Not so long ago, John Ray, the new Creative Director of Dunhill, was in the midst of a long sabbatical from fashion doing, as he confesses, “nothing”. But perhaps unwittingly – subconsciously – the always amiable, wisecracking Scotsman was already preparing for the new direction he would bring to the classic British brand.
After making his name at Gucci and succeeding Tom Ford as the Italian fashion house’s menswear Creative Director in 2004, Ray decided to leave the industry in 2006, taking a sabbatical that would eventually last for eight years. While doing “nothing” and “fixing up the house”, as Ray describes his time out, he also took the opportunity to immerse himself in art. Now, having last year returned to the world of work at Dunhill, it’s that artistic influence that has come to the fore in his collections for the brand.
“I looked at more art, particularly Scottish art, and I became more appreciative of art in general,” Ray says of his time off when we meet in London following the launch of Dunhill’s autumn/winter 2015 collection.
His third collection for Dunhill continues to marry the brand’s heritage with a new, modern, slightly off-kilter look. Jolts of colour, a hint of rock’n’roll and contrasting proportions are all there in the latest offerings, and this is where our conversation begins.
Tina Leung: So, tell us about the new collection.
John Ray: I think it’s really good to bring the brand up to date. We’ve been talking about [British painter] Francis Bacon [as inspiration for the collection]. The great painters are all dead but it’s nice to look at the people in London now who are kind of artsy. That’s why we’ve used five guys [as models] – artists, painters or musicians – and I think they have made it all interesting.
TL: Why did you decide on the Fifties and ‘the rock star’ as themes for this collection?
JR: What I like about London is that it’s a hybrid of creativity – musicians, artists, painters, they’re all here. I like Francis Bacon because he was a great painter. The best pictures of him are from the late Fifties. And people like Richard Burton – he did that wonderful film, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. I wanted to create a new volume. The late Fifties is a period when everything is slightly oversized. It’s not slim and tight. I wanted a coat that I could wrap myself in rather than something fitted.
TL: And this volume contrasted with the fitted waists and shorter trousers you also showed in this collection.
JR: I started to do that last season because, when I moved back to London, all the guys were wearing low-waisted trousers. What I liked about high trousers on those boys is that it makes them look longer.
TL: They’re forced to stand up more, have better posture. You can’t really have your gut hanging out.
JR: Or have your arse hanging out. I don’t know if you know the word “arse” – it means buttocks.
TL: I think “arse” is pretty universal. [Laughs] I see the colours, especially, from this collection were inspired by the colours in Francis Bacon’s paintings.
JR: We looked into it. There was a list of all the paints he used and we could see he mostly used a certain blue, a certain ombre, his favourite colour. Then he kind of built the palette around that, so that’s why we used a lot of the ombre-y yellows.
TL: The colours meld and bleed into each other.
JR: Yes, but what’s nice is that they jar a little. Menswear is quite restrictive. There’s only so much you can do with a jacket or a pair of trousers, but colour is something you can really work with. With men, what can you play with? Socks, ties, braces – that’s all we’ve got because, otherwise, it’s blue, grey . . . I don’t see bright-red suits.
TL: So, what would you say is the essence of British menswear?
JR: The quirkiness and individuality of the way guys put it together. Italians are well put together, the British are scruffier. All the artists here, they come in and put a look together. I like the individuality of that.
TL: We’re curious about your sabbatical. After you left Gucci and before you started at Dunhill, what were you up to?
JR: I didn’t do anything. [Laughs] For years. It was great! I might have another break. I feel another one coming. [Laughs] I really did nothing when I was in Scotland. I didn’t care about work. I didn’t want to do it any more. The good thing is that now that I’m back at work, I love it again. I’m lucky I had a chance to take those years out. I’ve come back and I’m fresh again and enjoying it. The fashion thing eats you up, it’s non-stop, and you never get a chance to breathe or think. The schedule is a killer.
TL: Did anything during those years influence your design process now?
JR: I looked at more art, particularly Scottish art, and I did become more appreciative of art in general. I had time to look at it, unconsciously, subconsciously, unfiltered. I bought some art for my house [in Dundee]. The most beautiful things to me are paintings. I wish I was a painter. They struggle like all creative people. It’s not easy, because you’ve got to put yourself out there.
TL: Designing and presenting a collection is putting yourself out there too. Do you feel a release when you finish a collection?
JR: I’m always looking at the next thing. It’s quite nice to start again. If you like a collection – and I do like this one – you think: “What can I do next?”
TL: Looking ahead to winter, what’s the defining piece of the season for you?
JR: I think it needs to be a coat. There’s a beautiful raglan coat, where we’ve done a double-faced fabric. There are checks on the outside, but there are also checks on the inside. If you look at the colours from the outside it’s very dark, but from the inside it’s bright. It’s the same yarn, it’s just the way they put the mix of the greys on the surface. On the inside, you can’t imagine it’s the same colour or using the same threads, but it is.
TL: Could you also wear it inside out then. Or is that too much?
JR: I won’t. [It’d be] a bit Comme des Garçons! [Laughs]
Published in this month’s Landmark Hong Kong magazine