This past week I had the pleasure of sitting down with one of the most influential designers of Toronto Fashion Week and Emerging Menswear Designer Award winner: Rhowan James. Not only had I been virtually cyber-stalking his Instagram feed since the show ended but I also made it a point to feature him on Avenue24. As a Toronto based designer who's philosophy is essentially "if you have a vision get it done" I couldn't think of anyone more perfect to feature for Novembers Designer Spotlight. Now I could ramble on about his successes as a menswear designer and how he got to where he is now, but I think he does a much better job at telling his story. So without further ado here is the exclusive interview with designer Rhowan James.
Let's start simple, how would describe your brand: Rhowan James?
I would describe it as a brand for the sophisticated gentleman. He is edgy, he is not afraid to be comfortable in his own skin, he is the gravitas man. There's something about him you just want to know, because he draws you in. That’s the brand I’m trying to achieve.
So, what would you say inspired you to create your designs for SS18 or in general?
Barack Obama. Someone was doing an interview, I think it was Will.i.am actually and he said “Barack Obama has that gravitas character.” I thought to myself “What does that mean?”. I immediately looked it up and I said, "that’s the man I want to dress". That’s the role model I want young boys to look up to.
What made you want to get into the world of fashion?
I was always in fashion, indirectly. Whether it was shopping or styling myself, fashion always played a role in my life. But, I made the decision a couple years ago to actually make that leap to fashion designer.
"I was always in fashion, indirectly. Whether it was shopping or styling myself, fashion always played a role in my life."
I always had that instinct, a lot of my friends would ask me “Are you a designer?” “Did you design that?” And I would always reply “No, I just know what pieces to put together and what nice things to buy.” They would always say “You should get into fashion!” and I would say “yeah, yeah, I’ll look into it..”. It wasn’t until I actually made that leap a few years ago that I started designing.
Was there a specific moment that made you start designing, or did you just think one day “hmm I’m just going to do this”?
For me it started in 2009. 2009 was a really bad year in the marketplace, globally, a lot of people lost their jobs and I was one of them. At first I was at home doing nothing thinking “I can do whatever I want! I’m free! I can do whatever!” but after 5 months of not doing anything I got bored. I started thinking to myself “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing”.
Then one day I brought out this jacket I had owned similar to this one I’m wearing now, but it was a windbreaker and I loved it. I wanted to re-create it so I went to the fabric store, I bought enough fabric and I literally traced the pattern of the jacket on a piece of paper. I cut out the fabric and sewed it. Mind you, the only thing I had ever sewn before was in grade 8, it was pillow, and that was in the 90s . … So you can imagine how weird it was for me to pick up a sewing machine and start sewing. But when I did, it felt really natural.
When I had finished making the jacket it had some fit issues, but it was very gratifying. Gratifying to say “okay, I made this and it’s not that bad, let me try it again”. So I did. I made another one, and then another one after that, and then it steam rolled into something big.
Reading about you and one of the first things that caught my attention was the fact that you never had any formal training in fashion.
Which is incredible, it’s so rare that you meet such a skilled designer with no formal education. Tell me more about how you learned your craft with no formal training.
Right, so what happened was, I was looking around for schools that carried menswear programs and I saw that the only school with a that specific program was Ryerson. At the time, it just so happened that they were closing the mens program.
I thought about going abroad, but I could't go to New York, I couldn't go to London, it was just too expensive for the program I wanted. I even thought about going to Italy for their one year program but I just didn’t have the money for it. Luckily, I had family in the UK and whenever I would visit them I would go out and buy books about fashion and when I ended up traveling to Milan and Paris I found more books.
"These places I traveled would always have pattern making books, mind you it was in another language, but they were available. I'd try to grab as much information as I could and when I couldn't understand what was being said I used Google translate."
These places I traveled would always have pattern making books, mind you it was in another language, but they were available. I'd try to grab as much information as I could and when I couldn't understand what was being said I used Google translate. I'd typed in phrases and be like “oh that’s what it means!”. If I needed to make a shirt, I would translate the whole thing and make the shirt from the pattern it gave. So that’s how it all began. And then when that happened it kinda steamrolled and it was like “I’m making a shirt”, “I’m making a jacket”, “I’m making pants”.
I have found some help, however, in regards to things that books can’t teach. I do work with a tailor that will help me with the suiting that requires more hand work. And things that I don’t know “shortcuts”, things that I should know, hes able to teach me. I was able to learn quickly from him. Since I already knew how to sew he would show me once, and I'd be like “oh I get it” or “that’s the reason why!”.
"I really wanted to do this"
So how would you say that not being in school has given you an edge, or helped you in a different way, to propel your brand?
I think it was the need to want it more. I really wanted to do this. At the time there was no one else hiring, it was now or never. I went full steam ahead and I was able to build a brand piece by piece. I had a sketch book and I was able to draw out what I liked and the designs I wanted to create. I knew the idea of the color scheme I wanted, I knew what pieces I wanted that weren’t on the market, and I was able to create the whole look piece by piece.
