Fashion designer Jonathan Simkhai helps ‘it’ girls, Saks VIPs shop his collections at the Galleria – Houston Chronicle
Jonathan Simkhai’s clothes are not for wallflowers. You know one of his designs when you see one.
They’re marked by delicious texture: silk, embroidery and lace – a.k.a., fabrics you want to touch.
They’re racy, albeit at the highest taste level. A sheer panel here, a slit up to there. Click through any Jonathan Simkhai collection, regardless of season, and you’ll find a treasure trove of cut-outs, plunging necklines and bare shoulders.
They’re also unapologetically colorful. In Jonathan Simkhai world, metallic is a neutral, pastels are a constant and jewel tones exist beyond the winter months.
Don’t shop his stuff expecting to find little black dresses or practical suiting. This is occasion-wear. His racks are a destination for coquettish wedding ensembles. For “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” holiday party looks. For a killer, highly Instagrammable vacation wardrobe.
Which is why a live encounter with the man behind such va-va-voom proved so surprising. Simkhai is very shy. In person, he’s more soft-spoken than you’d expect, considering that his clothes are not at all quiet, and neither is the woman who wears them.
Last month, the well-known fashion designer and winner of the 2015 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund made a personal appearance at Saks Fifth Avenue in the Galleria. Seats to the invitation-only meet-and-greet luncheon filled quickly.
Several millennial-age attendees wore their favorite Jonathan Simkhai pieces. They nodded at each other knowingly, having recognized the rich mustard hue that’s become his calling card or the delicate lace, favored by brides, from his nearly all-white spring/summer 2019 runway show.
Yet somehow, surrounded by sartorial fangirls, the designer managed to slip in undetected. He materialized seemingly out of nowhere. All of sudden, there he was, rearranging a holiday display of striped separates and embellished frocks.
A crowd formed almost immediately. That’s when Simkhai’s face lit up. He asked each person to tag him on Instagram, and shared that it’s a source of his inspiration: Seeing how real women wear his clothes.
Later, as servers with surf-and-turf entrees circled around the department store’s contemporary section, Simkhai was nowhere to be found.
Bloggers, Saks’ VIP clients and a table full of ‘It’ girls chatted across tropical flower centerpieces or snapped photos of the pink and navy cloth coin purses stationed at the each place setting. The custom saddle print swag bags hinted at the fashion presentation to come. But where was the guest of honor?
Backstage, styling the models.
Those finishing touches – a sash tied just so, a cuff folded or unfolded – are his passion, and what attracted Simkhai to fashion in the first place.
“This is what I love, it’s what I do best,” he explained during a Q&A session over dessert. “Making women look and feel their best.”
Simkhai came alive as he recalled being offered a job at age 14. A boutique owner in his hometown had observed him styling a friend in the store. By 16, he was promoted to manager.
He’d inherited the style gene from his great-grandfather, who owned a lace mill in Iran in the 1970s.
“When I was a kid, I uncovered his lace archive in my parent’s attic and was so inspired by what I found,” Simkhai said. “It was part of what drew me towards becoming a designer, so I’ve always incorporated it into my designs. The lace patterns are completely custom and one-of-a-kind, which I find so special.”
His celebrity muses agree. Lady Gaga, Oprah Winfrey, Amal Clooney, Laura Dern and Houston’s own Beyonce Knowles have all worn his work. No shrinking violets there.
When asked if he would rather dress Kate Middleton or Meghan Markle, Simkhai coyly sided with the Duchess of Sussex, former actress and lifestyle guru. An on-brand choice in light of his recent move from New York to Los Angeles.
“It was challenging and exciting to move our brand across the country,” he said of his West Hollywood flagship and inaugural retail space. “There’s so much more access to nature. We’re able to explore more casual categories, while adding a new twist to our (ready-to-wear) collections that speak to an LA, New York, Paris and global customer.”
World travel played a big role in his pre-spring 2020 aesthetic. After being invited to show at Sydney Fashion Week in Australia, he was struck by the beauty of what he calls magic hour and replicated the sunset’s glow by using dip-dye techniques to create an ombre effect in shades of magenta, orange and blue.
“It’s nature’s filter,” he quipped.
For spring 2020, Simkhai looked to Georgia O’Keefe’s artwork and Santa Fe landscapes to deepen his existing color palette.
As if on cue, models emerged in a prade of earthy mint and rust maxi dresses.
“Please, stay and shop with me,” Simkhai told the audience after the finale.
Stay, they did.
The designer shifted back to his roots and into styling mode. He sized up each customer before instinctively pulling blouses, pants and jackets for her try on.
This went on for hours.
“I never would have picked any of this out for myself,” one shopper whispered to another, her arms lined with black Saks shopping bags. “He’s really good.”
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