Interview: Peter Jensen

published on 25 March 2004

Danish designer Peter Jensen speaks to Penny Martin about his fashion career and the development of his Cindy Sherman-inspired A/W 04 collection.

Danish designer Peter Jensen speaks to Penny Martin about his fashion career and the development of his Cindy Sherman-inspired A/W 04 collection.

Penny Martin: Please describe how you first became interested in clothes.

Peter Jensen: When I was 12 I went to an evening class to learn sewing. Everyone else was a housewife. I made clothes for my fat neighbour - she was only 10 but was really big so she was embarrassed to go shopping; she wanted everything to have a high polo neck.

PM: Your training was extensive, even before studying for your MA at St. Martins. Could you detail your education and say what influence it had on your current work?

PJ: First of all was the housewife sewing class, then when I was 18 I went to an embroidery school for six months. It was a live-in school where there were 89 girls and myself. I wasn't allowed to live there, so I lived above a bakery. After this I went to a tailoring school for two years, then worked for 6 months in the costume department at a theatre in Aarhus, which was amazing - the people were so skilled. Next I went to a graphics school for a year and a half. Then I did my BA at Denmark's Design School before coming to London. I think that it does influence my work that I have a good grounding in the technical aspects of fashion. I can see how things will be cut and finished when I am designing, which I think does make you design differently. I had been through a lot of education before going to St Martins, so I was really motivated when I got there, and because I had a technical background I could work autonomously and not have to be dependent on technicians.

PM: Do you think there is anything about your work that is expressly Danish? Would you describe yourself as a Danish designer?

PJ: I think there is a simplicity and lightness of touch to my work, which you could see as Scandinavian. There is also an element of craft and a commitment to wearability, which I think is quite Danish (most Danish design is fairly utilitarian). My work ethic is definitely Danish - I like to be at work early, and I don't take many holidays, which seems to be quite unusual in England. I don't think of myself as a Danish designer really: I feel much more a part of the London fashion industry. Being a Dane in London definitely has an influence on my work. I am fascinated by British culture and I think I have a different perspective because I am an outsider.

PM: You stopped your career in commercial menswear design (in Paris) to come to London. What informed that decision? Was it a hard one to make?

PJ: I always lived in London, but I did have a deal to design my own menswear collection, which was produced in Italy and shown in Paris. It just wasn't really working out - I didn't have any control. I didn't really make any big decisions about it, it just sort of came to a natural end and at the same time I started making some women's pieces, so I decided to have a presentation here and things developed from there. It wasn't a difficult decision, because I was still just making clothes, which is what I have always been doing. I am amazed when I look back at how little I knew when I was working with the Italian manufacturers - you just have no idea what is involved in the sales and manufacturing side.

PM: How difficult was it to transfer your skills base to start designing for women?

PJ: I did also study womenswear, so it wasn't completely new to me. I do think I have a more menswear approach to design, but I don't think this is a problem. I think it is fairly easy for a menswear designer to move into womenswear because a lot of women like the simplicity of men's clothes. It's much harder for a womenswear designer to move into menswear in my opinion.

I started looking at Cindy Sherman's work: I liked the idea of the same person dressing up as a number of different people.

PM: What motivates your desire to work against a conventional mode of beauty?

PJ: I like to approach designing with sincerity (even when it is intended to be humorous). The starting point is designing clothes that I think people would like to wear – it's really boring to design clothes that nobody would want. It definitely isn't a very sexy aesthetic – plenty of people do that already – but I wouldn't set out to make anyone look ugly.

PM: Femininity provides not only the destination of your design work, but also the inspiration. Women such as Olga Corbett, Gertrude Stein and in the case of this season, Cindy Sherman, have been the title/idea underpinning your collections. Do you feel you need someone in particular to design for?

PJ: I take inspiration from these people, but I don't feel that I am dressing them. I just tend to choose someone who I find interesting at that time. I don't really know who wears my clothes - it's always really nice when you see someone wearing them in the street.

PM: Please explain the creative process that developed your A/W '04 collection?

PJ: I started looking at Cindy Sherman's work: I liked the idea of the same person dressing up as a number of different people. I decided to spend a day taking pictures of as many different outfits as possible, so I got together lots of clothes (old pieces of mine and second hand things), and different people to come and style outfits from them. My friend Jeanette was the model and all the pictures were taken in black and white against a white backdrop. I styled some looks, and so did Lucy, but I also asked Aleksandra Olenska, Ann Sofie Back, and the other people in my studio to style looks. I used these as a starting point for the designs. I really like Cindy Sherman's 'Murder Mystery' series, and these sort of inspired the prints (bits of them are inspired by old Agatha Christie covers). The colour scheme was nearly all grey - it just seemed right to me. I like the way that you can put together more different shapes and fabrics if you work in a strict colour scheme, and still have the overall effect look quite tight. The concept for the presentation came for this idea of portraiture – I really wanted to have stills mixed in with the models, and I really like the awkwardness of having the models stand still for a long time. The hair and make-up was based on the idea of dressing up, which runs through the collection.

PM: You showed your collection as a catwalk presentation, with an integrated slide show. Why was that?

PJ: I think I've answered this above. It was partly because of the photographic inspiration, but also because I wanted to get away from just doing a straight catwalk show.

PM: Is it important for you to imagine your clothes as images, as well as living, moving garments?

PJ: I think the way I design is really garment based, so I look at how each piece works individually and all the details, like pockets and fastenings. It is really important for me that my clothes work in real life. Obviously you are always thinking about the total process, including the show, and I do think about how they will look on the catwalk. I don't really think about them as still images - it's always quite exciting seeing the clothes as stills, because you get a different perspective.

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