Interview with Nataša Čagalj/ Milan Vukmirovic by Sasha Ferkul-Jenkins
Designers are tasked with the major proposition of creating original ready-to-wear collections at least twice annually (plus pre-season and resort), amongst a multitude of other responsibilities. Perhaps the most integral of these is the ability to stay relevant generation after generation, in an ever-changing, rapidly moving business where cutting edge ideas are an almost-weekly occurrence. On the one hand, the drive to be the best in class, to innovate, to inspire, and generally blow the minds of consumers and industry insiders alike lends itself to projects of immense beauty and originality. On the flip side, the need to outclass competitors – or oneself – is fraught with pressure, a ceaseless search for ever-greater things. Aside from the clothes, a unified aesthetic on everything from advertising to PR, digital to retail, is expected of these mere mortals – to create, maintain and then evolve a concept that is consistent with a brand’s desired image. Once all this has been accomplished, people have to like it, want it, and buy into the lifestyle they are selling. Piece of cake.
For Ports 1961, the assignment is especially consequential. Not because they don’t have goods to back it up, they do – a clean, consistent, high-end sportswear background. It’s just that they’ve now entered the arena of high fashion, emerging from the fog to re-establish the brand as a key player in the world’s top luxury markets. This is largely thanks to the recent efforts of two newly appointed creative directors: head of womenswear, Nataša Čagalj, and of the 2011-launched menswear side, Milan Vukmirovic. Both possess outstanding pedigrees: her with Central Saint Martins (having studied under the late, esteemed Louise Wilson, OBE), Stella McCartney and Lanvin on her CV, him as current editor-in-chief of Fashion For Men and co-founder of the much-lauded retail mecca Colette, with stints at Tom Ford’s Gucci and Jil Sander. Ports 1961 is in the midst of a brand resurgence with their ultra-accomplished creative directors in it and in charge for the long haul. But how far to take this revival, what length to stray from the roots of a 55-year-old house, and how contemporary to take the brand aesthetic are true challenges. Both designers have their work cut out; Čagalj must contend with the specter of history, Vukmirovic has to start almost from scratch. Each presents unique demands – and we’re not just talking about the clothes (though they are central to the story), it’s pretty much everything.
“It’s a work in progress, but I want the space to be modern, inviting, un-intimidating and flexible so that we can play with visual installations and change the look of parts of the space easily.”
The DNA of Ports 1961 is centered on the simple white blouse, a symbol of minimal modernity, made by millions, with endless variations, that never seems to exit the realm of style. Established in Toronto by Japanese entrepreneur Luke Tanabe, who so desired for his (very lucky) wife to have the chicest possible pieces, that he started a design company to ensure it. Both creative directors mention the shirt almost immediately as the fragment of brand heritage they most relate to, and appear honored in the most ultramodern way. Indeed, it’s almost otherworldly how much their collections mirror each other in terms of a contemporary update on that integral piece, taking the vision into an inventive, original, and interesting future. In his inaugural Fall/Winter 2015 collection at Ports 1961, Vukmirovic showed no fewer than ten white shirts, with sleeves and collars of fluctuating lengths. Čagalj, who debuted her first collection during the Pre-Fall 2015 season, clearly favors strong menswear silhouettes with versions of the stark collar in every collection. Both embellish their similarly utilitarian shapes – one with frayed pompoms, leopard and potato print florals, and the other with light-bright color-blocking and the occasional shock of Moroccan-inspired embroidery. One can assume that these details are the result of collaboration – a sort of his and hers design dance – but strangely it seems that their creative philosophies coincide as well. Both talk of the process as their greatest pleasure, the satisfaction that comes from seeing an idea develop from concept to concrete, the significance of collections that are personal and relevant, to be “sincere and design things with a soul”. Čagalj sometimes seems to be the more pragmatic of the two, until she dispels this by noting that, “Emotion is the most important thing of all. I do what I love and what my team loves and we just hope there are others out there like us that will love it too. We’re not for everyone, but what matters is that we are for someone,” and by talking of the bliss she derives from meeting customers who value their work.
Similarities aside, both creative directors seem to be taking certain cues from the heritage of the brand. Collections are simple, deceptively so, which is in keeping with the founder’s overwhelming desire for his wife to wear a sharply tailored, menswear-inspired shirt. In terms of design, it’s fair to say that Vukmirovic and Čagalj are straddling the line, nodding to the simplicity of the brand’s background, yet allowing it a freer, more explorative lease on life. And it’s working. But that’s just the clothes. The superbly minimal, sometimes cliché-pushing, almost-eminently wearable clothes. What about everything else?
