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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.
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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.