Jon Max Goh arrived to our interview in casual attire; a cut-sleeve tank-top and jersey shorts, trainers, and his signature bleached hair. I didn't know what to expect from Jon, nor had I any real expectations for the interview, but I was excited to get into his head nonetheless. Before our interview I had spoken with Jon only a small hand full of times via Disqus - the online commenting and chat system - as I had made a comment at Style.com regarding his recent feature there. Jon, being young, enthusiastic, and desiring for real-time feedback, was watching the comments section and replied.
Since that feature, his work has been picking up attention globally, from being photographed by Adam Katz Sinding for Le21eme, to being featured in Suited Magazine, to being worn by the likes of Ashley Owens (@Grandpastyle) and Kenneth Goh (@kennieboy) of Harper's Bazaar Singapore.
Off the internet and far away from the premeditation that an online commenting section provides, Jon is funny and sweet, lively, and full of laughter. And yet, he is visibly serious about his work as a designer, and the way he approaches fashion -- both as an observer and a creator. His thought processes mix disparate sources, blending or juxtaposing ideas that might easily be seen as antithetical, in order to try to stimulate new conversations. Despite his intellectual feelings towards fashion and design, our meeting was convivial, like two friends reconnecting after a long semester abroad, and after settling down with our coffee and cake on Lafayette Street, I had the chance to learn even more about Jon.
interview by: Adam Mastroianni
AMFUKU: Tell us a bit about your background and how you found yourself interested in fashion design. What made you gravitate towards doing menswear for your senior collection?
JON MAX GOH: Sure... so for the first part of the question: throughout school, back home in primary and secondary school, I've always had fine art as one of my subjects and I had explored a few mediums, like illustration. I did oil painting and sculpture and I've always been very comfortable with all these different mediums. I feel that I've been able to shift very easily between all of them. I found myself gravitated towards illustration -- particularly watercolor and then sculpture -- those were my favorites. And then it wasn't until let's say I was 17 or 18 my junior college, what we had was a fashion runway project that was done by the students. It was a student-led project. And so I led mine during my senior year and we raised about $10,000 dollars for charity. But it was also a chance for us to learn how to design. And at the time there was also the big fad of Project Runway during that period too. And so, of course, there was that whole idea of "glamour" and the idea of "that's what fashion was".
And then I think also that residual idea of the runway from the 90s, that definitely sparked a big interest in fashion for me. I realized that I found a lot of joy creating from two-dimensional drawings and then conceptualizing it in real life and seeing it work on the body, seeing how it moved, and the idea of it possibly becoming real life and, you know, going onto the streets. I think that too was very captivating.
AMFUKU: And your senior collection was focused in menswear. Was there a specific reason you gravitated towards designing for men? Was it that the moment called for that or did you have another catalyst?
JON MAX GOH: So, the long story is (haha), when I came to Parsons my freshman year, I mean I thought I was going to do big Dior Galliano dresses and like, Marchesa ball grounds for the red carpet. Dress Beyoncé! (haha) And slowly, through the curriculum of Parsons, it really broaden my perspective of what design could be; what we, I guess in my head, need in design. So slowly that idea, my initial interest in fashion design really shifted into a more "designers perspective", and into the construction and the process of how we're designing.
Whenever I approach womenswear, my process and my sketching has been very... I refrain from using the female figure when I was trying to design so it's very, just, a body, the body: two arms, two legs, a head a torso, now what can you design around that. And then it came to a point where I got sort of exhausted with the fact that there were no limitations in womenswear.
And so menswear for me came at a time where I was looking for... it interested me because there's a confinement, there are rules, and with those rules you can break those rules. So that to me was much more interesting where, in a sense womenswear can be like "well just throw something on her, just drape it, and it'll be a skirt" and so it was interesting to bring that same conversation into menswear. If you drape it and you make it a skirt, can a man wear it? And it's an academic realm that, it was a nice space to explore in menswear. And menswear has been very exciting for the past few years.
AMFUKU: Yeah it's been growing into a huge... I mean there are so many eyes on it now. Now, a lot of the designs in your collection showcase exposed seams, or they play with draping in a way that's unfamiliar in a lot of menswear. Is that something that you feel like, you're purposefully challenging the norms of menswear with that? Is your goal is to change the conversation around men's wear completely? What are you trying to do by showcasing the construction of the work like that?
JON MAX GOH: I think there are multiple reasons in leaving a single seam exposed. Specifically for my collection, a lot of the raw edges or the unfinished seams were there to allow the clothes to look like they were distressed, to look like they came from an era past. Like, to incorporate this idea of aging already into something that was new, and so it did not look pristine.
