Despite the once-in-a-lifetime economic uncertainty—and dismal retail forecast—brought on by the coronavirus, John Elliott is feeling hopeful. Excited, even. Perhaps it’s that the designer is quarantining in sunny Los Angeles with his wife and newborn daughter, or that Elliott is known, in part, for his cozy sweats, the one product category that’s boomed as folks hunker down to work from home. But beyond that, Elliott has a sneaking suspicion that this disruptive moment may actually be the crossroads the fashion world didn’t know it needed—an occasion to jolt itself out from a much-ballyhooed rut. The designer and business owner believes that this moment could ultimately be a positive one for the fashion industry, a time for consumers to reassess what they want from their clothing purchases and for brands to reconsider what they stand for.
“I think people are gonna emerge from this having a deeper knowledge of what their interests really are,” the L.A.-based designer said last week. “When you have that, you’re gonna have less sheep, you’re gonna have less people who are glued to pop and celebrity culture. It pushes brands to focus more on creating a product that matters, and that’s been something we’ve always tried to do.”
We spoke to Elliott about what his life looks like in this topsy-turvy moment (equal parts running and researching Miuccia Prada), how it’s made him rethink the way he operates, and what changes he thinks we can expect from his brand and the fashion industry as a whole.
First of all: What’s your quarantine life like?
I’m at home in Los Angeles, and I’m lucky to be spending time with my five-month-old daughter, Reece, and my wife, Rochelle. I’m also spending time, honestly, running our business, which is still as busy as it was pre-quarantine. When I have downtime, I’ve been into researching and investigating the life of Miuccia Prada—her art collection, who she is as a person, her personality quirks and taste level. She’s one of the foremost legends in our industry. Really, a fascinating person.
I’m also trying to take day trips. This past Saturday we took a hike outside of Oxnard that was a nice respite from quarantine. I still run every day, although not as far as I’d like. I’d love to tell GQ I’m running five miles a day, but in reality it’s probably three and a half. There’s a little loop I do. At this point it’s been eight weeks of this, and I’ve got a routine.
How are you feeling these days?
I feel like the opportunity now is bigger than ever, especially for a brand like ours, and I’m very optimistic about the future. I think this is actually going to instill values in our society that are similar to the values my grandmother held, who lived through the Great Depression. Seeking out quality. Really buying into something that represents your personality. I think right now is a time where people will have a heightened sense of self-discovery.
How has this affected your work? Are you still designing? How are you and your team meeting and communicating?
I would love to tell you I’ve knocked out two collections while in quarantine. I’ve had moments where things just come to me, and they’re good. There’s been some breakthroughs. But I’m not designing in the same way I typically do. I also have a five-month-old daughter who’s like my roommate now. So I don’t have the ability to eject to a higher level, to look down from 30,000 feet, assess things, and start designing.
I’m lucky to have a collection of books and old magazines that help as thought starters. But in a situation like this—where you have a store closed and wholesale canceling orders—it’s hard as a business owner to toggle between creative work and business operation. I would say that right now, I’m a bit more of an operator than I am a designer.
You’ve been around for eight years, have a flagship in L.A., and wholesale accounts at a ton of stores. Still, stores everywhere are starting to shutter or file for bankruptcy, and the crisis has revealed that even brands that look successful from the outside are working with thin margins. How is your business doing right now? Has this crisis revealed anything about your operations to you? Has it made you rethink how you’d like to move forward?
Let me start by saying that as a brand with a retail store that’s shut down, my heart goes out to our wholesale partners, and really any store that’s forced to be closed. Being a former salesperson myself, I can’t imagine what it’s like to live through this. I worked on the floor at a couple different stores for about five years, and I’ve always subscribed to the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. I got close to putting that amount of time in on the floor myself, so my heart goes out to those people who have relationships with their customers. They’re really the ones who are driving our industry because, while digital is…I’ll call it 20% of what our industry does, the other 80% is done in person. It’s those personal relationships that make you love fashion.
As far as our business is concerned, we’ve been in survival mode from the jump. We started this brand with $30,000. To a lot of people, that was a laughably small amount of money. Back then, we had to be very creative with our cash flow. My hypothesis when starting the brand was, if you can create something that’s unbranded yet recognizable, that’s kind of a big idea in fashion—and I think that really came from those hours spent on the floor. What is it, psychology-wise, that leads someone to actually pick something up off of a rack? With that in mind, we had to develop a way to stay liquid when we were gaining lots of wholesale interest but did not have money, and the only way to do that was to have healthy e-commerce.
