Dior Taps Into the Beat Generation
Kim Jones talks about his latest collection: an ultraluxe (and surprisingly soulful) homage to Jack Kerouac.
“I’ve worked with artists, and I’ve worked with musicians,” Kim Jones, the artistic director of Dior Men, tells me, as he gestures widely at two large whiteboards, on which photographs of each of the 49 looks from his new collection are pasted. “So I thought it would be nice to work with literature this season.”
We’re standing in a lightless Holborn basement, it’s two days before the Dior Men's AW/22 show—the first Jones will have mounted in his London hometown since his two-and-a-half-year stint as creative director of Alfred Dunhill, a decade ago—and the designer has taken time out of his arduous schedule of model fittings to talk GQ through the inspiration behind the clothes.
“I looked at who was doing groundbreaking things at around the same time as Monsieur Dior was doing groundbreaking things, in the ’50s,” he says in his clipped English, which has a touch of the Queen’s about it, “and the Beat Generation was an obvious choice.”
Jones is wearing a close-cut sweatshirt in his trademark black. He’s sustaining himself on a packet of salt-and-vinegar Popchips, and his hair, which is flecked with the gilded remains of a recent bleach job, is cropped close to his head. His skin is clear, and he looks well—surprisingly well, in fact, for a man about to show one of the 25 collections he's designed this year.
In addition to his role at Dior, Jones is also artistic director of womenswear at Fendi, and it’s a duo of big gigs that keeps him very busy indeed. So busy, in fact, that one imagines the freewheeling likes of Kerouac and Burroughs, et al., might turn in their graves at the sight of his schedule.
“Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in 1957,” Jones says. (Christian Dior died in the same year, at age 52, and at the height of his powers.) "So I contacted the Kerouac estate and worked with them to bring some of his artworks and writing into the collection. I wanted to retell the story of On the Road for a modern age. The Beats still inspire the younger generation, so I thought it was interesting to take that road trip through clothes, via Dior.”
The resulting collection reads as much an homage to Kerouac’s work as a treasure map around the highways and byways of Jones’s magpie-esque brain. Grungy Fair Isle knit sweaters that, at first glance, seem worn at the hems but are, in fact, littered with sequins (a design cue lifted directly from Monsieur Dior’s archive) come paired with cropped trousers in washed denim; meanwhile, suede- and crocodile-clad hiking boots are teamed with nylon shorts, collegiate coats, and bookish windowpane check blazers, inspired by the midcentury Dior collections of Yves Saint Laurent and Marc Bohan.
The mix-and-match aesthetic—part insouciant Gallic chic, part rootin’-tootin’ Americana (so far, so Kerouac, who was born to French-Canadian parents and raised in New York)—is present in the smarter segments of the collection too. Sequin-peppered dress shirts are worn with spaghetti ties and chunky postman shoes in burgundy and burnished silver, while chunky-knit long johns rub hems with roomy shirts that, Jones tells me, are designed to resemble “the dust jackets of books.”
Indeed, there’s a certain softness to Jones’s AW/22 offering, a new warmth that feels at odds with the sharper edges found in his earlier collections for Dior. Has his interrogation of the work of the Beats, who were famed as much for their fluid literary style as for their unfettered approach to living (and dressing), encouraged Jones to loosen his collar? “The idea of personalities is key,” he explains. “There’s a Neal Cassady in the collection, there’s a Charles Bukowski in there, there’s an Allen Ginsberg, you know…all the different Beats.”
Voluminous smocks, finished with expanded takes on the imagery found on first editions of On the Road, and a leather jacket hand-painted with the cover art from an early copy of Visions of Cody aside, there are also plenty of the easy-access trinkets and small leather goods that Jones, a born merchandiser, excels at producing season after season. And they fall neatly into the road-trippin' theme too. There are folksy, mesh-encased cross-bodies and messengers; there are sporty, cycle-core sunglasses crafted entirely from recycled ocean plastic; there are heavy-duty hiking sandals; and there are sequined beanies designed to wear like swim caps.
When I ask Jones to identify the pieces he’s most proud of, the designer is quick to point out a midnight blue pea coat, which packs away into its own martingale on the back. He also shows me a shaved shearling jacket heat-pleated with an elegant diamond pattern, and a toothsome lambskin overcoat in a muted shade of cortado.
Jones, whose London home (due west from his temporary Holborn studio space) is as much a residence as a modern-day wunderkammer—a living, breathing museum full to bursting with the manifold cultural curios that he has collected in his 48 years—often turns to the things he loves as starting points for his collections. (His first couture outing at Fendi was inspired by his personal compendium of original Virginia Woolf volumes, while Dior SS/21 was based on a painting by the Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo, which hangs in his hallway.) It should come as little surprise, then, that for this latest offering, Jones looked to Kerouac’s most famous work, of which he owns a number of first editions.
The reference feels even more significant when one considers how much time Jones himself spends on the road. He's the flesh-and-bone embodiment of high-key peripatetic living, and one glance at his Instagram account—plastered to popping with images from shop openings in Tokyo, design meetings in Rome, product launches in New York, and now, preshow prep in London—tells you everything you need to know.
Mounted a few days after our meeting in the cavernous surrounds of Kensington’s Olympia Exhibition Centre, the show itself was every bit the big-budget, high-fashion production we’ve come to expect. The celebrities littering his front row included everyone from Jonathan Bailey and Micheal Ward to Sam Smith and Naomi Campbell; Grace Jones performed a barnstorming set at the close of the show; and the space itself perfectly mirrored the intricately conceived collection in its artful (not to mention expensive) execution.
Most notably, the runway was formed from a giant 120-meter scroll printed with Kerouac’s words, designed to mirror the lengthy manuscript the writer produced for On the Road. Kerouac famously stitched together countless sheets of paper, which he fed directly into his typewriter, so that his creative flow need never be interrupted.
Back in the Holborn basement, I’m about to be ushered out by one of Jones’s cashmere-clad minders, but before I am, I want to know more about the small, intricately ornate pin on the collar of his sweatshirt. Is it an homage to a trinket worn by Kerouac, I wonder? Will it be going into the show? “No, it’s my OBE,” says Jones, laughing; he was awarded the honor in 2020 for his services to fashion.
It strikes me that Jones’s personal look is the perfect embodiment of the designer’s mastery in marrying high and low—expensive sweatshirt meeting OBE pin and Popchip crumbs in happy harmony—which, I suggest, is also the key to the success of this new collection. “AW/22 is about playing around and mixing it up.” Jones agrees: “Like you’re living out of a suitcase and picking something new to wear each day.” He pauses, lifting his hand and smiling slightly, the gilded sheen of his pin glinting beneath the strip lights of his makeshift studio. “As though you’re on the road.”