Just-so story

Sunday 19 February 2012

Designers · Featured

Words by Rebecca Lowthorpe
Photography by Tara Darby

There is a point in my interview with Thomas Tait where he puts his hand up to mine and we marvel at his long fingers – a good two inches longer than mine – and then I can’t stop thinking about Edward Scissorhands. It’s not just his ability in the cutting department. Or that he’s as thin as a shadow and as pale as a ghost. Tait is softly spoken. A loner. Remote. Shy. Otherworldly. He could also be Gareth Pugh’s long-lost brother. Not that Gareth Pugh has a long-lost brother, as far as I know, but they look a lot alike.

We meet in his studio in Hackney, where he works and sleeps. I’m expecting a hive of activity, but he is alone in this neat, whitewashed space with fresh flowers in vases. His ‘proper’ studio, where his small team is based, is located at the Centre for Fashion Enterprise (CFE) over in Mare Street, but he says it’s too crazy there and he’s suffering from a bad cold and he just wanted to be somewhere quiet.

Tait is from the new batch of Central Saint Martins supertalents: the MA class of 2010, which also produced Simone Rocha, Matthew Harding (of the cotton-couture shirtmakers Palmer//Harding), J JS Lee and Tze Goh. All peas from the same minimalist pod. They are Anti-Decorators. At least anti anything as loud and speedy as a digital print – the very stuff that has, over the past few seasons, put London Fashion Week front and centre stage.

“I don’t really understand the whole print thing,” croaks Tait, in a soft, high whisper, stroking his throat with one long hand, while pouring himself a “medicinal” orange juice with the other. “I just don’t get why that print thing is so modern.” And why should he? Tait is 24. He has grown up with the internet and Photoshop. “Where’s the mystery in a digital print?” he asks, mystified. “It’s a printer. Where’s the craft in it? The patience? It doesn’t involve someone’s hands. There’s no brush stroke.”

What Tait and his peers share is an obsession with construction; it’s the building of clothes, the inner workings and hidden seams, and their apparent simplicity. It’s slow fashion; fashion to take your time over. The opposite of instant messaging; an essay, not a tweet. You’re not supposed to get it in a nanosecond. “I wouldn’t want to make something that people can just look at for a second and know all about it,” he says. “I’d rather build it more slowly and gain the respect and attention span of my customer.”

He compares London’s established digi-printers and his generation with film directors Quentin Tarantino and Sofia Coppola. No prizes for guessing which camp he’s in. And yes – his clothes are not unlike her films, in that not very much seems to happen but you’re gripped nonetheless.

Tait is Canadian. He was born and brought up in a suburb on the outskirts of Montreal – “lots of nice trees, golf courses, very quiet”. His mother is French-Canadian and teaches English at a secretarial college. His father, who was born in Scotland, works as a mechanic at Bombardier, the aeroplane manufacturer, following a string of jobs that included delivering newspapers, driving school buses and managing an exclusive yacht club. “He’s kind of opposite to me,” says Tait, “he never had a set goal for a career. He’s always shifted around.” He has two older sisters and is particularly fond of the one who is the most opposite to him. “She’s stocky, short and a lesbian. She plays tackle football. We’re like X-rays of each other.”

You’d expect someone as “goal-driven” as Tait to have been obsessed with fashion from birth, but this is not the case. He was more determined to become a black belt in karate (which he studied for nine years) than a fashion designer. “I didn’t read fashion magazines or watch fashion TV or anything like that. I didn’t wear designer stuff. God, no. I didn’t know anything about that,” he says. An observer, he’d watch his classmates – the girls in Juicy Couture tracksuits and Von Dutch baseball caps, and the boys in board shorts and Puma t-shirts – and just know that he wasn’t one of them. “I guess people wrote off my weirdness as homosexuality, but I realised there was more to the story than being ‘just some gay kid’,” he says.

