Designer Vejas Kruszewski is the youngest person to be nominated for the €300,000 prize – but his age isn’t the most impressive thing about him
At the time of this interview last week in Paris, Vejas Kruszewski had not yet found out that he had made it to the final round of the LVMH Prize, narrowed down from a shortlist of 23. He, along with seven others, will be presented to the illustrious jury that includes Karl Lagerfeld, Nicolas Ghesquière and Phoebe Philo to name but a few. As the youngest designer ever to participate in the competition, Kruszewski was surprised to even be shortlisted – let alone be put through as a finalist – within touching distance of winning the coveted €300,000 cash prize and mentorship.
Two things that journalists often tag Vejas with are ‘self-taught’ and ‘young’ (he’s 19) but upon seeing his latest collection, neither of those things are evident in the clothes. Nor did he seem to be fazed by the jury members and industry experts that came to discover his work at the LVMH Prize showcase. In fact this was Kruszewski’s first trip to Paris ever, and he was feeling positive from the energy of a city that is experiencing new bouts of energy with labels like Koche and Y/Project garnering attention alongside the new establishment like Vetements and Jacquemus.
Vejas showing up in Paris wasn’t even supposed to be in the pipeline. A week before they were about to show their AW16 collection in New York, with a venue and presentation time secured, they got the call from LVMH to say they were part of the selection. “I turned to Saam Emme (his business partner) and said ‘Let’s cancel everything and move it to Paris!’” recalled Kruszewski. And so in a tiny gallery tucked away in the Marais, in amidst increased interest from buyers and press, Kruszewski was buzzing from the city of lights. As he put it, “Paris was a clean slate for us.”
Here, Kruszewski’s collection of tactile textures and now core pieces – re-engineered shearling jackets, bombers, jeans and sweatshirts – could speak for themselves. Kruszewski’s aesthetic that is at once ancient and futuristic is more focused and more product-focused. He’s serious about moulding Vejas into a brand that fits into what he calls “alternative luxury” and as one of the LVMH finalists, that dream seems even more tangible. Here, he talks breaking out of New York’s underground fashion scene and making Vejas’s presence resonate far beyond it.
Why did you cancel your New York presentation and move everything to Paris?
Vejas Kruszewski: I feel like there’s so much happening in New York now with younger brands and everyone is getting squished in together, when, for instance, Eckhaus Latta has been around for almost ten seasons… So we were just a little bit stressed out.
Was it getting too incestuous?
Vejas Kruszewski: Too incestuous and too insular. I want want to break away from that. It’s not even true to say I’m a New York designer when we’re not actually living in New York.
How have you found the New York-Paris transition?
Saam Emme: It’s refreshing thing about coming to Paris is that people are taking us for face value and they don’t have those preconceived notions of who we are – they just see an LVMH-recognised new label with a strong point of view. Ultimately, our aim is to become a legitimate luxury brand with longevity, so it was a nice way to separate ourselves.
You have previously presented your clothes in an installation and with a context. Was it important to you, for people to see your clothes on their own?
Vejas Kruszewski: We have to work on placing clothes in a context, which is what you can do with a show. This is just a showroom, so it’s more like the product. But at the same time, I do want to make sure that it’s not seen as an art project and instead is viewed as a legitimate product to be bought.
What was the new direction for this collection? This one feels more feminine and also very focused.
Vejas Kruszewski: Well, we’re also pushing more into womenswear now, so I was trying to do some more dresses. It’s definitely more feminine now, but then there’s still the staples of the brand, the tops and jeans – I’m just expanding upon that. I was sketching a lot, and the reason the collection is so small was that there were so many things that looked amazing on paper but then, through translating them into a real-life object, they didn’t work. I’d rather cut something than show something that didn’t feel right.
Hari Nef has been an early supporter of your work and she’s featured in your latest lookbook. Does she embody the Vejas person or persona?
Vejas Kruszewski: I think she embodies a lot of different people, but just because she can be many people at different times. She’s an actress! I think she does in a way embody who I’m thinking of when I’m designing, when it’s not thinking of myself basically. But what’s funny is that she actually fits the clothes much better than a 16-year-old skinny model. Actually, I do more of the men’s pieces to fit myself and the mannequin we have is like a US 4 as opposed to a 0.
You work is very tactile and touch-based. Talk us through some of the fabrics for this collection.
Vejas Kruszewski: I found this speckled leather in brown that almost looks rusty and then also a purple one. And they’re basically remnants from furniture manufacturing. It reminds me of a bruise. There’s also a shaved goat fur. I like the way it sounds – a shaved fur. The wools are from a family-run mill in Italy. The sweatshirting material is something I like to work with because it’s so familiar, but this one in feels more spongy and it has a four-way stretch. It would be interesting to do some fabric development next season if I can afford it.
Were there any starting points for the collection?
Vejas Kruszewski: I was looking a lot at the new Noguchi lighting – just the concept of something that is very constructed, but then it’s like an organic shape, because it’s all very spherical, but then also looking at Brâncuși – those heads in particular where it’s very fluid in shape, and it looks man-made as well and that kind of contrast of something organic and man-made. What I want to do going forward into next season is to really work on the idea of things that look archaeological in terms of lines. And then there’s work by this New Zealand artist, Joe Sheehan. He does these objects so like cellphones and TV remotes, but he makes them out of this stone which is native to New Zealand, and has a spiritual significance in Maori culture. It’s this idea of a modern remote control that is also ancient.
“I don’t want to be discredited because of my age. I don’t want it to be an emphasis, nor should it be something that’s a detraction” – Vejas Kruszewski
At the LVMH Prize showcase, did you have a good way of summarising what Vejas is about for the person who’s completely uninitiated with you and what you do?
Saam Emme: It’s like a uniform, it’s very wearable. It’s pieces for whoever wants to wear them, but it’s taking familiar elements and twisting them in a way that’s a little bit alien or not so expected.
Vejas Kruszewski: And not always so of-the-moment, we were thinking of historical clothes that you couldn’t place on a timeline of history.
Saam Emme: Some people came and saw it and were like, ‘Oh this is so futuristic’ but we think it’s more like near-future, not too space-age or too conceptual.
Vejas Kruszewski: And I guess that the person who wears it in terms of the customer I found was either someone rather young like us, or it’s an older woman, 40 or 50…I guess it carries through in the types of person who I’ve noticed to be buying it, they’re very self-defined.
They’re very sure of themselves?
Saam Emme: We talked about the element of self-actualisation too and that ties in with defining sexiness or beauty for yourself, defining how you want to be in the world through your clothes.
Does it annoy you when people ask you about your age?
Vejas Kruszewski: I don’t want to be discredited because of my age. I don’t want it to be an emphasis, nor should it be something that’s a detraction.
It probably surprises people that you know what you want Vejas to be because it’s so specific.
Vejas Kruszewski: I know I’m really comfortable with myself as a person, I can’t verbalise it exactly. I guess it all comes from a place of wanting to push forward but with a knowledge of the past and a consideration of what’s projected for the future.
Vote for Vejas in the Dazed 100 here.