Irene Bratsis: I loved your designer showcase at our A La Mode event back in May, Jack. I thought our theme of “Festival de Cannes” fit in very well with the classic tailored menswear pieces you presented. Tell us the story about how you grew up and what initially got you interested in fashion!
Jack Sivan: I’m from Brookline, a suburb of Boston. I didn’t grow up in a big artistic community but my mom was very creative. She’s an interior designer and she was the person that initially taught me how to think about creative work. I always thought I’d be an illustrator because I liked drawing cute pictures of animals, but I didn’t get into fashion until sophomore year of high school. I remember reading The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style by Nicholas Antongiavanni (based on Machiavelli’s The Prince), a book that deconstructs various types of power. The idea that ornamentation is a form of communication had never been presented to me before. That was mixed with a general interest in the arts and it got me interested in making things. I taught myself how to sew and my friend and I started upcycling bow ties and selling them, which got me into sewing regularly. That was my entry into becoming a designer.
IB: Tell me more about style as communication. What resonated with you most about that?
JS: I wasn’t observant enough to realize that the way you dress affects the way people think about you. Now it seems obvious, but it never occurred to me that the way you present yourself to people is as important as the way you introduce yourself. I had never had a strong consideration about clothes and what it meant to people before. It wasn’t really until high school that I started discovering my passion for clothing; the details, what they can tell you about a person and the decisions they make. Now it’s fascinating to me. Eventually I went to art school at RISD. That’s where I got interested in the process of making and the fashion industry itself, which launched me into my career.
IB: What did you study?
JS: I studied apparel design with a minor in sustainability studies. My thesis was that it shouldn’t have to be a separate minor.
IB: That’s very meta of you. Did you know at that point that your path was going to be entrepreneurship? How were you thinking about it back then?
JS: Since my initial entry point was making stuff myself, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t try to do my own thing eventually. I never really had fashion heroes, designers who’s complete works spoke to me or brands I’m obsessed with. I’ve always been a craftsperson; I’m more interested in individual pieces. I want to touch a sewing machine regularly. That was an early disillusionment I had with the industry, that once you get to a certain level you stop making things. Sometimes that makes me reconsider wanting to be in charge of my own label because it can take you away from the nitty gritty details. I get a lot of joy coming up with the inside structure of a jacket, the way it buckles closed, or how the pockets fill up. The way the wearer wears and uses it, their intimate experience of the garment, is just as important to me as how it looks to someone walking down the street.
IB: I love that you have a clear distinction between the building of a brand and the craftsmanship of the end product that’s being created. There’s a kind of purity to that. Can you expand on it?
JS: I’m most interested in traditional English tailoring because it isn’t just about quality, it’s also about the relationship to the end wearer who gets to experience it internally for themselves. Usually a collection is about what you can do with a garment. I often see designers pushing things to explorative extremes to the point where it’s not even about making a garment anymore, but about adorning someone in something. I’m interested in the idea of function preceding form, all my ideas are wearable things you could go out in every day. That’s where my interest lies.
IB: Essentially your approach to fashion is like an antidote to fast fashion. Do you feel sustainability is something that’s more accessible for smaller brands?
JS: It’s easy to think about it that way for smaller designers because most of the garments are one-offs, but it’s kind of a cop-out when bigger brands write off sustainability because of their size. Yeah I’m an indie designer but sustainability isn’t a decision you can ever escape from. It’s something I factor into my choices, but I don’t think I’m a sustainable designer. I’m a designer trying to make good clothing and good clothing is sustainable. Most clothing made today is worn only a handful of times. Apart from the toxicity associated with making garments, there’s also the toxicity of disposing of them. If you’re making something that gets worn a few times or is trend based, the larger impact of what you’re doing is creating literal garbage. That’s not something I want to contribute to. My philosophy is “do whatever you want creatively, just don’t oppress people.” Sustainably is something designers should be striving for, it’s what we should all be striving for.
IB: You spoke earlier about your hesitation about having your own label in that it may take you away from being as hands on as you’d like to be. What happens when your label gets big?
