JAMES LONG became one of the UK’s most talked-about young designers soon after graduating from The Royal College of Art in 2008 and setting-up his eponymous label. Less than a decade later, Long was appointed creative director of iconic Italian label ICEBERG. Adrian Gibson chats with the designer whose mastery and experimentation of knitwear and denim have earned him a cult following in the fashion industry.
You grew up in Northampton. What first inspired you to become a fashion designer?
So many things. My sister and I used to take the train to London at the weekends and I always just wanted to be part of the city and its fashion. I did an art foundation in Northampton and had some amazing tutors who guided me and showed me a world where I could study fashion. I met my best mate there (Rosie) and we decided we wanted to move to London to be fashion designers. I don’t think we ever thought we would get into the college, but we did.
You moved to the capital to attend the London College of Fashion. Tell us about your time there?
I hated it to start with. My foundation in art was very creative and free, but London College of Fashion seemed to be everything I didn’t like. Rules, timelines and customer profiles. I loved London but found the course to be not as creative as I had expected. However, I met an amazing group of friends and we really discovered London and that was a real inspiration.
Who were your mentors or influenced you as a fledgling designer?
Lecturer Ike Rust at the Royal College of Art (now at Westminster University), Darla Jane Gilroy, Virginia Bates and my sister Charlotte Long.
Where did you intern?
I went into McQueen a few times since my best mate was interning there and I wanted to meet Lee Alexander McQueen. It was thrilling, but I just kept very quiet and took it all in. I moved to New York for three months and interned at small New York fashion houses where I had a blast.
What did you learn at The Royal College of Art that has been key to your successful career?
So, so much, not least to really keep pushing myself in terms of ideas, sketching and research until it eventually came. You really have to get involved and edit yourself and your work a lot.
You produced your own collection for nine years and your shows were standout during LFW. What was your favourite collection and why?
Each one has special memories, because so many people helped me and really loved what we were achieving.
What was your biggest fear when starting your own label?
To be honest I didn’t think about it too much or I would never have done it. I was very determined, and Lulu Kennedy really guided me into it. Since 2000, Lulu has helmed Fashion East, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to finding and nurturing new design talent in the fashion industry.
How did it feel to win GQ Breakthrough Designer of the Year in 2016?
I was very nervous, was almost sick at the awards ceremony and then promptly forgot to thank some people. Those kind of evenings are truly terrifying for me.
Last year you moved to Italy to become Creative Director of ICEBERG. How’s it going?!
I love Italy, I love ICEBERG and I have just renewed a three-year contract with the brand. It’s such a historic fashion house, founded in 1974 by Silvano Gerani and Giuliana Marchini, who was knighted for her services to the industry by Italy’s President in 1994.
ICEBERG has a huge archive dating back more than forty years. How have you utilised this resource?
I use it when I need to. It’s so vast that it can sometimes be confusing. I like to create new ideas while respecting the past.
What were the inspirations for your SS19 ICEBERG collection?
It’s always a mix of my heritage and the label’s heritage mixed up and spliced together. I call it “Italo/Brit pop”.
Why did you show in London for the first time in ICEBERG’s history?
Mainly because it’s my home and I love London. Plus Dylan Jones invited us and I managed to get Cozette onboard to make it happen. And I had been away for a while developing ICEBERG and focusing on the American market, so I wanted to say “hi” to the UK! (Dylan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of British GQ and the chair of London Collections: Men)
SS19 received rave reviews and is already being worn by the likes of Lily Allen and Rita Ora. Who would you especially love to see in your clothes?
Quite honestly, to get your mates to wear your clothes is the real goal, especially when they’re part of their wardrobe staples. In terms of celebrity, Missy Elliot and Eve. I’m a massive fan of both ladies.
You featured Snoopy and Charlie Brown in the collection as nods to the ICEBERG years when the collection was designed by Jean-Charles de Castelbajac. Can we expect any more cartoon characters?!
I think it’s important but not always. I have some other exciting references coming this year.
What is it like working with the Gerani family which still owns ICEBERG?
I work very closely with them, I speak with them all time and I like to learn from them, especially Paolo Gerani, ICEBERG’s CEO. I grew up in a family business, so I completely get it. I am very respectful and grateful to the Gerani family and they are very nice people.
Knitwear has always been a key feature of your collections. The same is true of ICEBERG. What more can we expect from this union?
We are only just getting started really. We will be doing shows all around the world over the next few years. The next one will be in Milan which I am very excited about.
What other fabrications and techniques do you particularly enjoy working in?
I love denim and piumini (aka quilted puffer), and I really enjoy mixing fabrics and creating new textiles. This is why Gilmar Group (of which ICEBERG is part) is so amazing. Gilmar can achieve anything it’s exciting to develop fashion in collaboration with the group.
You work closely with your sister Charlotte, who you’ve described as ‘your right arm’.
Charlotte makes sure everything is running well. She lets me do what I do best, which is design. She takes care of the rest and always has. She’s a dream boat.
The talented Cozette McCreery is also part of your team – one third of the now sadly defunct London fashion label, Sibling. Do you find building a team easy? What do you look for in a new recruit?
Someone who I like to be with and have fun with, since you have to spend a lot of time travelling together. The main point is to trust and believe in a person. Cozette is mega. Cozette and I have a lot fun and have worked together for a long time. She also kicks ass!
What fashion designers inspire you?
Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and Kim Jones.
What are you most enjoying about living in Italy? Are you homesick for anything?
I love learning Italian and the Italian people are great fun. I return to London once a month to see my friends because they are really all I miss.
Where do you think James Long be five years down the line?
I always try to focus on the present and make that the best and leave the rest to fate.
We know you enjoy a good holiday after showing a new collection. What do you have planned for later this year?
I am spending the summer in the North of Italy in a very quiet place. Then I will be crossing the Atlantic with Virgina Bates, on RMS Queen Mary 2 to New York.
What lesser known destination would you recommend to readers of The Cultured Traveller?
I love visiting the Bagni Vecchi and the Bagni Nuovi in Bormio, in the Lombardy region of the Alps in northern Italy. Bormio’s Bagni Vecchi (old baths) recently reopened, and the historical, panoramic pool offers breathtaking views of Valdidentro. The baths in Bormio are the most relaxing place on earth for me.
Globetrotter, Rimowa or another brand when you’re packing for a vacation?!
I have an Eastpak suitcase and a Rimowa.
What in-flight essentials are always in James Long’s hand luggage?
Phone charger (so boring but essential), nuts (since the food can be quite bad on flights), a decent eye mask, an ICEBERG cashmere jumper and plenty of water.
Music has always been a key component of your shows. What are you currently listening to?
Today is all about Missy Elliot and Italian 1970s’ star Nada, who won the Sanremo Music Festival in 1971 and was voted “singer of the year” in 1983 with her summer hit Amore Disperato.
Tell us about an up-and-coming designer to look out for?
I am loving Kent-born Liam Hodges and Glaswegian Charles Jeffery. Liam Hodges is an emerging menswear label that is trying to fuse high-fashion with approachable youth subculture. Whilst highly creative designer Charles Jeffrey is the ringleader of London’s current crop of club kids.
How does James Long relax?
I really love to walk in the mountains and I am happiest when swimming in the sea or a lake.