the past, I know that there used to be petites departments in department stores, and then there would be a floor for the larger sizes, and invariably, they always didn’t succeed because the customer didn’t want to be kind of told this is all you could have. So, I think it’s more important now for—
Givhan: They didn’t want to have to walk through the carpeting section to get to that?
Lam: Yeah, yeah. Like, the—you know—they wanted to be on the designer floor, or the contemporary floor, and see everything that they could possibly wear. And so, that’s really kind of important for us, is to—for me, is to broaden the sizing. And then, when it comes to Asian sizes, I mean, there’s like we have double-zero, which is like such a crazy concept. I mean, double-zero is like ridiculous. Like, what is there—it’s like—[LAUGHS].
But, yeah, there is a—but everybody is getting taller, bigger, more athletic, even from the very first year, the very first season, the buyers from California are like, “You don’t understand. My ladies, they’re augmented.” [LAUGHTER] And I’m like, what are you talking about?
Givhan: You have an augmented reality?
Lam: They have very small waists; very small hips; and lively bosoms. So they were like, make sure you cut for that body type. And it’s a reality.
Givhan: Why has plus-sizing seemed to have been, continues to be such a struggle for the fashion industry, especially when you just sort of look at the demographics, the statistics about like the average sizes and all of that? Why is it so hard?
Lam: I think there’s obviously still stigma about being let’s say unconventional-sized, or a larger size than what fashion imagery puts out there. And again, I think it’s kind of like, I don’t, as a person, I don’t want to be told what I can or cannot wear because of my physicality. I just sometimes want to know what’s fashion. So, we have to have it in our collections, but it doesn’t have to be kind of like, okay, well, this segment of the collection is for you, and anybody else should not pay attention.
What’s nice is that people are really into much more relaxes clothing, softer clothing, so it is I think a reflection of how people are more confident in their body type. And that’s the kind of clothes I do—soft, not very uptight.
Givhan: Speaking of soft clothing—and I’m looking at your sneakers—one of the interesting things that occurred last week at the CFDA Awards was the announcement of the Menswear Designer of the Year, which went to the founder of Supreme.
Givhan: Who said that he neither considers his brand to be fashion nor himself a designer. How much is the fashion industry driven by sort of the world of athleisure, the world of street, the world of skater style? To perhaps its detriment, where it’s so excited about that aspect of the culture that it’s sort of losing touch with its sort of founding principles of designing clothing, being creative, giving consumers more than they ever imagined, as opposed to giving them precisely what they asked for.
Lam: What right now is called normal core or normcore.
Givhan: Yeah, exactly. I mean, as someone once quoted—I think it was Henry Ford who said, “If I’d ask customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse and buggy.” [LAUGHTER]
Lam: Athleisure, athletic clothing is just a reality of our lives. If you think about the founding of American design, it was based on athletic clothing. It was based on leisure athletic clothing. So if you think of Ralph Lauren, the riding. This unencumbered woman, the Kate Hepburn, you know, very active and very sporty. That really is kind of like the beginnings of American fashion. But that’s what made us stand out.
Then if you fast-forward to now, I mean it is still about leisure. You know, Americans really do leisure well. [LAUGHTER] And lifestyle very well.
Givhan: Indeed, we were our pajamas to—
Lam: Yeah, we don’t wear jodhpurs anymore to be—you know. You know, you wear your SoulCycle outfit. But I do think that sometimes it’s very discouraging. I live and work in the vortex of exercise mania. [LAUGHTER] It’s like 23rd Street and—between 23rd and Union Square, every kind of—
Givhan: Yeah, pretty much. [LAUGHS]
Lam: —studio. Any kind of studio. You know, jazz, dancing on your belly, upside down. I don’t know. [LAUGHTER] Hanging from the ceiling. There’s a studio for it. So I always see women, and men, wearing athletic clothing. And I’m kind of like, “Oh gosh.” Like, I feel like I’m in a movie, you know, like about, again, robots or something. You know, like perfect specimens of people who are just exercising. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: You did a collaboration with Athleta.
