Just/Talk: Justin Strauss with Louise Trotter

The center often holds possibility. That middle point between two disparate ideas — art and commerce, streetwear and high fashion, a British coastline and an industrial town — all serve as ripe touchstones for Louise Trotter, current Creative Director of Lacoste. “I find a lot of harmony in bringing opposites together,” said the designer, born and raised in the Northeast of England. For this edition of Just/Talk, Trotter chats with longtime Ace friend and legendary DJ Justin Strauss about growing up surrounded by the sonic counterculture of the 70s and 80s, working directly with Calvin Klein in the early aughts, designing for “everyone” and how “our work is the journey.”

Justin Strauss:
Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

Louise Trotter:
I grew up in Sunderland, which is in the northeast of England, not far from Newcastle really on the coast. And I grew up in an area that was not a particularly wealthy area. It had a city center that was quite industrial but with a coastline and nature which was very beautiful.

And I guess that contrast of something quite concrete with a coastline, which was incredibly natural and quite beautiful, is something that stayed with me forever. And it took me a while to realize because when I work I really like contrasts and I find a lot of harmony in bringing opposites together. And it’s taken me all this time to realize that I think it comes from where I was born and my childhood.

JS:
And when did you leave Newcastle?

LT:
Well I went to college in Newcastle, so I studied fashion in Newcastle.

JS:
Fashion was something that always interested you?

LT:
From a child. I was, you know, it’s a cliche, but I was making the clothes for my dolls as a child. My grandmother was a seamstress and so she was the one who taught me the basics of how to cut things and she had a little machine I used to play with. So I think it all stems from there. And then as I got older, I followed music and I liked music and I really liked the way you could be transported through the way you dressed into something else. And I was born in the UK and lived through kind of the 70s, 80s and its subcultures and also the fact that if you’re part of a group you could feel like you belonged to something else. So really from the earliest age.

JS:
And music played a big part in your life, what were you listening to growing up?

LT:
A mix. I had an older sister, so I used to sort of follow her. I mean, my first record was Michael Jackson, but I went through to loving New Order and Joy Division and then The Smiths and The Cure when I was younger, and then as I got older really into house music.

JS:
And would you go out and see those bands when they played?

LT:
I did, as I said, my sister was older than me and I used to sneak out with her and sort of pretend I was her friend. But yes, I used to travel. I mean, I was living in the Northeast and I used to travel to London to go and see New Order, who I loved. I was always really connecting fashion with music.

JS:
For me when I was a kid seeing The Beatles and Stones and how they sounded and the way they looked it was always together for me. It was so important, as they just complemented each other. I couldn’t have one without the other. And the way they dressed inspired my style and love of fashion.

LT:
I think it was also this sense that you could belong. I liked this sort of sense of how you dressed represented who you were. And I used to love everything about the gang and it was really about the way the music and fashion went together for me too, and that you could be transported and you could become part of a gang. And even today I like this idea of uniforms and in a way it was a uniform. It was creating a uniform of, kind of your religion in a way.


Justin Strauss wearing a Lacoste polo, 1978

JS:
The New Romantic movement in the 80s — those bands had a very strong look. The Two-tone ska bands had a very defined look. New Order, Joy Division had another thing, it was very dark and black and white. It stood for something and a lot of kids turned to music because they felt they were not accepted and they found a group or a few people that shared the same ideals and taste, and someone they relate to. I think it saves a lot of kids. I never felt like I belonged till I found some friends and we bonded over music.

LT:
I think it was also a form of, for me coming from the Northeast of England, which was not a particularly affluent area. It was kind of a way of escapism as well. That you could kind of escape through music and you could escape or become something or somebody else. I liked this idea that you could transform yourself through clothes. I’ve always liked that idea and even as a child, I used to cut up my uniform and create something else because I felt that I could transform myself into being somebody else in a way. And I think that transformation has always been very interesting to me.

JS:
And you started going out to the clubs? 

LT:
Yes, I studied to do BA Honors Degree and part of that was to take time out in the industry and I came to London and I remember going to my first house party in London in Lewisham and listening to music. And that was really a moment for me. And from that point I started to go to raves, drive out to raves in the country and then really got into going to clubs in London like The Ministry of Sound, and The Gardening Club at that time. And really sort of, again, that was in another movement for me because it was discovering another life, another way of being. And that was really very influential for me at that time.

