Over the past 15 years, Derek Lam’s modern take on womenswear and his considered simplicity have made him one of the most well-known American designers working today. Meeting him in his namesake brand’s downtown office, it’s refreshing to discover that he’s as understated and thoughtful as his designs. He speaks quietly and genuinely, and he smiles often despite confessing that he’s camera shy.
“It’s important to me to have a room that feels relatively blank,” he explains from his desk chair. “There’s so much material and so many references that occupy space that it’s nice to keep the space as minimal and clean as possible.” That sense of order is important for Lam, who works in a constant cycle of starting and finishing collections, a process that employs both the left and right brain at the same time.
For him, a demanding schedule means that it’s especially important to carve out time to be creative. “Having such a strict calendar can seem to stifle creativity, but for me it’s part of the training, and you have to get on that pace. It also means you can’t think too much about something—you have to go on instinct.” Lam always has a catalogue of inspiration in his head, much of which comes from his always-growing archive of books.
When a new season rolls around, he’ll translate his latest ideas to paper, thus embarking on the long process of creating a new collection. “By the time I put things on the wall and talk to the design team, I’m pretty specific about the concepts,” he explains, adding that the editing process is extremely important. “We start with multiple mood boards, and then I whittle it down to 15-20 images that feel the most relevant. By the time the show is a week away, it’s really more about the mood—making sure it’s reinforced via every detail of the show, clothes, models, and creative.”
For his SS18 collection, online and in-store now at Barneys, inspiration stemmed from safari clothing, as well as how various ethnic tribes mix textures and prints. The resulting mood is an unfussy collection with an emphasis on cotton and lightweight fabrics that feel effortless and fashion forward at the same time—pretty much a dream getaway wardrobe. “I wanted this collection to be less precious. This season, it was about capturing a casual spirit of our lifestyles while still maintaining interest in the clothes,” says Lam, adding that he didn’t want any one reference to feel like a direct extrapolation of a place.
As for having a muse, Lam shies away from celebrities, citing real women as more inspirational. “I don’t have one muse or woman in mind when I design,” he says. “To me, it’s more important to understand women at this moment in time, with what’s going on right now. It’s more of a collective idea. I want her to dress for a woman’s lifestyle.” And that sentiment is exactly why Lam remains at the forefront of womenswear.