Naturally, in the interest of aligning the brand’s aesthetic, the two creative directors will have considerable input into the future of the brand’s retail environments – an absolutely essential element of the Ports 1961 puzzle. Here again, their views converge so closely that it’s almost eerie. Vukmirovic has experience in this area, having worked in different fields of fashion (from interior design to concept stores, photography and magazines, or designing art collections), in contrast to Čagalj, with her very garment-focused practice, yet key points are immediately agreed upon. Both decisively assent that retail must be consistent with the label’s chosen image and that the message be absolute across the board. To paraphrase Vukmirovic: “The store has to be consistent with the image of the brand. Customers have too many options today and you must be clear and focused with your message otherwise they don’t understand or you won’t get noticed at all even though the collection is nice. The collection, store, advertising and everything else needs to communicate the same message.” Čagalj agrees, but cautions against the retail concepts “overshadowing the collections,” something she believes happens all too frequently in the over-hyped world of fashion. Both speak of creating appealing spaces that allow their dedication to shine, Čagalj stating her preference for unique details in different locations: “It’s a work in progress, but I want the space to be modern, inviting, un-intimidating and flexible so that we can play with visual installations and change the look of parts of the space easily. I also like to add things I love, like chocolates, free postcards and original artworks.” Vukmirovic is in complete accordance: “I want a cool space that feels more like an apartment than a store. I like a space with a curation of new and vintage modern pieces and fun features such as a vinyl record wall or free candy bar.” This direction, then, appears to fuse the old with the new, the classic with the contemporary, in a way that is based both on the designer’s experiences and on the brand tradition. Thankfully, their collaborators Yabu Pushelberg are in tune with this ideology, believing in harnessing their ideas and working to present them in beautiful, clean and modernist spaces, allowing for accessible change in terms of visible design – furnishings, fixtures, merchandising. This would suit Čagalj, who likens herself to a furniture craftsman, preferring a hands-on approach with a multitude of interior options, as when designing a collection. Vukmirovic also clearly sees the synergy between creating clothing and interiors: “The processes are similar, and in fashion as well as interiors, ergonomics are always the biggest challenge. The fit of a garment and the comfort of an interior should never be compromised. You have to create the perfect box (interior design) for your clothes to look their best and create envy in customers to buy and wear it.” It would be safe to assume that these ideals extend to opening in consummate locations.
“Emotion is the most important thing of all. I do what I love and what my team loves and we just hope there are others out there like us that will love it too. We’re not for everyone, but what matters is that we are for someone.”
Ports has a massive presence in Asia, having opened over 300 hundred stores on the continent by the end of the millennium. By the mid-aughts, the focus shifted to staging a western comeback, with retail spaces opening in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, a design studio in London, and a re-brand as Ports 1961. As of September 2015, the flagship in New York City’s Meatpacking District has been converted into a menswear boutique while the Parisian outpost now solely carries womenswear. That isn’t to say they’ve neglected their eastern markets, far from it, with transformative flagships now operating in Hong Kong and Shanghai, the latter especially significant in terms of its scale – a giant, glowing iceberg of a container housing elegant YP-designed interiors. However, an enormous amount of attention is being geared toward stores in the significant western cities. Both designers aspire to London outposts: Čagalj is hard at work revamping the Paris location, while Vukmirovic also mentions the French capital, as well as the Italian fashion center of Milano. The designers believe that the blank slate of stand-alone space is significant in redefining the brand for a new generation of consumers. Čagalj is particularly definitive on the subject: “You can never convey 100% of your final vision for a brand in a department store, so it’s important to have retail spaces that communicate this vision. Stores need to be updated too, or else they are no longer relevant and match the collection.” The pair’s commitment to seeing the brand’s retail landscape change to address the current incarnation is apparent, a less static, more substantive nod to the future of Ports 1961.
Design across all areas, from the collections to the retail spaces and beyond, is the basis of Čagalj and Vukmirovic’s profusion of responsibilities to Ports 1961. The pair have gracefully embraced their roles as guardians of a brand with a respected heritage, allowing it to grow and flourish, at the same time taking risks and making small, but visionary, leaps. This immense amount of thought, labor (even if it’s of love) and intensive creativity serve to redefine a brand for a new generation, all without completely alienating their clients of seasons past. Everything contributes to celebrating the relationship between the brand and its consumer, without whom Ports 1961 would not exist – commerce is part of the equation after all. Who would have ever guessed that a perfect white blouse would inspire such a purposeful march towards the future?
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