The Blonde & The Brunette Interview Derek Lam! The Master of The Modern Uniform

Known for his classic style with a totally modern twist, Derek Lam began his career at Michael Kors and (just like Kors) has reinvented American sportswear but with his own aesthetic. Lam’s silhouettes are often precise and sharp, and he often chooses stiffer fabrics that hold their shape rather than mold to the wearer’s body; but lately he has branched out into fresh new colors, prints and richer fabrications. Frankly, he just gets better and better.

Born in San Francisco and steeped in the garment business, he channels a West Coast “California Casual”  mixed with an elegant, studied New York sophisticate.  For me, and his growing tribe of followers, that means his designs transcend and operate on all levels from day wear, casual, office to a night on the town to the most elegant evening wear. Wear it to the office. Wear to dinner. Wear it on the weekend. Wear it to travel!

If you think he just popped on to the scene, guess again. After graduating from Parsons School of Design, Derek Lam spent twelve years working under mentor Michael Kors, first on his ready-to-wear lines and later as a head designer at KORS by Michael Kors. In 2002, Lam stuck out on his own; with business partner Jan-Hendrik Schlottmann, he debuted his eponymous line at Olympus Fashion Week—and buyers from Barney’s and Bergdorf Goodman placed orders almost immediately. In 2004, Lam won the Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation Award for new designers, and was also nominated for the CFDA/ Vogue Fashion Fund for emerging designers. While he lost to Proenza Schouler, he was nominated for the CFDA Perry Ellis Swarovski Award for new designers in 2005—and this time, he won.

His most recent collections, were hailed by the fashion press and retailers alike. With Fall 2011 showcasing striking outwear, color blocking, trousers with elongated drum majorette stripes, body-conscious options (and he seems to be expanding in this area), phenomenal sweater dressing (I love this look), embellishment, shearling/fur options,  rock ‘n roll, a touch of plaid, retro and beautifully draped evening wear. For Spring 2011, Lam channeled everything from striking denim, suits, trenches, whites, minimalist and ladylike dresses to wonderful prints and brights. He’s totally on trend but I think he is actually leading the trends. He understands the needs and varied facets of today’s women and her lifestyle. He is the Master of the Modern Uniform, and by the way, he has a uniform (or a signature look) of his own. Great denims with a crisp white shirt. It works every time.

The Blonde and The Brunette sat down and spoke with Derek Lam  yesterday. He had just winged his way into LA from a Far East business trip, and along with Neiman Marcus Beverly Hills, hosted an intimate event showcasing his Fall collection (with plenty of spring choices on hand as well). In a two-part interview, we talked to him about his work, his vision, and asked him a few rapid-fire questions (but that’s part two of the interview along with photos from the event!).

B&B: First, welcome to LA.  This is a special treat.  We love the modernist mix in your Fall 2011 collection.  You’ve captured the many needs of today’s woman by putting a twist on the classics from fresh colors and fabrications, who or what was your inspiration?


Derek Lam: Uniforms!  There’s a great authority about wearing a uniform.  I was watching Mad Men recently (and this collection is not based on the 50’s or 60’s look) but is based on this  idea of getting dressed for work and having a certain polish and authority.  This sense of being a little more formal, it is so appropriate now.  We’re moving away from being too casual and becoming a bit more formal.  Women want to possess this feminine sense of authority.  This feeling of getting up and know what to wear in the morning.


B&B: You’ve definitely hit a chord that resonates with a multi-faceted, multi-tasking woman who has many roles to fill in a day. Who is the “Derek Lam” girl/woman today and how has she evolved over the past few years?


Derek Lam: When I started out, I had this love for very feminine clothes and lots of ruffles.  I’m moving toward more sophisticated clothes.  A sharper silhouette.  It’s really about this concept of possessing a certain authority; but, being from California, there is also always an element of informality to my work as well.


B&B: You have this unique ability to integrate the look of the New York sophisticate with the California casual lifestyle.  What styles in your collection would you recommend for the LA versus the New York woman?


Derek Lam: My work is about the melding of the two aesthetics. What  is applicable to New York also works in California.  A great coat really makes your wardrobe pop and changes your uniform for the season.  Having color for this Fall is great versus the neutrals of camels, blacks and gray flannels (which I always love).  I wanted to introduce pops of pale blues, a beautiful red. It’s about mixing these kinds of great pops of colors with neutrals that is so interesting.  Plus, I love layering.


B&B: What item in your spring and fall collections is the “must have” to add to a woman’s wardrobe?


Derek Lam: For spring, it’s always for me about the dress that you can go from the beach to a party. A great white dress. In a cotton voile with all this embroidery and ornate trim. It’s that one  great piece to have to dress up and to dress down. For Fall, we haven’t seen trousers in a while. Interesting trousers. It’s always about the silhouette. This season the collection offers a strong, color blocked trouser. Black with gray. Red with black. This really bold stripe that elongates the leg and also refreshes the eye to see this interest on the bottom part beyond just a skirt.


B&B: Do you have any looks you recommend for a blonde versus a brunette as well as factoring in skin tone?


Derek Lam: I do think some seasons are more of a blonde season which I love; I have this California ideal of this kind of blonde, All-American which was definitely this last spring. This fall is more about the brunette; but, this fall is definitely more about color. I think it’s beyond that, it’s all about your skin tone and the universal is the red and the pale blue which really works on everyone.  Flattering, unexpected.  We were careful about the color.  Not too baby blue.  Not too uniform.  The combination with double cashmere fabrics makes it all cozy.  Finding something that was fresh that was also appropriate that you could also wear with black.  I love black.


B&B: Well, I do too!  But tell us about the inspiration of this gorgeous pale blue.


Derek Lam: I was looking through Francois Nars and his photography of people in their uniforms and also a great portrait of Boy George in a lilac hat and pale blue tweed jacket.  He has these dark features and dramatic make-up.  And I thought, this is interesting!


B&B: What is your one piece of fashion advice?


Derek Lam: You need to feel comfortable. I always ask, do you feel comfortable?  At the end of the day, I want women to walk away with something from my collection that gives a woman confidence.  I think a lot of pulling and tugging and feel constricted  is not my thing.


B&B: We couldn’t agree more! It’s a long day and we know your following includes many working women.  Women need to be able to easily and comfortably transition.


Derek Lam: For me, it’s about being comfortable in your own skin and that’s what fashion can lend to an audience that can appreciate style and I’m not talking about sweats.


B&B  and Derek Lam: Lots of laughter.

Part 2 of our interview with Derek Lam will follow in the next few days!

– NJ, the Brunette