Simkhai Style: Getting to know CFDA-Approved Designer Jonathan Simkhai

A word to the wise: Practice getting the spelling right. Simkhai is here to stay.

By Renata Certo-Ware

Up-and-coming womenswear designer Jonathan Simkhai is more than just a (very) pretty face. At only 27, he’s wise beyond his years when it comes to understanding what makes the fashion industry - buyers, press, and clients - tick. He’s been steadily churning out several seasonal collections a year since he first started his clothing label in 2010, and has proven that he knows the business as well as the veterans.

So much so, he’s already been acknowledged by the CFDA, which has included him in its sophomore session of the {Fashion Incubator}, a two-year program that helps grow, sustain, and support fledgling fashion brands. Worldwide, W Hotels has also become a supporter of {Fashion Incubator}, which means participating designers better have their bags packed!

With a distinctive aesthetic - New York structure with a touch of carefree Cali - that references both coasts, Hollywood is taking note, too; Kristen Stewart wore a blouse and shorts from Simkhai’s pre-fall collection to introduce Bon Jovi at the 12.12.12 concert last winter.

W Hotels sent Simkhai across the globe to its location in Bangkok to soak up inspiration for upcoming collections, which we're sure to see pop up in his coming collections. Before his big trip to Asia, we caught up with the winsome designer at Louis Boston, the first retailer to pick up his clothing line three years ago, to talk shop, NYFW, and men who love women who love menswear.

You got a start in your career at Louis Boston when you did the Designer Exposure series, and now that you’re back for a trunk show, you get to talk directly to your target audience and kind of “convince them” to buy your clothes. What do you like about interacting on such a close level with clients?

I really love connecting with clients! When you’re with a customer, you can see what’s making the sale, or what’s breaking the sale. When a showroom buyer comes in, it’s like “No. Yes. No. Yes.” I’m like, “Ok, well why not?” With clients they’ll say “This doesn’t fit me”, or “I don’t like the length, I want it longer.” And of course, when somebody buys something and they see the designer, it’s so much more exciting to wear it. They feel connected and invested in the piece.

As a young designer with only a few collections under your belt, what’s the biggest challenge about getting your line into stores? Do you find that people are more or less likely to want to work with a relatively new designer?

I think people take me just as seriously as a more veteran designer, but there are challenges for new designers. Store owners and buyers have a certain budget allocated for the season, so once you show your collection, you have to break in and replace someone else to get their portion of the buyers’ budget - more dollars don’t just show up. It’s about having to prove yourself when you’re competing for shelf space with designers who have been around for so long and have built up these houses. You have to come up with something new and fresh, and find a way to inspire your consumer, show them something they haven’t already seen.

Has being acknowledged by the CFDA helped put hearts - and checkbooks - at ease?

The backing of the CFDA has definitely given me the stamp of approval. Also, I sell at Barneys, Louis, and Ikram in Chicago so I’m past the first step of buyers being hesitant, of having to prove myself.

How did you initially grab the attention of the CFDA? What do you think they saw in you that made them want to give you that extra chance?

When I started with my first season, it was kind of a slow challenge to see what was important as a designer, to figure out the whole balance between being commercially valuable and editorially valuable. My first few seasons were about figuring out that balance, juggling and going back and forth, so once I figured that out I think the CFDA appreciated that I was really understanding the nature of my business. I was creating collections that were inspiring editors and that were commercial.

A private moment with fashion's own Fire Priestess Taylor Tomasi Hill during Simkhai's presentation at Milk Studios during NYFW

Has presenting your collections at New York Fashion Week helped - or hurt - you?

I feel like a lot of designers just want to show in New York. It’s like, “Ok, well, what are you showing in New York?” And in the beginning I didn’t understand what I was showing in New York either. I took three seasons off from doing New York Fashion Week, because my sales weren’t back up the editorial exposure I was getting. I’m not getting into this business just to get into magazines. I want to make clothes and dress women. And what women want to see [in magazines] is different than what women want to wear. Those are two different things, and you have to have both. So when I took that time off, they [the CFDA] were like “Ok, he’s being responsible, he’s thinking about his business”. Now it’s about bigger collections where I can have that balance between editorial and commercial pieces.

