When the fashion designer Kim Jones left his role as men’s artistic director of Louis Vuitton in 2018 after seven years he was literally catwalked out of the Grand Palais in Paris by Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. Dressed in LV monogrammed coats and boots, the supermodels – and part of Jones’s starry inner circle that also includes the Beckhams – took one hand each and gave him a suitably social media splashy send-off. On exiting Jones had more than proven his worth at Vuitton having turned it into one of the most influential menswear brands and brokering the smash-hit sell-out collaboration with Supreme – one of those fashion moments that people refer to as “gamechanging”. This intersection of haute fashion with streetwear can almost summarise an entire era of men’s fashion, one that Jones has been central to.
Last month he celebrated several milestones: 20 years since he graduated from Central Saint Martins, 10 years since he took the Vuitton job and three years since he was appointed artistic director of Dior Men. Not that Jones is one to look back. He’s too busy. He’s just guest edited Vogue Italia with cover stars including Demi Moore and also this month his collaboration with Converse went on sale. This was a canny move for Converse as Jones has hit sneaker form.
Since his arrival at Dior his work has been both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. L'anno scorso, the Dior Air sneaker saw 5 million people sign up in nine hours for a chance to buy a pair while his reimagining of the label’s Saddle bag for men has also seen strong sales. On the other end of the spectrum, Jones has infused haute couture codes into Dior’s men’s offering, mixing it with sportswear to create a modern wardrobe for a Parisian house that opened its doors in 1946.
This January Jones, via FaceTime, sporting a black hoodie, his cropped hair freshly bleached, sitting in his glorious library at his London home, is preparing for various shows, including his first womenswear haute couture collection for Fendi where he has replaced the late Karl Lagerfeld as artistic director of womenswear. We talk about how he thinks the Dior man has evolved since he took over. “There’s a lot more of them, that’s all I can say! It has a big global reach now and I’m proud of that. It’s a real varied group of men.”
Meanwhile the spring/summer 2021 collection is a heart-soaring duet between Jones and Amoako Boafo, an artist who is fast becoming a pretty big deal himself. In a 10-minute film Portrait of an Artist Boafo, painter of incredible rhythmic canvases, appears in his studio revealing his artistic approach. He says: “It’s a finger-painting technique. I just wear my gloves and I have my colours which will be umber brown and blue, and then I have some yellow and red. And I do magic with it.”
Boafo’s work is absolutely magic. It’s intensely colourful. Energetic. Joyful. It is also incredibly sympathetic toward fashion in the sense that these portraits of black men and women are often depicted very much dressed in what people in fashion dub “a look’. “The environment of my subjects and their clothing are the most important elements,” Boafo says. Much of his work feature titles that make reference to clothes, such as Baby Blue Suit, Checkered Beret, Self-Portrait with Pink Pants, The Lemon Bathing Suit. “I love fashion. Fashion inspires my work. Così, I tend to look at characters that have that sense of style in fashion,” explains Boafo.
Jones recalls the first moment he saw Boafo’s work in the flesh. Without a beat of hesitation, lui dice: “I just fell in love.” He smiles. “I loved the technique. It reminded me of Egon Schiele in a funny way, and when you go to art school that is something that everyone sees. It was very authentically West African, but it also has a European touch to it. I couldn’t really describe it, but it was that figurative, interesting movement in the work, and the way he painted the faces, that really interested me.”
In the film featuring two acts, one directed by Chris Cunningham, one by Jackie Nickerson, there is a fantastic and frantic montage sequence where the Dior outfits all worn by black models collide with Boafo’s paintings. It explicitly underscores the synergy between the fashion and the art. Il 31 outfits in the collection – created during the pandemic – are all imagined as a dialogue between Boafo and Jones, with the artist’s work imbued throughout, it’s particularly clear in the colour palette, the texture and even the styling.
Asked how he thought he would translate Boafo’s paintings into clothes, Jones all but leaps out of his seat. "Dio mio, I saw texture! I saw prints! I saw a million ideas at once when I saw them for real. There was a room at the Rubell Museum [in Miami] where I was like ping! Ping! Ping! It was a no-brainer!” Paintbrush strokes, based on a photo Jones took of Boafo’s canvases in his studio, are developed into a jacquard, ribbed knits are designed to echo the surface of the paint while the artist’s imagery is translated via embroideries and intarsia on to clothing. An ivy motif shirt in the collection is a brilliant coincidence; Jones had been looking at an ivy print dress in the Dior archives, when he visited Boafo’s studio a painting Green Beret – which would become the show invite – was there featuring a man wearing an ivy patterned shirt!