Givhan: So, I mean, was that one of the things that sort of made you interested in doing something like that? And how did that go? What was that experience like?
Lam: I wanted to do it because it was such an interesting—this was like three years ago, and I did it for a year. And it was at the kind of top of this kind of interest in that kind of clothing. And I just used the corollary of American fashion is about the foundation of its leisure and sportswear, and this desire to kind of be unencumbered. And so I found that as an outlet, to reimagine it from my point of view.
It did well, I think. You know, I think it did really well. But now there’s a million and one brands who are catering to that market. And it’s so much about technology—technological fabrics, construction—that there seems to be this kind of churning of, okay, who’s the top one now and who’s the most technically advanced brand.
Givhan: Do you find that—do you think that athleisure, athleticism, yoga pants—I mean, is that the most profound influence on fashion right now? Or do you think there are other things that are really shaping how we dress and how fashion is changing, going forward?
Lam: Well, I just read something where they said the next big thing is—like you want to hit yourself over the head—is blue jeans [LAUGHTER]. Like, millennials are tired of wearing leisure clothing.
Givhan: Oh, those darn millennials.
Lam: They just want to wear—[LAUGHTER] they want to go back to jeans, but they want the authentic jeans; that’s why Levi’s, blah blah blah. So, it’s just, it’s the pendulum that goes back and forth. The pendulum swings back and forth, but I think it’s sometimes veers to a particular angle, so it doesn’t always repeat itself. But I think the—
Givhan: Which is why the vintage jeans will never be the same vintage jeans—
Givhan: —that are in the back of your closet.
Lam: No, it’s your imagination or someone’s imagination of what “vintage” is supposed to mean. But I think, you know, if you think about it right now, when I was growing up and the big seminal moment for me—well, not really growing up; I was a little bit older—was grunge. You know. And how that was just like so shocking in fashion. Like, why would I—why is that going down the runway when I can just buy it at a thrift shop? But it was a moment, it was a fashion moment, and it really did stay for a while. And I think it’s repeated itself. It’s not called grunge anymore, it’s now called normcore. It’s about dad jeans and dad sneakers—you know, anything that’s so opposite of what we think is fashion or what is style, is the thing.
Givhan: And often that confounds people.
Givhan: When they have this idea in their mind that fashion is supposed to make them look better, make them feel better, make them happy, delight them—all of those kinds of things. And then they see something on the runway which is sober or odd or is aggressively unattractive.
Lam: Right, right. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: And I say that with love and affection for all those designers who do things that are aggressively unattractive, because they often have very thoughtful, intellectual reasons why.
Lam: Yeah. It’s conceptual. I think at the end of the day, it could be really ugly, it could be really unstylish, it could be the opposite of fashion, but I think the ones that are doing it really well are looking at it from a conceptual point of view—like they’re really making a comment about what is considered pretty, what is considered appropriate. And if someone does that with a really deep sense—a deep well of intellect, then it makes it more than just ugly.
Givhan: And over the years, as designers have done that, people like Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, who have really challenged our idea of what is luxury, what’s beautiful. I mean, has it affected the way that you design? Because you are very much in sort of an aesthetic that is much more accessible, that people understand.
Givhan: That your dresses have two armholes. [LAUGHTER] And that’s, you know, good.
Givhan: But have those out-there, avant-garde designers impacted how you think about your own creativity?
Lam: Definitely. I constantly question what is luxury, because I always say that, you know, I’ve always done luxury—I use the word “luxury”; I’m doing something luxurious. It’s elevating design. But what is—
Givhan: And how do you define luxury, at this moment?
Lam: For me, luxury is—again, it goes back to a woman, because I design women’s clothing, feeling unencumbered and powerful in the way she presents herself. It isn’t about a price tag, or it isn’t about looking to impress or wearing the newest trend or brand. So that, to me, is what I do. But there’s always, it’s relative. You know, like last spring I did a collection that was almost entirely cotton, because I was like, you know what, I don’t want to use any luxurious fabric, so to speak. I just wanted to do something that was cotton, that you didn’t feel like it was too precious, that you had to take it off and hang it up or, you know, put it on a mannequin so you’re preserving something.
