The Croatian-born designer discusses his upbringing and infatuation with fabric, his time spent in Antwerp working with Raf Simons and calling Paris home.




Damir Doma, Paris 2012

Let us start right at the beginning with your childhood - spent growing up with fabric, with fashion, with clothes, all around you - and the influence of your mother, who herself is a designer, which must have been so impactful?

Well, my mother has an atelier so I basically grew up with all these things around me, fashion is something very natural to me as it was always there. I think for some people fashion is something very extravagant, but for me it’s what I grew up with so it was very close to me, it is what I knew so I decided to go in that direction.

Your mother's factory is actually where your clothing is currently produced - what is it like to work so closely with her?

The reason I was able to start so early is that she had the atelier and factory; it gave me the possibility of doing my collection while very young, 25-26 which is quite exceptional. Most people struggle to find their way through the industry, and for me that was something that was very accessible.

So it's an entirely positive thing for you?

Totally positive. And it’s great that I can share time with my mother. I am working so much that if I didn’t work alongside her, I would never see her!

You’ve had the chance to work alongside industry heavyweights like Raf Simons and Dirk Schönberger – tell us about what you took from the experience?

When people talk about fashion and those designers, they mostly see the surface, but the surface is not really interesting for me. For me, the most interesting part about my period in Antwerp was seeing how difficult it is to manage your own business, Dirk and also Raf were both struggling, in a way.

That’s the strange thing about fashion - that there are these two sides: the whole press side, that love to talk about the excitement of the fashion world but then the reality of our business is sometimes a bit more brutal and real, and that was a very important lesson for me. Especially working with Dirk Schönberger at that time, because just when I started he went bankrupt, then got new investors, then bankrupted again. To see this, was really, in a way...I was really impressed. Or something deeper than impressed, it was shaking my little world. Shaking it up! To understand how tough it is. People think “I want to become a fashion designer”, but they don’t understand how difficult it is to maintain a certain level. The first collection is easy, but then to grow, and to continue, and to get a certain importance…that’s pretty difficult.

So now, five years after your first Paris show back in 2007, do you think that early experience in Antwerp helped prepare you?

The time in Antwerp helped me to actually find out what I want, to think about “who am I” and “where do I want to go?” There was a period where I felt very isolated - Antwerp is a very strange place - people who visit it for a weekend or week mostly love it but if you live there for two and a half, almost three years, it’s a very strange place; I felt very isolated, almost lonely there. You spend, somehow, a lot of time with yourself. It was an important lesson, because usually you are distracted with so many things. There, I could really focus, so that was a great starting point and then half a year after I started my collection I moved to Paris, which means I have been here more than five years now. I, to be honest, sometimes don’t have so much time to think about the last five years, but sometimes when I do think about it, it’s a bit shocking. Four years ago I was in an atelier in the 16th [arrondissement] with one person, and an intern. And now when you visit our office it’s the opposite - it is, I think, 1000 square metres, with almost 30 people. Better not to think about it! [laughs]

Many of your key influences are installation artists, painters or conceptual designers – would you say that this translates into your work?

I don’t think any kind of inspiration influences me; I don’t think you can see [the influence of art] directly in my clothes. It is very subtle. What is interesting for me is the artistic process of creating, and when I create my clothing I use a similar process and a similar way of thinking. From conception I am thinking about the material, the shape, the volume, through to the final product and for me that period is the most exciting part of my job.

Let’s talk a bit about your Arnhem Mode Biënnale exhibit, where you showed your collection within a white desert that you created using salt. How did that come about?

