Hands down my favorite interview…it was a joy to meet this Scandinavian-bred, Parisian trained fashion designer with immense talent.   My dear friend Karin generously made the introduction and Jørgen and I chatted for over an hour.  Hearing his story across five of the world’s most storied design houses (including Chanel and Valentino) was engrossing.  As we all know, it takes towering talent in addition to sheer will in order to succeed and thrive in the world of French couture!  I was equally interested to understand why Jørgen opted to leave the big brands behind and do private work under his own label (he has worked with Sarah Jessica Parker and Nicole Kidman + other celebs in addition to people like us).  His reflections on the process for making couture or bespoke made-to-measure pieces for individual clients, as well as the difference in lifestyle, inspired me deeply (as do his edgy, cool pieces!! Obsessed!!).  As a consumer, I now see the bespoke investment from a completely different lens … it’s not for everyone, but it is arguably a sustainable, thoughtful, and personal option.  Enjoy Jørgen’s incredible story and candid words!  Xxo, Alicia

After years of apprenticeships with industry giants including Karl, Galliano, McQueen, Versace, and Valentino, you carved your own path and started your own label.  Can you tell us a bit about your path along the way?

I’ve been so, so blessed to be able to work within this magical business that is fashion. It was my initial wish to work with four people in the business – John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent, and Karl Lagerfeld. YSL was the only one I didn’t get to work for, but I consider 3 out of 4 a rather good success rate!  On top of that, to be able to work as Head of Design at Versace and Valentino was incredible. My path led me through a variety of different houses, sensibilities, and approaches to fashion…. and very charismatic but totally different leaders.

I never worked more than 3-4 years in a given house. While someone might consider that a sign of weakness, I look at it as total freedom to pursue a road to personal and professional liberty.  I got to try my hand at many things and to become well-rounded within the métier.  This benefitted me as well as the brands that I worked for.  I gave it my all, and was constantly on my toes!

When I started working with John Galliano, he had just arrived in Paris. I was still in college!  Galliano always did things in a different way. Today, fashion is so eclectic, but back then a specific look, trend, length or movement ruled the day.  By the mid-90s, it had been grunge for several years, so the fashion world was clamoring for glamour and beauty.  Galliano brought the glamour with innovative concepts like re-invention of the bias-cut.  It was an explosive and magical moment – and multitudes of people adhered to Galliano’s one look. After college, I was offered a job in the atelier.  It was amazing to be there.  The team was small, so we dug in and could work our way up.

On the other hand, at Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld was doing everything.  You almost felt like a bystander. While there, I learned, learned, and learned. But, as a creative, it didn’t give me as much.  It was harder to dig my hands in.  That said, the workrooms at Chanel are magnificent, with some of the most highly skilled people in the world.  Even as a bystander, in the atelier I could learn how the needles worked, how to mount a complex sleeve into a jacket, etc. I was aware, alert, and soaking everything in.

Working for Alexander McQueen was a completely different route for me.  He was only 6-7 years older than me, so his success hit closer to home.  Here was someone my age who had made it!  Lee was an amazing but also very tortured soul – something that showed clearly in his fashion.

As for Versace, after the tragic death of Gianni, I was recruited as Chief Designer for the Haute Couture line Atelier Versace and I was pretty much thrown into the Head of Design role after years as an assistant to the Head of the Design at the other houses.  This role gave me the opportunity to grow and flourish while adapting to the Versace aesthetic.  Often you have to adapt yourself to the aesthetic of the house you are working in, to adhere to the history of the house and its DNA. But at the same time, it’s important to put your own spin on it. I felt the pressure of knowing that what I did had huge repercussions for the over 1,000 people employed. If I did a collection that flopped, it was their livelihood too!  When you’re in your mid-20’s, that is heavy.  But I managed – and even quite well at that!

Fascinating!  And please tell us about the shift to where you are now with your own label. Was this a difficult decision for you?  I love a second act.

I started my own label in 2008, and I mostly do couture.  I’m a designer, creator and a seamstress. I don’t follow the fashion calendar, or do collections per se … I do pieces.  On a base level, I don’t do anything that is not commissioned.  It provides an ability to leave the rat race and is a completely different structure.  There are advantages and disadvantages to both ways of working, but this shift has been amazing for me.