Lam: So that was my way of addressing the kind of little bit more laid-back spirit in fashion.
Givhan: You had a period where you were working a lot in Milan, at Tod’s, and what did that experience of being so inside an Italian brand and a legacy brand, and all that it represented and its history and its sort of manufacturing potential or prowess, what did that bring to Derek Lam, the brand? What do the Italians know that we don’t know [LAUGHTER] about fashion?
Lam: They don’t pay taxes, [LAUGHTER] so they have a very impressive lifestyle.
Givhan: Which seems to keep getting them in trouble. [LAUGHTER]
Lam: Italians are like, “What?” You know, like, “What are you talking about?” They have a very impressive lifestyle. They have a very highly educated eye. They have a tradition that goes from generation to generation to generation that talks about style and what is appropriate, what is seasonal, what is the thing to be or to do. So to work with a company full of these kind of people, it’s really amazing because it’s elevating the conversation. You know, it’s not just like, “Well, how many holes should that shoe have?” But it’s like, “What kind of laces would really make this shoe feel like the shoe we want it to be?” Or how do we make the interior of it? The things you don’t see but you feel. Because that’s very important to, I think, the work that we do, in general, but especially for Italians.
Givhan: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that always strikes me is that their approach to fashion is not as something that is superfluous or extraneous.
Lam: Yeah, I know.
Givhan: That it is something that is essential to a well-lived life.
Lam: Well, it’s a very tightly packed group of people in a small little peninsula, [LAUGHTER] so they’re all looking at each other and kind of comparing each other [LAUGHTER]. So I don’t want to say it’s all about high taste and like everybody is this like dandy or this like Marella Agnelli, you know, super chic. A lot of it is peer pressure. [LAUGHTER]
So every small town has like a designer store that carries, you know, the best stuff. And it’s really one of the last countries that has that network of small stores that are servicing a local community. I forgot the question. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: It’s okay. We’ll move on. I mean, you have had a multitude of touchstones, sort of along your career. I mean, there’s the time at Michael Kors, there’s the CFDA Award, there was the Vogue Fashion Fund, designing for First Daughter Barbara Bush, et cetera. Has there been—
Lam: See, I did work for Republicans. [LAUGHTER] Please spread that around because I’m not—
Givhan: I’ll tell the Russian bots.
Lam: I’m not partisan. [LAUGHTER] I’m not partisan.
Givhan: And as you look back on that, which of sort of the great moments thus far has sort of taught you the most about design and sort of running your own company?
Lam: That is a very, very difficult question because all of that happens so quickly, and in a blink of an eye, it happened. It gets presented to me, it happens, and then you move on to the next thing. We constantly are moving on to the next thing. So all these amazing touchstones, like you say, just become blips, and I feel that I need to have time to reflect and say, “Oh, this is what I need to think about and remember.”
There was this article about people feeling—and I use this a lot—people feeling like an imposter. And one of the ways that you can kind of get out of that—and it happens, they say supposedly, a lot with blacks and Asians and minorities in America; they have this sense of imposterism—is that a word? And it’s very hard for them to get pass that. And one of the ways, one of the exercises, is to really write down all those big ah-ha moments that you feel you should be proud of, and so that you can go back and look at it and say, “Oh, let’s not dwell on the negative. There’s also this whole list of wonderful things that I’ve accomplished.”
I’ve yet to do it [LAUGHTER]. Like a scrap box. [LAUGHS] I don’t think about it too much. Because I’m moving on to the next thing. Yeah.
