Jonathan Saunders | Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia


This year the Tate Britain hosted a coming together of Allen Jones, Victor Vasarely and Bridget Riley. Jones’ high gloss sensibilities took on Vasarely’s geometric strokes and Riley’s dazzling optics to create an explosion of optimism and colour. Was this the ultimate Modernist exhibition? No. It was Jonathan Saunders’ Autumn/Winter 2015 London Fashion Week show. The print-based designer’s 1960s A-line silhouettes were awash with bold stripes and confident swirls in oddly alluring shades of pea green, purple, chocolate and white, and each model’s look was completed with a pair of kinky lace-up boots. “I have an affinity to Pop and Op Art’s graphic, clean approach and studied how these artists used colour to evoke emotion,” says Saunders in his smoky Scottish lilt. “Vasarely’s paintings look digital yet are intricately painted while Jones’ work is both aggressive and gentle.”

This is far from the first time Saunders has referenced these artists in his womenswear. In fact AW15 harks back to his earliest collections and he always finds inspiration among his vast library of art books (numbering over 4,000 at the last count). “Every season I look at new artists, which become part of the vocabulary. But it starts with colour. I spend days building a palette. Then I find images - photographs, fine art, architecture, album covers – and for a month there will be a constantly evolving chain of images that find a colour balance and then I draw the prints and collage them on a mannequin. That’s how it works.”

Saunders grew up surrounded by art in Glasgow. His early discoveries were Scottish artists as diverse as Rennie Mackintosh and Ken Currie. He loved “drawing, woodwork and making things” at school and his first crush was for the collaborative nature of the Bauhaus movement, which is what drew him to study at the Glasgow School of Art. “It’s strong on architecture, textiles, fine art and design and there are fuzzy lines between departments. The approach was broad and analytical, which I found so inspiring,” he says. Saunders started off on the Product Design course but swapped to Printed Textiles by the third year. “I’m an instant person. When you have the ink in your hand you can make your own textiles very quickly. I remember buying some vintage kimonos and printing fluorescent polka dots onto them. It was a blasphemous act but that opposition thrilled me. That’s how I got into fashion.”

He went on to the prestigious Fashion MA at London’s Central Saint Martins under Professor Louise Wilson, who accepted Saunders despite the fact he didn’t have a single fashion sketch in his portfolio. He graduated in 2002 with a distinction, his Vasarely-infused collection winning the Lancôme Colour Award and securing a print commission from Alexander McQueen. He worked for Chloé and Pucci and launched his own brand the following year. Saunders’ star rose steadily and he’s since become a major player with over 100 stockists worldwide and numerous accolades to his name including winning Best Designer at the Elle Style Awards in 2008 and scooping the BFC Vogue Fashion Fund in 2012. Along the way he’s designed for Topshop, Target, Escada and Pollini and produced menswear and interiors too.

While he spearheaded the trend for print innovation in British fashion alongside Peter Pilotto, Holly Fulton and Mary Katrantzou in the late 2000s, Saunders’ approach still feels fresh thanks to his unique, handcrafted approach. His prints at first glance appear computerised and hyper real but are actually created using traditional silk screen techniques. He develops around 20 prints per collection and will work each of those around specific garment patterns, requiring multiple screens per design. He may have started out using silk caftans and jersey t-shirt dresses to show off his prints in the early days but now his luxurious silhouettes are far more than his canvas. Elegant bias cuts, sporty separates and crisp tailoring always flatter the female form. “I don’t do intricate prints for the sake of it. These aren’t paintings,” he says matter of factly. “If it feels relevant to do something naive or straight forward, I will. A woman has to want to wear it and get excited by it, which is a hard task given all the competition that’s out there these days.”

It’s this coming together of form and function plus his kaleidoscope of influences, which are as likely to come from a gallery’s wall as they are from his record collection (past seasons have name checked Primal Scream, David Bowie and Pink Floyd) that give Saunders’ work its vibrancy. “I’m equally moved by William Morris as I am by the Memphis Group. I have a magpie approach putting something graphic next to something ornate or decorative, which we are seeing in art now too. We’re so bombarded by visuals that everything is about re-appropriation to come up with something new.”

Case in point is Saunders collaboration with British sculptor Jess Flood-Paddock. Their piece for Britain Creates, which was part of the Cultural Olympiad at the Victoria & Albert museum, played with Andy Warhol’s theories of consumerism, multiples and art reproduction to present a series of 200 screen prints of jumpers on acetate sheets suspended from Perspex rods, suggested a rail of clothing. 

He’s also formed a close relationship with The Tate since 2011 and has had several fashion shows at both the Modern and Britain museums. For the institution’s Fashion Meets Art series of films, he contributed by speaking about how his SS14 collection was inspired by Anthony Caro’s sculpture Early One Morning (1962). Through Saunders’ lens, Caro’s bright red metal structure was translated into floral embroidery into tulle and plastic. “To me Caro’s sculpture looks like an abstract life drawing and suggests how ergonomic shapes can frame the body.”

Most recently his Resort 16 collection looked to Dan Flavin’s neon installations, Daniel Buren’s minimalist stripes and Chuck Close’s pixelated portraiture for a series of refreshingly pared back silhouettes featuring airbrushed pastel prints and pointillist finishes such as shimmering sequins and jacquards. And for SS16 a mix of African, Asian and Arabian influences went into his sensual, free flowing collection of slip dresses, wrap jackets and wide trousers. These are sumptuous clothes that give off an effervescent joy, no doubt reflecting the fact that the brand has just secured significant investment from Indian businesswoman Eisha Bharti Pasricha that will allow Saunders to expand into new categories and territories. 

Already well represented in the UAE with numerous stores, he describes his customer in the region as “a woman educated in culture and craftsmanship who loves colour and print and is happy to invest in good design.” The same could be said of his celebrity following with the likes of Solange Knowles, Emily Blunt, Laura Carmichael and Poppy Delevingne wearing his latest designs. “It’s an exciting time,” he says, disarmingly understated as ever. Another secret to his success must be his unpretentious and hugely likeable persona. “Now I have more support at a senior level I can spend more time on creativity.” In short, doing what he does best: making things.

Publication: Harpers Bazaar Art Arabia

Helen Jennings