Jonathan Simkhai's love of fashion started long before he knew he wanted to be a designer. Between bonding with his mom in department stores and helping his girlfriends go shopping, Simkhai began to develop a discerning eye for style. The New York native worked in retail and buying throughout his college years at Parsons and FIT, and realized just how much he enjoyed dressing women and making them look and feel their best.
In 2010 he launched his namesake label of womenswear inspired by menswear. With this gender ambiguity always at the core, his vision for sophisticated, contemporary women has grown stronger and stronger each season and is carried by major retailers including Barneys.
Simkhai has a lovely studio space thanks to the CFDA incubator program, but this chat took place over Skype since he's in China on a sourcing trip (he manufactures around the world and domestically).Read on to learn about how everything from boxer briefs to Drew Barrymore helped him build his successful brand.
Tell me about how you got into fashion at a young age. Jonathan Simkhai: My mom always took me shopping growing up. We would bond over her outfits and being at department stores. I also used to take one of my best girlfriends shopping and help her choose what to buy. I remember being with her at this store called Havana Jeans in Scarsdale, and the storekeeper told me she had been watching and listening to me and wanted to offer me a job. I was only 14 and said no. Down the road I called her back because I decided I did want to be in that world. I ended up working there about five years. I started doing buying for them, which I loved. I also loved being on the floor. I always enjoyed dressing women and putting them in a good mood and making them happy.
How did you start designing?
How did you start designing? My uncle and my dad started a wholesale clothing manufacturing business. It is very different from what I do now, but it taught me about sampling and manufacturing. I did a capsule collection for my uncle, who mostly did shirts. It was for an older customer than my current ones. The styles I designed would always be the best sellers of the season and the department stores always loved them. I knew I wanted to do more and make it my own. It’s better now that I am on my own because I can do my entirely own thing and design for my friends and my customer.
Tell me about that first collection and the start of your own label. My first collection was a lot of long johns! It started with my girlfriends coming over to my house and needing to borrow something, and I’d give them boxer briefs or long johns with a big shirt. They’d wear them with earrings and heels and look amazing. I loved the idea of menswear inspired womenswear. The girls would never want to give me back my clothes. So then I started designing boxers in silk lame and novelty fabrics. Editors and fashion girls loved them, but when it came down to it not that many girls are going to wear lame boxers.
What were some early challenges you faced as a young designer? I think it was about making the collection more feminine while maintaining the fundamentals of the masculine vibe. It was always that boyfriend borrowed feel, but trying to make it more commercial. A lot of designers that are in the same place I am have done internships for bigger houses and had that real design background, but I came from a more manufacturing standpoint. I had to learn the balance of how many pieces needed to be editorial or commercial. It took me about three seasons to battle it out myself. It was costly to experience those challenges on my own, but six or seven seasons later it has paid off because I truly understand.
Is there a moment that was a real breakthrough for you?
Is there a moment that was a real breakthrough for you? It was two things. My first order from Barneys rocked my world. I love shopping there and now they respect my designs and believe in them. That support was amazing and pushed me further. Then last year I was in Hong Kong and one of my customers told me someone bought one of my dresses at her store and wore it to Drew Barrymore’s engagement party, only to arrive and realize Drew was wearing the same dress. I started crying! I always loved Drew growing up, and it was just surreal. I get chills now just talking about it.
What’s your jumping off point for each new collection? I am not as traditional when sourcing inspiration. I don’t look at a painting and envision 40 looks. I think ‘if I was a girl what would I want to wear’ or the girls that I hang out with--what they are missing in their closets. I even look into my own closet a lot. One season I started off with this sweater I wore for like four years during highschool. It was my Dad’s ski sweater from the 70’s and it always got compliments, so I looked at that and analyzed why I loved it so much. I used that as an inspiration one season.
Do you have any muses? I love Taylor Tomasi-Hill, Rooney Mara, Kristen Stewart. I bounce a lot of ideas off Christine, my colleague. My stylist Susan Joy has worked with me from the start and I always look at her reaction to my collections. My mom is so fashion forward. I want to dress all the women I love in my life.
Would you say your ranges are very New York-centric? Yes definitely. This last collection was inspired by L.A. and Lords of Dogtown. I went to Coachella last year and everyone was so chill and happy. I wanted to bring that lifestyle back to the city. I wanted to bring the California cool to the office or a work dinner.
How did your retail and buying experience influence you? A lot my growth is attributed to how hands on I really want to design for the girl who is buying the clothes for her store and the girl buying them in the store. I think working in that store when I was younger really helped me understand the process. Working on the floor, working as a buyer, it all really helped me be a better designer because you understand how it comes together. I try to focus what sells well and adapting it to the next season.
Do you follow the fashion world closely? Who do you consider inspirations? Yes I am obsessed; I just love clothing so much. So I love seeing what other designers are doing. I love Jack and Lazaro from Proenza. Ozwald Boateng from London is amazing.
What’s in your closet? I go through phases. My collections reflect it. When I am really happy I am mixing prints and tons of color, then sometimes, I’m all dark and in leather. I have this one Unis varsity jacket I am currently obsessed with. I’ve been wearing a lot of Vans and being casual and some people are telling me I need to dress more like a designer, but what does that mean?
If you weren’t a fashion designer what would you be doing? I would just be in LA or somewhere on the beach just hanging out with an umbrella in the sand shuffling coconuts around.
Any exciting plans for the label? I am doing my first pre-fall collection, which I am really excited about. I would be interested in doing handbags and shoes down the line. I also really want to do menswear. It’s just really tricky, because men tend to want simplicity and it becomes more about practicality than design. I want to do it right, so I won’t rush it, but you will see menswear from me!