How has TOM* and fashion shows alike, helped your brand?
Well, TOM* is opening many doors. .. Right now I am in this space where I am trying to create the new collection for Fall/Winter 2018 and I am also in the production of Spring/Summer 2018, so there's a lot going on. I have people calling me saying they want to see this, wear that, look at this, which is amazing! It’s been moving really quickly so I cant wait to get into production, I've been having to tell people to wait so I'm excited to get production done and have it up on the website.
It’s definitely exciting right now, things are happening. I am happy I made this transition into fashion, I mean I’m not fully all the way there but it’s slowly turning and I’m hoping the momentum keeps speeding up and I can do this full time and eventually own my own business.
How did it feel to win Emerging MenswearMensware Designer Award?
It was exciting but it was, I’m going to be honest here, very strenuous. When I saw the competitors and what they were bringing to the table I was thinking “I don’t know if I can win this”, there were so many great designers. But I got to talking with them and they were really friendly, it was great to see other menswear designers do their thing and have their designs displayed out there.
"I am big proponent for Canadian talent. We have so much talent in Toronto and in Canada"
I am big proponent for Canadian talent. We have so much talent in Toronto, in Canada and I think we get overlooked by designers in America and Europe. The thing is we are a country that is potentially growing, and I love to see Canadians at the forefront. I love seeing Canadians progress.
In that way as well, I think TOM* has put us in the forefront, in the playing field where four new designers are pushed to the spotlight and can showcase what they have to offer to Canada.
Winning TOM* was very overwhelming. After I won I was like “what’s next?". All my energy was put towards TOM*: making sure everything was in place, the designs were well made, adjustments were made etc. Essentially all my time was in TOM*. So when TOM* was over I was like “okay, now I have to step back, and I have to see what I want to do next”. Hopefully I work things out and my Fall/Winter 2018 will be more exciting than this - even though people are already saying this is really exciting. I have a lot of things in my head to put out there. Hopefully it will be well received.
What do you see in the future for Rowan James? I know, big question. ...
Continue the menswear line. And then a lot of people have been asking me “so when are you going to be doing womens wear??”
I don’t know yet. Because womens wear is a vast market. However, I want to start with womens accessories. Bags, shoes, glasses, the goal is to get that rolling and established. Then after I have that, I will build into womens clothing and maybe expand into fragrences and things like that. I really want to do that.
"I want to start with women's accessories. Bags, shoes, glasses, the goal is to get that rolling and established."
I want to become the next Tom Ford or D2. I love what they are producing and how they showcase Canadian talent. Even in their clothing and branding they still promote Canada.
I think women's wear, menswear, and even some interior design, to create a few pieces and things like that. That’s a lot to think about. A lot on my plate. The road is there, and we’ll see what is coming.
What is your biggest advice to designers who are just starting out?
If you have a vision. Get it done. There is no excuse. There should be no excuse.
"If you have a vision. Get it done."
If I can do it you can do it. The Internet is available with so much information, you just have to know what you are looking for. Find mentors and ask questions. I’m just learning now, about George Browns fashion exchange program, which is really great because it teaches you how to sew and a lot about the industry itself. Ryerson also has some really great programs.
The world wants to see what you have to offer, what your brand is capable of doing, how you want to move in the world and what you want to leave behind. I was and have been really inspired by a lot of the established brands, the Gucci's, the Prada’s, they've been around for years and they re-invent themselves and do something new and fresh all the time. That’s how I would like to be. Hopefully upcoming designers are looking at the level these brands are working at.
Finally, you have to study your craft and know your craft. For people out there wanting to sew, learn it. There will be times where you might be called into a shoot or styling session and something doesn’t fit and when that happens you can't call your tailor. You have to do it yourself. It's best that you know what you're doing and can execute it quickly so your customer is satisified. To remedy the problem quickly, so your clients happy.
That's great, inspiring words. While we have your collection here, I have to know, what is your favorite piece?
That one [(featured on the model below)]. When I saw the fabric I was blown away. I had purchased it online and when I saw it I was like "hmmm it looks one way on the site but I'm not too sure". When I choose fabrics I like to touch and feel. When I go to fabric stores I touch the materiel, I stretch it, I see how much light it reflects etc. But when I got it in the mail I was like. .. this is pure luxury.
The fabric itself is a Burmese Silk, it reflected really well on the runway. At TOM* people were taking pictures and then after the show, the amount of people that said “I want that jacket” was incredible. I think this one is my favourite. It was the finale piece. I got amazing reviews from the judges on the collection as a whole. I’m happy they chose me and I’m happy that they loved the collection, and the bags I created as well.
I wanted to create a collection and more. When the judges saw the bags, they were like “you made these?” and I was like “yes, I did” if it is a pattern and you know how to work the pattern, you can make anything you want.
That concludes our exclusive interview with Rhowan James! to hear more about him or to follow him on social, visit these links:
Photography by the one and only Jason: instagram.com/j.cogn/
Social Media Presence: Alexis Cochrane instagram.com/virtualexis