I got contacted by Joff [Moolhuizen], who organizes the Biennale. I didn’t know anything about the Biennale, but I was pretty impressed by the line-up, because there were quite big brands participating. And he offered me salt, like a lot of salt, because one of the sponsors of the Biennale was a company that was producing salt. And I asked him, “Can I have a truck of salt?”, and he said “Yes!”, and I couldn’t believe it. Then we started to think - what do you do with this salt, because it’s really tough to handle it. So it was about finding out, “How can we actually use that salt?” We came up with a lot of concepts, but most of these we couldn’t work out how to fulfill, we couldn’t work with the salt. Then we said, let’s just make it into ‘hills’ of salt. I’m still impressed that we could get a truck of salt and I’m still asking myself, what did they do with it afterwards? For me it was a bit abstract because I was sitting here in Paris and he was sitting in Holland, I took the decisions over Skype. It was, how can I say…it was not real. It was very strange.

Are you happy with the way it turned out?

It was very difficult because it was a very big space, a very big hall, and while we actually produced videos for it you couldn’t really see the footage because the space was too bright. And there was no way to get our own little room or something, so I was happy and not happy at the same time. The salt thing was funny. They had offered the salt to everyone and no one else worked with it, so now I know why. [laughs]

Let’s go back to your move to Paris, and what influenced you to leave Antwerp?

Some very pragmatic things. The first time I got really in touch with something like “Fashion Week” and “The Fashion Show” was during my period in Antwerp; both designers that I worked for [Dirk Schonberger and Raf Simons] did their shows here in Paris, and so that was my only contact with something like Fashion Week, and my only experience. Also, living in Antwerp, it’s a very short trip to Paris. It was pretty clear that this would be the easiest thing, but also I think, in terms of style, the only thing that makes sense. Especially when you start with men’s, you can consider Milan or Paris, and Milan is not an option, so it’s really easy. And then, when it comes to more personal things, I don’t know, I just feel good in Paris. It’s very easy to just feel happy - even if people are moody and sometimes you don’t get cabs [laughs] but overall it’s pretty easy, you know? You leave the office, you sit in the next cafe having a beer. It’s just very easy, and just very beautiful, and elegant.

Damir Doma boutique interior, Paris 2012

Tell us about the way that your previous collections influence your current work – while your designs are not exactly seasonless, there is a clear continuity in the way your collections fit together?

I agree. I think it’s really important to have a long-term vision for your collection and your work and your universe. That also means having a certain design aesthetic, and a certain design language, and repeating it each season to also explain it to the people. I think by repetition people start to understand certain things.

For example, the men’s season [SS13] was very different from last season; it was a bit more random, because I wanted to get away from the idea of 'a uniform', to something that is based more on the individual. That’s why you have, for example, the crazy colored sweater, that doesn’t seem to match, and then suddenly there’s another break with more colors, and there again at the end. You know, with something like this, especially in the first season, people might think I’m “confused”, but when I show it in the second or third season, they start to understand. There was a lot of people who understood immediately, but some didn’t…and I think that’s how my clothes are generally. I don’t work with a lot of classic references, which means, like, you couldn’t say “OK, that’s the three button blazer, that’s the parka.” People need to be very open to my clothes and be ready to experiment with them, and then they understand them. So, sometimes, I need to show a jacket two or three times to make them understand. I can come up with an idea two weeks before the show - we present it, and sometimes I think it’s really worth it to continue working on it and making it better; I don’t like to drop things.

The “crazy colored sweater” you mentioned – was that a flash of inspiration you had two weeks, or six months, before the show?

The Mondrian Sweater was a six month thing. It was something I knew I wanted from the beginning; I did something very uniform for a few seasons, and then I wanted to shake this up a little bit and also open new doors. I thought I had reached the end of a cycle and I wanted to show something else. I think fashion is always about change, finding new perspectives on it, and on your own work. And then suddenly you feel you've reached the limit of a certain direction, I need to open the new door, and you know, this sweater, the colors, were a new door. When we started to do the conception for the show, I felt, at the beginning, it was very much about two sides, the black, and then the colorful. I really wanted to break up that first passage of the show, and just show something very disconnected from everything else that we show, and make people think. It was very much about the individual.

You’ve said that finding the fabrics and materials for your collections is often a very emotional moment; can you tell us a bit more about the experience? What was your starting point in terms of choosing, for example, the striped silk that was a stand-out fabric in your last show?

