Interview: JUAN PALOMINO

Rhiannon D’Averc sat down with one of the most inspiring and talented designers we’ve seen in a while, to get the lowdown on what’s next for his brand – and why he’ll be a big player in fashion seasons to come.

Tell me about your background – you’re from Peru?

Yes, I’m from Peru, and I started studying in New York, at FIT. Then after the first year I was chosen to go to Florence, to Italy, and do a year at Polymoda. Then I came to back to New York, I did one more year and graduated, then I was chosen to come to Central St Martins for a semester. Then I received an invitation from Central St Martins for menswear, and I did my best to change it to womenswear. I showed my project and they said yes, they accepted me. Since then I’ve done two years at St Martins and this is my last year. I’ve been working in New York for some fashion companies, doing internships, and I was a window display dresser. Then I went to do something with Bergdorf Goodman as well, for window dressing. I dressed some people, some rock and roll bands, as a stylist as well as a designer.

I’m interested in science as well, so I have some astrophysics background as well. That was just for not even a year. When I went to St Martins, I used that science to mix it into a fashion collection. That’s how it’s been going all these years.

I could see you already had a collection of 79 pieces.

Yes, that was the last collection. That was done by my team, in my name. But now we are in the process of changing the brand. It was a really a nice experience – this last year has been my placement year. As you know in St Martins, that is the third year. So, this placement year, I took a chance to, instead of finding an internship, find investment and put my brand together. That’s what I did with my last partner, Vestaen Balbuena. She and I created this brand and then we started to put more people in it.

Four months ago, we opened a pop-up store in Soho and we had a chance to sell pieces. I got sick for like three months. I had a panic attack and everything. So, that made the whole thing really complicated, and the brand was on standby. So, I’m changing the whole team. There’s a new brand coming which is going to be just called ‘Palomino’ instead of ‘Juan Palomino’. It will be with another designer from New York that I’m teaming up with.

You worked with small businesses and producers in Peru for the first collection. Is that really important to you?

Small businesses when it comes to Peru, yes. There’s a lot of quality production. That is important for me, to put my clothes in small businesses as well so that everyone can see it, but definitely the main goal is to sell in Selfridges, Harrods and so on.

Tell me about when you started designing.

I was 16. I was a dancer at that time, and I liked sculpture as well. At the time I think, when I was dancing, a lot of my friends were girls. A lot of people were asking, “are you gay?”, and I was wondering that. Then I came to the point that I’m not, so I was like, okay, I gave myself a chance to see, and I’m not. If I was, it would have been fine! But, all my friends were girls, so I was hanging out with them and talking about clothes. From the styling point of view, I started to see “Oh, that fits you better than that” – then I came to the point where I actually grabbed fabric, like okay, I can create something. Obviously, when I started in fashion my main idols were the classics like Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, Dior. Then I discovered who McQueen was – at the time he was alive – and it was like… (clicks fingers). He wasn’t that super famous – he was already with Givenchy, but he wasn’t a legend yet. It was his death that made him legendary, unfortunately! (laughs) That’s how I started, and my mum, when I was really young – and even before I was born – she was really poor in Peru, and she was selling toys in the street and clothes. She started creating her own clothes, along with my grandmothers. None of them were designers, per se, but I got some sewing machines. Not a classic story like I was dressing my Barbies or anything, but by some magic I knew how to use the
machines at 16 years old. I had a lot of fashion magazines from 1987, from my mum when she was in Germany. I didn’t understand what they said, but I knew what I saw.

How would you describe your personal style?

I dress like you see! I have a uniform I wear all the time. This is the first collection where I’m introducing a lot of colour. My personal style is more like rock and roll, that’s what I wear. But what I sell is more a combination between a bit of that and fashion. Because if you want to make a business you have to follow trends nowadays. That’s something a lot of people at St Martins sometimes don’t get. They are like “Oh, I’m going to live doing these noodle dresses…” Probably one out of a thousand or a million will, but not all of you! I don’t think I’m the most talented ever, I think I’m just good – I have some, but I think I’m just doing what I can. A lot of people criticise me because of that, saying “he’s just following trends, he’s not creating anything new”. I think I created something when I did something for Balenciaga, because I like shapes. But I can’t sell that everyday. This year has been really amazing because it’s been the time that I actually conquered fears, try to produce something, and see if it works – to grasp that feeling of how it is when you own a company. You have to manage so many things – it’s not just about, I’ve finished this and I’m waiting for my tutor to see it, so I’ll go and have a drink. Nothing like that. It’s a whole experience.

My personal style is just simple. It’s nothing new. It’s just my tshirt from H&M and my Doc Martins, which I always change because they get broken. Then maybe a suit when I go to a wedding, but nothing else.

Do you feel it’s a struggle between running a commercial business and being more creative?