From season one, e-commerce was a cornerstone of the brand, and I can say right now it makes up over 70% of our business. In that regard, our business is good. We’re all very thankful for that. As far as who we are, I’ve been really encouraged. Our partnership with UCLA Health has helped show our brand’s character. In this time where there was so much uncertainty, the question that we collectively asked was: What can we do to help our community? That’s where we decided to partner with UCLA and advocate for frontline workers fighting this crisis. I’m happy to say that at this moment we’ve raised over $100,000 that will go to free meals for frontline workers and visitors, as well as a Medtronic 980 ventilator. I think that shows the character of the brand. In many ways we’re survivors, you know? We’re scrappy, we’re tough. For the most part, we keep our heads down and grind it out.
To me, you seem lucky in that your core collection is built around comfortable apparel, which is the one category that’s really thriving in the pandemic. Have you seen a noticeable uptick in that business?
We’ve always tried to build something that’s timeless. Something that’s modular so it works together, and is built to be the cornerstone of your wardrobe. Right now, even more than comfort, people are looking for quality, and when you can combine that tactile approach you have something people feel confident to invest in. We’ve definitely seen that.
You were planning on showing in Paris in June, but that’s no longer feasible. What do you think you will do? Do you think that this will change Fashion Week forever going forward?
It’s too early to say if it’ll change Fashion Week forever. But as an avid fan of fashion, I can tell you I’m more excited than ever about seeing the collections in June, because we’re all being forced to do something new. When you have a situation like this, where everybody has to do something that’s kind of outside their comfort zone, you’re gonna see forms of creativity that are really refreshing.
It’s really just an opportunity. All of us have grown accustomed to the things that we love and expect, but this virus has brought us to our knees. I’ve been extremely delighted in the way you see small things that are clever. We’re gonna start to see that in a couple weeks, and that’s super exciting.
People are thinking of this as a reset for many things, but particularly the fashion industry. Are you thinking differently of how you want your business to exist and operate moving forward? If so, how?
I wouldn’t say that I’m looking at it as a reset because I’m very proud of the business we have in its current form. I feel like our brand is perfectly positioned for where the market is going to be at. That’s exciting. I don’t think consumers are necessarily going to need to fill themselves with the immediacy of brand names, or a logo purchase that used to satisfy them.
I think people are going to have the shared experience of spending upwards of two months in their home, of really learning more about themselves and their own interests. As they emerge, they’re going to have a better sense of who they actually are and as that sense presents itself, they’re going to be looking for confident pieces that have a sense of timelessness and value. That’s always been the principle upon which this brand was founded. So I feel excited about the future.
Has this at all changed the way you think of designing?
The thing I’m starting to shift into in a very real way is thinking about sustainability. In general I think sustainability is a term that gets thrown around in fashion. It’s typically a bit misleading. But when you go through a situation like this, you can’t help but think: How could we develop a recycled cashmere program? How can we develop more into recycled cotton? How can we reduce the amount of plastics that we’re shipping with? These are things that I’m thinking about right now.
Of course I have to ask: What are you wearing these days? Do you have any rituals about dressing, even just at home?
I work out like crazy, so I try to break my day up. I sleep in clothes that are fresh, so when I wake up, I’ll feel good. I’ll typically sleep in Nike soccer shorts, for example—I’ve started collecting them to sleep in. PSG, Chelsea or Roma.
I wake up and immediately work out in our practice shorts. So I work out in our OG Lynx pattern, or, lately our Exotic Tiger print. We have a new tree camo that’s coming out for pre-fall and that’s what I run in. From there, it really depends on what my day’s like. If I have a Zoom fitting, then I’m going into work mode, and I’ll be wearing our “Skittles” denim and probably a knit. I have a vintage Céline—Phoebe-era —knit that I originally bought for my wife but have since jacked (sorry!). I’ve been wearing it when the temperature is right.
If it’s too hot, I’ve been cutting shirts off. Whenever I travel, whether it’s Marrakech, Japan, Paris, Jamaica, Costa Rica, London, or Berlin, I’m constantly buying souvenir shirts. I’ve ended up cutting those off, so I’m typically wearing cutoff tees and jeans while doing Zoom calls. Then, I’ll throw on our Hemi Shirt—it’s a flannel—when I start prepping dinner. I’m always wearing either our Suicoke collaboration slides, but there’s also a pair of Visvim Christos I resort back to.
Anything else on your mind these days—especially in light of our current situation?
I’m closer with my family than I’ve ever been. I’m cooking with my wife every night. I’ve edited my personal closet down to what I think is important and not. I’ve set goals for myself that I’m sticking to. This bastard of a virus has forced me to prioritize my life and I think in many ways, as long as the majority of us can be smart and stay healthy, and we don’t suffer just an astronomical amount of human carnage through this, I’m confident we can come out as a better version of society.
I’m not a great philosopher but I definitely believe that if you stay positive and try to see the good in a situation, you can kind of sprint through it. I run three miles a day and I’m trying to practice what I preach.