Thomas Tait’s Bright Future
For the young Canadian designer, fashion is serious business.
It’s not unreasonable to ask a young fashion designer what he likes to do other than working, but Thomas Tait says he felt mortified when a journalist put that question to him recently. “I swear to God, I was silent for two minutes,” Tait recalls.“I went beet-red, because I was so embarrassed to realize that I have no life outside my work.”
There are plenty of things he’d like to be doing. Tait, a chatty 27-year-old Canadian with a mischievous giggle, enjoys dancing, hanging out with friends, visiting his software-developer boyfriend in Paris, and playing video games; yet he spends most of his time toiling on his collection in his studio in the heart of London’s financial district. “God knows what those people must think we’re doing in here,” he says, sitting in front of his whimsical sketches while peering through the windows at the suit-clad bankers in neighboring buildings.
Luckily for Tait, the slog has paid off. Not only has he been showered with praise for his deftly cut, ingeniously structured designs, he also has won a series of awards, culminating last May in the inaugural LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize, which earned him €300,000 euros ($344,000) and a year of coaching by the luxury group’s executives. The latter may prove to be the most valuable part of his bounty, but the cash was very timely. “It’s what has kept me alive, basically,” he says, laughing ruefully. “When I left for the final meeting in Paris, I said to my flatmate, ‘I absolutely need to win this. I am not coming back without that prize.’ ”
“I had absolutely no money but was so naive that I didn’t realize the enormity of what I was doing.”
Dressed in a camouflage combat jacket and black skinny jeans, Tait appears perfectly cast as an iconoclastic indie designer, but his introduction to fashion was more prosaic. Raised in a Montreal suburb by a schoolteacher mom and a dad in the aerospace industry, he attended the city’s LaSalle College, where he received a thorough grounding in the technical aspects of clothing design. “It was very uncreative, but halfway through I started to read up on fashion in a broader sense,” Tait recounts. “The work of Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen, and John Galliano was mind-blowing to me: presenting women’s wear in a way that encapsulated a personal vision.” Noting that all three had studied at Central Saint Martins in London, Tait enrolled for a master’s degree there in 2008.
After completing the course at 22, the youngest student ever to do so, Tait was determined to launch his own label. “I had absolutely no money but was so naive that I didn’t realize the enormity of what I was doing,” he says. “I moved into a warehouse in East London with friends, slept on a pile of clothes, and made my first collection using a piece of fiberboard for pattern-cutting. Then I kind of went on a rampage—reaching out to people I knew or was interested in and asking for help.”
Among them was Amanda Wilkinson, a co-owner of Wilkinson, a contemporary art gallery. “Thomas came in and was so charming that I was happy to offer him the space for his show,” she recalls. “It was really fun. We didn’t get back from celebrating until five in the morning. And Thomas has such good manners that he has asked me to his shows ever since.”
Tait managed to scrape together enough money, mostly from prizes and grants, to produce a collection each season, only to confront the harsh irony of being a rising fashion star in the social media age. “People can tweet and blog about you all they want,” he says. “So the visibility of your brand accelerates far faster than the sales.” Now that he has LVMH’s support, such growing pains seem to be subsiding. Tait’s work has always been defined by its precision and fluidity, but his last two collections have been distinguished by complex detailing, like the exquisite color contrasts of the double-face satins in his spring dresses and the striking prints inspired by the director Dario Argento’s “disco-horror” movies he recently showed for fall.
His professional ambitions have evolved, too. “When I was a student, McQueen and Galliano seemed like megastars, but when McQueen died, it all changed,” Tait says. “I think my generation is more reasonable in terms of knowing our limits and understanding that if we are going to be successful, it will be a different kind of success. It’s so nice to see Phoebe Philo going home at seven sharp to make dinner for her kids. Not to say that I’ll leave at seven, too, but I’d like to have a balance. If I still stay up until sunrise making clothes, it shouldn’t be because it is expected of me.”