Most people know John Malkovich as a bona fide Hollywood actor, director, and producer. Some may also know him as a costumer, but his vast talents have included clothing design since the 2002 debut of his Uncle Kimono collection.
Upon meeting him for the first time recently at Lawrence Covell, I wondered why on earth, after Uncle Kimono folded about five years ago, Malkovich would want to get back into fashion with his new line, Technobohemian. Aside from the economy, a designer must also consider the current state of the fashion industry.
Malkovich agreed: “Yes, why would I want to get back into this.”
So we started the conversation discussing designer Tom Ford and his directorial debut, A Single Man:
John Malkovich: Why do you think he couldn’t do it? I mean, obviously, he’s someone who’s bright; he has an aesthetic. What’s the big shock there? Julian Schnabel has made some of the best films of the last 15 years. He’s a painter. So what?
Georgia Benjou: People can have multiple talents.
JM: Or develop them. Or follow their interests. For me, it’s OK if people like it or hate it [the collection]. I’m used to that. You know, I’m 56 years old. I’ve had people like or hate everything I’ve ever done or be utterly indifferent. It’s OK.
GB: And I think fashion is at that point where it’s not so much about trends. When you look at the magazines, you realize almost everything across the board is in [style], and I think what’s nice is that this [collection] really is about individuality.
JM: Yeah, I’m not interested in having a $20 billion dollar company or having 2,000 people do the drawings. I do it myself and sell it myself. I have three people who work very hard on doing other things, but not design. Because what would be the point in that? A lot of people like to wear or do what other people are doing and wearing, but that was never a big interest of mine.
(Pointing out pieces from the collection.) These are kind of like Japanese fisherman pants , which you pull up really high, fold over, and tie. They are super comfortable for summer. And the bags also are all ours and made in Italy.
GB: Do you want to do more accessories?
JM: Fall/Winter I did shoes also, but you know, the deals keep changing or companies fall apart. And this happens, but also this year I did jewelry for a company called Rebecca .
GB: Oh, yes. The Osters , just down the block, carry Rebecca.
JM: I just finished and sent in my designs a few days ago. And so we’ll get into that. And then I’ll do a ten-piece, including a suitcase collection for Pirelli, the Italian rubber company.
GB: So, you’re in the thick of it. You’re doing a lot of design work. That’s exciting.
JM: And we did our first three women’s [pieces]. You know, a lot of the stores have asked me to. Because men’s is such a tough sell. And a lot of [stores] have asked me to do womens. I really can’t. I don’t have the time to do that, but I’ll do something other than just shirtdresses. So, I’ll do that but in a very limited way. You know, eight, ten pieces.
GB: How different do you find it designing for men versus for women?
JM: For me, it’s not so different. It’s just the amount of work is enormous in womens. It’s not really the tailoring and all that stuff—because, you know, I’ve designed a lot costumes for women—but that’s a whole other skill set, and the amount of time involved is just enormous. So, I think if I do any of that, I’ll keep it really small. There is a sort of unisex element about it anyway.
GB: About your collection?
JM: A little bit.
GB: I totally can see a lot of women going for these pants. (Referring to the Japanese fishermen pants mentioned above.)
JM: Oh sure.
GB: And a lot of the shirting—actually, almost everything. And I think women now are shopping the men’s departments anyway more and more.
Amy Covell: And you know, there was a piece in the Dries Van Noten collection  that he took out of the men’s line and shrunk it down for women. He just saw it both ways.
JM: That’s not super hard. It’s complicated because it’s bound to be a different tailor, and there are just various things you have to deal with when you do that.
GB: Obviously, you like creating in different formats.
JM: I started this jewelry thing, and what do I know about it? Well, less than nothing. But I like steep learning curves. I like knowing less than nothing. ... You know, I’ve been so lucky in that way, and I got to do a lot of things. I certainly did nothing to merit all of the opportunities I’ve had, but at least I didn’t waste them.
GB: The collection will start being delivered or do you have an idea as of yet?
JM: These come into shops February.
GB: Well, I’m sure you’ve heard the whole conversation happening—especially in New York—around delivery dates, show dates.
JM: I think it’s crazy.
GB: Should the consumer be seeing the shows or not seeing the shows so early. I think Donna Karan has the right attitude .
JM: Yeah, I like what she had to say. She’s not an idiot. Well, here’s the thing: You have all these companies who can get drawings or see something and knock it out faster than you can ever get it into the store for a tenth of the price. That’s a tough one.
GB: How do you compete against that?
JM: That’s a rough one. I don’t do runways or anything like that because it’s just a little too ancien régime for me. But you know, I e-mail Joe [Covell] or Margriet Nannings in Amsterdam.
GB: I think the personal touch there is great. There’s a great story in New York magazine  on Alber Elbaz (the designer for Lanvin) who had just come into New York on his birthday to show the cruise/resort collection. And he was saying, “I could have sent an assistant if I wanted to with the collection.”
JM: I don’t even have an assistant.
GB: But he was just saying that it was important for to him to be there. And I think that says a lot.
JM: Well, the things I do in my life—I’m actually doing them. I’m not interested in having a proxy life or a virtual life, and the selling part of it is very important. Otherwise, why do it? I mean, then I just get a tailor, and I make some clothes, and I put them in a closet and look at them. I mean, great. Fabulous. But if it’s going to be a business, then you have to sell it. And that means you have to get up off your tail and contact people, and do it, and show up.