Madewell’s new head of design, Somsack Sikhounmuong, is leading the charge to focus J.Crew’s sister brand into doing what it does best: chic staples for the downtown set. “The kind of things you remember your cool mom or your cool big brother wearing — varsity things, great sweatshirts, jeans, an army jacket — you’re going to find a lot of that stuff as a great base on which to build your wardrobe,” says the Thailand-born, Toronto-bred designer. We hit him up for some spring sneak peeks (his first collection for the brand) and those catalogue-worthy styling tips.
What do you think distinguishes the Madewell girl from every other girl? There’s definitely an authenticity to the girl — she’s very sensory driven. I like to say that she loves her Kindle, but she also loves books, and the touch of books. She loves Spotify and iTunes, but she also loves vinyl. There’s also a curiosity to her. She just likes finding things. She loves blogs but she also loves hanging out with friends and family. She’s a fun, authentic, curious girl.
What are some classics every woman should have in her wardrobe? A great pair of jeans. Even today, you can make a lot more outfits with a pair of skinny jeans, a T-shirt, a great army jacket, a great leather jacket and a great pair of boots.
What was the starting point for the spring line? We wanted to give the Madwell girl the ultimate wardrobe. It’s almost like traveling and packing a bag. You start by putting in all the basics: a great pair of jeans, a great dress, etc. You then go on your trip, and when you come back, the suitcase is a mix of things you picked up, like ethnic things. We were looking at Japanese shibori — sort of a tie-dye technique — Ukrainian blouses and Mexican embroideries thrown in with all of your basics.
What are you most excited about for spring? We’re doing a new denim. It’s this wash called an extraction wash, like a beautiful take on acid wash. It sort of sucks out all the colors to the palest ivories with touches of gray hints here and there. I didn’t want to say “acid wash” because of the negative connotations, but this is actually really special and interesting. And we have great embroideries and eyelets. We’ve taken the sweetness out of eyelets. We’re putting in easy, not-too-frilly silhouettes. The combo of the two — great denim with some really pretty, feminine pieces — is the most exciting thing.
Since spring is a ways off, what do you think women should live in for fall? Neutrals. I always love it when there’s a combination of tones on tones, like a gray on dark gray, or cream with ivory is really beautiful. I think with all these crazy graphic prints we’ve seen over the last few seasons, [it’s nice to have] a palate-cleanser of these really soft, beautiful camels.
The girls in Madewell’s catalogues always look so hip. What are some of your favorite styling tips? There’s a cool, downtown spin to what we do. It’s feminine with the masculine. [I love pairing] a leather jacket with a great dress. When you take the sweetness out of things, it just becomes a little more interesting. [I always think,] “How am I going to make this outfit not too sweet, but not too ‘boy’?” It’s about finding a really nice balance.
His style mantras
1. Neutrals are your friends.
2. You can never have enough men’s shirts — nothing is cooler than a girl in her boyfriend’s shirt.
3. Own a vintage pair of jeans — the history behind them give the jeans an authenticity that you don’t get from brand new pairs.
4. Go to an Army store and invest in a great army jacket. It’s seasonless, and so versatile.
5. You definitely have to try — but never too hard.