Jay Godfrey's dresses have shown up on many Hollywood starlets. Our own Brendan Cannon chats with the designer about the collection, his life, and what makes his world go round.
Image by Jayme Thornton
Cannon: Tell us about how you started in fashion.
Jay Godfrey: I went to Parsons after a brief stint in investment banking. It wasn’t really for me. I always wanted to be a menswear designer, which is kind of odd given where I am now! I love tailoring. I love the world of Savile Row. I loved how that style mixed with my inner personal style: a little bit of Savile Row, a little bit of street or rock 'n' roll. When I went to Parsons, one of my instructors said to me, “You’re wasting your time with men's, go into women's design.” I was so shocked and upset, but she was right. I was really, really lucky to get an internship at Oscar de la Renta who opened my eyes to the beauty and the creative license of womenswear. After the internship, I went back to school and figured out that I really wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to create my own Jay Godfrey woman. That is how we got started. It’s been 6 years now and it certainly hasn’t been overnight, but I consider myself really lucky.
C: What I love about having your clothes on set is that the actresses instantly notice your pieces on the rack and love wearing them. The fit is always flattering and the pieces are always versatile, yet modern. Tell us about some of the celebrity women you have worked with.
JG: It’s incredibly flattering when some of these actresses decide to wear one of my dresses over Dior or Gucci or one of the bigger names in the business. We have been lucky to dress for Gossip Girls Leighton Meester and Blake Lively. Everybody as young as Vanessa Hudgens to the established Jodie Foster, and even up and coming young models and seasoned models like Adriana Lima. It’s been pretty awesome for me. Halle Berry is another one. Eva Mendes was really the first major celebrity to wear the collection. I’m loving it. I think it’s great, I’m incredibly flattered when these high profile and stylish women decide to wear it.
C: How do you get inspiration for collections each season? How do you choose the fabrics and concept the designs?
JG: I love the inspiration question because some of my counterparts in the industry talk about these far-flung places like exotic vacations and places they visit. I’m not really like that. I have this library of inspiration in my head that sometimes brings me to Ellsworth Kelly and modern art and sometimes it brings me to Santiago Calatrava and architecture. Sometimes it leads me to the Upper East Side woman who has her heart downtown. But inspiration is constantly developing in my mind. I love music and I love architecture and modern art and furniture and interior design, so there is never a point where I say, "Okay, this season it’s only going be about art deco or it’s only going to be about that uptown-meets-downtown girl." I have these influences I’m constantly going towards and in the modern world it’s Richard Serra and Ellsworth Kelly. In the fashion world, I love looking at Madame Grès, Tom Ford, and Halston. In the architecture world it’s Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava. Really, sometimes its just about watching women on the streets of New York! That’s the ultimate inspiration.
(cont: inspiration, advice for new designers, new store, and more…)
C: You have a new woman in your life! Are you designing for her?
JG: Yes! Well, ha, Allegra, my baby daughter is quite a sassy little girl for 19 months. She loves fashion already, you can tell. She perks up when she puts on a big tulle skirt or she always has a bow in her hair. She’s a girly-girl that always wants to be dressed, which is amazing because this is not the kind of thing you teach. It comes very natural to her. My wife and I actually have another baby girl on the way. She's due in about six weeks so we will see how natural fashion comes to her!
C: I love your collection and the bright colors, it’s very tropical and resort, very free-flowing. How do you describe the Jay Godfrey woman and your use of color?
JG: You know what, I never like to hang my hat on an age, but rather, lifestyle. This is a woman who has places to go, number one. She isn’t sitting at home in a one-shoulder four-ply dress that’s eighteen inches from the natural waist. She has dinners, events, and vacations. She has a really packed lifestyle of wonderfully fabulous events, but she really appreciates modernism. It’s about clean lines. It’s never frou-frou. But at the same time, some have the idea that modernism only relates to blacks, whites, and greys. We embrace color fully. Bright saturated colors like fuchsias, yellows, pinks, cobalt blues, and emerald greens; these are things that our girl wants, because it makes her feel sexy and original. It makes people notice her.
Color for me is an important thing, I embrace it fully. Fuchsia or magenta is probably something I use every single season. Whether it’s in style or out of style, my girl wears it. I don’t think I will every put a dark collection together. I would bow at the feet of Rick Owens all day long and my girl loves him but what she wants from me is bright saturated full color, whether it’s a jewel tone or a neon. I really want to keep the shapes clean and modern at the same time, which is kind of an unusual balance. People who usually embrace color, like Oscar, is someone who does it in a more embellished way. There are some people who embrace minimalism, like Calvin, using greys, blacks, camels, and charcoals. We are somewhere in the middle spot where we embrace the modernism of Calvin Klein but we use major color like Oscar de la Renta.
