J. Crew's Somsack Sikhounmuong on the Importance of Being Curious
Somsack Sikhounmuong has worked with J.Crew for an impressive 15 years, but it hasn't worn him down. Still bubbling with an enthusiasm for the brand and a passion for creativity, Somsack is thrilled to be heading up the design of womenswear for the American brand. During his time with the company, he's taken on a variety of roles, including head designer of J.Crew's sister store, Madewell, for three years. Recently in Hong Kong for the opening of J.Crew's first Kowloon store, Somsack chatted with us about his design background and the latest collection.
What got you into fashion?
"I always knew I wanted to do something artistic. I was always drawing as a kid, doodling in notebooks, sketching anywhere I could - my mum was always cleaning the walls where I’d been scribbling. I’ve always had this artistic impulse inside of me dying to get out, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. I looked at architecture, fine arts, graphic design, and when I landed on fashion it all kind of fell into place. My mum and grandma always made our clothes: I remember them sewing together at home, I was surrounded by textiles and fabrics as a child and I guess that fed into how I express my creativity."
What drew you to women’s fashion?
"I really appreciate menswear, and love the tried and true classic that appear again and again – but with women’s fashion, I feel you get to do the classics but also be more adventurous and experimental. The tools you are given are much more creative, there are not as many limitations: you can layer up with sequins and fur, experiment with different materials like lace, embellish with jewels."
You were the head designer of Madewell, J Crew’s sister brand, for three years, and really revolutionised the brand and sales – what was the secret to your success?
"I think the most important thing was staying focused. A lot of the time, it comes down to editing: what you leave in, and what you take out. Being consistent is really key to solidifying a brand, and I think that we really got to the root of that with Madewell."
What are your future plans for J.Crew?
"I want to keep it consistent: the brand is womenswear and menswear, what we’re known for is our colour, our prints, classic shapes, wearable fashion. We want to find new ideas and new ways of presenting those, while still keeping our collection very J.Crew. That’s the agenda for my team. "
What is your favourite part about your role as head designer?
"My role is very varied. I have the opportunity to do different — designing, speaking with customers, sketching, talking to the team, working on mannequins, styling, working with marketing on campaigns. I get to look at the brand as a whole and put all these little parts into one big picture."
What is the main concept for this season?
"In the USA, we have an ice cream store called Baskin Robbins, and they’re famous for their 31 flavours. When you walk in it’s fun, it’s happy, it’s bright. For fall, we wanted to bring in that colour, and mix that with really beautiful prints and patterns: the cherries, for example, is a play on polka dots. Another aspect is the materials we’re using: we were in Italy this summer, and we were very inspired by the textures and fabrics of Italian design, from fashion to home interiors. I love the way a room comes together, with pillows and wallpapers and floors, all the details and the different textures that go into each element, but the way they still fuse together into a single feeling. "
What is your favourite item from this season’s collection?
"I love the big, pink faux-fur coat we have – whenever people see it they just smile. It’s such a contrast to something like a tweed blazer, and I think it’s important that both of them have a place in our stores."
What is your favourite trend this season?
"With trends, we have to work out if something is appropriate for J.Crew, and if it will work within the brand. We are very selective about the ones that we utilise. Obviously, we found a place for fur this season. We’re really embracing the feminine movement as well – pretty ruffles, bows, frilly lace detailing which really works in our collection."
How do you keep your team motivated?
"You have to be really open to each member bringing in new and different things. We have a design team for each item – sweaters, pants, shirts, dresses, and so on. But, once every season, we invite everyone to just design what they want, there's no limitations. A sweater designer will make a coat, and a coat designer will make a bag. Everyone just makes what they have been inspired to make, and through that you step out of the box and starts to think differently. It’s really important to encourage open communication, constructive criticism, and really embrace different perspectives. If you’re focused on one thing for too long, you set up boundaries for yourself that it becomes difficult to see past."
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
"I work with two great mentors, Jenna Lyons and Mickey Drexler, and so I get a lot of great advice from them – and they are always saying, be curious. I think most often, you find that it’s those who are curious that really love what they do. Fashion is not an easy job: there are times when you have to work up to midnight, work double-digit shifts, mad rushes for deadlines, it can be really tough and intense. But it’s the curiosity that brings you back the next day, and stops you feeling bitter about it. Curiosity makes you want to explore, meet new people, embrace new ideas and perspectives, and I think it’s really key to being successful in any job."