“I was looking at what he wears himself,” says Jones of Boafo, who already wore Dior before this collaboration. “It’s very much a portrait of an artist. I wanted it to be about him. It was time to celebrate a black artist when you see all these horrible things happening in the world.” He pauses. “It wasn’t meant to be a statement at the time, it just happened to be coincidental and it was a non-political message, but I was also like, let’s celebrate it and show support and solidarity to people who support our business, sai?"
Jones’s personal connection to Africa, having spent his childhood growing up in the likes of Ethiopia, Botswana, Kenia, Tanzania and Boafo’s native Ghana – Jones’s father was a hydrologist and his mother a writer – was also central to the collaboration. “I was mainly in Eastern and Southern Africa, not South Africa. But I was very aware of the art all over the continent because it was something I was interested in from an early age,” says Jones. “I was drawing all the time. I’ve still got all the drawings of all the animals I did in Africa, miraculously in boxes. I’m quite good at keeping an archive! Ethiopian art is something that has stayed with me as we had quite a lot of that at home and it was one of the country’s my father lived in for the longest but funnily enough Ghana was his favourite. Così, there’s an affiliation there as well.”
Another connection! Boafo, who was born in Accra, also says he started drawing as a kid. “I had a few friends that were also interested in drawing so we would just sit and compete and see who is best at drawing. And that’s how it started,” he reveals in the Dior film. He moved to Vienna in 2013. “My art changed instantly as my environment shifted and at some point, I felt what it meant to be an artist. Because this is when the rebellious attitude of my work was highlighted because I was living in a place that lacks diversity. I needed to put myself in my art in a political way.” Central to his work is the juxtaposition of contemporary portraiture and historic techniques. He uses a photo transfer method directly on to the canvas, with gift wrap papers that he selects for their patterns while his finger painting technique allows him to achieve “an expressive skin tone” that a brush would not.
He cites Kehinde Wiley, Kerry James Marshall e Toyin Ojih Odutola as artists who inspire him. “What I really wanted to foster in Vienna was a conversation with black contemporary artists – alongside my own lived experiences in Ghana. It was about encoding the nuances of skin colour.” As part of the collaboration, Dior is also supporting the artist in setting up an art residency in Accra this year. “My intention with the residency is to form part of a growing network of organisations and spaces concentrating on supporting the local art scene,” says Boafo.
Boafo and Jones spent time together in Accra. “We started speaking before Covid, but the main aspects of the collection were done during it,” explains Boafo. “This definitely changed the way we worked, but I think almost in a positive way because we were forced to do things in a more creative way, and although from a distance, it allowed our practices to fuse naturally because we were creating in spaces in our comfort zones.” Though he added that this project made it clearer to him the ways fashion and art influence each other.
This is something that is definitely not lost on Jones. His first show for Dior in June 2018 featured a giant centrepiece sculpture by KAWS and his most recent show in January was in collaboration with Peter Doig.
Jones believes men are after fashion that offers escapism but that is well made, things that last are crucial in an era where sustainability is a buzz topic. His hero is Sir David Attenborough. “If I could dress anyone in the world, it would be him," lui dice. “He’s taught the world how important the environment is and how important nature is and that we need to respect it, that we’re part of it rather than we own it.” Jones himself works for various conservation groups and charities to support endangered animals. Does he worry that sustainability has become a bit of a trend? He quips. “It’s a trend to people that aren’t doing it!” He says that Dior’s permanent range is mostly made up of sustainable fabrics, and that everything at Dior is being streamlined to be environmentally friendly.
Jones’s womenswear debut for Fendi was realised with a splashy but Covid-friendly A-list couture extravaganza featuring Moore, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. It was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – Woolf is a figure Jones is particularly obsessed with. Behind him as we talk on his book shelves are copies of Orlando originally owned by Vita Sackville-West, Vanessa Bell and Noël Coward. Jones spent his A-level years in Lewes, where he notes the Bloomsbury group felt ever present.
During our conversation in which he’s not meant to discuss his role at Fendi, he says how important this latest career twist is to him. “I’m going into the womenswear arena in one of the most amazing brands in the world and I’m lucky I have such a good co-pilot like Silvia Fendi who knows the brand inside and out. It’s exciting. And it makes me think about Dior in a different way.”
Dior SS21 collection is now in store and on dior.com