JS:
And did you get to go to The Hacienda Club in Manchester?

LT:
I did, I went to The Hacienda closing party, which was amazing.

We wanted to be anything but our parents at that time.

JS:
Well that’s okay, you made it.

LT:
Yeah, I made it just at the end.

JS:
And were you starting to work at fashion jobs at that point or were you still in school?

LT:
I was still at school at that point, so really that was at the beginning. And then I was still going to school, I did a placement and I would go to a rave all night and then go to work the next day. And that just all seemed quite normal to me at the time to be able to do that. But I think it was a really, it was an interesting time to be in London. There was a lot going on in London at that time.

JS:
So it’s like 1988?

LT:
It was the late 80s. The late 80s, 88–89. It was just at the end of the Mudd Club in London as well. And we would go there and Boy George would be in the toilet, in the women’s toilet for most of the night. But it was a really great moment I think in London.

Image by Alexandre Faraci

JS:
I got to go to The Blitz Club in London, with Steve Strange and all that whole scene, which was really great. And I played at Ministry of Sound early on when they first opened and they were bringing over New York DJs. England has always been for me my musical lightning rod.

LT:
During the 90s there was an amazing energy. I worked for Joseph before Lacoste and that was also what was happening in fashion photography, which was really interesting. We’d just gone through that really 80s period of being quite extreme and quite decadent. And then in the 90s when we had a photographer like Corrine Day and with her work with Kate Moss, there was a really a great movement in London at that time. And you really felt part of something, you were living there and sort of working there and you really felt that you were part of a movement in a way.

JS:
Also British magazines like  i-D Magazine and The Face I would devour in New York and find out what was going on, what were the new bands, the fashion. And what was your first real job in the fashion industry?

LT:
First job. I came actually to live in Paris and I was working for a small company. I just finished my studies and then I came to Paris and I really struggled because at that time it was very bourgeois. There wasn’t a strong youth culture. And I found it really oppressive and I stayed only for a year and then went back to London just because primarily I wanted to be back in touch with that London vibe.

I found very much everybody was trying to emulate their parents in Paris, whereas in London we were trying to be totally different from our parents. We wanted to be anything but our parents at that time. And so I found my way quickly back into London and started to work freelance working for many different companies.

I guess that contrast of something quite concrete and quite ugly with a coastline which was incredibly natural and quite beautiful is something that stayed with me forever.

JS:
This is in the 90s?

LT:
That was in 92, 93, early 90s. And then I started with a brand called Whistles and my first big job was with them. And it was a small company owned by the founders and that was really my first.

JS:
And you were hired as a designer?

LT:
I started off as the designer and then gradually built and built and became in the end the creative director. But I stayed there for about seven or eight years. And then in the early 2000s left there and came to move to New York, I think I missed the best part of New York.

JS:
You had landed a job in New York?

LT:
When I met my husband, he just left New York and he had come back to London and I was sort of quite interested by what he said about New York.

JS:
Had you been to New York before?

LT:
I had been to New York during the 90s, and I’d always kind of wanted to live there because it seemed like a really exciting place. And I took a job with Calvin Klein and lived there in 2001.

JS:
And how long did you stay?

LT:
I stayed till about 2006. And I had an apartment on Centre Street between Broome and Grand and I had a really great time there, it was a good time during that period.

JS:
And you were the head women’s designer?

LT:
I was head of Calvin Jeans Women’s, and it was when Calvin was still in the business.

JS:
What was it like working with him?

LT:
It was great. It was really good. I mean, he was a character. I actually lived opposite him. He was living in The Police Building and I was living in an apartment just opposite him, but he was incredible, he was a genius.

JS:
Was he still involved in designing?

LT:
I was reporting to him and he was still involved and he had an incredible vision, he could kind of go through the whole collection and he had the capacity to point out the one thing you weren’t sure of, he was quite exceptional that way.

JS:
And he was also visionary and pushed the envelope with his advertising campaigns.

