A FOCUSED POINT OF VIEW IS KEY to Derek Lam’s design philosophy. “From the conceptual stage to product design through to marketing and retailing, it’s essential to have a cohesive message,” Lam emphasizes. “I am a New York designer and my designs are about New York and a multi-cultural New York lifestyle. I know I can’t satisfy everyone, but I want to satisfy my tribe,” the designer notes. He describes “his tribe” as women young in spirit. “I don’t like to specify age. Age is not the point. I see my customer as someone who is cultured and self confident— an individual who has built a career and a lifestyle based on her desires. I like the type of woman who comes into a party and you can’t wait to engage her in a long fun, entertaining, sexy conversation. She’s someone who is not overwhelming, but is fun to be with,” he explains.
Known for his precise, classic silhouettes and pretty patterns, Lam’s signature pieces include raw silk sheath dresses with plunging necklines, wide-leg trousers in various wools and dainty cashmere pea coats cinched with stiff silk belts. After graduating from Parsons School of Design in 1990, Lam began his career with Michael Kors where he worked throughout the ’90s—first on ready-to-wear lines and later as a head designer of KORS by Michael Kors.
In 2002, Lam went out on his own, launching his namesake collection in 2003. Orders were placed almost immediately by Barney’s New York and Bergdorf Goodman. In 2004, Lam won the Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation Award for New Designers and in 2005 the Swarovski’s Perry Ellis Award for New Designers from CFDA.
Lam has recently launched handbags and shoes under his label and in addition to his own collections, designs a ready-to-wear line, which premiered last year, for Tod’s, the Italian leather goods company. In November 2006, he was named creative director of Tod’s. He will continue to oversee Tod’s ready-to-wear, while expanding his responsibilities to a collection of fashion-driven handbags and shoes slated to be unveiled under the Tod’s name during the fall shows in Milan in February of this year.
Additionally, under a licensing agreement with the New Yorkbased Modo, a Derek Lam ophthalmic and sunglass collection is launching early this year. The sunglasses are available now and will be followed in March by the ophthalmic line. The decision to go into eyewear was made for him, Lam says. “Modo approached us and we found their philosophy coincides with ours. We both have a strong point-of-view driven by fashion and feel that the love of clothing and craft translates well into eyewear. With Modo, we are working with the best people out there. We have a very good, spontaneous, backand- forth relationship. I’ve enjoyed learning the eyewear process from them. I’ve been very pleased to see the product turn out the way I imagined it would,” the designer notes.
With any new product Lam works on, he expects it to have its own identity. With the eyewear, as with his clothing designs, he wanted a sense of femininity. “That was our launching point for the sunglasses. We went for smaller eye shapes from the ’40s and ’50s—cat eyes and softened ovals. To me these shapes are truly feminine. And I find cat eyes sexy. There’s something inherently a little naughty about them.” Each component—the curves and contours—emphasizes the femininity and sensuality of the frames. And each style has a touch of pink. “All my accessories—bags, shoes—are lined with a dusty pink. It’s perfect for sunglasses. It give a woman a feeling of having make up on without having to wear makeup,” he notes.
The designer says his work with eyewear has made him fall in love with it. “I always look in the windows of optical stores now and go in eyewear shops everywhere. Eyewear is a beautiful object and it also functions beautifully. I’m intrigued by the technology. A frame is so small, yet so refined. It’s also accessible luxury— elevated with finishing touches and packaging. You can buy a diamond at Tiffany for $40,000 or get the same high from eyeglasses at a much lower price,” Lam explains
What he also likes about eyewear is that it allows wearers to decide everyday how they want to project themselves. “You can be more playful at times or more serious,” he says. Lam wear aviators and also likes the Clark Kent look.
With his designs, Lam does not look to the past. He likes a holistic approach that includes touch and feel. In fact, with all his creations, whether it’s clothing or eyewear, material is the starting point. “I like to think I’m creating a relationship with the consumer, although not necessarily a one-on-one connection. But I put a lot of thought into communication and expression. My product comes from a true love of design,” he says.
Lam’s goal is to create modern luxury. “Luxury is about finding parts of life, fashion, accessories that have soul. I have a strong point of view on what a customer wants from a luxury brand. Luxury has to have a human touch. It should be witty, unpretentious and stand for the heritage of beautifully made product,” the designer emphasizes.
Lam’s own definition of personal style is individuality and intelligence. He counts Michael Kors and Yogi Yamamoto among his favorite designers because they have stayed the course. But he notes he does not really have muses. “My inspiration is more personalized and immediate. My muses are those who I’m working with and surrounded by,” he says.
His favorite color is gray. “It is more of a shade than a color. Gray areas are more interesting than black or white,” Lam explains. He also likes red as an accent color.
If Lam were not a designer he would like to be an artist or architect. “I thought about being a writer, but writing is a solitary existence. I am happier in a collaborative effort.”
For now he will continue to create modern luxury. “I see parallels between the 20th and 21st centuries,” Lam comments. “When Coco Chanel was designing in the teens and ’20s, she brought in a modern point of view. It time for that to occur in the 21st century. Hyper femininity is out. We need to be more modern.”