It's 9am in Los Angeles and J Brand’s Scotland-born, Zimbabwe-raised Creative Director Donald Oliver is already hours into his day. “This is actually quite late for me,” he laughs, coffee in hand, attempting to combat lingering jetlag from a recent “aggressively” paced trip to Europe for the Premier Vision fabric fair. “I come in and start my day because I find it easier to think when it’s quieter … To start creatively first,” he explains, talking down the Skype lens.
Having previously lived in London and New York for different design periods of his life, it’s been two and a half years since J Brand’s Founder and CEO Jeff Rudes lured him to sunny California. “I think it probably is an L.A. thing,” he laughs, referring to his power mornings that often now include a beach run. “In New York I guess I rolled into the office about 10am. There, we used to work ‘til like 12, 1 in the morning,” he recalls of his time split between Calvin Klein, The Gap, DKNY and Vera Wang, in the city of 24-hour nail bars and laundromats.Behind the 47-year-old’s desk, digital design drawings, portraits of effortlessly beautiful women and fabric samples are pinned to a latticework of notice boards. “We should have blinkers on you,” he jokes, putting on his own black-framed spectacles, “so you can’t see our inspiration boards for next fall.”
This morning, I’ve introduced J Brand to Skype. And given the fact that the company is entirely open plan – creative director and all – I’m starting Friday with the rest of the team as they bustle into the design room that’s set against the building’s 1930s raw brick façade. “Casual Fridays last from Monday until Friday here,” Oliver smiles, bucking the trend with a cardigan and tailored Rick Owens pants. “Living in the L.A. lifestyle and the weather, there’s an ease to how we take that inspiration and use it,” he says of the J Brand aesthetic. “Through osmosis what happens is that the collection becomes very casual. No matter what you’re designing there’s a casualness to it, which I didn’t really realise was happening until we had gone through a few seasons, and I was like ‘Oh my, things are very easy!’ And that’s sort of the process of how L.A. influences the design team.”
And he’s clearly enjoying the new perspective: “I live on the beach just off Venice,” he says, still entranced by his ocean view. “I see the waves crashing every morning and that’s something that I’d never had in Zimbabwe growing up. It is a land-locked country, so I did not see the ocean until I was 19. Living on it is a really special part. I miss the pace and the rat race of New York and London, the bars and energy, but I’ve never compared L.A. to New York or London, being in L.A. is just different.”
In spite of the recent spotlight thrown on the city thanks to Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent studio switch, for brands like Rodarte, Band of Outsiders and The Elder Statesman, Los Angeles has long had a thriving fashion scene. “I’ve always thought of it as a creative culture. Saint Laurent moving is part of the process: the idea of having a city gel with a surfing culture all mashed up into one point of view. I think the whole boho chic idea of L.A. has never really gone away, just in and out of trend.”
Denim, on the other hand, has always been a Los Angelian essential. “What’s so amazing about Jeff and the vision that he had when he started the company was that he wanted to create something that was amiss,” he explains. “The dark skinny jean with no top stitching was a new, sophisticated approach to denim when you think about the current trend of the jeans market in 2004 – it was all about top stitching, the back pocket design, the logo positioning.”
He smiles, “A lot of people paid a lot of attention … I mean I worked in some of those companies. Jeff took an approach that it needed to be about fit, fabric and how a woman felt. That she wasn’t wearing the brand, she was wearing a beautiful piece of clothing and knew she looked and felt a certain way.” That anti-branding ethos laid the J Brand foundation, with fans from Anna Wintour (yes, she wears jeans) to Madonna expressly zipping up.
Having conquered the skinny jean market, Rude’s next flash of genius was to further fuel hype with several wildly successful fashion denim collaborations with Proenza Schouler and Christopher Kane. “Stories can get old, you know?” he explained on a recent trip to Sydney. And although even he admits Kane’s $2,400 hand-finished jeans weren’t for everyone, they certainly created a frenzy: “For us it’s always about product, but there’s gotta be a cool factor in what a brand does as well.”