I love that I now have 100% freedom to stay true to my vision.  Plus, it’s a lot easier to immerse into one piece… and to design experiences within each garment that are sensorial for a specific woman.  Take a jacket for example: when a client puts her arm into a sleeve made to her measurements and proportions, she realizes it’s lined with silk and that the seam (done by hand) gives a completely different feel and mobility than a seam done by machine…  She also notices that the hem is weighed at the bottom with a light chain which gives it the perfect hang. I am fascinated with the craftsmanship.

The process involved in the type of work I do allows me time to reflect and draw inspiration from true inspiration … not from sales figures. Not from analysis of bottom line and sales potential, but rather from observing a woman and her life. It’s a pocket of air in an oversaturated world of choice, where you can find something you truly relate to or not. The work I do is at the intersection of my passion, love, and interest.

Starting my own label was an easy decision for me. Also, I’m self-financed, which allows me to go the route that I judge is best for me … this. I am doing what I was trained to do: couture. It’s in my (designer) blood!

Fashion designer Jorgen Simonsen's fashion show image  

How does the process work with your clients?  Many of us have limited or no personal experience with couture thus far in our own lives.

I do zero advertising, so people only find out about me by word of mouth. When meeting a new client, I always begin with an interview so we can source out hopes & aspirations in what will ultimately become a co-working relationship within an intimate sphere.  It is critical that I really listen and “get” what she is asking for, while still moving her in the direction I envision.

With bespoke or made to measure, you’ll have a minimum of 3 fittings with me because I have to deliver perfection every single time.  A women can’t leave my atelier with something they’re not 100% satisfied with. Certain things I create, like many leathers for instance, are classified as ready-to-wear if I am not producing them by hand myself and instead overseeing production locally (you’ll recognize those by price).

The rule in Haute Couture is that even if you do 6 identical pieces, they are ​still considered as 6 unique pieces. I take it that rule one step further and only create 1 piece.  Ever. You’ll never see something I create for you on someone else, not even in a different material or in a different colorway. Once you’ve had a bespoke made to measure experience, it’s hard to go back to mass produced clothing… but the key is to mix and match. That is the best way to slowly but surely build a wardrobe.  On a worldwide basis, there are 250 couture clients who only wear Haute Couture … but 5,000-7,500 women who buy Haute Couture on a regular basis and then mix and match.

Fashion designer Jorgen Simonsen's creation - black jacket

Fashion designer Jorgen Simonsen's creation - black dress

Many fashion-loving women (myself included) feel cost is the key barrier that hinders them from purchasing a bespoke creation. What are your thoughts on this?

It’s a mentality change in several ways. First, women today are more open to creating something unique, done with largely or even 100% sustainable materials.  We only use amazing quality fabrics in Haute Couture, and aim to never use those that come from a production mill where conditions are poor. I primarily source my fabrics from France, Italy, and the UK, although some skins/leathers are made in Italy and Denmark. The clothing is all made in France.

Secondly, with made to measure, you have an actual record of where things came from. You can visit my atelier for fittings and see the conditions where the garment is made.  We’ve been demanding so much clothing as a society!  It has led to the disposable clothing industry.  When you buy a 9.99 euro t-shirt, there is no way that the t-shirt could have been produced in an ethical, responsible way.  Someone along that chain suffered… eg the people who grew the cotton, produced the fabric, assembled the garment…someone along the line was taken advantage of in a sickening way in order to meet that price point.  It’s atrocious that this has become the demand and expectation.  If only there was a consensus for certain minimums we should morally and ethically pay for clothing.  I would advocate that it is important to be extremely aware of the impact of your choices.  As our awareness increases, we can move to a better distribution of goods and ultimately end up in a better place. Poor construction, bad quality cloth, and sloppy work cause people to throw away clothing very quickly these days. It’s a vicious cycle of continuous waste. We are polluting and tearing the earth apart.

Also, the pricing conversation is warped in my mind. It’s about more than that.  We need pockets of creativity in our lives, and fashion is an important resource that we all have.  Why wouldn’t you try to explore that?  If you are buying an expensive “it” label bag every few years, why not consider an amazing piece made for your body?  You can do it step-by-step, slowly transforming your wardrobe over time.

People say things to me like, “I love your coat but I am concerned that I have to pay 2,000 euros for it.” My answer is “you will keep and wear that coat for the next 10-15 years – which is ultimately a very low price per year.” Some women say they don’t want to wear the same dress to several parties in the same timeframe / that they’d rather buy 10 dresses from high street.  But if you’re more critical, and thoughtfully build your wardrobe over time, you can create a foundation of a few key investments.  You can use the inexpensive brands as accent pieces to create variety and interest.  The bespoke pieces will also be handed down to your daughter, niece, or even granddaughter!  It’s embedded within the DNA of couture that it’s made to last.

