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Derek Lam: The practical dreamer

Fashion designer Derek Lam maintains a balance between Asia and America. He tells tabloid! how he drives both Italian luxury leather company Tod's and his own eponymous label to the top of the design world

Derek Lam
Image Credit: Tod's
Derek Lam

When it comes to straddling two very different worlds, very few do it as well as fashion designer Derek Lam.

Born to fourth generation Chinese Americans in San Francisco, the 45-year-old, known for his pure lines and easy chic designs, says he is absolutely balanced between Asia and America. Or perhaps Europe too, as he serves as creative director for Italian luxury leather company Tod's while heading up his eponymous American label.

Yet it is his yin and yang quality and his mix of culture, or, in his own words, "not too sweet, not too sexy", that has assured Lam's rise to the top of the design world today. A graduate of Parsons The New School of Design in 1990, Lam spent 12 years working with Michael Kors before venturing out on his own.

A series of awards and recognition soon followed, including the Council of Fashion Designers of America's (CFDA) Emerging Talent in Womenswear in 2005 and Accessories Designer of the year in 2007.

His tailored creations splashed with whimsical uses of patterns and colours have made him a celebrity favourite with fans including Gossip Girl's Leighton Meester and stars such as Diane Kruger and Kirsten Dunst. Meanwhile, his luxurious leather creations for Tod's have found favour with Sarah Jessica Parker, Katie Holmes, and Renee Zellweger.

Lam spoke with tabloid! recently, to give us a sneak peek into how he exists every day in two very different but highly creative worlds and yet manages to write one big success story.


You've once said, "Derek Lam is about daydreaming, and Tod's is about taking the daydream and being focused with it." Has that changed at all over the years?

No, it has not. It is still like that exactly as it was at the very beginning: to me, Tod's is really the archetype of everything that's great about Italian luxury and fashion, about a dream coming true into beautiful and luxurious products, the ability to combine traditional craftsmanship with modern technology to create a totally new type of luxury item.

How do you segregate your time for Tod's and for your own label? Don't the two sometimes clash?

I would say never. They are two completely different worlds and different ways of working. I love summarising it saying that Americans are strong with practicality and Europeans, Italians in this case, are great with craftsmanship and with elegance, they truly embody "la Bella Vita"!

I try to learn from both worlds in order to get the perfect balance between the styles combining new suggestive creations. Furthermore, Tod's helped me thinking beyond just clothing. Tod's is so successful at disseminating a consistent philosophy.

It's really made me think from season to season, there should be some thread that runs through whatever it is that I'm doing.

What about inspirations? How do you decide which label to use it for?

It is quite natural to me to divide the two brands, as they both have a very strong personality. For Tod's, I am mainly inspired by real women. Women who are juggling career and a family yet still manage to look super elegant. Inspiration is also based on functionality, and not only beautiful from an aesthetic point of view.

That's what I truly love about Tod's: that commitment to a contemporary kind of luxury, it maintains a beautiful and modern design accompanied by the highest quality and materials and high level of craftsmanship.

In any case the inspiration is double and this can just help me in doing better products for both Tod's and my own line.

How would you rate yourself on your time with Tod's?

It is not me that should reply to this answer, but I can personally say that I am very happy working for such a prestigious brand and I believe that I have been able to transmit this feeling into the collections.

Where would you like to take Tod's five years down the line?

Plans are always evolving, inventions are a constant process of trial and more trial. Generally speaking, people will have to keep coming to Tod's to see for themselves what special ideas and things we have in store for our friends. Tod's will be in the near future in the Olympus of the five most luxurious brands on earth.

Has the economy had an effect on the way you work as a designer?

Absolutely not. Working with Tod's, listed among the most luxurious brands in the world, means for me not being affected by this crisis.

We, of course, have huge respect for those less lucky than us, we definitely pay much more attention, if possible than before, to iconics and details, which always make the difference.

Is there a season collection you find easier to put together for: spring-summer or autumn-winter?

I would say no. They are pretty different from one to the other, but I won't say that one is easier compared to the other. This spring-summer season, for Tod's I thought of flour, water, farm fresh egg and a pinch of salt. Simple ingredients combined to create the daily Italian essential, pasta. With a tweak here and there, a simple deft of hand and a slight recalibration, what is essential can be special and yet remain a daily requirement.

What is your earliest recollection of when you realised your interest in fashion?

My family is involved in the manufacture of clothing, I have therefore always been into fashion, it's in my blood, I guess.

Originally, I wanted to do fine arts, but then again considering my family history, fashion seemed pragmatic. Then I decided to go to school at Parson's, and after that I worked at Michael Kors.

How would you describe your design sensibilities?

Simple cuts, pure lines to look easy chic. Natural cottons combined with technological fabrics, to make products functional. Attention to details — if you want to stand out among the other brands, the winning element is details. Natural hues and palettes, that provides the perfect backdrop to highlight any skin tone.

How much of Asia do you think you have in you?

I think that the success of one of my designs is not due properly to my origin, but to the innovative idea it leads. But I am fascinated by mixing cultures, that balance of the yin and yang — not too sweet, not too sexy. Said so, I believe I am absolutely balanced between Asia and America, I am practical but also a dreamer, thinking of exotic places with a rooted and interesting culture.

How would you say Asian designers and designers with Asian heritage have fared in the industry, especially in the States?

Lately, many designers with Asian origins have come into the spotlight, that means surely they caught the attention of the design panorama in a very innovative way and I am very curious to see their new creations.

Are Asians taking over the fashion world?

Lately, I would say yes, more and more. Asia in general, and China above all, have become a super retail power and Asians are renowned for loving fashion and beautiful things. To this they do have a huge purchasing power.

How important is e-commerce for you?

A lot, the world we are living in is going into the digital world and commerce. Tod's, in fact, will enter this world this year starting the e-commerce from the US to then launch it in selected countries around the world.

How important is social media for you?

All is linked, if we enter the e-commerce, you have to be active in the social media networks too. It is a constant evolving world of which I am very fascinated and attracted. I try in any case to use it carefully, but we definitely need it.

Do you think haute couture is a dying craft?

Absolutely not. On the contrary, now more than before it is highly requested and appreciated. Due to the international economic crisis, customers of high end brands rather prefer to spend more to buy one of a kind products, extremely luxurious.

When not working or designing, what else takes up your time?

Travel, mostly to Asia, mainly to Burma [Myanmar] and Bhutan. So fascinating!

What are the five things you cannot live without?

A pair of Tod's Gommini, Cleopatra's Nose (Judith Thurman) — my favourite book, a cashmere pullover, a pair of Rogan jeans and a CD with the movie In the Mood for Love.

Have you been to Dubai?

Unfortunately not yet, but I have been told by many friends that it is really a unique place.