Masculine or feminine? Street wear or couture? At the storied fashion house, designer Kim Jones is transforming the way men dress, writes Thomas Chatterton Williams.
KIM JONES, the 40-something-year-old English designer at Dior Men, is not exactly a Francophile. He considers his life to be in London, where he has a Brutalist concrete bunker in Notting Hill. But for the past five years, whenever he is in Paris, he has lived in an exquisitely preserved 17th-century hôtel particulier on the stately Place des Victoires, a short walk from the Louvre and the manicured gardens of the Palais Royal.
It is not, on first glance, the type of place you would imagine the owner keeping a pair of Yeezy Desert Rat sneakers by the door. But the sprawling residence — an inconspicuous building hidden behind a high wall and named after its second owner, a notable historian from the 17th-century who served as genealogist to the Sun King, Louis XIV — has a long history of belonging to important people.
On a drizzly January afternoon, one week before showing his third collection at Dior, Jones met me in his cavernous library and sat down at the corner of an antique reading table roughly the size of four Ping-Pong tables pushed together, on which was a neatly displayed assortment of obscure titles with names like “Fallatrice” (an obtuse but naughty play on words, I assumed) along with the sole extant copy of Steve Rubell’s Studio 54 magazine and a box of Cards Against Humanity.
Overhead hung a crystal chandelier with real candles placed in the candelabra. Jones, who is boyish and soft-spoken, wore a crisp black sweatshirt and beat-up Nike Dunks, along with a gold Rolex Daytona watch and a matching choker, his full name dangling from it in clusters of diamonds and emeralds. The necklace, he explained, was a gift offered to him on behalf of a secret admirer after his last show in Tokyo.
“I don’t even know who gave it to me,” he confessed, noting that he would love to find out so that he could thank them, but seeming only moderately surprised by such random good fortune.
Before joining Dior last year, Jones worked at Louis Vuitton as their men’s wear designer for seven years, bringing his longstanding love and encyclopedic knowledge of hyper-luxe street wear — athletic tech fabrics, big sneakers, oversize graphic T-shirts and elegant track suits, but also crocodile backpacks and cashmere baseball tops — to a super-brand that had been, until then, overly content to sell its male clientele little more than suitcases, belts and monogrammed wallets.
So when Dior Homme became stuck in a rut of producing black skinny suits, after dominating men’s fashion in the early aughts under Hedi Slimane, Jones was the obvious choice to revitalise the brand.
During discussions with LVMH’s chairman Bernard Arnault and Pietro Beccari, the CEO of Christian Dior Couture, the two things Arnault emphasised were colour and fun, and at Jones’s first show last June, for spring 2019, the models walked around a 33-foot-tall statue of flowers meant to represent Christian Dior himself, outfitted in botanical prints, loose-legged powder-pink suits and crisply tailored jackets printed with toile de Jouy wallpaper patterns from the original Dior boutique, which opened in 1955. Jones had welcomed Arnault’s feedback.
“You know, I work for somebody at the end of the day,” he said in a recent interview with System magazine.
He is part of a new generation of designers, one distinguished as much by their talent as by their willingness to adapt to shifting business imperatives. And though he has mastered the commercial art of juxtaposing opposites — tradition and novelty, niche and pop, East and West, Anglo and Continental, personal and institutional — it is his commitment to stewardship that has formed the basis of his decade-and-a-half-long ascent to the top of men’s fashion. Unlike most designers of his stature, he does not yearn to toil under his own logo.
Before Jones was a designer, he was a collector. Today, if he likes something, he tends to have a lot of it (while we were talking, an assistant came in to swap the gold Daytona for a steel Rolex Air King).
The library and the living room that opens off it are crowded with personalised photographs of friends, such as Naomi Campbell, old copies of i-D magazine and paintings from Diana Vreeland’s bedroom. There are also numerous paintings by the Bloomsbury Group member Duncan Grant (the companion of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister) and works by the Japanese illustrator Hajime Sorayama, who is best known for his hyper-realistic, erotically charged depictions of female robots.
Jones still vibrates with excitement when discussing the latter, with whom he collaborated on the sci-fi-inspired Dior Men pre-fall collection, enlisting the artist to conjure a 39-foot-tall sculpture of a robot woman for the catwalk. Jones riffed on the theme, designing cybernetic accessories like faux-metallicised bags, motorcycle boots and iridescent baseball hats.
“When I was a kid, I collected toys,” Jones said. “I was obsessive with toys and books. If I was into a writer, I’d want to read every book by them and then keep them in order.”
