London has been absorbing the news that, after more than 10 years, there will be a hole in February’s Fashion Week: Jonathan Saunders is calling it a day. This year, he acquired a backer, Eiesha Bharti Pasricha, but evidently, despite the best efforts of both parties, the arrangement did not come in time to put his label on an even keel. The decision to cease trading was “amicable,” Saunders said in an email. “My investor has been such a good partner. I just want to try new things and approach my work in a different way.”
Saunders’s last show, in September, was a big-budget affair in a tent purpose-built in King’s Cross for that one occasion—an expense that turned out not to herald the opening of a glamorous new era, but the end of a road. The shuttering of his business can only really be viewed in the light of all the designer departures we’ve seen in 2015—it again brings into question what the creative person can achieve in the fashion system, and, more fundamentally, what it is that we, the customers, want from designers. The buildup of conditions and demands have felled designers much larger than Jonathan Saunders, and made others simply say, “This is no way to live, I’m off!”
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Knowing Saunders as I have since he popped up, delighting us all with his vivid multicolored printed dresses in 2004, there will be very mixed feelings behind his decision. As a resolute Scot with an iron-clad work ethic, he would not have taken on investment if he didn’t believe there was hope of carrying on. He had succeeded—through his urbane charm and the modern contemporary dresses he was producing—in winning the friendship and loyalty of women in professional and diplomatic circles. Samantha Cameron calls him “Jonny.” He has dressed Michelle Obama. Kate Middleton bagged one of the two-tone waffle-knit sweaters women zoomed in on as useful trophies. In 2012 he won the BFC/Voguedesigner prize, the British equivalent of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award.
But at the same time, there was a sense that Saunders had unwittingly stepped onto a conveyor belt which (for everyone) seems to be running out of control. He was the pioneer of the cohort of talent that began to flood out of Central Saint Martins in the aughts—a time when graduate designers gaily stepped onto the runway with brilliant ideas and very little clue how to run a business. Saunders was a quick study, and was incredibly generous in sharing his knowledge with those who came up behind him, like his Glaswegian compatriot, Christopher Kane. He led the London print and color revolution, which, post 9/11, brightened up the gloom of the times and brought buyers from all over the world to spend on British collections. Yet, he had also painted himself into a corner: fitting himself into the template of expensive, extensive shows, adding pre-collections, carrying on as if to compete with international brands that churn out daywear to cocktail to eveningwear as if all the women in the world are waiting for it.
It is very hard for anyone to keep their senses in those circumstances; indeed, it’s probably a sign of sanity to say: Let’s stop, and think of a better way. For Jonathan Saunders, that might be earning a living as a consultant in color and print, for bigger houses, perhaps (let it not be forgotten that he designed Alexander McQueen’s glorious bird-of-paradise prints, back in the day). Or, taking the example of someone like Markus Lupfer, who closed his generalist collection and restarted with sequinned knits that made him fortunes, he might just focus on being an ace at one amazing thing. These days, after all, the “one thing” solution is something we’re all constantly scanning fashion for. And when we’ve found it, we want it to be constantly available.
Or it could be that Jonathan Saunders’s future might lie in his past. Last time I went around to his studio, he showed me some glorious carpets he’d designed for The Rug Company, and some furniture pieces he’d made. Saunders actually trained as a producer designer at Glasgow School of Art before falling into the fashion department. He’d be a brilliant interior designer. With all the friends he’s made, I’m quite sure it won’t be long before someone has the brilliant idea of asking Saunders to sort out the colors and textures in her home. In the 21st century, there are so many more relevant ways of living with fashion than looking at it on a catwalk.
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