Givhan: Well, that brings me to another big topic of conversation in fashion recently, which is the issue of diversity, whether it’s ethnic diversity, racial diversity, size diversity, and also recently a study looking at women in the upper ranks of fashion companies, fashion corporations, and the lack thereof. I mean, what kind of progress do you think the industry has made thus far in the realm of diversity? And are we at a point where it’s no longer just kind of a trend of a conversation but it’s something that is now sort of woven into the day-to-day thinking about how companies are built and who’s on covers of magazines, you know, which designers are given—afforded the opportunity to connect with the power players and all those things.
Lam: One of the things I kind of didn’t like was a lot of people said that fashion was slow coming to the game, about talking about diversity, talking about just that whole host of objectification of women, and having just a monolithic kind of view of what it means to be fashionable—whether it’s race or body type. And I think what’s incredible, though, is fashion is—once we got around it, we really are looking at it from a lot of different angles and presenting it in a lot of different ways, whether it’s the cover of a magazine or an editor-in-chief talking about it. And so I think it’s one of the wonderful things about fashion is that we become a bullhorn of the larger conversation, and hopefully we can stay in the conversation. I think it’s really important.
There’s so many aspects. Yes, I believe in diversity. I believe in equality. But, for example, someone said to me, “What do you think about paternity leave?” And I was like, “Paternity leave? What do you mean?” They’re like, “If a couple has a child and the woman decides to go back to work right away, the husband has the chance to take paternity leave.” It was like, I didn’t even think of it in that context, you know? It’s always assumed that the woman would take paternity leave, or the woman was responsible. No one offered her husband or didn’t offer to her, “No, you can come back and work.” But you still have someone who’s at home.
So I think that perspective is really kind of eye-opening for me, because there’s so many different angles to look at it, things that I was not even aware of, that was the realm of possibility.
Givhan: I mean, you have to wear kind of two hats. I mean, you’re thinking both on the creative side and sort of the aesthetics of diversity and how it’s portrayed. But also on the business side, as you run a company.
Givhan: Is one half of that more challenging than the other? Which is to say, you know, is it easy to pick a nonwhite model and put her in an advertising campaign, but then trying to figure out, okay, you know, what does my executive team look like? And that’s a harder lift?
Givhan: Or, you know, is it just as hard—
Givhan: —to make those aesthetic decisions because of the way that people respond to them?
Lam: I think it’s very nuanced. I think yes, you’re right. When we’re presenting something, we can be very current and try to speak in a relevant way, like you said. [PHONE RINGS] Providing—having more models of color.
Givhan: I didn’t hear that. [LAUGHTER]
Lam: Having more models of color or a spokesperson of color. But on the back end of it, the backside, behind the smoke and mirrors, there’s a reality about who we can hire. For example, there was this whole conversation about there were not enough black models represented. I’m talking about four or five years ago. There were not enough black models, and then I would be like, “But I only got to see three.” You know? And then four. I mean, I’m really kind of like—I would talk to James Scully, the casting director, I’m like, “But I only see four. You know, I don’t see that many.” And it really then became we had to say, “We need to see more.”
Givhan: So you had to be proactive when asking that?
Lam: We had to go back. Yeah, you can’t go and on the street and say, “Okay, you, you, you.” You have to go within the system and say to the agents, “We need to see more. I mean, there’s obviously, you know, more and more people need to be represented. Can you find us, you know, great models?” And then just the slew of models from Africa, from France, who are of color—English. They just, you know—but it was really an active search.
Givhan: Suddenly they appeared. [LAUGHTER]
Lam: Yeah. We were like, “What? You went scouting in Angola?” You know, there’s some model, like, “Mali?” Like, yeah, because people wanted it. You know, designers demanded it, asked for it.
Givhan: Was some of this just laziness? That, you know, there are many aspects of fashion, like in any other industry, where people tend to reach out to and deal with whoever is right in front of them, as opposed to making an effort to look beyond their immediate circle.
Lam: Yeah. Here’s a lot of fear because there’s a bottom line. I think a lot of times, that the most—quote-unquote—the “most important thing.” But I think that what’s important for fashion and what we can represent is speak beyond just a commercial aspect, but a cultural aspect. And to really kind of focus these kind of conversations, these kind of points.