LT:
He did and I think he really understood a certain part of New York and I think he really was very free in how he expressed that and the choices he made. I mean, it’s iconic there, you look back on all of those images and they represented something very particular of that time and I think he managed to capture really that moment and he managed to create imagery that certainly resonated with myself at that time.

JS:
It changed the game as far as pushing things forward and everyone just followed after that.

LT:
I think so. I think a lot of people look at him with a lot of respect. I certainly joined him because I was totally intrigued by what he created from a marketing and a brand point of view and I think he created something that was really singular at that time.

JS:
Were you there after he left?

LT:
Very shortly and then I left pretty quickly after that and I went to Gap. I was Head of Women’s at Gap for a few years and that was really interesting. It was my first real mass brand.

“Once you understand how the founder thought and the founder’s beliefs and values, then I think it really helps you to start painting a kind of an idea of where you see the brand going for the future.”

JS:
That’s a pretty big change as the Gap was such a huge American brand.

LT:
I think what intrigued me was the fact that Gap was for everybody and I really liked the inclusiveness of that. Up until that point I’d really only made clothes, I mean, Calvin was much bigger. But I’d never really created clothes that everybody could wear.

I remember sitting on West Broadway in a coffee shop. I like to look at people a lot and to study people. Why do people wear things and how people wear things. And I remember sort of sitting there and thinking, he’s the Gap customer and it’s everybody.

Everybody wore Gap in their own way. And I find that really interesting. As a designer, how do you create something that’s really compelling and desirable and yet it costs 50 bucks.

JS:
And did you feel a lot of pressure in that job, because of its wide audience?

LT:
I think I was quite young and I had a naivety. I never really thought about how big it was in a way. I mean I did, but at the same time I think you have to keep it personal because you have to, if you don’t connect to it, then how would other people in a way.

JS:
Same for me. If I’m doing a remix or working on a production  I always think is this something I will play? I want to make something I’d play and something that I really like and that if I’m not into it, why would anyone else be?

LT:
That’s exactly the point. I think sometimes when you work for big brands you sort of start to get too focused on it being for everybody. And I think you have to start with it being for someone and often that’s yourself because I also have a feeling that we’re all not that unique. I always think if I’m thinking of something, then probably a lot of other people are thinking the same thing and I take that kind of philosophy with design as well. If I desire it and I believe in it, then I think probably a lot of other people will too.

JS:
Did you see people wearing your designs out in the world?

LT:
I saw a lot of people wearing it and I found that really rewarding, seeing how people wore it in their way. I still see even now, it’s what, over 15 years ago and I still see people wearing pieces. In fact, I still have pieces from that period that I still wear and I find that really, really rewarding.

JS:
And how long did you stay at the Gap?

LT:
I stayed there a few years and then I went to Tommy Hilfiger for a very short period of time.

Image by Alexandre Faraci

JS:
So you seem to have been involved with American iconic brands?

LT:
Yeah, I mean, it’s true. I really, I like to work for brands that mean something. And particularly, I like to work for brands even more so for me when you can actually have a connection to the founder, because you can really sort of get a strong sense of why that brand existed in the first place and what were the reasons behind the brand. Even working for Lacoste. Now the thing that drew me to come to Lacoste was René and reading about René and when I first started to talk to Lacoste, I spent a lot of time just researching him and reading about him and finding out about him because once you understand how the founder thought and the founder’s beliefs and values, then I think it really helps you to start painting a kind of an idea of where you see the brand going for the future.

JS:
Tommy Hilfiger is seen as this ”all-American” look. How did your vision fit in with that?

LT:
Tommy was great because first of all, Tommy was still in the brand and so you could have the connection to Tommy directly as a character. And I think Tommy is really based around Tommy Hilfiger himself, the man himself, it’s very much his character in his soul that’s in that brand. And what I tried to do when I worked with Tommy was to try and really connect with him, what he wanted to sell and the authenticity of him as a character, and I really, I enjoyed that.

JS:
How long were you there?

LT:
Not very long. I mean, again, it was just as they sold the company and the company moved to Amsterdam and I didn’t at that time want to live in Amsterdam.

JS:
And where did you work after Tommy?

LT:
My next week was a small brand called Jigsaw in London, where I worked for a couple of years and then from there I came to Joseph and I work for Joseph for 10 years based between Paris and London.

