Tuesday, April 6, 2010

hip, comfortable, ageless - design and J. Jill's Michael Leva (part 1)

by frédérik sisa

In early February, I raved about J. Jill's designs. To quote myself: "classic lines, clean tailoring, fluid grace, a simplicity that is elegant, unfussy, even Zen-like." This week and next, I bring you a peek behind the scenes of a brand moving in beautiful and exciting directions, through an interview with J. Jill's VP of Design and Product Development Michael Leva. Many thanks go to to Michael as well as Heather McKenna, J. Jill's Director of Brand Marketing, for their time and generous insight into J. Jill fashion.
How did you come to design for J. Jill?
I got a call from a recruiter while I was designing for a department store. I hadn’t been paying much attention to J Jill but remembered how cool I thought the brand had once been. I had been right to not pay attention as the brand had lost its focus. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this really influential brand and bring it back to its roots.

What is your overall design philosophy? In other words, what is the key to helping people look great in the clothes they wear?
I have a simple aesthetic naturally and so does J Jill. Most women don’t have a lot of time to put looks together. Most women have careers and family. They want to look current and cool but they don’t study fashion magazines. You need to help them look great effortlessly. That’s what J Jill stands for. Here’s the perfect pair of jeans with a great fit, the best boyfriend blazer which works for week and weekends, the easiest rumpled trench, the softest white shirt, a sweater knit tube skirt that’s stylish and so comfortable. The key to helping people look great in their clothes is making them feel wholly comfortable in them. That means delivering style, fit, comfort and quality in every piece.

(A snapshot of J. Jill's fresh summer linen collection.)

How does designing for an established brand like J. Jill differ from designing for yourself or for smaller-scale applications?
I had my own designer collection is the 80’s and 90’s. When was designing then, even though I have a naturally simple aesthetic, it was important for me to try and do something original and it was a more personally intellectual approach. When J Jill was at its coolest in the mid/late 90’s it had a really differentiated point of view. I wanted to reinvent what I felt that meant for today. Hip, comfortable, ageless clothes with a simple but distinct attitude.

To what extent do trends influence - or hinder - J. Jill designs?
Lately the trends on the street in places like Brooklyn NY are very inspiring to me and my team. These kids are not at all interested in “Park Avenue Lady” or “Gossip Girl” type fashion. They wear SPORTSWEAR! They choose perfect, hip pieces that are functional and really great. I love reading “The Sartorialist” and “All the Pretty Birds” and seeing what these people are up to. They love clothes but they couldn’t care less about the runways. They look amazing and real.

I am struck by the cohesiveness and overall harmony of J. Jill collections - everything seems to fit together so well. How do you go about putting a collection together?
Thank you. I’m my harshest critic and my team and I want to do even better at helping her look great effortlessly. We still have some work to do. To begin a collection we do a runway analysis. With the new interest in American sportswear and boy/girl androgyny, there are some relevant collections out there for us to find inspiration in. We really listen to what our consumer tells us. Because we are vertical and have a catalogue we get immediate feedback from our customers. We analyze why she responds to what she loves and what doesn’t resonate with her. Usually it’s pretty obvious. We look at what people are wearing in the street. We mine old images of 90’s J Jill and look for new ways to bring ideas back again.
...and we're not done! Keep your browsers tuned to The Fashionoclast for part 2 of my interview with Michael Leva, posting next week. If you haven't done so already, consider subscribing to receive The Fashionoclast by eMail. Aqua and I promise not to flood your inbox - quality over quantity is, after all, our motto!


Jenny H said...

It's a bit refreshing to hear that there are designers out there who are helping the average woman "look great effortlessly." Sometimes it seems so overwhelming to go shoping and find clothes that can be worn in multiple outfits without going out of style too quickly.

Frederik Sisa said...

Good point, Jenny. There's a time and a place for trendy, but there's something to be said for good design that goes beyond whatever happens to be "in" that season.

I suppose that's a difference between men's and women's apparel. To me, at least, menswear is always pretty much the same old thing so it's easy to buy something and still have it work years down the road. One has to either get really esoteric or spend a lot of money on the high fashion stuff to get unique menswear.

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