Yeah. It was—a lot of the—I think what’s great about now, with this new generation and all this upheaval and change, is that things that we took for granted, as simple as a black model could only be on the August cover because the August cover didn’t matter to a magazine. It wasn’t a big money subscribe or a newsstand. But it was the token black model on always August. Like now, we don’t have to think about those rules. It was stupid. You know, like, why? Like, it was like a self-fulfilling prophecy or something. And we can throw out a lot of this kind of nonsense, things that held us back from making more daring choices.
Givhan: We talk a lot about the democratization of fashion and some of that increased diversity, I think, is part of that whole conversation about democratizing fashion. How important has social media, things like Twitter and Instagram, and the world of influencers, and how we want to define them? How important has that been in pushing fashion outside of its ivory tower?
Lam: I’ll you the negative side of it, that I feel. Nothing against social media, and nothing against the influencers, and anyone who just posts a picture of themselves. But what I sometimes—[LAUGHTER] What I found is that everybody’s now living their life on the phone or on the tablet, that they seem to think that they’ll dress up, they’ll put on makeup, they’re recreate this kind of persona, but it’s only for the phone, you know? And then when you see them on the street, they’re like, “I’m not on.” [LAUGHTER] “This is my off-duty look.”
I find that very strange. I find there’s a lot of personas where I’m like, “God, she looks like a supermodel on her Instagram photos and then she looks like a slob in real life.” [LAUGHTER] But it’s because they don’t care. Like, I’m not looking for a date when I’m on the street. I’m looking for a date when I’m online. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: So the reality is really lived online?
Lam: I’m kind of a little nervous about that because then the day-to-day interactions, the face-to-face interactions become less important to someone, I think. The idea that you want to put your best foot forward and not just post your best foot forward. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: In the past, you’ve voiced some trepidation about the whole business of celebrity dressing. Why is that? I mean, is the payoff not worth the incredible effort and cost and time?
Lam: No, it was more—I have nothing against celebrities. [LAUGHTER] I sound like such a negative person. Like, “I don’t like you. I don’t like you.” [LAUGHTER] I love celebrities. And the ones who have worn my clothes I especially love. [LAUGHTER] But I never use—I didn’t understand. I was, like, a celebrity invariably is an actor or actress. Their lives are so different from our lives. They’re on a movie set. You either see them on a red carpet or in their Uggs getting coffee. You know, and getting into their SUVs and going to the set. There’s no basis in what I was trying to talk about in fashion and who the woman I was trying to dress.
So I always, like—you know, I like them. I think that they’re—the ones that are really stylish are great. The ones that wear my clothes are even greater. [LAUGHTER] But I don’t use them as a benchmark for reality because it’s like saying, you know, the goddess Diana is my muse. It’s like, “What?” That’s crazy. Good luck. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: Just checking the Twitter feed here. Someone would like to know—or someone says they loved your athletic collection.
Lam: Thank you.
Givhan: And they’re wondering if you would like to do a collaboration with someone else, like perhaps Uniqlo or Target or Muji.
Lam: I think what is a really interesting proposal—and always kind of think like Athleta was very interesting because it was at that moment when people were talking about a particular kind of clothing and getting my participation. I did something with eBay where we did the first crowd-sourced collection. I made 10 dresses. Everybody could vote on the top five.
Givhan: And then you produced the ones that—
Lam: Yeah. And it was produced within the season. So anything that I’ve—and some people were like, “eBay? What does that have to do with anything that’s luxurious or what you do?” But I was like, no, it’s a really interesting proposal. So I think purely putting my name on something is not interesting to me enough. But if I’m doing it in a way that’s really kind of intriguing, that is speaking of the moment, I guess from a marketing point of view as well as product, yeah, I’m always open for that.
Givhan: On the other end of that there’s just like this constant turnover of designers at legacy brands, particularly in Europe. I haven’t checked my Twitter feed so I’m assuming that everybody is still where they were as of this morning. [LAUGHTER]
Lam: Well. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: I mean, do you harbor any fantasies about some 50-year-old brand that you would love to take on?
