Who is John Ray?
Dunhill is a perennial favourite of Esquire, thanks to its values of classic British tailoring, quality and heritage, so it’s not surprising that Neil Patrick Harris chose to wear a silk and wool single breasted shawl lapel evening suit from dunhill’s S/S15 collection to present last night’s 87th Academy Awards. But if we’re honest, the brand had drifted slightly ever since Kim Jones jumped ship for Louis Vuitton in 2010. It was John Ray who eventually got the nod as creative director three years later and that was something of a surprise move. The Scottish-born designer has a fine track-record having work with, and then succeeded, Tom Ford as menswear designer at Gucci. But he’d been effectively retired for almost a decade and, when he did join dunhill (by the way, the lower case ‘d’ is deliberate – it’s the house style of the brand), found the company in a period of transition and awaiting a new CEO. But now they have a man at the top — Fabrizio Cardinali, who previously worked at Lancel and Dolce & Gabbana — and a menswear collection that stays true to everything that dunhill represents, but puts it firmly in a contemporary and relevant space. Esquire caught up with John Ray to find out more about his plans for the brand and what exactly he did with his time off.
Esquire: I absolutely love your collection and I’m sure everyone else today has been saying the same.
John Ray: Yes they have, but they’re always going to say that [laughs].
Esquire: Obviously you’ve gone back to the archives, and that’s fantastic, but you’ve done something that’s really contemporary with it.
John Ray: Yes that’s what’s important — contemporary. Archives are great because you have them and you can plunder them but it’s a bit of a cliché to say, I’ve gone back to the archives. But they’re there, so you can’t avoid them. It’s important for me to make a contemporary collection, otherwise it would look like a BBC costume drama, which I hate. So it’s important that people want to wear this stuff.
Esquire: I’ve had plenty of time to go through all the outfits this morning. I loved the washable jackets, the different cuts, the way you’ve used the fabrics, the way it’s themed from going from the beach to after the beach and then into evening wear. But what I really want to know from you is this: having stepped out from the game for a while, what did that do for you in terms of your creative process?
John Ray: Probably, if anything, it’s made me more creative in a way because I’ve been out of it for so long. So you come back with renewed energy. I didn’t really have to come back or want to come back, but I did it because I thought it would be an interesting challenge, something that I could really relate to. I think it’s important when you’re doing some creative work that you feel yourself in it, because otherwise if you’re guessing what a brand should look like then it’s hard, but if you feel it, you understand it; it comes from inside. And with Dunhill there are these different levels and different ages.
Esquire: What were you doing with you time off? How long has it been?
John Ray: Eight to 10 years. I can’t even remember. I ran away, thinking it would be six months in Scotland, and came back eight years later.
Esquire: Did being in Scotland influence you?
John Ray: I don’t really know if it had an influence. It was nice to have all that free time, because I was decorating my house. So I still had this creative kind of thing going on, and living in Edinburgh is great because it’s got a lot of culture. So you’re never really devoid of things to keep you interested. So I guess I became more informed about painting and stuff because I had a lot of time to look around galleries. It was a good step away from fashion.
Above: Looks from dunhill’s S/S15 collection
Esquire: How do you think your style changed over that period? Can you see a shift in your approach?
John Ray: It’s hard to say because I do think that you’ve kind of defined your own style when you’re a young man. By the time you’re 25, you more or less know what you’re about. You know what suits you; you know what you like. I guess that just evolves as you get older. What I like about Dunhill is that Gucci was very showy, very flash, but here I want a quieter approach; more subtle and bit more restraint — and that is a challenge, because it’s hard to find balance. I love traditional clothes but you’ve got to re-proportion them, use additional fabrics to lighten them up. So I don’t want to reinvent menswear. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel or whatever. It’s just nice to make some beautiful clothes that men want to wear.
Esquire: The fabrics in this collection are fantastic for the Middle Eastern climate. They’re so light, wearable and practical. For instance, the off-white jacket that you can wash and drip dry overnight is so useful because in our hot climate that would get grimy pretty quickly.
John Ray: See, that’s what clever about this fabric. You can take it on holiday, wash and hang it overnight and have it pressed and then wear it again the next day. I think that’s modern, isn’t it? The other ones are more structured but I like that because it’s more British isn’t it? Sometimes you need that structure to maintain the form. It can hide a lot of good living! [laughs]
Esquire: I guess it’s important from the British perspective but we stick to our strengths. We can’t all pretend to be Italian can we?
John Ray: Exactly, I think that’s what is good about the British. The specific shape: the little skirt on the back of the jacket, the trousers not too tight — you’ve got a taper on them — the slightly high waist. I think it just looks British, and the only thing we can be is British. You can’t pretend to be anyone else, you might as well go to the roots. And I want to offer this internationally. It’s a good arena to play in.
Esquire: Does it feel exciting to be part of the personnel at dunhill?
John Ray: It’s great. You know, to be honest, when I came I struggled for the first six months, because jumping from Gucci, which was a well-oiled machine, into Dunhill, which was kind of sleepy, without being rude, and it was very difficult for one man to make any changes. But now we’ve got a CEO, Fabrizio Cardinali, who has brought in a whole bunch of people that really know the industry and can support me. I can really feel now that with that sort of backing, we can make a big change to the brand. I want to just get it right; I’m not in any hurry to flip it. I think it just needs to grow and keep the essence of the brand and move slowly.
dunhill is at The Dubai Mall, +971 434 0403