29 Mar 2017

An insider's view of the New York fashion industry

12:26 pm on 29 March 2017

"It’s not necessarily so much about satisfying my ego but it’s more about 'I did this and this is a testament to who I am, how hard I work and how much I care about a lot of the industry as well'.”


Jonathan back stage for Suno Spring 2016 (September 2015 at New York Fashion Week)

Jonathan back stage for Suno Spring 2016 (September 2015 at New York Fashion Week) Photo: Eli Shmidt

Strong creative vision, perseverance and a down-to-earth personality are qualities that have helped stylist and creative consultant Jonathan Thai make a high profile career in fashion.

Not here in New Zealand, but in New York.

On his resume you’ll find work with Prada, Miu Miu, and no fewer than five Vogue magazines.

Now after eight years in the NYC fashion scene, he’s back in Auckland.

He talked Trump, Instagram, and innovators in fashion with Sonia Sly for her RNZ podcast, My Heels Are Killing Me.

How do you think Donald Trump being president is going to affect the fashion industry?

It kind of already has. Fashion is a very artistic and creative expression, and as artists and admirers of the creative industry and fashion we should exercise our right to voice our opinions. I feel like people that are progressive and liberal do really want to voice that.

I was looking at coverage of the New York Fashion Week and there were so many designers that were resisting President Trump. It was a nice way for them to say they don’t want to hide behind something where they just want to create a business and make money.

They have a voice and they’re exercising that right and I give more power to them because it’s about creating awareness for the people.

Fashion is about being commercial, but there is Trump creating a state of tension within what it actually means to be both a creative and a commercial entity.

In a nutshell I feel like that’s what fashion is representing, there’s two sides to it. As well as using fabric and fashion design as our medium, it’s also creating a business, and that’s where people’s voices have kind of blurred.

It is quite interesting to see who’s in opposition and who’s just not saying anything at all, and I think that says a lot about the industry too. I’m just waiting for more of the fashion community to be able to step up but at the same time they do rely on people buying their design.

Even in NZ, probably to a smaller scale, you’re starting to see installations during Fashion Week and people taking a different creative approach to the production of their shows. Over in New York what kind of breakthrough shows were you seeing and what were the trends that were happening?

I find technology is one of the fastest moving things in terms of doing something different. There are things like the film aspect of tech and the projection aspect and the lighting aspect and things encompassing that whole industry that fashion people don’t necessarily gravitate towards all the time.

Like one of my company's other clients did a video installation where she had a whole room blacked out, with different screens and podiums around the space where there were models and they were actually moving with the clothes. You could see the movement of the clothes but it wasn’t for only five seconds [like would happen during a runway show].

Jonathan has worked across NYFW including this Fall 13 collection for Proenza Schouler.

Jonathan has worked across NYFW including this Fall 13 collection for Proenza Schouler. Photo: Eli Shmidt

A while back there some was controversey about audiences at fashion shows being so engrossed in capturing and sharing photos via social media that they became removed from the live experience. It seems almost pointless, doesn't it?

I feel like it’s not necessarily something [fashion designers] want to oppose or punish. Getting their brand out there is to have those people to participate and they’re going to participate how they want to. I feel like they’ve considered that in a way that they’re just like “you know what, why don’t we give them what they want” so they give them a fashion show that’s instagrammable or snapchattable where it’s this incredible opulent set or you have this really cool lighting infrastructure. I feel like people actually do consider all those elements.

Sometimes people really want to walk into a room that’s completely fogged out and they can’t breathe, but the whole message of the fashion show would probably be ‘let’s stop and take a minute to breathe’. Or having a light in the waiting room and having it make you feel so sick because it’s so concentrated, but that’s the reaction you want.

You want that provocative sense where people have to think about where they’ve gone because again these designers are putting their heart and soul into this collection, so you’ve gotta pay respect to them and if that’s via an Instagram post and it’s hashtagged and you get 500 likes to drum up the press, or if it gets someone emotionally reacting I feel like I’ve done my job in a sense and that’s what designers are kinda wanting to get.

Who are the designers that you’ve enjoyed working with the most?

The favourites that I’ve worked on are Opening Ceremony, they’re doing something really cool within the industry and also with the format of how they’re presenting their collection. So, Opening Ceremony is a store that opened in 2002 in downtown New York in Soho and it’s headed by Humberto Leon and Carol Lim who are also now the creative directors of Kenzo. The first show we did with them was actually a really cool concept. They wanted to create a performance.

What was the theme?

The whole set design and inspiration came from Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect. They found these blueprints and architectural drawings of this city that he didn’t realise before he died, so they took that inspiration of having a free world and a open world.

They actually had a really longstanding collaboration with Justin Peck, who was the resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet. There were talks pretty early on to work in NYC ballet dancers within the cast of models who were going to model the collection.

What happened was we had seven dancers confirmed and they were sprinkled out throughout the collection, and there were about six different points throughout the runway collection where all the dancers tripped up. Obviously as a spectator you’re just looking at this being like “Oh my god there’s models falling over like help her up. Oh my god this poor thing” but it happened at six points throughout the runway so every time it happened people were reacting in different ways which I thought was kind of like a different play on the whole format.

So it was all intentional?

Yes, it was all intentional which I love, and going back to the show footage and watching people's reactions was just really funny because it’s such a shock and people didn’t know how to respond when a model falls over on a runway, you don’t want to ruin the show, you don’t want to disrespect the designer and then have people write about it at the end and it’s like aaah.

The cool thing is that is was totally intentional and as they progressed further on down the runway their falls got more opulent and they started choreographing more pieces and stuff like that. It was just a really cool concept.

Does it feel like a massive deal that you’ve got this backlog of celebrities and you’ve worked on all of these international publications and big brands, does that feel like a big deal for you as a guy from New Zealand?

Definitely when I was living in New York, especially when I first got there, not knowing anyone basically besides a family friend of mine and then coming across after eight years and being like damn I’ve done all this cool work.

It’s not necessarily so much about satisfying my ego but it’s more about “I did this and this is a testament to who I am, how hard I work and how much I care about a lot of the industry as well.” Sure you can say I’ve done Italian Vogue with Steven Meisel or I’ve done a Pirelli Calendar, or I’ve worked with Craig McDean on a Calvin Klein shoot. Those are all really cool things to have on your resume, but at the same time I just felt so appreciated and really thankful that I was there because you could have picked anyone but you managed to pick me and there was a reason for that. So, that’s what I can be proud of, especially as a Kiwi as well.

LISTEN > Jonathan Thai on My Heels Are Killing Me: