Northern Exposure

Jeremy Laing imparts a new perception of the Canadian designer. By Gabriel Bell
jeremylaingportraitSo, what sort of looks could one expect from an upstart designer who apprenticed under British couture daredevil Alexander McQueen, once simulated sex with a simulated phallus in red spandex for a gallery performance piece, and currently hosts a gay hip-pop dance party titled Big Primpin'? Forecasting by this CV alone, you could anticipate a line of satiny, circus-themed bondage gear in a day-glo palette. Alternately, one might imagine a collection of acrylic and steel china-doll dresses, dedicated to and inspired by the later works of Leigh Bowery. But the designer in question, 26-year-old Jeremy Laing would rather undercut expectations with balanced, subtle creations of relaxed, natural materials and softly layered constructions featuring his own unassuming brand of sophistication. Despite the flashy resume, young Laing is one of a rare and well-mannered breed in the world of fashion: He's Canadian.
Operating out of the "artist and hipster hub" of Parkdale, Toronto, Laing is one of a growing clique of north-of-the-border designers that, true to their national ethic, are politely opening up new avenues for their countrymen in the U.S. market while simultaneously offering us Yanks a balance of what we like—showmanship—and what we need—solid design.
After enjoying an itinerant childhood that led him through Europe, Laing had a long tutelage in the fundamentals of dressmaking. "I learned to sew at a young age by watching my mother, who often made crafts and clothes," he says. "Then, I started sewing clothes for myself, primarily to have things that were different." He notes that his first attempt was perhaps less flowing and more boisterous than his current efforts. "I think the first thing I made were a pair of pants, in some kind of plaid polyester. Getting the fly right was a challenge." Laing continued with home tailoring until it led him to a degree in design at Toronto's breeding-ground for creatives, Ryerson University, which he followed with exchange work at London's University of Westminster and apprenticeships for Preen and the aforementioned McQueen. Eventually, and somewhat organically, Laing fell into the creation of his own line. "The first collection was created as a kind of whim in three weeks. I put together a little 10-outfit collection."
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Jeremy Laing fall/winter '06 collection
Since then, Laing has grown his studio and his practice in the model of his idols. "I believe in organic growth and in little steps," he says, noting that, "I really admire craftsmen and couturiers like Vionnet and Balenciaga, both of whom developed highly personalized working methods and were not simply sketch artists." In fact, Laing seems to come from the Lagerfeld/Theyskens school of design for whom a prolonged fitting process takes precedence over anything on paper. "I like to work on a model," he says.
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Jeremy Laing spring/summer '07 collection
Unveiled in New York only weeks ago, the results of Laing's hands-on process—his spring/summer '07 line—is all one needs to know about the designer's goals. His fourth true collection is a smart study in how far one can push the norms of silhouette and profile without falling into the trap of stunt fashion. With breezy, feminine looks, accessible textures and textiles, and almost hidden moments of complexity, Laing makes the unconventional move of making "conventional" a good word.

I think I share the northern sensibility of the Belgian and Scandinavians, mixed with a puritanical, almost Shaker or Calvinist, element, with a dash of mid-century couture flair.

After gathering up some extra yardage, Laing has crafted a catalog of almost 30 looks that somehow delve into slack while remaining graceful and lean. Paralleling the efforts of others this season, the Canadian offers deflated versions of last year's inflated silhouette and spacious waists. Most notable in Laing's continuing use of his unique "Volant" wing pattern—a geometric squaring of the shoulders and waist into elegant membranes of cloth—is his nod to the current craze for all things layered. Overall, Laing has produced a line that is beautiful without being glamorous thanks to serene, intellectual patterning and tailoring and an almost Dutch lack of aggression and theatrics—a good show a maturity from a man who offered a very young collection of morning jackets paired with long johns three seasons ago and was stitching inflatable gowns for McQueen not long before that.
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Jeremy Laing spring/summer '07 collection
"I really like the work of Marcel Wanders and the Droog collective." Laing says. "I admire Dries Van Noten's company, and hope to grow like that, quiet and self-directed, but with force and conviction." Still, Laing says he punctuates this tempered style with some drama here and there. "I think I share the northern sensibility of the Belgian and Scandinavians, mixed with a puritanical, almost Shaker or Calvinist, element, with a dash of mid-century couture flair."
While it's hard to tell if Laing's lack of pomp and grandiose displays of ambition is a function of his personality or his famously polite nationality, his tempered mix of brains and beauty may just be a hint of the shape of things to come.
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Jeremy Laing is available in Toronto at Holt Renfrew, 50 Bloor Street W, 416-922-2333. For more information, go to www.jeremylaing.com.
Portrait by Bryan Porterfield. Fall/winter '06 photographs by Michael Cullen & Greg Manuel. Spring/summer '07 photographs by Thomas Kletecka.
Jeremy Laing imparts a new perception of the Canadian designer.
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