DVF’s Jonathan Saunders Talks Prints in Fashion & Art

By Stephanie Sporn

NEW YORK – After attending The Glasgow School of Art and Central Saint Martins and working for the likes of Alexander McQueen, Pucci and his eponymous company, Scottish designer Jonathan Saunders knows a thing or two about prints. Last year, Saunders closed his twelve-year-old namesake line and moved to New York to join Diane von Furstenberg as the heritage brand’s first chief creative officer. “I knew Diane for several years, and I’d always admired her understanding of women and her appreciation for how clothes make you feel,” says Saunders of his natural transition to taking the creative reins at DVF. “Such a strong part of the brand’s DNA and identity is about screen printing, which is very dear to my heart.” Since updating their logo and debuting his first DVF collection this past September, it’s clear Saunders, who recently was named Fashion Los Angeles’s Designer of the Year, is injecting DVF with an edge while maintaining a high level of craftsmanship. Given Saunders’s extensive background in prints, he was the perfect creative to lend his inimitable eye for colour and pattern to Sotheby’s April Prints & Multiples sale. Read on to discover the designer’s favourite works from the auction and the many parallels between his design process and printmaking.


Can you speak to DVF’s legacy of printed textiles?
I describe it as a “textile house” because I feel textiles are an important part of the brand. Simplicity, movement and ease are some of the key aspects of DVF, but these aren’t just plain dresses. Individuality and creativity need to be a part of any brand, so we elevate our textiles as much as we possibly can to marry tradition with innovation. I never want the brand to be viewed as a souvenir, especially when it’s so closely associated with one dress: the wrap dress. The world is changing; designers are about breadth, richness and newness. So when I think of DVF, I think about the ideology of why it was founded – effortless clothes with imagination that allowed women to be free. Freedom is such an important attitude, especially these days, so I’m using this ideology to always push things into the future. 

How are you putting your twist on such a heritage brand?
DVF has a wide audience, but I still always want to treat the product with a focus on craftsmanship, always remembering the beauty in the traditional techniques of screen printing but also pushing them forward into new developments of rich textile designs that add personality, individuality and value. 

Whereas most designers sketch then design, you drape textiles first and draw afterwards. How important is spontaneity in your process?
The way I work is quite specific. The textiles, colours and mood of the collection inspire the design. I’m simultaneously thinking about movement, silhouettes and shapes, but then the magic happens through the very spontaneous process of draping. Often once fabrics arrive, we combine them in ways that we had previously not conceived. On the other hand, sometimes you have a vision, draw it and imagine it as a garment, but then during development, it comes back quite differently. Therefore, you always have to change and adapt, but I love the freedom of being able to express myself and trying something out. 


Who are the artists that most inspire you?
One artist I keep coming back to is Daniel Buren. That intersection between design and fine art is really fascinating. It’s a very simplistic way that he worked: the bi-colour stripe and always white ground with another colour, or a stripe turned into a panel combination of mirror with marble, for example. I’m inspired by how the environment becomes as important as the work and how materials and combinations of things can be done in such a simple but beautiful way.  

Would you say your design and furniture background informs your fashion?
Definitely. I’ve always been inspired by Ettore Sottsass and his use of playful, artificial colour. His vases, for example, are combinations of primary shapes with industrial looking screw tops, but they were produced with incredible craftsmanship. The furniture he designed using laminates and mass-produced materials also played with the idea of what is cheap versus expensive. People often associate luxury with colours that are rich, dark and opulent, and it’s been interesting for me to develop products that feel luxurious and desirable but using colours that are much more acidic and playful.


How has your move to New York inspired you personally and professionally?
What I find really interesting here is the scale of everything. Also, America’s appreciation for the combination of commerce and creativity. I incorporate ideas that I collected from around the world into my design, so textiles inspired by Africa and Asia and Europe all combine together. I think that is a reflection of New York as well. With so many different things in such a condensed place, it creates, by default, a fascinating melting pot of ideas. 

Did choosing works from the sale make you think differently about art or your own designs?
There are artists I love, like Marc Chagall, whose work I haven’t seen for some time, so it was exciting seeing them again. The sale is a crossover of several different periods, which is wonderful, and it has so many of the artists whom I’ve always referenced and been inspired by. I think viewing art next to works you’re not used to looking at them with excites people. All of the sudden, Chagall felt way more modern, in terms of the use of colour and subject matter, than I had ever perceived him to be. Maybe you’ll see some Impressionist or painterly Chagall in my following seasons! 

While we anxiously await this Impressionist-inspired collection, let’s play a round of prints quick fire. First, plaid versus polka dots?
Polka dots.

Colour block versus stripes?  
Oh, that’s hard. Colour block.

Animal versus floral?  

Symmetry versus asymmetry?

Black and white versus colour?  

And just for fun: sequins versus fur?  

Click the slideshow to view Jonathan Saunders’s Favourite Works from Sotheby’s Prints and Multiples sale:

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