He pulled out his iPhone, producing detailed PDF documents cataloging the thousands of volumes he has amassed over four separate libraries: two in London and two in Paris.
“It’s just to know where everything is,” he explained. “And those are colour-coded. So I can say to someone, ‘This book is here,’ and they can find it. It’s also an insurance document.”
In addition to the books, he also has PDFs listing the thousands of pieces of vintage London street wear and ’70s-era club clothes he’s been collecting since he was a teenager. He swipes through images of some iconic Vivienne Westwood pieces, like the circa 1975 Venus top, a grimily bedazzled sleeveless tee sagging with buttons and chains, and other more obscure accessories by the outlandish performance artist Leigh Bowery and the avant-garde fashion designer Christopher Nemeth.
Items such as these can be extremely difficult to find since they were frequently worn out clubbing, where they were often ruined. But Jones has been persistent.
“I’m a bit like a bloodhound when I like stuff, I just track it all down,” he said, before suddenly bolting from his chair to search for a particular work by Sorayama. The house, he explained, had been burglarised the week before while he was in London. Once the picture had been located, he sat back down and closed the document.
“I don’t consider I own any of this stuff,” he added. “Everything you have in life passes through you. You’re only here for a short amount of time.”
Kim Niklas Jones was born in London to a British father and a Danish mother. His father’s career as a hydrogeologist specialising in irrigation projects meant the family moved frequently, and much of Jones’s childhood was spent traversing Africa, from Ethiopia to Kenya, Tanzania to Botswana.
It was then that he learned the world was not in fact such a small place as marketers and economists would have it. It was a big and varied canvas, and he recalls being struck at a very young age by the vibrant styles of the various tribes he encountered.
When Jones was 14, the family returned to London, and when his older sister, Nadia — now a creative director at the Australian label Nique — left home, he inherited her old stacks of the Face and i-D. The discovery of the British indie fashion press was a transformative moment for him, and he immersed himself in the new local scene.
He became straight edge, a devotee of a lifestyle rooted in abstinence from alcohol, drugs and casual sex that was associated with the hard-core punk scene of the early ’80s and ’90s.
“I liked Minor Threat, Gorilla Biscuits, Shelter,” he told me, naming bands who embodied the movement by way of explaining why, to this day, he rarely drinks.
“All my friends were into it. I used to go to gigs. I found it interesting when I was getting interested in fashion — there’s a very strong visual identity, the tribe sort of element. It was a specific shoe they’d wear, a specific trouser.”
After studying graphics and photography at Camberwell College of Arts, in London, he earned an MA in men’s wear at Central Saint Martins. Men’s wear has traditionally been considered lower profile and less glamorous than the more prestigious route through women’s wear, but Jones chose it simply because he wanted to make clothes for himself and his friends.
His heroes were Westwood and Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela, Helmut Lang and Ralph Lauren, but it was Michael Kopelman, the distributor of Gimme Five, who most affected him, exposing Jones to the world of super high-end Japanese street wear, then almost unheard-of in the West.
“I met Hiroshi [Fujiwara, of Goodenough], Nigo [of A Bathing Ape] and Jun Takahashi [of Undercover] when I was very young,” he said.
“I saw their work before anyone saw it in the UK. It was mind-blowingly well made. ‘Street wear’ is sometimes used as a dirty word, but these things are better made than lots of designer stuff.”
He decided he would also make innovative yet accessible clothes of the same calibre. Japanese street wear can be simultaneously forward-looking and devoted to tradition, and it often involves taking a common garment — a pair of motorcycle jeans, a military parka or a classic crew-neck sweatshirt — and refining its craftsmanship to the point of fanaticism.
In the case of Japanese selvedge denim, for example, the cotton is woven on old shuttle looms that can only produce fabric in very limited quantities and at very slow speeds.
Though modern looms are comparatively efficient, producing a consistently woven fabric, the flaws and roughness of the old looms lend the denim its particular value. Such stubborn dedication to anachronistic techniques can be — and often is — applied to any product imaginable in Japanese fashion.
When Jones graduated in 2002, John Galliano, then the creative director of Dior, bought half of his student collection, a mishmash of street wear, denim and what he has described as “weird, hand-knit” schoolboy blazers. The next year, Jones made his debut at London Fashion Week with a namesake line of luxuriously constructed street clothes: Peruvian fabrics were added to lightweight, cropped jackets and vests; perfectly slouched two-toned pants were worn by shirtless male models.
