Thomas Tait Talks Growing His Business and the LVMH Fashion Prize

"I don't sleep and I can't afford dinner," says London-based Thomas Tait, here in Singapore for Asia Fashion Exchange. Three hundred thousand Euros from LVMH could probably help with that.
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"I don't sleep and I can't afford dinner," says London-based Thomas Tait, here in Singapore for Asia Fashion Exchange. Three hundred thousand Euros from LVMH could probably help with that.
Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty

Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty

So many young, talented designers are coming out of London these days, and Thomas Tait ranks high among them. The Canada native studied only briefly at Montreal design school La Salle before becoming the youngest person ever to complete Central Saint Martins’ women’s wear MA at the age of 24 — he boldly applied and got accepted without getting a BA first. Tait, now based in London, won the inaugural Dorchester Fashion Prize in 2010 and is currently one of 12 finalists being considered for the inaugural LVMH Prize, which will award one emerging designer with a €300,000 ($411,120) grant and a year of mentoring, not to mention what could be come a pretty invaluable relationship with LVMH, which has taken an interest in young Brits lately.

While jury members like Phoebe Philo, Nicolas Ghesquiere, Marc Jacobs and Karl Lagerfeld deliberate on whether or not Tait deserves the prize more than brands like Simone Rocha and Suno (the winner is announced May 28), Tait has had the spotlight on him in Singapore. Part of Singapore's Asia Fashion Exchange, going on now, includes the Asia Fashion Summit, a business-focused conference that takes place adjacent to (technically below, in one of Singapore's many sprawling indoor compounds) the Blueprint trade show. On Thursday, the Summit included a conversation between Tait and Sunday Times fashion critic Colin McDowell, who is also the creative director of Audi Fashion Festival Singapore.

Despite all of the prestige and attention Tate has gotten in such a short period of time, he told McDowell, jokingly, "I don't sleep and I can't afford dinner." But seriously, he only employs one person full time, has never gotten sponsorship for a Fashion Week show, and says that 90 percent of his problems and hurdles are financial. When asked whether he thinks he'll win the LVMH prize, he said, "I hope so."

I chatted a bit more with Tait, who will stage a runway show here Saturday, after the talk. I think he did better than me at fighting through the jet lag.

First of all, what brings you to Singapore?

Colin called up and said, 'Why don't you come to Singapore and do this?' I had never been to Singapore so I said, 'yeah.' It's a very metropolitan area and it's one of the top five wealthiest cities in the world, so of course there's a huge shopping opportunity here, so business-wise it is very good to be here.

Can you tell me about the LVMH Fashion Prize? What has that process been like?

It's been really easy. They did an online application that they built on their website and it is literally like updating your Facebook profile: You drag and drop images of your collection, upload a bio and that's pretty much it. From there, they call you up and let you know that you made the cut. When we were 30 shortlisted designers, they brought us over to Paris and put us up in a hotel, and took care of the whole thing so the entire process has been really easy.

What do you feel they're looking for and do you feel that you represent that?

They kind of already gave us a criteria where there are six things that they're looking for that range from creativity, originality, craftsmanship, business ambition, innovation, things like that, so we already have an idea— but they're quite broad topics, and all of us are really different. We all kind of represent those things, but in different ways.

You mentioned to Colin that the competition is a bit of a two-way street...

They're obviously taking an interest in younger designers so it's nice that such a big company – that for young brands is kind of far out of reach – is starting to engage directly with designers and building relationships at early stages. It's really great to see the bigwigs appreciating and acknowledging the potential of what's going on, on a smaller scale.

Would you ever consider taking creative control at some old luxury house if you were asked one day?

It would depend on the house. But yes, definitely.

You also mentioned that you produce and manufacture everything in London, which is unusual. Has that been challenging?

London isn't necessarily – it's an expensive city to produce in and it's not necessarily known for manufacturing. It's not like in Italy where there's such a huge history of factories and resources available, so that's kind of a constant headache.

Do you want to eventually outsource some of that?

Yes, but I would need to get my orders up and make sure I have the minimums to reach larger factory standards.

A lot of designers take on mass collaborations to make money. Would you consider that?

I'm open to working with different people, like I did sunglasses with Cutler & Gross and I did a hat line with HUF in Los Angeles and things like that. A high street collaboration or doing a womenswear range, I feel that isn't something that's so attractive to me immediately because I don't necessarily function in a way that I have a clever print or something that could be easily applied to a standard t-shirt or a standard shift dress, which could then be made at that price point. What I do and the values in what I do is something that really takes time and takes a certain kind of fabric. It's something that would be more difficult to translate into a high street product. There's no immediate rush to do anything like that.

You also said that aspiring designers should find people to ask for help. Who has helped you most along the way?

There was Bronwyn Cosgrave who was the Chairwoman of the Dorchester Prize: She was a great ambassador for me and still is a really good friend. There are people like Cathy Horn of the New York Times — she's now left — she's a wonderful woman and she's really influenced me and has been such a strong supporter of mine. Caren Downie [former buying director] of ASOS, she's fantastic. There are a number of behind-the-scenes people, a number of journalists who've been ambassadors.

If all goes well, where do you see your brand in five to 10 years? How and where do you want to expand?

I would definitely like to grow the wholesale business. I'm obviously not in a position to open a flagship store, but that's definitely something I'd like to see happen over the next decade — where, I'm not sure but it would be really cool to have it in London if I'm still based there. Definitely accessories. Shoes I do, but I only really end up doing shoes for the show, which is such a shame. The minimums for producing shoes in Italy is just so high — for a small brand, you either have to be a footwear designer or have a much larger reach, so financially it wouldn't make sense for me to put the shoes from the show into production and wholesale them only to a dozen stores worldwide. That's something that eventually I'd like to see grow — a full accessories range would be really nice. I'd also like to work with skin care eventually.

Thomas Tait skincare: It actually has a pretty nice ring to it.

Disclosure: Representatives for Blueprint tradeshow, part of Asia Fashion Exchange, paid for my trip to Singapore to cover these events.