Suzy Menkes published an article last Spring in the New York Times called “The Circus of Fashion”, about how the focus of Fashion Week has shifted as outrageous bloggers and “famous for being famous” fashion whores are creating media frenzy. Do you think it’s still about generating sales or is it all about the spectacle?

The spectacle is very important, because your buzz is what drives sales. Having these blogs write about you creates a buzz, and for the customer who sits at their desk 10 hours a day and who might not be at the shows, it helps direct sales to Shopbop.com, Net-a-porter.com. That’s really important because a lot of people really love fashion but really don’t have direct access to it. New York Fashion Week, for me, is a self-expression, a level of energy, something to be excited about. It’s great - I think you haven’t even seen the circus yet; it’s going to get even bigger!

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Your clothing is really influenced by menswear, and women’s love of menswear.

Menswear has always been a fun angle for women to dress in. There’s something really rebellious about women wearing men’s clothing, like a boyfriend’s sweatshirt, and I love dressing that rebellious kind of girl, playing with that look and making it fun.

You’ve expressed interest in also doing a menswear collection. Why did you start with womenswear?

There’s a bigger market for womenswear, and women are willing to take more risks. If they love something, they’ll push it, they’ll believe in. They’re like little birds; they’ll wear your clothes and fly around and inspire, and help spread the word. Once you get them on your side, they’ll push their boyfriends, and fathers, and brothers, and husbands to buy the clothes too.

What’s different about the way men dress versus the way women dress? Do you think men just don’t have that sense of playfulness about the way they dress?

They do, but men just pay attention to different details. I think that women usually dress for men or other women, where men just think a little bit more about “What’s comfortable?” or “What can I get away with?” I’m like that at least.

You’re born and raised in Manhattan, and have really identified with the pulse of NYC, but you newest collection has a major Cali-vibe!

For Spring/Summer 2013, I was spending a lot of time on the West Coast, and I was inspired by California in the 70’s, The Lords of Dogtown and the skate revolution. I looked to how rebellious they were and they just loved what they’re doing and didn’t care what they were wearing. I took that idea and spun it into this Cali-cool, “I didn’t try too hard” vibe.

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LOUIS BOSTON ON SIMKHAI: The decades-old fashion institution on why Simkhai was a shoe-in.

Jonathan Simkhai may have been knighted with the NYC-based CFDA stamp of approval, but the international success of his label can trace its beginnings to Beantown, where Louis Boston was the first retailer to pick up his clothing three years ago.

An iconic favorite from Spring/Summer 2013

Simkhai’s creative mix of masculine and feminine is what initially caught the eye of the buying team at Louis, which has been slinging high fashion to Boston’s Best-Dressed for over 100 years. “His pieces are beautiful and distinctively ambiguous, and his attention to fabrics like cashmere, wool, cotton and silk, as well as his attention to how a garment is tailored and finished, is really what made his work stand out to Louis,” explains Maria Fei, VP of Operations.

Needless to say, Simkhai stuck. “His line quickly became a part of the store's contemporary selection,” says Fei. “As a designer, Jonathan is unique. His collection has classic elements while being sexy and feminine and is perfect for the modern, urban woman.”

His aesthetic - New York structure with a touch of carefree Cali - is just the perfect formula for Boston’s chic sensibilities. Louis PR Manager Liana Krupp weighs in: “His clothes work for Boston because there's a versatility that can be incorporated with any women's closet. The way he cuts his clothes has an element of classic simplicity, without ever being boring. He’s one of the designers that get us excited about where American fashion is going!”

So what’s on the horizon for Simkhai’s upcoming collection? “True to his sporty ways, expect to see leather hoodies, bombers, and boxy pony-hair sweatshirts with girly touches.” Fei reveals. Hit up Louis now for Simkhai’s breezy Pre-Spring and Spring/Summer 2013 collections in a delicious palette of dreamy blues, chartreuse, pink and pops of neon yellow, and stay tuned for his Pre-Fall selection later this summer.