“The world doesn’t need more product. People don’t need more stuff,” explains designer John Elliott. He’s on the phone from his HQ in L.A. to discuss his new collaboration with CAT, exclusively at Barneys. Caterpillar is the leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, diesel and natural gas engines, industrial gas turbines and diesel-electric locomotives. We were eager to pique his brain about how his successful, eponymous line for men and women came to such a partnership. Conscious of the troublesome effects of climate change, Elliott believes that the high quality, everyday pieces he offers are worth investing in. His loyal clientele like Jay-Z and Beyoncé agree, as do we.
In creating John Elliott x CAT, Elliott’s stuck to his intentional approach to design. With fabrics developed and sourced from Japan, custom-knit terry cotton produced in Los Angeles, and zippers sourced from Switzerland, he shows his dedication to providing high quality products that are worth investing in.
Read on as he explains the inspiration behind his latest collection, and his reflections as he approaches almost a decade of design.
Sri Rain Stewart: You’ve been in the industry almost 8 years – how does it feel?
John Elliott: Every once in a while, you have an opportunity where you’re on a plane, or it’s late at night, and you’re jet lagged and you can kind of reflect a little bit. I think I’m probably the most thankful for my team and the people that have worked for us for all 8 years. We’ve been incredibly lucky to really have for the most part the same group of people who launched the brand.
Tell us about your approach to FW19 and its California roots.
For this season, we brought in a new womenswear designer, Cara Campagnoli, who’s from my hometown of San Francisco. She and I started talking at length about growing up in the city and what it was like in the ‘90s, and we realized that our grandparents were actually really close friends. We tapped into what California was like for our grandparents, the ‘20s and ‘30s, and how back then it was kind of still the rugged wild West.
My mom’s dream was to own a ranch home by the coast, which was the style of home that my grandmother grew up in. Cara’s family had the same kind of aspirations for a big plot of land and a ranch home. We started to develop this idea of an imaginary ranch home, almost like a coastal vacation residence. A place where, when Friday afternoon hits, you can jump in your car and drive out to the coast and experience the sprawling landscape that is effected by deep heavy waters of the Pacific Ocean, the fog, the brush, and colors.
How did collaborating with CAT fit into this vision?
Once Cara and I bonded over this experience and the shared knowledge of this terrain, we considered where this setting would exist and how we’d construct it. That’s where you start to have fun in collections. You’re like, ‘man, this is where a CAT collaboration could become something that would be really interesting.’ So we reached out to Caterpillar, which is one of the world’s 50 largest companies as just a ‘hey, let’s think big and see what happens.’ Sure enough, CAT was down. We were the first fashion brand to ever collaborate with Caterpillar, and we went up to Bozeman, Montana to spend a couple of days with the people up there who operate CAT as an entity.
Interestingly enough, CAT was founded in California’s Central Valley. Once we started to explore the company’s history a little bit, it was like, ‘Wow, this actually really makes sense for who we are as a brand and the stories that we’re telling.’ I think that I’ve been really focused on telling authentic stories about California because as somebody who’s from here, that’s what I can do best.
Being from the Bay Area but living in L.A, do you prefer Northern or Southern California?
I definitely prefer L.A.! I loved growing up in San Francisco, but it’s changed so much with the explosion of tech. It’s just not the same city that I remember growing up in the ‘90s when skateboarding was the epicenter of the world, and there were pockets within the city where it hadn’t really changed for hundreds of years.
Was there any music you were listening to while working on this collection?
I always go back through my photos because I’m constantly screenshotting stuff that I’m listening to, so luckily I have a little bit of a log. I was listening to Crosby, Stills & Nash. It’s just something that my dad used to always play when we were growing up. Listening to that I feel like was important to try to tie together this idea of family and a period of time that I didn’t exist yet, so listening to that music I think gave me a little bit of a feeling that I could extract from. I also was listening to this kid Puma Blue’s album Blood Loss. Throw in some Playboi Carti for that little shot of adrenaline.
Who would make you most excited to see wearing pieces from this collection?
Honestly, I would really like to see this collection on 18-year-old kids and skaters. I wanted it to be graphic and noticeable with iridescent materials. The material choices in this collection are super heavyweight: nylons from Italy, reflective materials from 3M. The intention was to have it establish a graphical language from high visibility moments and really cater it to a younger demographic. That downtown kid/ late ‘90s, early 2000s.
I think if you’re going to go for it, just realize that you’re probably only going to get one shot, so be very strategic about how you go about doing it. What I see now is that a lot of people get attracted to the lifestyle that is “behind” the actual work. Be really intentional about what your point of view is. The “why” question is the most important. Why are you doing this? What have you noticed? What keeps you up at night? What is driving you crazy, and what problems are you trying to solve? The other thing that I tell really young kids is if you can’t answer those questions right now, then go work. Go and work the floor.
More or less, understand the psychology that is behind what makes someone pick something up off of a rack because if you can understand that, then you can understand what will make somebody be compelled to actually pay attention to your product. I also think having enough repetition and enough hours racked up so you can develop relationships within the industry. That way, if you do have a good idea, you can call those people and they’ll actually answer the phone and give your idea the respect that it deserves. Lastly, you also have to realize that when you’re starting, there’s going to be a lot of people who question your decision. You’re going to have to stay committed to your convictions, and there’s going to be some tough moments for sure.
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a designer?
It’s somewhere in between stay committed to your set of principles, but be open to hearing people out. For me, one thing that has been the biggest challenge is trusting people. Just find people that you can work well with while also staying super committed to your principles and laying them out. Have a clear vision and then find people that you can trust to help execute it.
It’s funny because one of my business partners I’ve been friends with since I was in 6th grade. You would think that when you have a relationship with someone that has that much history, you would for the most part see eye to eye. In fact, what I’ve learned is we actually don’t. We see the world very differently, and thank God. It really worked to our benefit.