Peter Som, Designer

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'I started sketching at a really young age. I think that, because I was really shy, drawing was a way for me to be in my own world. The first thing that I ever drew was a really crude sketch of my mom, like a triangle with stick arms and legs, and then I just kept drawing women and eventually started drawing what they were wearing. This was back in the ‘70s, so my mom would wear like, Marimekko printed shifts and Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses. She was cool, very chic. She’d turn the DVF wraps around backwards, so that they had a deep V at the back. A lot of my early fashion memories are of my mom.

I kept drawing all through elementary school and, by fifth grade, I understood that fashion was an industry and so I declared that I would be a fashion designer. I remember my older sister buying Vogue Paris and L’Officiel when we went on a family holiday to Paris. I opened the pages, saw Claude Montana and shoulder pads and was blown away. I just thought, 'Oh my God, this is what I've been drawing in my head.'

After that, I started researching. Back then, there was no internet, so I’d watch things like Style with Elsa Klensch on CNN, buy Vogue, Interview, Details magazine I remember that I was obsessed with Grease and, for about two years I would only draw poodle skirts, Peter Pan collars, and high ponytails. And then I became obsessed with My Fair Lady for another two years. I mean, we’re talking like, I would listen to only that album and I'd watch the movie and freeze-frame the Ascot scene and draw the hats. Really obsessed. My mom had a dressmaker so I made four or five custom things for her to wear. I made her this thing out of silk crepe, white with black dots, with a boat neck and a kind of empire waist and a full skirt with long sleeves that were blazoned with French cuffs. For every dress I did, I would make my mom do a photoshoot in it. She was my muse-slash-victim.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area but I quickly found out that New York was the place to be. Though I think California gave me a sense of an ease of dressing…I grew up post-hippie, with that laid-back sensibility so when I design clothes now, I still always want to make sure that they feel effortless. Whether it's through pockets or just a sense of slouchiness, nothing’s ever too uptight.

My first trip to New York was in around ’83 or ’84, when my sister went to look at colleges. I think I was 12 and I had a cousin working at the Hyatt in Grand Central so I stayed there, which I thought was very glamorous. But I think that I instinctually kind of knew that I wasn't quite ready for New York, that I needed a campus situation for school, so I ended up going to Connecticut College and majoring in art history. They had a bus that would go down to New York on weekends, and we’d go to 8th Street and buy Doc Martens, go to Café Reggio. Be, like, cool. I came out and I had all these new friends and I suddenly didn’t feel like a dork anymore. One year at college, I was one of the volunteers at New York Fashion Week. I remember helping people to their seats for the Oscar [de la Renta] show, right by where the socialites were sitting. Nan Kempner and all of these grand dames of fashion were walking by and it was amazing.

After I graduated, I came to the city and worked in the industry for a year. My first job was at this company called British Khaki, which was run by an alumnus of Conn College. I worked in reception…I was so green and wimpy, people would call in and yell at me and I’d just cry. Eventually, I moved into the design room with the patternmakers and that was an amazing experience. Then, I decided it was time to go to Parsons and get a formal fashion education.

Parsons was hard—we had some seriously hardcore teachers and the work was 10 times what it was in college. But I loved it. It was exactly what I wanted to do. I was obsessed with Isaac Mizrahi so, for one of my projects, I did a yellow gingham bodysuit with a yellow circle skirt, which felt like a moment. I think that was when I discovered American fashion—that American sportswear thing. My friends were much more into avant garde. I liked classic.

That’s also when I had the chance to intern at Calvin Klein when Narciso [Rodriguez] was one of the head designers, and then at Michael Kors. When I was at Kors, it was smaller than the huge empire it is now—he had his shows in his offices and I got to dress Niki Taylor. I was just so thrilled. Helena Christensen was there and Erin O’Connor was starting to come up…it was pretty amazing.

Then, when I was 30, I decided I wanted to start my own company. I’d been working for a few years and so I knew the industry by then, the factories, things like that. I think I always knew who I was as a designer and, with what I do today, I can see the line of that. My first collection was really small, clean, around 15 looks. I called in some favors—a friend knew a friend who’d shoot my lookbook, that kind of thing. I was working in my apartment, during my lunch hour, and after work and then, when I had a full collection that I was ready to sell, I quit my job. I got a space at the Fashion Coterie, which is a big trade show, and I managed to get a booth for free at the last minute. I got someone to help do sales, and just took orders! Ultimately, it’s a business and, whether you’re selling clothes or selling flowers, you just have to put it on the market and see if people buy it.

Back then, there were fewer designers, so I think there was a bit more room to move around. The whole phenomenon of the young designer hadn’t quite set in yet. During Spring 2001, when I was 31, I had my first runway collection. There was a lot of color, a menswear mix to it all. This was before there were stylists in the sense that they operate now so I just styled it with my friends, I had all this energy and I loved it.

Over the years, I’ve learned that you need to find a balance between being true to your vision and being secure enough to be able to take advice. If you just think that you’re fabulous all the time and never listen to anybody, you’re going to end up with a very expensive hobby. At the end of the day, fashion is a business and you’re going to get opinions from stores, from buyers, from editors…you have to be strong enough and secure enough to filter in what works for you and filter out what doesn’t. It’s great to have a singular vision, but you have to be open to people’s advice—especially if they’ve been in the industry for a long time. I’ve always tried to soak up all of the information that I could, I think that’s very important.

The exciting thing about this industry is that every day is different. It's sketching a new collection, it's looking at the fabrics, it's fittings, it's marketing and PR stuff. It’s important to figure out how to get everything done. There’s so much to the business…the design part, the 'fun' part, is the teeniest sliver of the pie. You don’t just get to be sitting there, sketching all day. I’m lucky to have a business partner, Elana Nathan, who came on in 2003, so I can look after the creative side. It’s almost impossible to both run a company and have the freedom in your head to create—either you’re born with the ability to do both or, in the most likely case, you bring on a business partner.

Of course, there are the special moments…I remember when Henri Bendel bought my clothes and put them in the windows. To see my clothes in the window was just amazing. And seeing Michelle Obama in my clothes, amazing. But it’s so important to be able to step away from everything because this industry can be all-enveloping. I love being a beach bum when I can…get away to the Hamptons or Fire Island or Miami or St. Barths.

It’s also important to work in the industry for a while before going out on your own. The instances of people coming right out of school and starting their own line and having it be fabulous, well, it's one in a million. Working for people is part of an education too, and you learn the intricacies of production, how many steps there are in the process. And yeah, you’re going to make mistakes, but you learn from them. When everything’s going nuts are there are things I don’t want to do, my mom used to say ‘Mind over matter, just do it’. So for me, it’s always mind over matter.”

—as told to ITG

Peter Som photographed by Tom Newton.

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