Lam: Sure. [LAUGHTER] There’s so many that I admire so much and I feel that I could participate in.
Givhan: Name a couple. [LAUGHTER]
Lam: No, the people are still in them, so I don’t want to say, “I want your job,” basically.
Givhan: Well, no, this is like the equivalent of your fantasy football team. And I don’t even know if that’s a good analogy because I know nothing about football. [LAUGHTER]
Lam: But it’s different. You’re like, “I want to be the quarterback so you have to be fired.” [LAUGHTER] No, I can’t go there. No. But working for a European house would be really wonderful again because I just, like, fantasize about working with that kind of—that level of design. But then I have the reality. You know, I’m like, “I’m not the newest kid on the block.” I’m owning up to that. They’re going to hire someone who’s 25 and under, who they’re going to—you know, who has like a trillion Instagram followers or whatever. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: Is there an ageism issue in the design world?
Lam: Right now it does. Seems like it.
Lam: Yeah. I mean, you know, I’m not a young-gun designer. My business is 15 years. So I’m also—I’m established but not a legacy brand, for sure. But you do get a—I do get a little nervous. I’m like, “Oh, God, 16 is the new 25.” [LAUGHTER] I find a lot of parallels with actors and actresses, you know, looking behind their shoulders and saying, “Who’s the next thing that’s going to take my jobs? Who’s going to take my roles?”
I don’t know if ageism is something that is going to be the next conversation because people are really taking the milk bottle away and then elevating them.
Givhan: Well, I mean, some people have kind of referred to what’s going on in fashion as kind of the devaluing of expertise, which is something that people have argued is happening sort of across the political spectrum. That those who have expertise and experience are looked upon as sort of part of a problem as opposed to, perhaps, having the expertise and experience to offer a solution.
Givhan: I mean, do you—
Lam: I think young people are really good at disrupting.
Givhan: But once it’s broken?
Lam: Yeah. But once it’s broken, it’s kind of like, well, what’s lasting? And what’s lasting is, hopefully, experience, skill, a honed skill. Been around the block a few times so you kind of see things coming and going. It’s making the right choice, right choices. I think that there’s going to always be the swing back to an elevated perspective in anything and everything we do. Architecture seems to do really well. It’s an elevated experience, like high end, really top-quality architecture. I think it would happen with fashion as well.
But fashion is—I hate to say this, but I always say this—fashion is not as sexy as food anymore. At the moment, fashion is secondary to food. So people will save their money and go to a top-rated restaurant with an amazing chef, and have an experience, and Instagram it so all the friends and everybody knows that they went to “the” place.
Givhan: You got the hard reservation.
Lam: Yeah. But you know, that’s where the money is going, is experience.
Givhan: Well, that’s why we need more plus sizes.
Lam: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE] Eat here, shop here.
Givhan: Another question from Twitter is about your affinity for interior design. I think I also read that you thought that you might go into urban planning.
Givhan: Has that impacted the way that you think about design? I know there’s an inordinate number of designers who also have an architecture background.
Lam: I wasn’t so much wanting to be an architect, although I admire the profession and I admire the work a lot. I’m like, the first thing I do if there’s an article about fashion or architecture, architecture first. But I was really, really keen on being a city planner. I love the idea of kind of figure out—and I think I do this with fashion, too—like where does she want to go? How does she want to get there? What’s an efficient way to do it? But was it also an experience that’s uplifting way to get there?
I couldn’t do the math or the geometry. [LAUGHTER] I could pin pretty well, so I went into fashion. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: The last thing that I wanted to just sort of touch on is sort of the way in which fashion has been grappling with its own demons. And by that I mean accusations of sexual harassment by photographers, the mistreatment of models. Do you feel that fashion, like the world of Hollywood, the world of media, is kind of coming to grips with the ways in which it has sort of navigated culturally and the ways in which those have been problems? Is this a “come to Jesus” moment for fashion?
