In a London season that swung commercial, Thomas Tait kept the city’s off-kilter flame burning, with a conceptual collection of clothing that hung together, it seemed, by a stitch and a prayer. There were fluttery diaphanous fabrics, dangling leather panels and looks with just one sleeve.
“Sometimes only one arm is cold,” according to the Canadian-born, London-educated designer’s show notes.
Some weeks later, over drinks at the Ace Hotel in east London, Tait talks about his creative flow.
“For some reason, one sleeve would disappear in the sketching process…sometimes there’s just no explanation for it,” says Tait, 28, who made headlines this year when he won the inaugural LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize, which comes with 300,000 euros ($381,000) in cash plus a year of coaching from LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton executives.
Tait eventually offered buyers two-sleeve variations on his original designs, but that move could never damage the arty soul of his spring outing, which was inspired by the trompe l’oeil work of the French artist and photographer Georges Rousse.
Rousse is best known for painting large-scale geometric shapes in abandoned buildings—and then photographing them. Not only did he inspire Tait, but he also made the large-scale color-block installations that served as the backdrop to the show—which took place in a derelict space with little piles of rubble swept into corners and exposed wiring.
Tait is an admirer of Rousse’s art, which is created directly on walls, floors and ceilings, and of his photographs, which have a 3-D effect.
“In order to achieve the photograph, the work is done three-dimensional, but the result is a two-dimensional image,” says Tait, drawing a parallel between Rousse’s work and that of a fashion designer. “You work on a three-dimensional product, you work on the body. You have to develop something inside and out, and a lot of the time—for the fashion public and the media—it results in a two-dimensional photo.”
While his spring silhouettes could be challenging at times—only customers with the gait of a gazelle will be able to carry many of them off—watching them flutter and move was a treat. There were leather checkerboard skirts, inspired by Rousse’s earlier works, with panels that appeared to hang together precariously, and silk checkerboard dresses, some of them peekaboo. Even the one-armers—a tomato leather dress with pleats and a long sleeve, and a jaunty pink-and-yellow one with a similar off-kilter construction—were intriguing.
More commercial offerings included double-faced silk satin trousers the color of oyster shells, a lineup of liquid silk satin dresses and jackets with two crinkled sleeves.
Tait, who at 24 was the youngest student to complete the Central Saint Martins women’s wear Master of Arts degree, never set out to speak to the masses. Instead, he’s built a dedicated following since unveiling his first runway collection at London Fashion Week in 2010 and scooping the inaugural Dorchester Collection Fashion Prize a few months later. He sells to about 10 retail accounts. His architectural pieces, plays on volume and celebration of the three-dimensional nature of clothing have won him fans worldwide, including Debi Greenberg of Louis Boston and the team at Matchesfashion.com in London, both of whom have supported him from Day One.
“His viewpoint and vision are exciting, original and full of integrity, and [the collection has] a loyal cult following,” says Natalie Kingham, buying director at Matchesfashion.
Greenberg compares Tait’s shows to gallery openings, and says that what appears on the runway is not necessarily what she or her customers will end up wearing. His showroom is filled with “very wearable, extremely well-made clothing that lays beautifully on the body. They end up being your favorite pieces,” she notes, adding that Tait “cuts a pant unlike anybody else,” and she raves about the way his trousers drape and wrap around the body. He is “very meticulous” in his approach to making clothing, Greenberg says, and his pieces are as polished on the inside as they are on the outside.
“He concerns himself with pattern, construction and how something drapes. He goes beyond just design—he’s an execution person. He is more than just three-dimensional. He is five-dimensional.”
For spring, Tait broke fresh ground, exploring the notion of sexiness. “There was a sharpness to the slits: If you saw legs, you saw them through laser slashes [on the skirt] rather than in a reduction of length,” he says. “Rather than making something extremely short—and not having a garment—you’re seeing it through slithers and windows.”
He adds that he wants the sexiness to come from the movement of the women wearing the clothes.
“I didn’t want the clothes to look sexy if you laid them flat on a table,” he says. “I wanted them to look sexy in partnership with the wearer. With everything I do, I want it to look sophisticated, I also think [designing] always has to be done with consideration of the woman who is in the clothes. I can’t really live without that.”
Tait offered up elements from this collection as part of his application for the LVMH prize, where he impressed a panel of judges, including Humberto Leon, cofounder of Opening Ceremony and designer at Kenzo. “He knew the craft really well and he had an original voice—what he was doing was a little bit out of the box,” Leon says. “There was something fresh and raw about his designs, and his point of view was somewhat unique. People felt [the prize] could really make a difference. I think everyone saw a lot of potential in Thomas, and that potential seemed really exciting.”
Tait hasn’t let the award go to his head—he can’t afford to. “I haven’t earned this 300,000 euros through sale and profit.…It’s a different thing, it’s a one-off payment and it’s not going to come again next year. So really, the focus is to make sure that I can take this money and help my business to make even more money, which is an easy thing to say—but not an easy thing to do. I was struggling, I was really struggling before, so it’s not like we’re fine and everything is flush, and I can just develop a new project or make something a bit better than it was before,” the designer says. “A huge chunk of this money is actually going toward things that need immediate help—and then the rest of the money is going to be focused on manufacturing and making sure that I can accept all of the orders that I want to accept, without saying no to any of them. I’ll be able to work with better terms, I’ll be able to know that I can actually go to production right away.”
And while that LVMH prize won’t come along twice, he knows other opportunities await, and his thinking remains big—yet realistic. “I definitely want to focus the next five years on wholesale development, making sure I open up some more doors, that I create more of a rapport…with certain key stockists that I’ve been working with from the beginning. They’ve seen me through thick and thin over the last five years. And ideally making sure that the company becomes profitable to the point that it can continue to expand and grow for the next five years—ideally in an independent manner.
“I definitely would want to expand into flagships. I’d be keen on doing it in partnership with someone.…But I think, you know, if I were to open a store, I know myself and my style and my delusions, and I wouldn’t be OK with having a cute little boutique in a little corner street in Soho or something. I want to bust out. It might only be a small rail of clothes, but the store is going to be amazing. It would be the kind of project that I would want to have as a creative opportunity, as well, where I would like to function as an architect and build the lighting and sort of pull all of my resources and the relationships that I’ve built and do something that spatially is more than just a store.”