Jay Godfrey on Life-Changing Cocktail Parties, Being Excited For Work Every Day, and How He Went From the Financial District to Fashion Design
by Bailey Powell
During my time at D Magazine I had the honor of interviewing New York-based fashion designer Jay Godfrey while he was in Dallas for spring/summer market. Check out what this gracious family man has to say. His genuine excitement about his career is infectious and inspiring.
From what I understand you’re from Montreal?
Actually from Toronto. I went to college in Montreal.
You were working on Wall Street. What made you go from Wall Street to Parsons?
Great question. For me it was, strangely, a completely natural transition. Ever since I was a kid I loved fashion but my parents taught me to get a good foundation in finance or law or whatever, so I picked finance and went to college in Montreal at McGill. It was great and I loved it, and I got lured into the big money dreams of Wall Street and found myself in a cubicle.
And I was uninspired and I didn’t love what I did and I still loved fashion and was reading fashion magazines all the time and I was like, “You know what? I don’t have a wife, I don’t have a kid”- at least not at that point, I do now. I wanted to get into the industry so I applied to Parsons. A lot of people including the people I worked for thought I was crazy, but at the end it was always a dream of mine to get into the industry. Somehow, some way I got into Parsons. I still can’t figure out how that happened.
How many people get in there? I know it’s really exclusive.
Yeah, my class had I think throughout the program 200 people, but they have like 25,000 applications or something. I don’t know what the exact number is. It’s insane. So, given I had no artistic background- my mom’s an artist so that helps, but I wasn’t a sculptor, I wasn’t a photographer, and I wasn’t a fashion editor. All I had was a love for fashion and they asked me at the interview “Why should we let you in? We’ve got all these other people…” and I said, “Well, aside from having a business background which I think will help the industry, um, I come from a different perspective. You know, I do consider myself an artist but I also consider myself an entrepreneur,” and I think that resonated. I got in, somehow. I had an internship at Oscar de la Renta, which was-
I know! I was gonna ask you about that. That’s so great!
Am I like, filling in all your…
No! It’s perfect- I love hearing about this. It’s so interesting. I mean, how many finance majors do you think Parsons gets? That’s so cool!
More and more these days, strangely enough. I always get emails that are like “Hi! I hear you’re the only the person who’s a finance major that graduated from Parsons.”
You started a trend.
You did. You inspired some of those Wall Street people who were stuck in a cubicle, and then they were like, “I’m going to Parsons!”
Yeah they’re like, “The hell with this place!”
So what I was gonna ask you- did you finish? Did you graduate from Parsons or did you get the internship at Oscar and then peace out?
I interned while I was at Parsons, then I graduated, and started my own collection.
So how did you swing that?
It’s kind of funny. I was actually at a cocktail party and I always believe in the theory, “it’s the right place at the right time” type of thing, and I was at the right place at the right time. One of my instructors convinced me that I should be following womenswear path instead of menswear (because I originally wanted to be a menswear designer), and it was probably a weekend after that that I was at a cocktail party and some gentleman I knew said, “Would you like to meet Oscar de la Renta?”, and I always think at the end of the day you go to cocktail parties- we all do- and you meet people that make promises that never come true. This one actually did, though! I remember going for an interview there and we hit it off and it was great.
What was your favorite thing that you got to do at Oscar?
Just being around the design team, seeing what they’re doing, seeing both their retail and kind of private clients coming to the office. Hillary Clinton coming in for a fitting, Queen Rania of Jordan, um, seeing major department stores- just seeing the workmanship right in front of you. It was legendary.
The amazing craft and intricate everything- oh my gosh! How wonderful. What’s he like, is he nice?
Yeah, he’s a great guy and constantly a gentleman, as most people would say.
Well I love your stuff. I was looking through all of it and I love how you do so many one-shoulder things.
Thank you! That’s something we’ve kind of become known for, I guess.
And the pops of color, everything’s very flattering. I read how you’re very inspired by Savile Row in London. You said you originally wanted to do menswear, have you thought about branching out now that you’re more established?
Absolutely. My mom was born in England so the British fashion blood kind of runs through me. Savile Row to me is this unbelievable, dream-like institution of walking this one street that is the world epicenter for tailoring. Every time I go to London I try and make a point to stop in there and just gasp and ooh and ahh at the clothes in the tailor shops. But yeah, I do want to branch out into menswear. It’ll come and I’ve spoken with some good people and have been working with them through development, but I’ve got a lot on my plate right now, A. with my women’s collection, B. we’re opening our first retail store in New York in February. So there’s a lot going on and I want to make sure I don’t take my eye off the ball of existing business before I get involved.
Sure. I don’t know how you guys keep up with the fast pace of fashion and being, what is it? Six months ahead? All the time?
Well I guess we presented this collection originally in September and it’s being delivered in January, February, or March. Sometimes it’s more. Six, seven, eight months.
You guys are always ahead of the curve.
It’s not easy.
It’s got to be exhausting.
It is exhausting, but you know what? Nothing’s exhausting if you love what you do.
And you’ve got your wife and your precious baby girl! Allegra, right?
Yeah! Wow you really did do your research.
And one more on the way.
Aw, how nice.
We don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl yet but next week we’ll find out.
Are you so excited?
What’s your creative process? We were talking about how you’re way ahead of the curve so, you know, where do you get your inspiration? And where do you start, concept to retail?