Definitely. Because you have two groups of people: those that say “oh, that’s great”, and those that say “he’s not inventing anything”. Inventing – I don’t think it’s a word that can be used for a lot of things, but anyway. It’s like the word ‘genius’ – I don’t think anyone is a genius unless people say it, otherwise you’re talented. This business is a first try to see how it goes, and I think we had success, but for reasons outside of the business the team had to separate.

What was that project you did with Balenciaga?

At Central St Martins, every year they do a cut project, where you go into tailoring. This year was a special one because the V&A Museum teamed up with the Balenciaga Museum, and they did an exhibition called Balenciaga: Shape and Fashion. St Martins got the chance to partner with them and say, okay, we’re doing this project with tailoring right now, and Balenciaga was a tailor as well, so why don’t we do something? So, it was a one-time chance. I don’t know if they’re doing it again, but I haven’t seen it. So, from all the second-year students at St Martins, we did one piece inspired by Balenciaga and a personal subject. We went to Spain for a day to see the Museum, we had the chance to touch the real Balenciagas and see how they were inside. Personally, I always loved Balenciaga for the way he would treat clothes. How the cut was, eliminating seams, like Charles James. When we came back I joined that idea with Peruvian aspects. Because Balenciaga was always really amazing and when he moved to Paris, he said, “Nothing of what I do is going to make me forget where I come from.” It’s the same for me. When I think of Peru, I think of these beautiful women wearing their babies on their backs with their hats and skirts. So that’s the shape of my Balenciaga project, like a woman holding a
baby. The dots were reminiscent of the 50s Balenciaga styles.

Finally, they chose 15 students, then three. I was one of them. We presented at the V&A. It was an amazing chance because we had three runways there. There were thousands of people, and it was beautiful. I did a video with my team, which was growing at that time. It was an honour to be at the V&A and to present something – anything! (laughs)

How did it feel to see it walking down that runway?

Beautiful. That was the third time in my life that I’ve seen one of my pieces walking on the runway, but this was the most important one. It was magical. It was beautiful to see something that you’ve created with your own hands, and have other people taking pictures of it. It was great.

What do you think you take from your roots in Peru to your style?

Colours. Not in the classic way that a lot of people… I think a lot of designers make a mistake when they do an exact copy of what the colours represent. I don’t think that’s going to be successful in a European market. We have to consider the climate, how they are framed politically. A lot of these aspects are important. You have to consider what people are thinking sociologically at the moment. If it’s not matching, it’s not going to work. People will clap, and say, “oh, that’s a Peruvian thing”, but they’re not going to wear it. What I take from traditional Peruvian clothes is the shapes. Maybe. Then the colours, one by one. Not a salad! (laughs) I don’t think that works anymore. Galliano tried to make something like that. I think as a Peruvian, it wasn’t good. I’m not going to say it was good just because it’s Galliano!

What are your plans for the future?

There is some business with China that is still… there’s a company, for contract reasons I can’t name it. It’s a company in China which is interested in European designers. I’m not European, but I live here, so I was chosen! Another great platform is Not Just A Label. Not Just a Label has given me a lot. On there, a lot of companies from around the world contact me to see what I’m doing and send me free fabrics, free swatches. They invite me to their plants. One of these companies was the Chinese company, which is a small LVMHtype. They want to gather new designers, and I’m one of them. What they want is to invest money in the brand and sell it in the Asian market. That includes Taiwan, China, Malaysia, and Singapore. That’s not 100%, we haven’t signed the contract yet. If it goes ahead, then there’s a percentage I will get for each garment that is sold, so that’s one of the plans.

The other is to rebuild the brand, which is what I’m doing right now. Find new investors, which is the difficult part, because people always ask you the wrong questions about the brand and you don’t know what to answer! I will have some news soon, but we’re doing the business plan, social media strategy. In the last collection we didn’t have a marketing plan.

We just had the investment £35,000, which is not too much to build something. We did amazing things with that, thanks to my team. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything. All of them are great, they did an amazing job in putting the store together, the collection, the gallery, going to Peru to produce it… But what we saw in the end is that the mistake we made is we got to the end of the budget and we didn’t have money to do publicity. We just did Instagram. When you start Instagram, you make a lot of mistakes – you don’t know if you should publish three times a day or once a day, and it’s a nightmare.

That’s what I’m telling you – it’s not the same as doing a project in school and then you go back and get an A and you go and have a drink. You have to market the collection, do research, put the team together. When you start selling, which we did, you get excited for the first time. Then you have to sell again, and you have to work out how to fold the clothes! Every detail – how the label is hanging…

I’m done with school, to be honest. St Martins is great, it’s fascinating, but I’m done. I want to move on with my business. I’m 28, the majority of my classmates are 22 or 19 even. Those people are great. I feel like I’m their grandpa! I understand why they aren’t too keen to start something.

What are your ultimate dreams for the brand?