JS:
That seems like a long stretch in today’s world.

LT:
It was a long stretch, but I grew up in fashion in London in the 90s and if you were part of fashion during that period of time, then you knew Joseph and you knew exactly what he created. And so it was almost like going back to my roots with Joseph.

JS:
And how would you describe the “Joseph” style?

LT:
I think he was really a pioneer of 90s minimal style. I remember going to Brompton Cross just to look at the look at his windows. And the first Joe’s Cafe that opened, everybody wanted their kitchen to look like that. I think he was incredibly interesting because in the 90s he was the first person to really bring music, fashion and architecture all into photography, with all of his iconic work with photographer Peter Lindbergh. I think he was the first person to really bring all of that together and in one world. And with Michael Roberts, designing the shop windows, he really created a universe. He was the first person to really see that and to work with our architects. He had Norman Foster to design a store. I mean, when you think about it, it’s completely revolutionary. I think he was the first person to really act as a curator and really be a curator of fashion and art and photography and to bring that together.

I think the polo shirt is the most fashionable piece we have, because it’s the most iconic…It’s like Coca-Cola, it really is the real thing.

Image by Bibi Borthwick

JS:
You stayed there for 10 years going back and forth?

LT:
Back and forth between London and Paris and then I decided to come to Lacoste.

JS:
And you at that point you had a family?

LT:
I had a family in between that, I came to Paris and I was pregnant with my oldest child and started a family.

JS:
And how do they adapt to your lifestyle? And I guess it’s just normal for them growing up like that?

LT:
For them it’s totally normal and it’s totally normal that they sort of see London and Paris being equal homes for them.

JS:
And so through all these changes in places you work, music is still influencing your work and inspiring a lot of your designs?

LT:
Yeah, music and photography is still very much an influence in my work and now more I just listen to music at home. I don’t really get out that much with the kids.

JS:
And so how did the relationship with Lacoste begin?

LT:
It was quite a kind of protracted courtship. We were sort of talking for quite a long time and it became very natural in the end. As I said, what I find really interesting was René and reading about René.

JS:
Did he start this company?

LT:
So René Lacoste founded the company. He was a champion tennis player and he created the first polo shirt.

JS:
What year was it?

LT:
He was born around 1904, I think. And he started the company in the 20s. He passed away in 1996.  I’ve been fortunate to meet his granddaughter.

René Lacoste

JS:
Is it still a family-owned business?

LT:
No, the family sold Lacoste and now it’s owned by the Maus brothers, Swiss brothers, but René is still very much part of the brand. And we talk about René a lot within the company. He still very much lives within this brand.

JS:
So working at a brand like Lacoste, which has become synonymous with the polo shirt. And how do you take that and make it into a contemporary fashion brand?

LT:
The brand has always existed between sport and fashion. René was a champion tennis player and he was playing at tennis at a time when tennis was a very elite sport and people were wearing tailored clothes they were probably getting their trousers and shirts from Savile Row and they were wearing it to play tennis. And René was the first person to take a shirt and literally cut off the sleeves and add a knitted collar and he created the polo shirt.

JS:
He invented the polo shirt, it didn’t exist. And what is the significance of the crocodile?

LT:
He had a bet with his manager that he wanted a crocodile bag  if he won a game. He lost the game. But I think what was interesting about René is although he was a champion, he wasn’t the most gifted tennis player. He really studied his opponents. “The Crocodile” was his nickname. He had huge tenacity and I think it was his tenacity that ultimately is why the name “Crocodile” stuck. He was the first to put a logo on his shirt. And that was the crocodile. And at that time the crocodile was embroidered.

But to go back to your previous question, how do you take this brand forward?  It’s by beginning with the values and sort of starting with those values and saying, okay, what do those values mean today and how do I translate those values into life today?

Because although Lacoste is a heritage brand, our founder was an inventor. He was constantly looking forward and he was constantly trying to improve life. And so I want to take those values of how do we constantly look forward, how do we perform in everyday life. And that I find quite interesting, how do I take performance of tennis but take that into everyday life.

JS:
And so the polo shirt will always remain as the iconic piece from Lacoste. And then you build a whole line around?