Finally, one thing that surprises people is that I scale and do a range of pricing. Almost anything can be made.  I’ve done a wedding dress for 800 euros… but naturally, you have to adjust your expectations.  The objective is to create a piece studied to your morphology, made to your own personal measurements, that is only for you.  One that you are thrilled with and will wear over and over again – or perhaps just that one time!!

Fashion designer Jorgen Simonsen's creation - black jacket  Jorgen Simonsen black dress

From where do you draw most of your inspiration?

Everywhere – I’m a sponge soaking up things that get stored if not used immediately.  Something I’ve seen years ago suddenly pops into my head… I’ll remember the way a mummy was wrapped in the Cairo Museum and use that memory for an awesome sleeve detail.  I don’t really use journals or keep sketchbooks at hand – naturally I sketch up everything I end up pursuing, but I am of a rather decisive nature and tend to know what direction I’m headed (eg I do not need loads of “test-drives” to get there).

It can also be a subconscious process happening just in my head, or an idea can come to me in a dream.  It all depends on the job at hand. I see old ladies in the supermarket and get inspired by how they tie their headscarves! I never discard any thought … it could turn out to be a pocket detail someday.  It’s all in your hands.  Sometimes the ideas are very literal, and sometimes more figurative. That’s the freedom and ability you have a designer – to process things in your own unique way.

Jorgen Simonsen sketch

What makes your design style distinctive? 

So many people do what they do to pay the rent – I get to do something out of pure passion. I get under the skin, I become my creation.  It’s a matter of molding what I have in my heart and brain into a 3D form… and a 3D form that WORKS! It should ALWAYS be the woman wearing the dress and not the dress wearing the woman. It is about respect. And 100% about understanding proportion, shape, fit and fabric. Ultimately, it’s going on a body, and on a person with an individual spirit.  The garment I make has been studied to the minute detail to fit one woman perfectly. No one else will wear what she has on at another party. I cater to a clientele that demands something out of the ordinary.

Michelle Rodriguez wearing Jorgen Simonsen  Sarah Jessica Parker wearing Jorgen Simonsen

What makes you successful?  How do you maintain normalcy, kindness, and positivity in an industry like fashion?

Fashion is a business that can really mess with your head if you are not careful – especially if you experience success to any degree.  It helps to have balance in your life – good values, a good upbringing, and respect.  Sometimes you just have to be realistic.  I came to Paris when I was 18.  I could have stayed in Denmark – I’m from a village there. The traditional route would have been to go to fashion school in Denmark at one of the excellent institutions there.  But I knew in my gut that I had to go to Paris, where fashion was born, to try my hand amongst the best.  The tradition and the history, the savoir-faire, is all here – in Paris.  I had a naïve vision and a dream.  Perhaps my rather “removed” upbringing in rural Denmark counterbalanced the wild, amazing, exciting, and cutthroat fashion business here in Paris.  And even if it was a rather naïve approach to just uproot myself and go for it, I manage to experience a lustrous and quick ascent within the fashion world from the very beginning, and I am super grateful for my trajectory and the results I have managed to achieve over the years (and for the years still to come too, hopefully, haha!). That said, I do believe that failure is a type of success too – because you tried! Just go out, do it, and pursue it.

Fashion is not for everyone. It’s an extremely competitive field.  The glamour is only a small part of it … it’s the reward for the hard work day-to-day.  You need a certain steeliness in order to sustain the 2,000,000 blows and the 15,000 no’s you will get. Any creative field is like that. The amount of rejection you have to pedal through is immense, and you have to be willing to put in a truckload of hard work.

And, at the end of the day, you don’t make it if you don’t have talent in this field.  You have to be able to tell your story and convey your creative vision. You can’t mess up the chances you’ve been given.  It’s critical to know your strengths and weaknesses and to work with them. I went to school with people who were extremely talented, but lacked internal drive.  I’ve wanted to pursue this dream since I was 14 years old, but a dream does not always become a reality.  It could have not fallen to my advantage, so I was very lucky to be in the right place, at the right time, working hard and pushing my talent forward.  Luck, chance, serendipity, destiny – that’s life!

Cream dress designed by Jorgen Simonsen

 

 

Cream suit designed by Jorgen Simonsen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fashion designer Jorgen Simonsen creation: coat  Suit designed by Fashion designer Jorgen Simonsen

Black leather suit designed by Fashion designer Jorgen Simonsen

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