It was largely manufactured in Japan — using the same fabrics, techniques and quality control that had so inspired him — where it developed a cult following so dedicated that when Jones is in Tokyo, people still approach him with old pieces they want him to autograph.
From there, collaborations with a number of brands ensued, from the British sportswear manufacturer Umbro to his mentor McQueen’s own label to his friend Kanye West’s short-lived pre-Yeezy experiment, Pastelle, until, in 2008, he was appointed creative director at the century-old British men’s leather goods brand Alfred Dunhill.
Along the way, Jones — who had observed the pressure that running an eponymous company placed on even the immensely gifted and successful McQueen — learned to prefer the background to the spotlight. He found deep satisfaction immersing himself in a storied company’s heritage, and Dunhill’s, which comprised everything from tobacco pipes, car horns and leather overcoats to sunglasses, suits and timepieces, offered both inspiration and flexibility.
“I did [my own label] for eight years,” Jones said, “and it was really heralded and popular, but it wasn’t anything I ever wanted to do. I like working within the DNA of a brand, I like having those facilities to make the utmost amazing things in the world.”
After three years at Dunhill, Jones assumed the helm of men’s ready-to-wear and accessories at Louis Vuitton in 2011. Under Marc Jacobs, the brand’s artistic director at the time, the house had just begun collaborating with artists like Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince.
Together they created some of the house’s best-selling accessories — monogrammed satchels and purses decorated with Murakami’s iconic cherry blossoms in 2003 or layered with Prince’s ironic jokes and a sheen of spray paint in 2007 — that would collapse the remnants of the divide between fashion and art.
Jones, too, expanded the field of vision to include his pioneering mix of athleisure items that were as wearable as they were covetable, an effort that culminated in 2017’s Supreme and Louis Vuitton collection — a marriage of French luxury to “the Louis Vuitton of street wear,” as the New York skate label is often called — that revealed both the power of a repetitious logo and how the desire for both brands was heightened by well-timed scarcity.
It is easy to make the case that Jones helped fundamentally alter men’s fashion as well, paving the way for the social media phenomenon and the current king of youth culture, the designer Virgil Abloh — an old friend who, along with West, used to crash on Jones’s couch in London, poring over his many books for inspiration — to succeed him.
The course correction at Dior Men — which Jones Anglicised from Hedi Slimane’s original Dior Homme — has been swift and unmistakable, a shift in sensibility and viewpoint encapsulated in the label’s iconic bee logo. Whereas under Slimane, the insect was rendered as a menacing, monochromatic wasp, Jones invited the street artist Kaws (who also designed that giant floral statue) to reimagine it as a fluffy, yellow-striped bumblebee.
It’s a fleshing out and softening that is equally present in the silhouette of the company’s trademark suit, which in the hands of both Jones and Slimane has been worn by men and women alike, but under the latter was so famously narrow that even the model Kate Moss, an old friend of Jones’s, told me she couldn’t fit into them in her working prime.
When I visited the Dior Men atelier, tucked in a quiet side street off the Champs-Élysées, one afternoon before Christmas, the white tree in the lobby was decked out with those approachable, pillowy bees. It was another reminder of the degree to which the symbiotic relationship between art and fashion now permeates the house.
But, as Jones pointed out, it’s in fact a return to the company’s origins. Dior, he said, “is the pinnacle of a designer.”
Before that, “he was a gallerist who worked with Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and lots of artists who were famous while alive. I wanted to do that for the digital generation.” Jones, who has collaborated with a different artist for each of his Dior collections, starting with Kaws and Sorayama, considers such engagement a fundamental part of his design mission.
We entered the small workshop where 21 artisans were hand-stitching the label’s latest collaboration for Jones’s fall 2019 ready-to-wear collection: elaborately embroidered tops that recreate existing and specially commissioned drawings by the American punk artist Raymond Pettibon. Jones has made the most of the house’s deep knowledge of couture techniques, incorporating extravagant fabrics and workmanship into his clothes, notably with lace and embroidery.
The most ornate look was a heavy, sleeveless top covered with thousands of glass beads that created an eagle’s face, which required some 1,600 hours of labor. The house’s craftsmen have, Jones said, changed how he thinks about clothes. “It’s much more hands-on here,” he said. “You see something made constantly. After three days, we had clothes made already. That’s really exciting as a designer.”
January’s Dior Men fall 2019 show, bumped up to a Friday night instead of its traditional Saturday owing to the continued disruptions of the gilets jaunes (not unironically, a movement against inequality), was held in an enormous opaque black box the length of a football field, which had been specially erected in front of the Champ de Mars.
