With the 2012 SCAD Fashion Show only hours away, District took the opportunity to interview American designer William Calvert.
Born in Baltimore, Md. in 1969, Calvert has been described by Geoffrey Beene of TIME magazine as “the shining light at the end of the tunnel,” in terms of his influence on the world of fashion. In 1991, he received degrees in fashion from both the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, and the Academia Italiana Moda in Florence. He went on to work on the couture collections of Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain and Rochas in Paris.
With a vast repertoire of experience and knowledge of the inner workings of the industry, Calvert is a wealth of wisdom for any up-and-coming designer.
District: Describe the roots of your design aesthetic? What are its origins and how has it changed since the beginning of your career.
William Calvert: My father was a civil engineer and my mother was a biologist and an arts appraiser. Somehow through that appreciation for engineering and for art I got to a place where I wanted to be very subtractive. Certainly a beautiful dress is beautiful, but you are also showing a beautiful person. I pull out one striking detail from each piece and strip it down to its core so that [the response] is not only ‘Wow, that’s a gorgeous dress’ but ‘Wow, YOU look amazing in that dress.’ It’s like a reach. To be really cheesy it’s like a haiku. And if that’s all you have and you have to make magic in that, then you have to sort of think.
D: How important do you think that education is to fashion? As a student of fashion yourself, how do you think that having an education has affected your success?
Calvert: I think there are people who come into the world and don’t need to go to school, probably Yves Saint Laurent or someone like that, who are just born to be superstars. But then there are some people who are born to be superstars, but there is a little more husk around them and they need that chipped away. Sometimes those people need a wall to push against or a path to follow. The great thing about fashion education is that you can provide that for those people. I think that if any institution is going to take those people and really make them great they have to be able to figure that out. Most people, even when it’s inborn to be a designer, an artist or some other creative thing, which is a scary avenue because you’re playing around in the dark, I think that showing them all that is out there, all of the possibilities is exquisitely important. It gives you a solid ground to stand on.
D: When you become inspired, what is your general process of translating your original inspiration into a collection?
Calvert: My lingo for that is ‘Ping’ because it kind of pings in my mind. I will see something, or feel something, or have some sort of an emotional response, you know, you get some sort of non-quantifiable hit. It may come when you are seeking that hit or when you least expect it. You may be walking down the street and see a piece of garbage and think ‘the line on that is really amazing’ and just think if I wrapped that around the body like this, you know, boobs, waist, hips — gorgeous. The scariest thing is when you do say ‘OK, I am going to work now,’ and ‘I’m going to find inspiration,’ you know, where do you go? I will sit down with a piece of white paper and then I’ll have maybe a few images I’ve collected and try and find a few things that are completely dissonant and try and massage them into place together. What happens is that you are feeling around in the dark and you really have to trust your gut. If you’re not willing to do that, change your position, change your profession.
Like, right now I’m looking at this lamp design company from the mid-century, and I’m looking at chagrine skin and like, crystal formations and I’m looking at how something will move through water and leave bubbles behind it. You know all of these things that are completely un-sexy, but then once it all comes together my verbal description as well as what I’m aiming at will have completely evolved.
D: Where do you think your personal aesthetic is going in the next five to 10 years?
Calvert: When I was young, I was not comfortable assimilating into one pot all different things. I love an English bespoke suit and I love some heavy metal and I love things that look pretty and I love things that are sparkly, but I love things that are dark and dangerous. How does all of that fit together? I think when you are younger you flip-flop from one to the next and incorporate them all over time. And now, it just becomes this soup that you mess with. Now I’m much more comfortable having a very delicate, feminine, sexy, potent chiffon gown with, like, a badass military coat over the top of it. And she’s got dark eyes and red lips and her hair is sort of flung back and she’s like ‘get out of my way.’ I love that.
D: In your opinion, what is the biggest flop to ever occur in fashion?
Calvert: High-heel tennis shoes I never quite understand, but I’m sure there’s someone who does them well. But I think it’s quite funny because in New York City, every summer, there is a ‘look’ that every quasi-fashionable girl adopts. And I remember when I first moved to the city every single girl was wearing a fitted T-shirt with a round neck with a slip dress with a little print on it over top of [the T-shirt]. Everybody! This was 1994. And I found the, I guess pervasiveness of it was that, well, if this is fashion, everyone shouldn’t be wearing it, they should be doing their own spin. It’s just funny to me because there is so much opportunity in what you can put on. What’s available to you as a consumer, at any price point, is massive. Yet everyone is wearing the same thing. I would say conformity, to me, is the biggest flop. We should look to celebrate individuals.
Contact Shannon Craig.