Conner Ives talks charity shopping, ethical fashion, and how to top attending the Met Gala
He’s seen his designs on the BFC’s Model of the Year at the Met Gala, produced capsule collections for Liberty and now Browns, and even counts Rihanna as a fan: so goes the mind-boggling CV of wunderkind designer Conner Ives who, despite having all of these bucket-list achievements ticked off, is a mere 21 years old and still in his second year of study on the BA Womenswear program at Central Saint Martins.
It might sound like a fashion fairytale, but success didn’t come without a few bumps on the road. After moving to the UK to take up a place on the CSM foundation course, Ives struggled to adjust to the tutors urging him to take a more experimental approach, at odds with his American sensibility for wanting to make practical clothes that women really want to wear – to the extent that he found himself without a place on the BA course at the end of the year, and ended up having to reapply.
Everything changed with the annual White Show, held at Saint Martins for first-year students on the fashion pathway and an opportunity for the most exciting new talents to make their mark. Ives’ show-stopping number, a deconstructed tuxedo with a four-foot train embellished with swans, was inspired by the grand debutante balls of the American South – and even caught the eye of model and activist Adwoa Aboah, who commissioned a luxurious ivory satin iteration of the dress to wear to the most high-profile event in the fashion calendar, the 2017 Met Gala.
An overnight sensation, Ives’ prodigious talent has seen him balance study with the production of seasonal collections, while still maintaining his commitment to using recycled fabrics and developing fresh twists on his off-beat take on Americana – think spliced rock-’n’-roll tees, roaring 20s beaded fringing and Wild West Stetsons in hot pink. As he prepares to launch a capsule collection of his signature t-shirt dresses for Mayfair fashion mecca Browns, we sat down with Ives to find out more about the unlikely path he’s cutting through the industry.
So you’re now in your second year at Central Saint Martins, and you’re already producing capsule collections for major retailers. It’s a situation that’s almost unprecedented – how do you make it work?
Conner Ives: It’s not always the easiest thing and it takes a lot of work, but I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I always wanted to go to Saint Martins, so it was strange being presented with the thing I’ve wanted to do my whole life, then all of these other opportunities that I couldn’t say no to. After everything that happened with Adwoa and the Met Gala it went from zero to 100 very quickly, and I started to shut down a bit – people were asking things of me, and I felt this pressure to perform to a certain extent but it made me so anxious.
How did you get over that?
Conner Ives: I just had to talk to myself a lot. That’s the other misconception about it all, that I’m doing this with a big team of people, when it’s really just me. I’ve been lucky enough to take on a few interns in the past year and move into a slightly more professional role, people to deal with the PR and the business side, but at the end of the day it really comes down to me lying in bed, going through these things over and over in my head.
What sparked your latest collaboration with Browns? Has it been challenging scaling up your production methods from one-off pieces to full collections?
Conner Ives: Sophie Perkins, a buyer for Browns, contacted me last year, initially just to get in touch and ask to commission a t-shirt dress. Before I did these capsules and collaborations, it was very rudimentary – if someone wanted something they would contact me, we’d discuss it, it was very one-on-one. So Sophie contacted me, initially presenting this idea about doing a run of them on a production basis. At the time I was like: that’s really nice, but no I haven’t thought about that – I’m still in my first year! While this was happening I was also approached by Sarah Mower to work on a project with Liberty, and once I started working on that, which was my first real production run, a lot of the fears I had were addressed and I realised that it wasn’t as scary as I thought.
Are you still using only reconstituted fabrics? Will every piece be unique?
Conner Ives: It would probably take me hours to explain the whole thing from start to finish, but essentially everything is recycled. I’ll go to vintage shops, charity stores, Goodwill – I’ll go back to the States and do it en masse there, because you can find a lot of these pieces in one place. For the t-shirt dresses, everything produced is a one-of-a-kind piece. There are five styles in the collection but then the graphics and the print and colour will make each one of them different.
And for you, using recycled fabrics is as much an ethical as an aesthetic decision?
Conner Ives: Yeah. I’ve been approached by companies in the past that have wanted to apply what I do to a more mass-produced model. They would say, why can’t you just make one style of a t-shirt dress from vintage pieces? Then we can lift the graphics from those t-shirts and reprint them. Usually, when that conversation is being had I’ll just leave it, as that’s a part of the process I’ve realised now I won’t compromise on – it defeats the whole purpose of what I’m trying to do. As cliché as it is to say, in fashion we have a huge, huge consumption problem.
But it isn’t a cliché, because so few people are actually doing anything about it.
Conner Ives: That’s the thing. They would come to me and say, we love what you’re doing in terms of responsible design. Then they would start asking me if they could start reproducing the pieces and order hundreds of them. I was like, you obviously don’t get what I’m saying here. While what I’m doing doesn’t really fit in a traditional model of what a brand would usually do, I’m trialling these new production methods as I go along. People expect that you’re going to learn this at school, but you don’t learn a thing about running a business at fashion school – I’ve had to figure it all out myself. It’s a blessing and a curse, probably, but I wouldn’t have it any other way, because I am so protective of it. I saw this as the most responsible way of keeping everything under my control.
Do you feel like growing up in America gives you a different perspective as an emerging designer in London?
Conner Ives: I never really thought about my identity as an American until I moved away. The clothes aren’t American in the sense of, oh, there’s an American flag. What I’m trying to do is a bit more abstract. It’s not a tongue-in-cheek slogan t-shirt saying ‘God Bless USA!’ I was 18 and moved to a foreign country, which was a huge adjustment. That was a bit of a conflict, because while people say there’s no house style at Saint Martins and they encourage you to develop an individual aesthetic, in my first year I remember a tutor saying to me ‘Your stuff is too pretty, it’s too sexy’, too this, too that. I just remember looking at her with this blank stare on my face because I didn’t know how to respond. It made me a lot more introspective, I was trying to figure out why what I was doing was so ready-to-wear, and the answer was as simple as, I just love clothes. There has to be no cliché there, because I think good design is good design.
“I was trying to figure out why what I was doing was so ready-to-wear, and the answer was as simple as, I just love clothes” – Conner Ives
You’re making clothes that women really respond to and want to buy straight away. That’s clear in how word-of-mouth your success has been, seeing your pieces on Instagram, then reaching out to you to create custom pieces for them.
Conner Ives: That’s been the tension, it can feel like I’m being pulled in two directions. After my foundation year I didn’t get a place on the BA because I was sticking to what I wanted to do wholeheartedly, even as the tutors were telling me that I needed to make my work more ‘interesting’. It’s funny to look back on now, because at the time I felt so guilty, I was telling myself: why couldn’t you have just done what they asked you to do and sucked it up and gotten over yourself. But then at the same time, if I’d done that, God only knows where I’d be now.
What’s next for you? Do you have lots of secret projects in the pipeline? Or are you just going to focus on your studies for the time being?
Conner Ives: I think you probably know as much as I do right now! Although I’m trying to plan a bit further ahead – next year is my placement year, but you can also take the year to explore your own stuff, so I think I’m going to try and figure out how to work with my method in production on a bigger scale. My strategy is to try and figure out that stuff sooner rather than later, so that when I graduate I can just start building my brand. I never thought I’d be saying this at my age, but I feel like it’s no longer a pipe dream and it can genuinely be a source of income for me. It’s really exciting.