Nothing beats watching a creative person in their natural habitat. Add some serene East London nature and a Danish sense of humour into the mix and you’ve got yourself a long session of chatting and walking alongside Peter Jensen, a fashion designer that’s currently celebrating 15 years since he started his label.
We’re in Peter’s home, listening to a Velvet Underground record and discussing our proceedings for the day. The plan is to walk his usual morning route from Clapton to his studio in Dalston. “It’s a great way to start the day,” he says. Before starting our venture, the designer makes some coffee using a French press, which gives me a moment or two to look around the living room. There’s a bulky leather sofa, wooden shelves and a table with lots of books around – it’s very Danish. In contrast to these clean lines are colorful lamps, large posters, and the miniature dolls made in collaboration with the American artist Laurie Simmons (and mother of Lena Dunham) for his spring/summer 2010 collection. They have a childlike, naive and cheerful appearance which instantly reminds me of Peter’s general design aesthetic. When I ask him about the project he smiles, “It was a major thing for me because I really loved her work and it was so great to do it that way. I was so being advised not to do it by the establishment, but I was like this is a once in a lifetime chance for me and she’s a major American photographer. You can’t just sit there and think well I’ve got the choice, when really it’s the other way round. It was really fun.”
Paper dolls made in collaboration with Laurie Simmons
After a dose of caffeine, some chat about Mariah Carey vinyl and the sudden hype around hygge (a Danish word for comfortable living with peace of mind) we’re walking, somewhere in the woods between the home and the studio. “It’s a shame my dog isn’t with me – she’s quite friendly,” he shares.
Q: What do you think, how has the last 15 years gone? Has it passed slowly or quickly?
A: The last 15 years has felt like a lifetime. As Suzanne Vega says, “you feel every part on your body”. Things have changed and moved on for the good or the bad. When I started out there were these little Japanese booklets that they did every fashion week, with reviews and listings of shows for each fashion week. I was looking at them the other day and the first one was for autumn/winter 2001.I think there’s only me and one other person from the London book who are working. A lot of people come and go.
Q: Do you think London has changed more than the other fashion capitals?
A: When I started out, London was kind of tiny – it wasn't a big deal. It was where you could design stuff that didn't matter commercially, in terms of big businesses. New York was the money, Paris was the old fashion houses and London was the new little sister that was doing stuff here and there. Now it’s much more corporate, with big businesses and big money and everyone getting financed from here, there and everywhere. I really think that the bad thing is that there’s just too much clothing out there. If I’m quite honest, now I think fashion is dead. The whole market, all this clothing and I don’t understand where it’s all going.
The AW14 collection inspired by the fictional character from the Ingmar Bergman film Fanny och Alexander
Q: All of your collections are inspired by peculiar female characters like Helena Rubinstein, Peggy Guggenheim and Paulette Goddard. It feels like they all come from a personal collage that you have at home, like a fanzine. How do you choose these characters?
A: It’s true. These women have always been described as being odd, but that’s just my interest. I don't think women like these will ever die out. I’m really into [the American author] Carson McCullers at the moment. I really enjoy reading her books. They are so easy to read, with so many pictures and textures and fashion references in the books, they're really brilliant.
Q: Was there one specific moment in the last 15 years you can look back at and see as a breakthrough point?
A: If we’re talking about a breakthrough, I have to say that is definitely spring/summer 2005 show, the ice-skating show. The collection was inspired by Tonya Harding and it was shown at the ice rink in Bayswater. It got a lot of attention, people really really loved it and were talking about it. We were skint at that point, with no money at all to do anything. It was literally touch and go between going bankrupt or trying to continue designing. So we continued.
The SS05 collection inspired by Tonya Harding
Q: You started as a menswear designer. What was the turning point when you swapped to womenswear?
A: After showing three menswear collections straight out of college under my own name on the official menswear Paris schedule I did a small womenswear show at London Fashion Week. It was located in an old nightclub in Mayfair – it was quite good fun. Alasdair McLellan had taken the pictures for the show, which was a slide show running in the background. I had some friends dressed up in the outfits and they were walking around this nightclub. I had hired two violinists from the Royal Academy and they were playing like mad in the background. You could even hear me and my friends in the back stage giggling. I was thinking to myself: “I don’t really know what this is but whatever – it’s a day out.” The next day I got a phone call from Barney’s New York who soon came to my apartment and bought the collection. I remember holding up a piece and asking a friend “How much do you think this is going to be?” He was then saying “I don't know. £50?” And it was like that.
Q: Apart from being a designer, you’re also an educator at institutions like Central Saint Martins in London and the Design School in Cøpenhagen. How are these profession different for you?
A: The older I get the more experience I feel like I have to pass onto my students. Education has changed so much within the last 15 years. When I started teaching it was so free – you didn't have to do any paperwork. Now you have to do all kinds of paperwork, it’s like you’re a secretary sometimes.. More than anything when teaching I really enjoy seeing what’s happening, what are people doing and why they're doing it.
His and hers for pre-fall 2012
Q: If you weren’t a fashion designer, what would you be?
A: I would love to produce a theatre play of They Shoot Horses Don't They. Alexander McQueen did that with Michael Clark for his spring/summer 2004 show, but a theatre play would be so good. Maybe it could star Jessica Lange, she should do the part played by Susan York in the film.
Q: Why do you think your clothes have this sense of whimsy about them. There’s a specific sense of humour woven throughout your work. Do you think you're funny?
A: Well I do think I'm funny. I think I'm funny in an awkward way. For starters I am Danish. Even though I think that Danish people are warm and caring people, I think that at first they can come across as very cold and closed off. When I meet new people I don't throw myself around their necks and kiss them and hug them. But some other people are very good at that. They can just talk and talk and talk, include everybody and be at the centre of a social circle… That’s not me. So, I probably speak through my clothes.
A look from the SS17 collection inspired by Peggy Guggenheim
Q: Do you already have an idea what you’d like to do next?
A: I do have some ideas, but it’s like fantasies that you make up. One thing I’d love to do would be to retire, soon. Then I would buy an old farm outside of London with an old barn, and redo it. I would invite young artists to come and work there on residencies.It would be like an artistic place where people are just doing their own stuff, like a modern-day version of Andy Warhol’s Factory.
Find more about Peter Jensen and shop his collection at peterjensen.co.uk.
Interview by Dino Bonacic