Lam: Absolutely. Because it was getting corrupted. You know, when a lot of creative people and groups of creative people when they come together, it’s almost like you put blinders on because you’re just focused on accomplishing something creative. So all the things—and that’s the thing that I also love and hate, like when I’m doing a collection, and it’s a week before the show. There’s just this mind-meld of creative people and I don’t have to deal with my laundry. [LAUGHS] You know what I mean? I don’t have to deal with whether or not the milk in my refrigerator is going sour. I just need to accomplish this.
It becomes a kind of drug and that’s when a lot of the things that are wrong or morally wrong get thrown to the wayside. Because you’re like, “I need to accomplish this. We all need to accomplish this.” So I can see that it was really going to—you know, like going to a place that was going to be very, very dark if we didn’t course correct because we can’t let creative impulse just kind of become the only deciding factor. That we need to be conscious that it is also our experience, going through the process, that we need to make sure that it’s a positive experience.
Givhan: Does it become more challenging because fashion is such a small community, that it’s not a one-off. It’s not like you’re not going to see this photographer again. You’re not going to see this casting director again. And so there are these long-standing relationships. Not to say that they’re necessarily familiar relationships, but does it make it harder when it’s that close community, to call out something that’s possibly inappropriate?
Lam: I think every experience is so isolated that it isn’t like a collective viewing. There’s not like a committee that’s watching the process and then making—kind of saying, “Okay, this is wrong. This is wrong. This is wrong.” So everybody maybe kind of experiences a little bit of it, but they don’t see the full depth of the story. But when you do hear the depth of the stories and you do hear the depth of the abuse, you’re like, “I didn’t see that. I saw a part of it, but this is horrible. This is repulsive.”
So I guess the question is, do creative people come back? You know, do they get a second chance? I think that’s the next chapter, to see if anyone who has been accused of these kind of terrible things does get their moment in court, their moment to kind of address the issue themselves. Yeah.
Givhan: Do you think fashion is forgiving in that way, that it would welcome people back?
Lam: Talented people are usually forgiven, unfortunately. That’s an unfortunate fact of, I think, life. A director, a producer, a designer, an actor, or actresses, you know, these are very talented people and there’s always these exceptions to talented people. But that doesn’t mean that it’s right.
Givhan: Not to end on that note, [LAUGHTER] I will ask you, what brings you the greatest joy in fashion?
Lam: There’s two. One is I love working with other creative people. I absolutely love it. You know, I wanted to study—I studied art and I studied writing, and I realized it was such a solitary pursuit that I was going to drive myself insane if I did this. Then I realized that I wanted to work with other people. And so that’s my greatest joy is working with other creative people because it’s just this amazing energy and high. You’re speaking a new language but everybody’s speaking the same language. It’s really, like, a lot of fun.
But specifically, I love conceiving a collection. Like, the initial thing. Like, I’m done with—usually I’m done with a collection, you know, I showed in February, and I’m just living off the high for another three weeks afterwards. Jan like wants to disappear because I’m just like a little bit frenzied. “I already have the idea for two more collections.” But I love that moment when I’m just looking through images, or movies, or a particular of music, and it’s just kind of percolating.
Givhan: Those possibilities?
Lam: Yeah, it’s possibilities. And then, of course, it’s the drudgery. I’m like, “Oh, God, why did think of that?” [LAUGHTER] Could I have picked an easier lane? But it’s important, I think, for creative people not to veer, because then you can get into, like, all sort of detours and side roads that really can drive you really crazy. Just, like, stick with it, even when you feel like, “I’m going down the wrong road,” I’m still going down this road. [LAUGHTER] Because the next road over or the left turn might be a disaster. A bigger disaster.
Givhan: Well, thank you so much.
Givhan: That ends it for us. That’s all the time that we have, but thank you all for coming. [APPLAUSE]
Lam: Thank you.
Givhan: Thank you, Derek, for being such a wonderful, wonderful guest.
Lam: Thank you. Thank you everybody.