The tipping point was drawing. “I was always sketching people, their posture, angles. And I was thinking about the way things felt and the way things looked and how people presented themselves, and I always had this idea that they could be better.” He enrolled at LaSalle College in Montreal on a fashion programme that focused on the technical side of making clothes. This suited him well, as he discovered his ability – like all great cutters – to see flat cloth three-dimensionally. It was during this time that he started to find out all he could about fashion and its world. He became “completely obsessed” with moving to London to study at Central Saint Martins. “It was the time of BoomBox and these crazy young kids, like Gareth Pugh and Henry Holland. I was fascinated by how free they were to just do whatever they pleased. In LaSalle and in Montreal that was always an issue. I mean, when students don’t understand why you’re a boy studying womenswear, you can only imagine how it’s quite a leap to get them to understand runway fashion.”

So for the next six months, he worked through the night on his portfolio; he couldn’t apply to Central Saint Martins with paper patterns and a spec sheet. Yet he must have created a stellar portfolio, because he was accepted without interview and aged only 20 – one of the youngest students to ever gain entry on the MA course. “I kind of became a bit OCD about the whole thing. I really wanted to make a statement and get noticed,” he says, wincing. So what got him the prized place? “Oh, it wasn’t pretty,” he says with a laugh. “It was all about posture, so I went through a long period of looking at horrific photos of bone diseases. It was all very creepy and dark, a bit sick. And a million miles from anything I’d do now.”

For someone who had pinned his dreams on being at Central Saint Martins, it was all a disappointment, he says. He became so overwrought with the need for approval from his tutors and older classmates that he almost failed his first year. But the determination
(“I always need to finish what I start”) kicked in and, in 2010, he graduated with a strikingly accomplished and mature all-black collection.

It requires incredible balls to start up your own collection, I say. But as he sees it, “I didn’t have anything to offer anybody else. I didn’t really know that much about fashion – I still don’t. Unless I’m talking about something personal, what do I have
to say?” But it didn’t take long before he was reaping the benefits of being a young designer in London: sponsorship and prizes came thick and fast. He won the Dorchester Collection Fashion Prize, the Topshop-sponsored BFC NEWGEN and the CFE. Asos has also enlisted him to develop a small range of leather goods.

“We felt strongly about his future the first time we saw his work, and immediately got excited about the possibilities of working together,” says Caren Downie, womenswear fashion director at Asos. “His designs have a precision that is rarely seen in the work of someone his age; the construction is meticulous to the point where each garment is as beautifully executed on the inside as it is on the outside. Combined with a very determined head on his young shoulders, that makes him such an exciting talent to come across.”

Ruth Runberg, buying director at Browns, is equally smitten. “Thomas has a discipline and focus of vision that is rare for a young designer. While other collections attract consumers with obvious design bells and whistles, such as embellishment or bold prints, Thomas’s subtly elegant designs require us to take the time to appreciate the smallest, quietest details that certainly are much more difficult and time-intensive for him to design and produce.’

Among Tait’s international stockists are 10 Corso Como in Milan, and Louis Boston, Blake and Linda Dresner in the US. And he is learning a lot from the buyers, he says. “How clients don’t like to show their arms, or they’re sensitive about their calves and knees. If you spoke to a man about that, he’d say, ‘You’re crazy! It’s just an arm! It’s just a knee!’ But there’s something really impressive about how intricate it can get, and I have that in the back of my mind all the time when I’m cutting. How it will feel.”

We get up to look at his new collection. Neat line drawings, pinned precisely to a board, reveal colour – mustard and chocolate – and a deep green velvet, which has been screen printed (note: not digitally) to resemble moss? “Yes,” he says, “or some kind of bacterial disease.” The clothes look modern, easy to wear, simple enough, but it’s hard to tell from drawings, so I ask to try something on. He produces a large, black wool coat from a previous season. It has metal “Thomas Tait” buttons and, despite its size – a large cocoon shape – is very light. I slip it on and the collar caresses the back of my neck, the sleeves swoop to a precise cuff, the length is perfect, my hands feel the softness inside the pockets.

He says, “Pretty much everything I do, I do for myself, which might sound very selfish. This is my little life and it’s not for everyone. I don’t want to take over the world or make a revolution, and I kind of want people to feel the same way. You spend a lot of money, but you’re smart about the way you spend it. You feel good in your clothes; you’re not doing it to impress your boyfriend or to get your photo taken; you’re doing it because it feels right; it just makes you feel good about yourself. That’s how I approach the design process, and hopefully that’s how the consumer is going to approach it.”

Standing here in his coat, I know exactly what he means. I get it. And it feels good.

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