That's the woman I dress. She’s not shy, but not wild. She's always elegant and she wants to be sexy at the same time.
C: If you could choose one person to dress alive or dead, who would it be?
JG: Iris Apfel!
C: Iris is amazing. I had the opportunity to meet and interview Iris briefly and we just did an homage to her in a magazine. Her style is so incredibly eclectic.
JG: She is eccentric in the perfect way. I sat beside her at a dinner for Parsons and I really did not know who she was then but she was getting all this amazing media attention. She wore this necklace the size of a Flavor Flav clock! She wore this African mask around her neck and it was so nuts. My wife and I were so fascinated by this woman who took so many risks in one outfit and made it work. She is one cool lady. I don’t know if I will ever have the opportunity to dress her, but I would certainly love to reach out to her.
C: When did you realize that you were becoming successful?
JG: We have been in business six years now. It probably took at least two years before I said to myself okay, we gave this a try and now it’s actually working. I come to work everyday now realizing I am so lucky to be part of something, part of this team of a bunch of crazy people that I love. And it keeps growing. We are opening a store next month and that’s exciting and scary at once. I know we are spreading our wings to the limit and we are continuing to do that everyday. Sometimes it shocks me. I am humbled by seeing a woman on the street who has decided to spend her own money on one of my tops or a dress. Sometimes I meet someone at a random dinner or party who says that they know of my work. That to me is the ultimate compliment. That is what keeps me going; aside from the fact that it is a real business.
C: Where and when is your store going to open?
JG: 810 Washington Street in New York City. Its right at the foot of the Highline Park. I am hoping we will be open within the next 3-4 weeks.
C: Opening your first store is kind of out of control!
JG: It is kind of out of control! We have got great neighbors. The Whitney Museum is moving down there. We are sandwiched between the new Christian Louboutin men's store and Intermix. Nicholas Kirkwood is right across the street. I think we’ve got one of the best architecture firms in the world working with us on developing the interior of the space. I'm flattered that they would even work with me.
C: When you are designing a dress, how do you come up with your shapes and figures for the dresses?
JG: Each season we sit down as a team and discuss what we think is fresh and it often revolves around where our customer is going that season. If it is resort, is she going to Miami? Cabo? Turks? Caicos? We look for easier silhouettes that will suit her busy lifestyle. We know in February our girl often buys dresses for Valentine's Day, which sounds so crazy, but it’s true. They do, so we get closer to the body. We consider ourselves, our company, the go-to for that sexy dress that you can buy today and wear tonight. Our silhouettes run the gamut from extremely body-con to extremely easy. It’s to suit our customers' different lifestyles because they're not all going to be wearing strapless tight mini-dresses all day long. She goes to work and then to art openings or to dinners.
C: If you were to only work with one fabric, what would that be?
JG: We use a lot of silk. It feels great on the body whether it’s a satin weave or a charmeuse or chiffon. If I had to only stick with one material, it would be silk. Women love the feeling of silk on their bodies. It makes them feel special and sexy so, I would have to say silk.
C: I definitely see an homage to Halston in your collections. What are your first memories of Halston? How has he influenced you?
JG: Before I went to design school, I got a coffee table book on Halston. I was instantly a fan. I loved his use of bias cuts, I loved how simple his shapes really were but they were complex to construct and I was fascinated by that. As I researched more about the original Halston’s life, I realized that his major influence was Madame Grès and her use of draping, but the pieces were simple looking in a way that flattered and honored the woman’s figure. There is a very logical path from Madame Grès to Halston to Tom Ford and that’s the triumvirate of inspiration when it comes to designers before me because they embrace these really simple elegant sexy fluid shapes. Halston will forever inspire me and legions of other designers. He was the originator of the one-shoulder dress.
C: I always see a lot of the one-shoulder piece in your collection.
JG: It’s true. Even when we stop doing them, the stores ask for them. Halston was an originator of a lot including one-shoulder, his use of bias techniques was really second to none. When he did prints they were amazing. Ultrasuede is something that he really made popular. He brought a sense of simplicity to fashion, which is why he was successful. He was the father of American sportswear as well even though he's known for dresses. It’s a real shame if you are somebody who studies Halston to see how all that talent disappeared through a tough ending. It’s incredibly sad because he is a legend.
C: Speaking of tough endings, what are your charitable outreaches? What do you do to give back?
