When you run into most designers backstage before a fashion show, the scene is usually one of organized chaos (at best) or chaos chaos (most of the time). But with John Elliott the vibe is decidedly more chill.
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that he’s well rested. The night before his show, Elliott was woken up by a text from his dad at 2 a.m., who assumed his son would still be up dealing with last minute details.
That relaxed nature has been reflected in his clothes. The L.A.-based Elliott is at the forefront of designers who have honed and refined the idea of California cool for a new generation. His collection of T-shirts, sweatpants, and sweatshirts, including the now iconic “Villain” silhouette, can work as part of just about any outfit and have attracted fans such as Kanye West, Victor Cruz, and Amar’e Stoudemire. Calling the items “basics” almost seems like an insult because there is a craftsmanship and attention to detail in each one that can be tough to pinpoint but is innately understood the moment you try a piece on.
But Elliott, who was one of GQ’s Best New Menswear Designers in 2014, isn’t content being just the “cool sweats dude.” With his latest collection, dubbed “Over The Line,” Elliott pushed outside of his comfort zone and experiment with a darker sensibility. He’s also moving into new categories such as denim and sneakers.
We spoke with Elliott to find out about the new moves, the emerging L.A. menswear scene, and why athletes love his clothes.
What was the story you wanted to tell with this collection?
We had kind of told stories that were grouped in movement and rooted in who I was as a former athlete, a former skater. So I really wanted to look a little bit at a darker side and push myself over the line of what people already know about the brand and do something that’s a little bit uncomfortable. There’s this uncertainty at night. In darkness people feel friction, a little bit uncomfortable. I wanted to try and embrace that and design a collection that was really rooted in darkness.
When you are making a conscious effort to push yourself out of your comfort zone, how does that work?
For me at least, I try to put myself in literally an uncomfortable setting and really think about what do I want now? How do I want to feel? How do I want to look? It’s best to do it through real experience. I wanted to try and have an experience that was really uncomfortable and had a little bit of friction to it and then take that and carry that over into a collection.
It’s an entirely new approach and thought process, everything from the silhouettes to the actual textiles. I wanted the collection to feel heavy, quite literally, and have an attitude. We developed an aluminum wool where the middle layer is aluminum and you can bunch it up and it will [hold its shape]. It’s really unique and has a beautiful texture to it.
Another thing that I had thought about was trying to incorporate heritage details that I felt were reminiscent of punk in the ‘80s and try and do that in my way. I go to Japan a lot. I always see these sashiko kimonos which was workwear for the fields. They used to reinforce their kimonos with this hand stitching, and I thought that looked so much like what the punk kids were doing in the Lower East Side in the ‘80s. So what if we did that in my way through a tonal story and create texture? The whole thing that we try to do is create a system that is layered together, but with different textures.
You are so known for producing great basics, like sweatpants and T-shirts. As you move into other areas like denim, what do you want to say in that space?
Our basics are so vital and in people’s minds I always want to be leading in those categories but I also want to explore. I’m always curious, and I want to try and solve my own problems. For this collection, I wanted to try a French terry that felt eerie and dark and a little bit creepy. We experimented with this fabric where the wool creeps through the face of the French terry. It looks like fog creeping over a meadow. It’s really cool.
How do you go about discovering new fabrics?
Oftentimes it can be through an idea and sometimes it’s a mistake. We tried to do that [wool French terry] and the mill who was sampling it for us came back and were like, “Oh, it didn’t work.” They were upset. They said we have this issue with the wool coming through the face. But we were like no, that’s exactly what we want.
What [that fabric expertise] ends up doing is it allows us to tell an authentic story on the runway. We want to tell a heavy, dark story and we can do it in every category. We can do it in the top layer, which is our outerwear with an aluminum bomber. We can do it in the second layer with a wool French terry sweatshirt and then in the base layer, doing this sashiko story on a T-shirt. It’s a system.
Why did you decide to come out with your own line of sneakers?
With the last campaign, having that incredible collection, we went and shot the lookbook in Vietnam. As we were shooting, I was thinking, “It would be so cool to be able to complete the look [with footwear].” We went to Italy and found a mill and a sole factory that could provide us with the materials and the types of silhouettes that we would want to translate.
You’re a big sneaker guy, what did you want to accomplish with your own shoes?
I am a big sneaker guy and it was a challenge. I wanted to make sure I had a high-top that was something that I would wear. I really designed it for myself. Then I wanted a boot that showed an attitude that would work for this collection. Having started my career on Haight Street in San Francisco, I understood boot-wise what I wanted to carry over.
Stylish athletes tend to connect with your brand. Why do you think that is?
I can’t speak for them but if I had to guess I’d say that we are putting new silhouettes together in tailored fits that are built for slim, athletic guys in fabrications that last, are beautiful, and hold their shape. Being a former athlete, being someone who grew up skating, you understand the importance of looking good while also being able to perform.
Being a big sports fan, what is it like for you to have these guys vibing on your clothes?
It’s so cool. I’ve always said this, you want to be respected by the people you respect. Going to play pickup basketball, for example, you didn’t really care about everybody in the gym but you cared about the guys who could play. You wanted to make sure that those guys were like, “That guy can play. He can ball.” For me, it’s just a huge honor.
Led by you, a lot of emerging menswear talent is coming out of Los Angeles these days. Why do you think that is?
I think that town is very accepting of young creatives. You can afford to live there and you have manufacturing capabilities. The great thing about L.A. is anyone can go there with a dream and you can make that shit happen. There’s people who make cars, people who make furniture. Downtown L.A. is really an incredible place if you have a vision and you’re willing to work for it. The Second/Layer dudes are dope. Chris Stamp is dope. There’s cool kids that are doing dope stuff in L.A. and I feel excited to be a part of it.