JS: I do think about that but it’s also odd because it feels like it’s a long way off, at least a few increases in scale away. I never want to leave the creative side of the industry. When that day comes I’d like to build a managerial team to my left to run a brand and I would continue to focus on creative. I’m really interested in the idea of building core styles, future iconic basics like Levi’s 501s and Schott Moto jackets. I want to build a collection of items that can be produced with a constantly well developed core set of designs and make a lineup that’s really interesting to me, like a new kind of language.
IB: Do you have anyone that helps you for your own line now?
JS: Not really. I have a good set of advisors from the industry. One of the things they’ve made me realize is a lot of the talk that, as a designer building a band, you have to be all parts of it is just that. Talk. I don’t think it’s true. You don’t have to do it all–business, creative, marketing, etc. But you do have to have opinions on how you want those things to be done. I’m not at a place where I can pay people to work with me but I know who I can go to for photography, styling and all that. They’re not my people just yet.
IB: But you are nurturing a community around you. That’s smart because eventually, you know enough people that it all comes back around. I remember you mentioning that you knew one of the models we worked with in the past and you found our event through instagram but, when you arrived, you already knew someone there. That’s awesome.
JS: Yeah it’s a classic rising tide kind of situation. It’s given me a lot of joy lately because I felt like I was dropped into the industry with no connections when I graduated. When you have no idea who people are, you feel so small just doing your thing. No one is opening doors for you or giving you opportunities. Eventually after being around and being a professional, you meet more people. You realize that if you throw a party or have an event, you know who to call for whatever you need. You become a part of the industry. I know more people and therefore have more people to give or get advice from compared to ten years ago. It’s interesting and encouraging because it feels like more of a celebration of where we are and what we’re doing.
IB: That spirit of celebration is so important; to celebrate the good milestones as they arise. Tell me a bit about what kind of work you’re really excited about right now!
JS: Lately my freelancing work keeps me pretty busy. I’m working for two labels: Ronny Kobo, on their RTW womenswear line, and for Melke NYC’s upcoming runway collection in September. I’ve been juggling multiple labels while working on my own line for a few years. It’s been an amazing exploration of how different sectors of the industry operate, especially as I try to figure out where my own work might fit into it. On top of those, the work I’ve been doing for my own line has been mostly bespoke work. Initially I made clothes for people I know personally. But lately I’ve been lucky to have had my work reach people through social media, which has brought in clients and commissions. Bespoke work isn’t particularly scalable but I really enjoy the challenge of designing a garment to someone’s specific needs. Problem solving is a great opportunity for creativity and it gives me a place to troubleshoot ideas for my personal designs. Then, in my copious extra time (lol), I work on developing that core collection of designs to be ready for production. Sometimes I sleep too.
IB: Yeah that sounds like a lot Jack! What are your goals? What kind of success do you hope to attain?
JS: I want my focus to be on RTW garments, but bespoke and customization is something I’d like to keep as part of my business to at least some degree moving forward. If success happened on its own, I wouldn’t fight it necessarily. But to be honest, if I can live comfortably with a little store front, I’d be really happy.
IB: That feels so attainable. It’s kind of nice that your priorities aren’t just vast swaths of money and power tbh.
JS: Yeah, I’d like to just live off of my own work and attain that simple level of freedom. I like working for other brands; going straight into my own thing after college would have been a bad financial decision. Not that I’m such an industry elder now, I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. But I love the idea of a tight little heritage company that I can work on for the rest of my career. Resiliency is the goal, to make something that can be around and can last. It feels like it shouldn’t be too ambitious of a goal. I’m definitely not interested in the fashion success model of making a big splash and keep making splashes. I want my brand to be around forever; a place to go when you want a really good jacket.
IB: “Perhaps this sounds very simple, but simple things are always the most difficult.” That’s one of my favorite Carl Jung quotes. Maybe your goal is ambitious after all. But I think you’ve got what it takes to realize it.