LT:
I think the polo shirt is the most fashionable piece we have, because it’s the most iconic. We can’t go any higher from a fashion point of view than something that was the original. It’s like Coca-Cola, it really is the real thing.

JS:
Yes, but from what I’ve seen you are taking that inspiration and and doing some very forward thinking fashion with it.

LT:
I’m looking a lot at its heritage roots and then really thinking about, what do those values mean today? And I look a lot to René because he was a very elegant man, playing a very elegant sport. And I like that idea of bringing elegance into performance. How can you make clothes that you wear everyday be elegant but at the same time really perform. Because I think today we all need clothes that perform, we need clothes that we can wear and really live in.

JS:
Who do you see as the Lacoste customer in 2020?

LT:
On one side, Lacoste has a very bourgeois side and then we also have a very streetwear side, we have those two things. And going back to what I said to you originally about, how I love contrast and it comes from my background. My home was quite urban, ugly, urban kind of 70s but then with this incredible coastline and beauty. And in a way what I’m trying to build is this, I understand that Lacoste is something that can be for your grandfather, your father, your partner, your husband, for yourself. It’s really, it’s a very inclusive brand. I’m trying to find the harmony in the middle, like where do those two sides, where does the bourgeois and then also the street come together and where’s the harmony.

JS:
Streetwear seems to be driving the fashion industry right now. Everyone is wearing basically the same outfit. Almost a uniform. Where is the originality and sense of standing out?  It all seems very conservative.

LT:
It’s because we’ve got very used to wearing clothes that can perform and feel very comfortable in everyday life.

But I think that’s what we were talking about how genuinely everything’s becoming so sanitized. That said, but I go around Paris and there’s still people who inspire me. And the ones who inspire me are the ones that can take different things from different elements and then bringing them together.

But I think there is a general level of people wanting to accept and to conform. Everything has become so commercialized and I think we’re going to come out of it though.

Photo by Bibi Borthwick

JS:
Everything is always a reaction to something. What is your feeling on the responsibility of a fashion brand and today’s ecological crisis, and the sustainability of things — do you think about that?

LT:
A lot. As a brand we’re really looking into that and not just from a quick marketing point of view, but really sensibly looking into how can really transform the way we behave and I think there is a lot of responsibility but I also like the fact that I’m working for a brand that that builds clothes to last. A polo lasts a long time and I have polo shirts that were my husband’s that I’m holding for my son. And I like that idea. I think I also like the fact we need to think about being recyclable, but I think we also need to think about buying less and buying quality.

JS:
How do you feel about the constant change of creative directors, at established fashion houses? It seems to me some are not given the time needed to be successful?

LT:
It takes time to build, it doesn’t happen overnight. It really takes time to find your place and your position and to understand. Everyone is just wanting it to be immediate. And it doesn’t happen overnight.

And I think we need to start really being more patient and giving creatives time to really put things together. I have it myself with people contacting me and saying, oh, that didn’t match with that. It’s like, it’s not even mine yet. And I’ve just started.

JS:
How long have you been here?

LT:
Six months. And people already are sort of like commenting on something that was clearly done 18 months ago. I think people need to be more patient and I think houses genuinely need to be more patient in accepting that it takes time to get things where you want and how you want them to be. And it’s a journey. Everything is a journey. We are all constantly so preoccupied by the result and our work is the journey.

Photo by Bibi Borthwick

JS:
Everything is so immediate now. No one has patience. As with fashion, the same in music. There’s so much music and it’s just like click, click, click. And I think of the many times I bought a record and it may not have hit me immediately but I went back to it and became one of my favorites. There is little or no time for that in today’s world it seems.

LT:
It’s immediate. And going back to you saying about when you listen to a track or you make a record, some of the things I’ve most loved of what I’ve created, I’ve loved them maybe a year or two years later when I reflect and look back and sort of think, oh, actually, I really love that. And I think we don’t give things time but I think we’re going to be forced to reconsider that because I think everything has a cost and we need to take more time over things genuinely.

JS:
So you have an optimistic outlook for the future of things?

LT:
I think we’re going to have to change, but I think that’s a good thing. I think change is a good thing. I think we are going to have to really question our consumption. We’re going to have to question how we perceive things and I think if it means we have to go back to a bit of authenticity, then I think that’s a good thing.