David Koma is one of the most promising young designers to emerge from the London fashion scene in recent years. Born in Georgia (the Caucuses, not the U.S. state), and a graduate of the prestigious Central Saint Martins design school in London, Koma founded his namesake label in 2009. And the U.S. has become the No. 1 market for his graphic, architectural, yet body-conscious aesthetic.
Koma’s sculptural party dresses have been worn on the red carpet by Emily Blunt, Jennifer Lopez, Gwyneth Paltrow, Miley Cyrus and more. And for spring 2015, he has moved into more tailored, sporty pieces inspired by the graphic lines of Mondrian.
His look is so hot in L.A. that he’s traveled here two times in as many weeks -- for a trunk show at Neiman Marcus and a dinner hosted by Pacific Palisades boutique owner Elyse Walker and her Forward website, which was attended by Ciara, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Camille Belle and others.
I sat down with Koma, 29, during his recent visit to talk about how he’s differentiating his own collection from Mugler (he’s been creative director of the rebranded house of Thierry Mugler, owned by beauty behemoth Groupe Clarins, since December 2013), the demands on young designers for constant newness, his love of anatomy and TV’s Dr. House.
How is it working on David Koma in London and Mugler in Paris?
At the beginning, it was a bit tough. But now, I’m quite enjoying it. I spend three days in London, three days in Paris and have one day a week off. I take the Eurostar, and my favorite train is the 5:40 a.m. because it’s dark and I can sleep for another 2 or 2 1/2 hours and still be in the office by 10 a.m. in Paris.
Thierry Mugler, whose brand you have inherited, was known for creating the super-woman look of the 1980s and '90s with his structured suits and bustiers, sometimes incorporating industrial elements such as car tail fins, nuts and bolts. But he’s moved on from fashion into costume and stage design. Do you ever speak to him?
No, but I think we’re going to meet soon. I have much respect for his legacy and the house.
How do you distinguish your own brand from Mugler?
The Mugler girl is a bit more grown-up with strict tailoring. The David Koma girl is more playful and about texture and color. It’s only been a year that I’ve been doing Mugler, and I’m sure with more seasons to come, more differentiations will emerge. From the beginning, I didn’t go a lot into the archives, though we have more than 7,000 archival pieces, which is amazing. But I wanted to base Mugler more on a vibe.
What’s your design process like? Do you sketch?
I love sketching but, unfortunately, nowadays I don’t sketch a lot. The more business grows, the busier you are and the approach becomes very different. You need to learn how to edit, delegate and communicate to your team. And your team needs to know you well or it’s a lot of wasting time. I have three designers at David Koma, and a total of 11 staff full-time. And I have a bit more at Mugler.
As a young designer, do you feel pressure to create newness every season to make headlines and get noticed?
Obviously, press is incredibly important. But if everything isn’t working, and your sell-throughs aren’t good, newness and freshness don’t matter.
It almost seems like there are two different worlds designers need to cater to -- the world of fashion watchers and the world of fashion buyers and wearers.
Yes, and if you’re a great designer, you can handle both. But the tempo is getting a little hard-core because of resort and pre-fall. It’s too fast and too much. If you have two shows a year, you can prepare them, research, edit and present your concept at a top level. But when you do four to eight collections, it’s more difficult. I’m happy I don’t feel desperate. I just want to enjoy my work and do my best.
You’ve been getting a lot of exposure on the red carpet because your dresses are sexy. And let’s face it, most actresses want to look sexy. Do you design either collection with the red carpet in mind?
I don’t design especially for red carpet or celebrity. It’s based on whatever concept I think is right for the brand. What links my dresses to celebrities is my love of the female form, my understanding of anatomy and my respect for the natural beauty of women. Without me trying hard, I think they are just getting it and feeling good in the dresses. I haven’t done a lot of long gowns for the Golden Globes or Oscars, but maybe it would be interesting to try.
Did your interest in anatomy come before fashion?
I graduated from school in Russia early, at age 15. And in London, you can’t apply to university until you’re 18, so I had a few years. So I studied at the art academy in St. Petersburg, classical painting, drawing and anatomy. They taught us that before you can draw a person, you have to be able to draw bones, so you can’t draw a face before you can draw a skull. We had lessons where we looked at a lot of bones, and even dead bodies. It was a very scientific approach to art. And I’ve stayed fascinated with anatomy. I love the TV show “House,” and I’m also very interested in plastic surgery. I’ve watched a lot of documentaries about it. Those procedures are much more intense than cutting a dress though!
What artists inspire you?
Caravaggio because of his use of light and shadows and drama. But at the same time, I’m obsessed with pop art, like Mondrian and Kandinsky, and I love Niki de Saint Phalle.
How is the U.S. market for you?
It’s the best, talking for my own line. Without having a strategy, but just releasing the collection and getting feedback about where it’s working, we’ve had an amazing response from New York to Chicago to L.A. and Texas. From big department stores like Neiman Marcus to online boutiques like Forward by Elyse Walker, there have been equally good sell-throughs. I even thought about moving to New York at one point, but not yet.
What sizes do you sell most?
We do from size 6 to 14 (British sizes), but there is a lot of demand to increase the sizing. But it needs to be the correct product for it. There’s no point to increase sizing if the dress doesn’t look good.
What’s next for your own brand? Accessories? Bringing on outside investors?
We’re self-financed and quite happy to be. At Mugler, we’re going to launch bags soon, ideally next season. And at David Koma, hopefully not long after.
What’s your biggest challenge now?
To keep going and growing both the businesses at the same time, and keep myself fresh and excited. There are a lot of good things to come.