JG: There's probably not a day that goes by on the micro level where we are not donating product for something. That to me, is something every fashion house does and we all do our part. For me, at the end of the day, it is so important to do what's in your heart. I am a father, so children’s charities are a huge deal to me. My mom, the year I was born, founded the charity "The Herbie Fund" in Canada. It actually supported this child in New York who is now 30 years old who needed lifesaving surgery. The fund is pretty amazing because it has very specific requirements. A child needs to have a condition that requires a lifesaving surgery. They need to come from a family that cannot pay for it. The charity basically raises money for those who cannot afford it. 30 years on the fund has saved over 600 lives.
C: That's amazing! And your mom started this?
JG: Yes, my mom and dad started this and it’s still going. It’s still something they do every year in Canada and it’s something that’s really close to my heart.
C: What advice you would give to young designers?
JG: Focus on what you do best. Do not be everything to everyone. I made that mistake at the beginning. I wanted to sell jackets and tops and pants. I wanted to completely wardrobe somebody. It’s the surefire way to go completely unnoticed unless you are good at everything. I don’t really know anyone that is. We took a step back after it was not working. And asked myself, "What are you good at?" I spoke to my wife, my family, people that work for me, and people I trusted and they said, "Jay you make a really great dress!" I sat back and decided to focus on that for a little and thought if we can master that, we can move on to other things. I am delighted to say, we still have a lot more work to do, but we are starting to branch into other things.
C: It seems like you have a really great support group of friends and family.
JG: I don’t think anyone can do anything without emotional and financial support of friends, family, and loved ones.You see some of the torture like an Yves Saint Laurent went through. He had to support Pierre Bergè but maybe he was tortured because he was lacking something else. Fashion is a tough nut to crack and it’s emotional. Sometimes you go home and you don’t want to talk about a dress or you don’t want to see the Fashion Police because you have had enough for a day, but you need that person or people in your life that can transport you to another place that isn’t work.
C: What do you do to unwind and recharge?
JG: I take baths all the time! It's like my zen moment. I also read. With ten collections a year to design, that’s a lot of creative juices that are constantly going. It's also managing a business: dealing with employees and suppliers. You need that time to unwind. I don't always do it successfully but any time I hit a wall where I say to myself I’m exhausted and I’m stressed. I hop into the tub and it calms me down.
C: If you were to chose your two favorite dresses that you have done, either current or archived, which would they be and why?
JG: In Fall 2009 or Fall 2010, we did the Excelsior dress. It was one of the least expensive dresses we have ever produced for retail and it was simple. It was a black long sleeve t-shirt jersey dress with a white panel at the hem. It was really this Ellsworth Kelly-esque perfect dress whether it was for work, cocktails, or an evening event. It was retailing for like $225 but it took you everywhere. Our newer silhouette called the Enzo dress is a color blocked kimono dress. It’s both easy and sexy, which is a tough task to pull off. I think it’s going to be part of my collection for a long time.
C: 5 people that inspire you whether they be designer, artists, architects, or actors.
JG: Tom Ford, Frank Gehry, Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Serra, Lenny Kravitz
C: Lenny Kravitz? That is an interesting one.
JG: I love Lenny Kravitz! I’m a die-hard fan. The man is the ageless epitome of the cool rocker who transcends every demographic.
C: How does architecture influence your designs?
JG: Architecture is a huge inspiration. Santiago Calatrava is tasked or commissioned to build a bridge or build a building. He take the most simple forms and becomes inspired. Whether it’s a fish or a vertebrae, he takes these incredibly simple noble materials and turns them into this impressive display of brilliance. A bridge of his, made out of what everybody else uses to build bridges, looks like a giant fishbowl, or a hallway looks like somebody’s vertebra. Frank Gehry is a massive influence on my design career. His use of faceting is impressive, be it the jewelry for Tiffany or Barry Diller’s IAC building on the West Side Highway. We have taken inspiration from that and brought it into the structure of our store that we are opening. The changing room designs are the love child of Lenny Kravitz and Gehry.
C: You keep mentioning Ellsworth Kelly. Who is he for those who may not know? What's the fascination?
JG: The word fascination is right on target. The man is unbelievable because he has been painting probably for 50 or 60 years. He is 87 or 88 years old now and he’s championed more or less one thing that he has become famous for, which is purity of color and shape. To do that without wavering too much for years and become masterful at it — and to have everybody copy you is fascinating. His ability to understand color and simplicity is amazing. As a designer, I know for myself the biggest challenge is stopping. It’s not putting too much on that dress or jacket. It’s really sticking to the purity of the garment itself and he's very measured. He knows when to stop and it shows in his work.