Thomas Tait, 28, hasn’t looked back – much – since he left Montreal in 2008 to pursue his obsession: to study at the renowned Central Saint Martins fashion school in London.
Two years ago, he won what may be the richest prize in fashion – 300,000 euros in the inaugural LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers.
Of course, he said, there is no money left.
But there is a whole lot of experience and learning on his part, as well as awareness of his brand in the fashion world.
“A lot of people think the prize completely transformed my career because people see a sum like 300,000 euros and think, ‘Wow you’re set for life.’
“It really brought me to another level in terms of media awareness,” Tait said.
“Strategically, it was a really steep learning curve for myself and for the group,’’ he added, explaining that the luxury houses are financially fuelled by accessories, cosmetics and fragrance. “The ready to wear is something of a crown jewel for these houses.”
In Canada to attend the CAFAs – the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards in Toronto – Tait stopped in Montreal recently to visit his family en route back to London. He was nominated as the Canadian international designer of the year, but Jason Wu took the honour.
We met in the bar of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The meeting reminded me of an anecdote British milliner Stephen Jones recalled last summer about when he came to Montreal and met with Gazette fashion editor Iona Monahan in the 1980s. He was wearing a hot off-the-runway Mugler blazer, which Ritz staff declared “too fashion,’’ obliging Jones to change into a “Tony the Taylor” polyester blazer. (Here’s the anecdote.) Tait was wearing a geometric print shirt by Prada, 10-year-old Dior jeans, a Habs baseball cap and white sneakers. There was not a murmur about his outfit.
In a rambling afternoon conversation at the Montreal landmark, Tait was thoughtful on the state of fashion today, both luxury and fast.
With his most recent collections, he said, he is more interested in things that are “more delicate – that feature intricate work or detailing.”
“I try to create clothes that force the viewer – whoever is looking at you – they have to be physically close to you to understand what it is you’re wearing.
“I’ve been interested in sort of forcing physical intimacy and social intimacy through clothing – kind of manipulating intimacy.”
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Even as a student at LaSalle College in Montreal, Tait was gathering buzz. And before he showed his first collection in London, he was nominated for another prestigious prize, the Dorchester. With the wind in his sails, he showed his first collection, in 2010, at the Wilkinson Gallery in East London.
“I had really nice attendance. It started snowballing from there.”
He acknowledges that he could not have done this here, but his education at LaSalle College was more than helpful.
“At LaSalle, you get a very good understanding of what they’re preparing you for and what the industry is looking for. My experience of fashion studies in Canada was very technical.
“And now, thank god I have it.
“I had these grand delusions of sketching and doing all the fun, superficial part of the design process.
“I could have done things here, of course,’’ he said, musing that he probably would have taken a job rather than start his own label. But he did not even consider staying. He was focussed on high end and runway, “which doesn’t really exist here. So it was just natural for me to draw my focus on England.”
For all the attention, Tait’s company is still very small. He has one employee, a brand director, and has a network of of sales agencies and freelancers for textiles and manufacturing, KCD for media.
Some questions for Tait:
- Name something you learned from the experience of the LVMH prize.
“Really understanding the gap between an independent brand and conglomerate brands.”
But he’s not trying to sell his brand. “I naively have the ambition to continue to be the owner of my company and have full control of it.”
- Describe your aesthetic and how it has evolved.
“It’s evolved organically. It’s not so strategic. I tend to go with my instincts.
“I approached colour very quietly at the beginning. I didn’t want to make a big splash – there was a huge amount of digital print when I started. There was so much colour – every look had a rainbow of colour.
“A lot of people initially thought it’s very dark and moody, very gothic.”
He said he wants to reinforce the idea of “physical attraction with product.”
“A lot of people see their clothing as disposable, something that doesn’t need to be appreciated physically until you actually own it. I like enforcing the message that going into a store and touching something and trying it on and appreciating how you feel in something is a big part of the value of clothing.”
- What’s your take on fast fashion?
“A lot of people are starting to understand the possible damage that fast fashion can make on the planet. A lot of people are talking. The consumer is slower.
“Are we giving ourselves the best opportunity to educate the young consumer, who will eventually be the luxury consumer?
“What’s dying is the understanding that clothing could and should be valuable. People don’t value what they put on their bodies.”
- How can the Montreal fashion industry be reinvented?
“It’s about making something new. I think it’s about encouraging people to be individual, to understand what the consumer wants, what the consumer needs, managing expectations.
“It’s such a creative city and so accommodating for young people, for creative people, for people interested in the arts. It’s so special in Canada – that I refuse to believe we can’t have a relationship with fashion and clothing that could be a successful one in a financial, business way.
“There’s something to be done whether that’s luxury or runway fashion. There’s a lot of cool cats running around the city.”
But it’s not about opening really expensive boutiques, Tait says.
“By the time a Thomas Tait coat lands in Canada, and you see the visual number in Canadian dollars. it just looks ridiculous.
“It costs too much. It’s supposed to be no more than about 2,000 pounds. It sometimes goes quite a bit higher. Which is something I need to remedy.”