VOL. MMXIII..No. 209

In Conversation | Thought Leaders and Iconoclasts

The Quiet Brand: Derek Lam’s Minimalist Approach Makes Him Stand Out in a Crowd

 

 

The past several months have been a revolving door of creative directors moving from one label to another, with major fashion houses trading designers like stock options. The designer who stands alone without the control of a luxury conglomerate, does so at their own risk.

 

That isn’t the case with Derek Lam, who has managed to avoid the high stakes drama of late and after nearly fifteen years, continues to work quite happily on his eponymous line and a bridge collection called, Derek Lam 10 Crosby.

 

While he does have investors, they are minority shareholders.

 

His perfectly edited collections deliver a restrained modernism that consistently resonates with his loyal customer base.

 

As a designer, Derek is a rare bird. He is warm and instantly approachable, with not an ounce of the pretense that is so common with other designers. He also doesn’t court celebrities or go overboard on social media, which in this day and age, is practically sacrilegious.

 

0186-Barneys-160406

Bertrand Pellegrin with Derek Lam at a recent Barneys New York shopping event.

 

He has been with his domestic partner, Jan Hendrik-Schlottmann, for nearly twenty years and together, they launched the company that bears Derek’s name.

 

Other than the occasional party – like tonight’s at Barneys New York — they live quietly at their home in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park. He took time away from the event to explain the strategy behind the brand.

 

BERTRAND PELLEGRIN: When you first launched your own label, to what extent was the idea of “branding” a part of your vision? Did you really think to yourself, “what is my brand”?

 

DEREK LAM: Yeah absolutely, when I started with my partner, we thought about building a brand rather than, “I want to be a fashion designer.” It was more about how do we create a company that talks about values that are interpreted through product. So it was very important to think about the brand and what we stood for and what we believed in. At that time it was a moment when fashion for American designers was very much a “personality” kind of game, big personalities and I felt that product was secondary to all that. I wanted to move towards what I loved which is creating beautiful product and dialing back this celebrity persona kind of thing.

 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY MACIEK KOBIELSKI FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE

Derek Lam with is partner Jan Hendrik-Schlottmann, in a photograph taken for the Wall Street Journal.

 

Which is hard to do, even at the time when you started, people want to put you in this box of “the Derek Lam brand.”

 

I don’t think people think of Derek Lam the brand as being about a particular personality – me – or about me being a celebrity, it’s really about my work and that’s really kind of what we wanted to concentrate on.


{ “I wanted to move towards what I loved which is creating beautiful product and dialing back this celebrity persona kind of thing.” }


You started in 2003, as the brand developed did you find yourself needing to create certain reference points in order for the customer to understand what the brand was about?

 

Absolutely. I create clothes that are very much about a lifestyle and understanding and addressing how a woman lives her life. It’s rooted in American Sportswear that to me is still the most modern philosophy of clothing. What does that mean? It means creating pieces for her wardrobe that she doesn’t have to think about, like “Oh, I’m going to save that for a special occasion” or “I need to save that for this moment in my life” it’s really about reaching into her wardrobe and finding pieces and saying “I can wear this through my life, through my day.”

 

Atmosphere

Three looks from Derek Lam’s spring 2016 collection.

 

It’s a concept that has transferred now to European designers, hasn’t it? They call it ready-to-wear but that’s essentially what it is. When you look at Yves Saint Laurent, that’s really what he was making a nod to, it was the idea of American Sportswear.

 

Absolutely. It’s about versatility.

 

dl_store_madison_interior_3 (1)

Atmosphere

At top, the Derek Lam store at 764 Madison Avenue in New York. Below, a display of two spring looks at Barneys in San Francisco.

 

 

Still, you wear two hats: you’re not only Derek Lam the designer, you’re also the businessman, along with your partner. That’s not something that all designers have done very successfully. Do you find that hard?

 

It can be challenging. because as you said, you have to wear two hats and know when to take one off and put the other one on, sometimes when you want to wear the creative hat, you really have to be paying more attention to the business side of it. For me it goes back to the philosophy that I want to dress not just one specific woman but many women, and in order for me to know that I’m reaching her, it’s to know that people are buying the clothes. It isn’t something that where I want to be in the store, it’s really something I believe in.


{ “I’m 50, so I’m a different generation than a lot of those Millenials where social media is their third arm. I’m still navigating what’s right for me and what’s right for our brand.” }


Derek Lam

Derek Lam at the Barneys New York store in San Francisco, April 6, 2016.

 

What was the impetus to create Derek Lam 10 Crosby?

 

At that time there was a huge discussion about, fashion not being democratic enough, because of the price point and this old-fashioned style of distribution – this is before online business.

 

So there was this idea of injecting this youthful spirit with a lower price point into the collections and I tried that but I didn’t feel like I was reaching that woman, the woman who is looking for that might not go to a designer floor, or they might be intimidated by a designer floor, so it was really important that I create a contemporary collection that can stand on its own and is more approachable both in style and price.

 

How do your two brands intersect, how do the two collections speak to each other?

 

I think the Derek Lam collection is more of those rarefied pieces that you might want to collect, but with 10 Crosby, it’s a little bit more casual, it’s what you grab day in and day out to wear.

 

Back when you started, in 2003, it was still the very early days of the Internet and social media, Today, all that has changed and social media plays a huge role. How do you address that?

 

I love the reach of the Internet and I can’t imagine not being involved in it, I think a lot of times designers aren’t the greatest communicators because we believe our work should communicate for us but that’s not enough for us anymore. We not only need to be out and about at events like tonight’s Barneys event, but we also need to create a story that can come alive online and attract people to the brand.

 

Nevertheless, there are designers out there who make themselves so much a part of the story and use social media and celebrities to such an extreme that it almost borders on the obscene. At a certain point, you must have made a decision and said: that’s not who I am.

 

Well I don’t really tap into celebrity because it’s not really relevant to what I do nor how I want to present my work. It’s a slippery slope. I’m 50, so I’m a different generation than a lot of those Millenials where social media is their third arm. I’m still navigating what’s right for me and what’s right for our brand. And I guess so far, I haven’t been wrong, so I feel very happy with where we are.

 

>> Click here to see Derek’s collection available at Barneys New York.

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