Most of my fabrics are designed especially for the collections. The stripes; they needed to be designed, and drawn. We work very closely with some really great fabric mills and suppliers, and we can enter their archives and see things that other people don’t see, very old fabrics. It’s really interesting to take something that exists, manipulate and change it. That’s the case here - we took something from the fifties and started to tweak the colors and the lines. The idea of the whole collection was to propose something very light, easy and effortless. I really like the idea.... I think generally, it was a season of pyjamas, overall. I liked the idea of getting out of bed and leaving the house, but then there is these opposing military coats and parkas, which are exactly the opposite, something very protective – it’s a balance.

Your designs are rooted in culture, with recent inspirations ranging from Slavic and Asian dress to historical and period pieces, would you say that your own roots have influenced you?

I have a very mixed background. I am Croatian born, my father was Hungarian, my mother Croatian, and my grandfather. Already in the family we are very mixed, it was me being born in Croatia, moving to Germany, moving to Belgium, moving to France, [which meant that] especially in my childhood I never felt really patriotic about one country or the other. And so today I am trying not to give very clear references - not to say “This is Asian”, or “This is African,” “This is European”. I am trying to mix all these things, mix them up and present them again in my own way. That’s something that works very well for me and I feel very comfortable doing that.

Damir Doma, Paris 2012

Your clothes are celebrated for their fluidity and movement, as well as their functionality. You’ve said that you favour design work that “makes sense” – what would you describe as a design that doesn’t make sense?

First of all my clothing has to be comfortable, because I want people to feel good; that’s really crucial. If the clothes are not practical, people don’t wear them. I am never interested in a short-term thing, where the the person feels stupid after half a day. It’s always about feeling good and comfortable in your clothes. I love products also. Besides designing a silhouette and creating a universe, I am very much into product, and I love designing details. As we mentioned before, I love improving things, I think my clothes are getting better and better every season - at least I hope they do.

Tell us about your favourite piece(s) from your upcoming menswear collection?

I am actually wearing one of the prototypes from the upcoming show. I love all these pieces. I’ve never worked before with such a rigid material, and I really enjoy doing it - I can create great shapes and volumes with these materials. l basically love all these combinations of stripes with these military jackets. I also love the whole passage with the lightly colored pieces..

SILENT embodies much of the same aesthetic as your mainline collections. Are the “missions” of your collections born from the same place?

Well for me, since I started the SILENT collection, and also when I started womenswear, it was the same idea: it wasn’t because we wanted to create a new business field, there was always a more personal reason for it. When I started SILENT, it was because I needed some things I could wear to do sports, to hang out, to be easy, you know? And so that was the beginning of the collection - it was extremely successful commercially within the first season, so we have added a new product group every season. In the second season, it was the knitwear, in the third season we started adding shoes and bags, and then we added wovens. Two or three seasons ago was, for the first time, a full range of SILENT products. Especially last season, and also this season, it got a real “look” and there is a story behind it. It’s not just loose product any more. I think that’s the success story of SILENT - that it’s not competing with the mainline, because they are created for different purposes, one is something more elegant and sophisticated, the other thing is something more easy and cool, more casual, modern sportswear. They can really exist next to each other for the same person; they are meant to be for the same person.

If you weren’t a fashion designer, where do you think your life would have taken you?

We mentioned the ‘process’ before, and that’s the most important thing. As long as I can think about things, create things, come up with ideas and make them happen, I could do anything in that direction. I would love to be a gardener, actually!

As you mentioned, you’ve added a product line every season, and now you have the new boutique. So what can we expect next for the Damir Doma brand in the future?

This boutique is really a milestone in the development of the brand, a really big thing for us. It’s started really very well, people love the boutique. We shouldn’t judge it too early, though, I think. That’s what I said this morning - at one point, this is the end of a cycle, but also the beginning of a new one, with this boutique the starting point. We have plans to open more boutiques and we want to open a few corners, and grow the brand.