Generally speaking, every season there’s an inspiration. I am mostly inspired by the following: modern art, architecture, famous women or unfamous women- women in general, um, rock n roll, and it starts there. So I did a collection based around contemporary artist Ellsworth Kelly, who I’m a huge fan of. I have coffee table books of his and all the other people who inspire me and I start by putting together a mood board with inspirational images and some of them are literal and some of them are not. One might be of a woman who sets the mood in terms of what kind of woman we’re dressing this season. Another might be a painting that inspires one of the prints, or a color theme, two colors together. So I take this mood board, then what I tend to do is I start to think of what I’m trying to communicate to the customer in terms of silhouette. This is whether I’ll be doing longer silhouettes or shorter silhouettes, doing ones that are close to the body or away from the body. Then it goes into the sketching process where I basically over the course of a weekend will bang out 120 sketches, of which half of them will get edited out because some of the ideas suck. (laughs)
Well that’s part of the process, right?
Absolutely, and let’s say the other sixty make up a good portion of next season, and then I start looking for fabrics I’m thinking about if I want to go in the direction one season where I’m using leather, more silks, or certain prints, start to source that and then I kind of put the pieces together. I definitely don’t do it all by myself. I rely on my assistant designer a lot as a sounding board but also as a creative partner, my wife, and my staff, because at the end of the day they know. I can’t wear the clothes myself. I can only surmise what you as a customer will want or what you’ll find flattering versus what I’ll find flattering. So the process is really like, half a year process of sketching, taking inspiration, just putting it together, playing with different fabrics, sampling certain things saying, “Oh I don’t like that tweed but I like that, like, silk charmeuse”. Something like that.
How many people work at Jay Godfrey?
We have thirteen, and when we open our store we’ll probably have three or four more, and I can imagine by the end of next year it might be twenty- I don’t know- but right now it’s thirteen.
So, right now your lines are just in boutiques and department stores.
So this is your flagship- huge, massive deal!
Scared but excited.
I see you already have a huge celebrity following.
I’ve been very lucky. There are a lot of big fashion houses (and we’re not big, we’re little) that have to pay people to wear their clothes. We don’t do that. It’s a really authentic process. If Lauren Conrad or Kim Kardashian or who ever is wearing it, more often than not they’ve gone into the store and purchased it, which is the greatest feeling.
Who is the Jay Godfrey woman?
That’s a great question and I love answering it because it’s different for me than it is for a lot of designers. The Jay Godfrey woman loves clean, modern lines, embraces color, and really likes to be sensual or sexy but not vulgar. So, she doesn’t want to give it all away in one outfit. Sometimes it might be a shoulder, or it might be a little bit of cleavage, or a low back, or something that always has that sensual quality to it that makes her feel confident and sexy but also shows that she’s proud of her body and she’s a confident woman.
Have you heard that quote, I don’t know who said it, but it’s something like a woman’s clothes should be tight enough to show she’s a woman loose enough to show she’s a lady?
I espouse that 100%! As a man I don’t find it attractive when women give it all away, leaving nothing to my imagination.
Yeah, and what’s the point of clothes if you’re going to do that?
Since our weather is so weird and indecisive, what piece from your line is essential for the Dallas woman?
I’ve always been a big believer in layering regardless of season. There’s not one specific piece as much as I would say this: buy things that suit your body, are flattering, and can be layered easily. A lot of these dresses (motions to racks) can be very bare, but at the same time it’s nothing you can’t put a raincoat over, or a cropped leather biker jacket, or something like that. I think having those key components in your wardrobe of, you know, a great cocktail dress, a great pencil skirt, the best nude pump, the greatest leather biker jacket, the best navy blazer- all of the things that make up the wonderful components of this individual who can layer in an effective way, that’s what style is all about. So, I would say that for the Dallas woman. I would say that for the Miami woman as much as I’d say it for the New York woman. Nobody stays in one place anymore so you need something that takes you from day to evening. You need something that takes you from Dallas to New York to Miami to LA and something that takes you from the office to cocktails.
I love how happy your colors are.
I’m a happy dude!
They’re just so vibrant and I think that’s kind of rare.
Color makes people happy. Places like Dallas and the southern part of the U.S. in general- the women love color. In the northeast, not as much. So you might see a dress in hot fuchsia but we also do it in navy and black.
My last question is something we might have already talked about- what upcoming thing are you most excited about?
I mean, every day when I go in to work in general I’m excited about my job. I work with the best people. I’m in the best industry in the world. I’m excited about the store. I’m excited about each and every collection we put out because they really mean a lot to me. I’m excited to be a new father again and I like the direction of where the company’s going. We’re growing every single day, we’re adding new, creative, exciting people, and being an entrepreneur’s tough but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
That’s so inspiring. I feel like a lot of people in the cubicle life are bummin’ about going to work, so it’s refreshing to hear someone so amped about what they’re doing.
You know, and maybe not to the same degree but, I think people that work [at Jay Godfrey] all feel the same way. I took everybody out for drinks recently and one of the girls who probably had a couple too many said “You know, I really enjoy work,” and I’m like “You’re just saying that”. She’s like “No really. With my last job I really didn’t want to get out of bed.”
That’s got to be so rewarding for you.
Yeah. It’s awesome. It’s awesome.
It sounds like you’re livin’ the life!
This interview was clearly conducted before the internship at Oscar de la Renta I did last month, and it’s funny to read over my fan girl reaction to his name being mentioned.
Jay Godfrey’s passion for what he does coupled with his down-to-earth demeanor sold me. Being able to witness those qualities first hand is better than any ad campaign a fashion magazine has to offer. You can shop Jay Godfrey at many luxury department stores, on his website, and at his (now open) flagship in the meatpacking district here in New York City.
Now if only I could pool some funds…