I’m debating… if I get investment, it’s probably going to be in the next six months. Maybe it will be better if I start it here, or I’ll go back to New York. But that really depends on the people I’m going to be with, how it’s going with the Visas. I’m on a temporary Visa, so that’s something that’s tough. I would like to sell in department stores, like Selfridges, Bergdorf, you know – which I’m going to do. For sure. That’s something I have in mind. Everything I want, I don’t care if people believe or not, everything I want, I take my time and I do it. I don’t care if I have anxiety, mental problems…

I’m not sure if I’m ever going to be able to create something transcendental. I wish. But I think that’s not for me to judge. If people one day think I did something valuable, then that’s the dream. As a designer. As a company, well, to make money! (laughs) To make the dream possible. If I want to live on making science and technology, which is my other passion, I need money. That’s actually one of my dreams – I also have another investment plan. I’ve been talking with some people in California. This is more like Silicon Valley stuff – this is something else. A fabric machine. It’s still on paper, still a baby. I want to do something like a 3D printer but for clothes.

I know it has been done as a prototype, but it has failed. Now I’m gathering all the figures and trying to put something real together, and gathering tech people as well. That’s another dream, something I would like to do – maybe to add that to the fashion company, so we have a just-in-time model of business. You just produce what you need. Science is a passion for me.

It’s interesting – you want to create something valuable; maybe this could be it.

Maybe. I don’t know. I want to make a company like that, I would love to create a machine to build clothes. I would like to be the next Spotify for fashion, I want to be an app.

Tell us a bit more about you! What’s the meaning behind your tattoos?

This tattoo is my position in the universe, a friend of mine from the team did it. This was because I was drunk! It was done by stick and poke. It was my first tattoo, I said “just put something”. It was really painful! It took five hours and a lot of Jack Daniels! It was mainly more to have a tattoo. When people ask me what it means, I honestly say, it means I have time and money to get a tattoo! I don’t want to put a whole story behind it.

I’m seeing life more calmly right now, because that’s what brought me to failure four months ago. It was the day we opened the store. It was supposed to be an amazing day. It was great, and we had all these people coming in, and suddenly… I was taking some medicine since a week before. They told me not to drink with it. Because I had problems with drinking at the time, I was thinking, it’s the opening of the store, so I want to drink some champagne. I was talking with a friend in the middle of the event, and I had a sip. Then I started thinking about it. I’m a bit of a hypochondriac, but everything was fine, so I took another sip.

Then I thought, okay, one second. I left the store and I started feeling heart palpitations, my heart raced like never before. I felt heat coming up and down, and I was feeling dizzy. I honestly thought, I’m done – I’m having a heart attack right now. So I went in front of the store, and I looked at my name on the front of the store, and I thought: “God, I know I’ve been saying I don’t believe in you, but right now I do! Please, please, please… Please do not kill me right now. I cannot die today.”

I didn’t, obviously! They took me to hospital in the middle of the event, so this was a whole thing. They told me it was a panic attack. The next month was horrible. We closed the store, everything was on standby. We sold some of the clothes, which was brilliant in terms of the business, but I couldn’t persist anymore. Every day I woke up, I was trembling, my heart was racing, I couldn’t stand up.

I went to Peru for three months. It was a whole experience. Thanks to my parents and my ex-girlfriend, who was my business partner at the time, things were kind of great. But then we broke up, and I had to face the music. I came here and now I’m better, I’m much better.

Do you have a coping strategy now?

Yes. Now I know what not to do. I can’t be living la vida loca all the time, like I want. Because that’s the thing, I love living like that. It’s a self-destructive thing. That’s why I have to not do something like that. Things are much better. Now, I’ll have a beer, and that’s it. Now I can actually talk with someone and pay attention to them, and not be always thinking about something else, if you know what I mean. I’m calm right now, I just moved to a new place, I took up running as well. I was always like, that’s not for me, and laughing at people who go running every day. Now I’m one of them! Now I’m running every day, just training my heart, and keeping healthy.

It’s an age thing, too. Because when you start getting older than your 22-year-old classmates, you start to realise, hey, I actually need 8 hours of sleep.

Yeah, I never slept. I also work as a tutor, so I give private classes to people about fashion, politics and art history. I used to work in the UN in New York, and my mum works for the UN, so I have a political background. Every day I was waking up at 7 or 8am, having 3 or 4 cups of coffee, give classes, then automatically start working on my company – because I used to live with my team, I had this stupid idea that seemed wonderful at the time. When you’re drunk, everything seems wonderful! I thought, I’m going to live with my team so we can work 24/7. I don’t know why that sounded great at the time, because it isn’t! I started working and then 10, 11pm, I would say okay, guys, let’s go drinking. We’d go drinking and come back at 4am, then I would sleep 3 or 4 hours every day. Impossible. I was in party mode when I was living in Italy and New York and it was great. I love partying, but not in that way anymore. It’s in my head, because I haven’t let go of a lot of stuff. I’ve been realising a lot of stuff in my family as well, personal stuff that is really delicate. Now I’m trying to cope with that.

Follow Juan’s next chapter at juanpalomino.com

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