By spring 2012 that next leap included entry into ready-to-wear. “The approach is the same as the jean,” continues Oliver. “Modern is something we talk about a lot and if you think about a jeans brand being modern – that’s the DNA of J Brand, it’s not a vintage approach, it’s not looking back.” The words clean, minimal, understated luxury and sophisticated are frequently filtered through his speech. “It’s creating an ideal of a lifestyle. The jean will always be our heart and soul and our centre, there’s no intention of moving away from that, it’s where we come from. The brand will just become stronger from a fashion point of view.”
Under Oliver’s direction the brand’s design process also aligns with its star product: “We start with fabric, a very jeans approach,” he qualifies, “but the important thing is that everything is based around the woman.” Citing his wardrobe essentials as the ultimate biker jacket, jumbo knitwear, leather jumpers, track pants, and the multitasking little black jean (coated in black quartz for AW 13), he summarises: “She wants to be relevant, but not trendy. We don’t design themes, we don’t travel to the Sahara desert and get inspired by Bedouin tents or anything like that. We are really inspired by women wearing J Brand in an approachable way. It’s not an easy thing to do,” he says of his brief to create a relaxed confidence that can be relied upon day-in, day-out. “We love dressing up, but sometimes you need to take one thing off when you leave. That’s something I learnt very early on.”
Reflecting on his years in the Big Apple he continues, “With Calvin it was about sophistication of taste, a certain aesthetic when it comes to minimal – his colour, his references, his way of putting things together. It was also my first big design job. I was working at Levi’s in Europe before that, not that it wasn’t a big job, but it was very jean centric, very looking back. Where Calvin was much more about modernity and looking forward. My years at Gap were really about merchandising and looking at ways to bring in the creativity, without losing the volume.”
Vera Wang offered a completely different design perspective: “Vera, for me, was about the whimsy and the femininity. She taught me that femininity is a big part of something being successful with women. Finding ways to be feminine without the ruffles and glitter was a huge lesson for me.” Then after consulting for Marc Jacobs and a stint at DKNY, Oliver took three years out away from fashion, moving upstate to his weekender in Connecticut. There he opened an interiors store and embarked upon a much-needed palette cleanse. “That was one of my biggest learnings with regards to my own personal aesthetic,” he reflects, “I did not have to answer to the Calvin Kleins and the Donna Karans of the world, and that also helped prepare my step back into the industry with J Brand.”
“I met a bunch of people and when I met Donald, I knew he was the one,” Rudes recalls of their first meeting. “Now I still had one or two people more to meet, I called L.A. and said ‘Here’s the good news, I met the one. He’s willing to move to L.A.. I gave him a project to do. I’m going to meet the others but I’m telling you, I’ve met the one!’ And he did a project and he came to L.A. a few weeks later with it and slam-dunk. It was perfect.”
We’ve now been talking for half an hour and the office volume has amplified significantly. There are 250 staff on site at their downtown Los Angeles HQ; complete with a factory downstairs, accommodating pattern makers and seamstresses. “We’re a very collaborative environment,” he smiles proudly, “everyone is allowed an opinion.” Adding sheepishly, “sometimes that can be incredibly frustrating when you want your opinion to be heard! It’s an open door policy everywhere,” he continues, “if I want to speak to Jeff I can just go in. The fact that I’m a Creative Director and I don’t have an office … Those are all part and parcel. It’s the ideal of a community … Something that I have not had in my past. There’s always been a divisional structure and lots of offices, and that works for some brands, but for this brand it happens to be much more collaborative.” Rudes has also introduced a J Brand management program, optional to staff, and built around the paradigms of leadership and communication.
Rounding out his image team, Oliver brought on a few new additions including stylist and Interview magazine Creative Director Karl Templer and photographer Craig McDean who shot the AW campaign. “I think he does minimal and clean better than anybody so it was a perfect fit for the brand,” Oliver says of Templer’s work, the trio having cast Sam Rollinson as their winter face. “A little rock‘n’roll, that confidence, that individualism.”