Designer Jonathan Simkhai's latest collection was inspired by a photo of his mother's Ukrainian grandmother, Fira, and the Hollywood celebrities he dresses.
By Britt Burritt
Just over a year ago, Jonathan Simkhai moved his design studio from New York City to Los Angeles. "I have a fully functioning atelier here where we develop the collections, and we also have a retail store, and our back offices are all out of this space, so it's really nice, all-encompassing," he says of his digs on La Cienega Boulevard.
The decision was both personal and professional. "I just kind of loved the lifestyle here in LA and being able to work outside. I love the weather here," he says. Simkhai and his husband, TJ Allers, are raising twin toddlers, daughter River and son Eliot, in the city. "It's just so beautiful. And being able to have more space and take the kids for long walks and hikes—it's a really nice place to raise a family," he says.
Of course, Simkhai had business reasons too. He made the decision in part "to be closer to celebrities and celebrity stylists, to be able to dress them and be a resource for award season." His LA headquarters lets him entertain stylists and create custom dresses onsite in the back of the house. It's clear that he's long had a following among fashion icons: "We've dressed Beyoncé and Michelle Obama earlier this year, and while the Obamas were in office, we dressed her." Fans also include Amal Clooney, who stunned in a saffron lace dress from the fall 2019 collection.
"I really, really love her, and I think she's one of the most beautiful celebrities, inside and out," Simkhai says of Clooney. "I love how active she is, just with social responsibility. It's always exciting to see someone that you really admire wearing one of your creations, and especially Amal."
Lace dresses are a signature Simkhai style, as entwined in his brand's DNA as in his own double helix. "My grandfather had a lace mill in Iran in the '70s. I look to him for inspiration," Simkhai shares. But for fall 2019, he turned to another branch of his ancestral tree. "I really wanted to look at my mother's side of the family for something different and to celebrate her grandmother. So I looked through her pictures and did some digging into her heritage. She was born in Odessa, Ukraine. And I found all these beautiful pictures of her."
"She was wearing an organic floral that we incorporated. It has a bit of a vintage vibe to it, but we did it in some fun ways where we printed it on nylon and made printed puffers with this Ukrainian floral motif," he says of this season. Scarf prints appear throughout the collection—on outerwear and denim as well as on lace. "We embroidered them on tulle to create a lacelike fabric."
Simkhai uses traditional fabrications and motifs in novel ways. For his fall 2019 runway presentation, models wore slipdresses over plaid trousers, and camisoles peeked out from single-shoulder blazers. "The collection is constantly playing on lingerie and slipdressing," he says. "Slips are detachable from jackets to create a prelayered look. You can remove it, and it creates a dimension in layering."
Since moving his operation from the East to the West Coast, Simkhai has introduced more casualness into his clothes—the denim, the sportwear, the functionality. "There's more versatility in terms of daywear and just easy pieces you can wear from daytime to evening," he says. "I think that LA attitude is a nice perspective on dressing."