Minutes after Thomas Tait was awarded the inaugural LVMH Prize, BoF spoke to the London-based designer to discuss the prize and his plans.
Thomas Tait, winner of the LVMH Prize | Source: LVMH
PARIS, France — London-based designer Thomas Tait has been awarded the inaugural LVMH Prize, which includes a cash prize of €300,000 (about $409,000) and a yearlong mentorship with management at the luxury goods conglomerate. The jury panel that selected Tait was composed of the creative directors of several fashion brands in the LVMH stable, as well as key executives.
Based in London but originally from Canada, Tait completed a technical degree in womenswear at the Collège LaSalle in his native Montreal before studying at Central Saint Martins, where he earned his MA in fashion. Known for understated silhouettes and clean, fluid lines, Tait debuted his fledging label in Autumn 2010 and designs both womenswear and menswear. His line is now stocked at several influential retailers worldwide, including MatchesFashion.com, Browns, 10 Corso Como and Le Bon Marché.
Two other finalists were each awarded special prizes of €100,000 and year-long coaching: Miuniku, a label by Indian sisters Nikita and Tina Sutradhar, and Hood By Air, the brand founded by New York-based designer Shayne Oliver. But in the end it was Tait who took the top prize.
“The jury was captivated by the personality and the work of Thomas Tait. He is a great talent,” said Delphine Arnault, who masterminded the initiative and is the daughter of LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault, in a statement. “I’m proud LVMH can help him develop his brand. I have no doubt though all the other Prize finalists will have an amazing journey and I wish them luck.”
Shortly after the announcement, Tait spoke to BoF about the prize and his future plans.
BoF: How do you feel right now?
TT: It still hasn’t sunk it yet. It took me about three minutes before I could react when they said I had won. I’m feeling really relieved – really relieved. I was really stressed about the whole thing and really intimidated by the whole process. The judges were really lovely and everybody was really nice but they have this kind of private room that you had to go into and they were all sat behind a white table and you have a clock ticking down the minutes that you have. As soon as it was finished I was like, right, it’s out of my hands and it’s up to them to choose the winner and I’m not sure what’s going to happen.
BoF: What did they ask you?
TT: They didn’t really ask that many questions, I had prepared quite a bit of information in a book that I gave to them. It was like a little brand bible, explaining who I am and how I work, what my ambitions are. I recapped what was in that book, which covered so many different topics, very quickly, in my interview portion. Karl Lagerfeld really liked the sketches that I had done as an example of how I worked illustratively. And then Raf [Simons] had a couple of questions that were laced with comment, so it didn’t necessarily feel too much like an interrogation. I think Raf was explaining that he knows that what I do is quite creative and I sort of design with a world around what I do so it’s not necessarily just product design.
To be honest, I can’t really remember how he worded it, but the gist of it was that he wanted to see how I felt moving forward as a creative person in an industry that is getting more competitive and getting more commercial and how I felt about that and how I would cope with that. Which is, maybe, I felt something he dealt with firsthand.
BoF: And how did you answer him when he asked you that?
TT: I explained that I quite naturally had a very specific vision in mind and that’s just something that happens instinctively. So it’s not necessarily a case of deliberately trying to do something that might be seen as obviously contemporary or not commercial. I do like to make beautiful clothes – it’s just who I am and how I function. It’s a difficult question to answer and I don’t think I answered it properly but I did my best to get something out there.
BoF: It’s interesting that Raf mentioned commercial pressures because we’ve known you since the very beginning. I think it’s fair to say that the ride hasn’t always necessarily been smooth or easy for you.
TT: No, not at all. I don’t think it’s ever been smooth, to be honest. I started my business with a student loan that was overdue to be paid. So I started with nothing. It’s been a challenge every single season and it continues to be. I find we’re kind of in a moment where the business developed at a certain speed logistically and has increased visibility and attention in terms of following. But press can go at a completely different pace and that imbalance can really feel disorienting for a young designer. I think that’s something I’ve struggled with over the last few years, being very specific about what I want to do and how I want to do it and I know the route that I’ve taken and the kind of work that I do isn’t an overnight success story. It’s not going to be, realistically. That’s not what I make. But then of course it’s difficult to sort of explain that to the mass market that might be interested in fashion in a broader sense.
BoF: Tell us about the state of the business right now in terms of stockists and collections. What are you producing today?
TT: Everything is produced still in London. And to be honest I’ve had a bit of a difficult time where there was quite a bit of interest in the beginning in sales. But really the way that it works is that it takes about three seasons for retailers to understand how your goods perform in store, how you perform as a business that is manufacturing goods, your delivery times, price point, et cetera. So at the very beginning, of course it seems like everything is really jolly, and on a really relaxed climb upwards. When you start getting the feedback, [you] start understanding that all right, cash flow wise, I can’t rely on deposit payments in order to produce a collection. I need to have money coming in from somewhere else in order to fund my production and get it to the stores on time because the delivery window is so early now. And the reality is, for quite a bit of time, a business like mine isn’t really a business that can be funded solely on wholesaling. It’s something that really needs financial support within the first years in order to move into a broader wholesale business so it’s been a struggle and I have definitely hit rough spots and it’s been a very difficult past year.
But what I tried to communicate to the judges was that despite this and despite really only having one full-time member of staff, and just working with my hands non-stop pretty much around the clock, seven days a week, I love what I do still. And the feeling and attachment to what I do hasn’t changed at all since my first season.
BoF: Looking forward now at this injection of capital and the advice and support from the LVMH Prize, what do you think it can help you do for your business and how would you like to use these resources going forward?
TT: It’s approaching it in as much of a realistic way as possible. One thing to keep in mind is that this is a present, and I’m not saying this in any way to diminish the value of the prize and what it means to me and my business, but essentially when you put it in comparison to how your business is performing, you do have to realise that this financial support isn’t a result of a successful wholesale business. It’s the result of having won a prize. So it’s really an exercise in making sure that you invest this money into your business in order to increase production in order to increase sales and make that money back tenfold. So that’s really going to be the challenge and an exciting next chapter for me.
It’s an encouragement and something that I’m going to have to use very cleverly. So I see it as an investment for sure. The first priority without a doubt is making sure my production is run as smoothly as possible and that I get the goods in store as early as possible and that will have a knock-on effect where sales will increase and margins will increase and hopefully production costs will decrease. And then hopefully I’ll be able to make products that are slightly more accessible to people, because I find it quite a shame how much work I put into what I do and how much I love what I do and knowing that I only really sell to about 10 stores worldwide. I feel like there are people that should be wearing and enjoying the pieces that I make and I’m not reaching out to them well enough. So the first priority is that this is invested in the business for the sake of getting the clothes out there to enjoy.
BoF: What about people? It seems that another potential area is to beef up your team a bit.
TT: Absolutely. I think one of the main things is to get some help in-house with production. Also with the prize there is a huge amount of attention and quite a bit of pressure that comes from it. So I think in terms of press, which has always been handled seasonally in-house, I think it’s a good opportunity to seriously assess the press strategy and how we’re going to deal with the attention that comes naturally from having won the prize and maybe working with a press agency to make sure that the samples are well-trafficked and we are able to speak about the brand confidently and get the story out. Often cases, [there’s] not enough time to react to the press so there are quite a few opportunities that go missing or that I’m not able to cope with.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Disclosure: LVMH is part of a consortium of investors which has a minority stake in The Business of Fashion.
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