Jones’s intuitive understanding of how to combine the singular and the collective, the contemporary and the timeless, has been embodied in the presence of the model-handsome rapper and brand face ASAP Rocky, who attended Jones’s debut last summer wearing a transparent top, thick silver-chain choker (designed by the Korean-American Yoon Ahn of Ambush, a Tokyo-based line, who is now Jones’s in-house jewelry designer) and gorgeously tailored pewter-gray ensemble that was as elegant and relaxed as a set of made-to-measure pajamas.
But that evening it was clear that Jones also understands how to scale a brand, and the mood was more akin to a sporting event or a mega-concert than a traditional défilé de mode. Hundreds of the designer’s admirers were packed inside; hundreds more waited outside, shivering in the cold.
Along with the usual fashion show audience of editors, buyers and stylists, Jones’s friends were also in attendance: Christina Ricci and Lily Allen. Also present was the Virginia-bred rapper Pusha T, who was married last year in a classic white-and-black tuxedo Jones created for the occasion. “I just really love what Kim does,” he told me before the show.
“Honestly, it’s just innovative, it’s always fresh. And for what it is that I do, it really brings the B-boy out of me.”
My thoughts lingered on Pusha T as I took my seat. I am old enough to remember how, in the ’90s and well into the 2000s, the French champagne brand Cristal wanted nothing to do with the free publicity offered to them by young black artists such as Puff Daddy and Jay-Z, and when clothing companies like Timberland sought to distance themselves from so-called urban markets in the early ’90s and, by extension, from the young black male clientele who were willing to spend thousands of dollars on fashion.
But in the paradoxically democratised world of hyper-luxurious men’s wear that Jones has done as much as anyone to create, such exclusionary thinking now doesn’t just seem offensive — as it always did — but downright passé, not to mention like a terrible business decision.
Earlier, I’d asked Jones whether the industry had progressed on racial matters.
“I think so,” he said, without wanting to assume credit for the change. “But it takes time, doesn’t it? People are scared of new. I’m lucky that I come with an open mind and work with people with an open mind, and they appreciate my friendships with these people.”
It was an answer that left me slightly frustrated for its modesty. Perhaps Jones really did want nothing more than to dress his friends, but he has nonetheless participated in a much broader and far from insignificant change. When, finally, the lights dimmed, a procession of models zoomed down a 250-foot-long moving walkway accompanied by the four-on-the-floor bounce of Daft Punk and Capricorn.
They wore a sumptuous array of fabrics — from timelessly luxurious cashmeres, silk-satin blends and furs, to innovative, high-gloss synthetics and faux moiré — rendered in the signature Dior palette: robin’s egg blue, mauve, pearlescent gray, black and midnight blue.
In addition to the sportswear, high-tech pieces and couture, there was above all a determined return to elegant tailoring in the form of roomy, wide-lapel overcoats and multiple iterations of what Jones has called the “oblique” suit, a tailored but looser, more relaxed cut. Both were presented in wintry shades ranging from puce to slate, in heavy materials such as velvet and satin, frequently used to stunning effect against dark-skinned models (another departure) and with long panes of matching fabric that wrapped around the models’ torsos like sashes.
It was a soft, refined vision of masculinity — anything but sinister, punk or street — a traditional suit made both regal and futuristic with its details: nylon gaiters over polished leather boots, delicate gold and silver brooches adorning peak lapels. Such contrasts felt as compelling and authentic as they did when, at Vuitton in 2011, Jones sent mostly pale-skinned models down the runway in bright Maasai fabric, remade most notably into thick shawls, preppy tops and shorts.
“I’m fortunate enough to have seen a lot of the world,” he had told me earlier.
That collection had been Jones’s debut for Vuitton, inspired by the American photographer Peter Beard, who cut a glamorous figure working to conserve wildlife in Africa. The Maasai fabric, Jones pointed out to me, is still produced today in Scotland, which he discovered only when he sourced it for the collection.
Jones’s circuitous way of thinking about time and people mirrors that of Dior himself, who was looking at men’s coats when he was doing women’s wear in the 1950s; now, those same women’s designs have become relevant again for men’s wear in the 21st century.
“We’re looking at women’s wear references, but you pull those forward and they reflect masculine influences,” Jones said. “It’s quite a Japanese way of mixing and matching. The rest is about tailoring, but you do need to have that element that lifts you up, away from your competitors. What makes Dior Dior is that it’s a couture house.” Paris may never rival London to Jones, but it doesn’t matter: In Dior, he’s found a universe all his own.
- The article first appeared in The New York Times