And then there is another part which I guess... because I do work very structurally, even in my menswear, where I'm always draping directly on the form rather than necessarily drafting before putting it on the form... so sometimes with the material I'm draping and I'm cutting, and appending it together, and sometimes you have a raw seam, and the shape, it just works, and a part of me just doesn't want to touch it because I feel like if I close that seam it's going to become... it's going to change the fabric it's going make it more rigid it's going to hang differently. And so sometimes part of that is purely sculptural and artful, and if it's not broken I'm not to fix it. And it's interesting to see levels of how much we should finish in construction, how much deterioration can be embedded into a garment that's new. Yeah, that's definitely something to me that's still an issue when I'm designing because I do think about "how long is that going to last" or "is that going to fall apart if someone buys it and starts washing it."
Something interesting that one of the panelists [at Parsons] said was "don't be afraid, just do what you want. There are people to help, people in production who can help figure all of that out". It was interesting to hear someone actually say that.
AMFUKU: They were saying to do whatever you want because there is always a way to figure things out?
JON MAX GOH: Yeah! it was kind of a reaffirmation, like "don't hold back, do what you feel first, and there will always be someone there to help you figure something out."
AMFUKU: if you can talk about some of your inspirations -- both designers or anything outside of the design world -- anything that inspires you in your work and how it plays into what you're creating.
JON MAX GOH: Sure, so I've mentioned this somewhere else as well but it's kind of interesting here because we did bring up the whole topic of my initial love for, you know, the dramatics of fashion, and this old idea of fashion -- the ball gowns and beauty -- that very "womenswear realm" I think is something that still stays with me when Im doing menswear but that has developed into something very different. I think there is something very romanticized in the way I design as well. I guess when I say that I still really love Dior and these traditional haute couture fashion houses, this idea of art and beauty and how in keeping with how in fashion it doesn't just have to be so cold and stark and ready-made. Something that, I don't know, it's difficult balance that I try to keep in my work
AMFUKU: Yeah, I think it is visible in your graduate collection. It's ready-to-wear but just barely. [Jon laughs a bit] It looks difficult to figure out how to put in on, to wear it, but once it's on it looks one-of-a-kind. Then are there any designers now in menswear that you look at as contemporaries, or for inspiration?
JON MAX GOH: This is always such a difficult question! It's always been a difficult question, even coming to [Parsons] and people are like "Oh who are your favorite designers?"
AMFUKU: Well, it doesn't have to be "who are your favorite designers". Some of the designers whose work I think push the envelope most, or whose work I gravitate towards, I would never wear what they create. But you know, I'm still drawn to it, I still question it.
JON MAX GOH: There are so many designers that influenced me at different points in time. When Haider Ackermann did his first menswear collection with the silk bomber jackets and the almost Oriental references, in there with the ties... that was to me really beautiful. And then recently...hold on I took a screenshot because I thought this would come up (Jon starts to go through his phone photo gallery which is filled with random bits of inspiration)...Edward Crutchley. I thought it was really interesting, you know, Oriental inspiration. he's really dealing with the same ideas that I am, like the wrap and the sarong, but still very menswear. It's like, martial arts inspired maybe?
AMFUKU: Yeah it seems that might be, I don't want to call it a trend because that makes it seem like its transient, but guys like Craig Green is doing his quilted samurai garb, and yeah...
JON MAX GOH: So yeah, Edward Crutchley as of yesterday is someone that inspires me. But then there's also Dior Homme, and Raf Simons, and their attention to cut, and the minimalism that they achieve, it always captures me. It's always so amazing. And then even though my stuff is very experimental, I always always love looking at what people are doing with [Ermenegildo] Zegna and Hugo [Boss]. You know, its very beautiful, sartorial, traditional menswear and there's still something very beautiful about that to me.
AMFUKU: Going back to your own work, I wanted to know...there are a few designers right now that are working in menswear... Like, Shayne Oliver of HBA is designing what he has called "genderless" design, and there's J.W. Anderson who incorporates a lot of feminine elements into his menswear. He finds a middle ground where it's androgynous or ambiguous as to what gender it is designed for, and I see some of these ideas in some of your work too. Do you see yourself from a similar perspective?
JON MAX GOH: So, I see similarities in those conversations... Interestingly enough, when I'm doing menswear, because I know a lot of these silhouettes are very challenging, I am very conscience that I am putting it on a male form and I want it to be menswear, and I want to design from a starting point of "this is going on a man" and I want to see what that looks like, and what that conversation is. Whether women can wear it, I'm really open to the idea. These shapes look more feminine on the male form but sometimes, when I put these shapes on a female model it looks way too masculine, it isn't flattering at all. But genderless is a word that I am drawn to, I'm not specifically seeking to make things unisex.
AMFUKU: Great. And can you tell us a little bit about your background, and where you're from - as much as you want to tell us about your family background and what it was like growing up?
JON MAX GOH: Sure, so I'm from Singapore, born and raised. I'm very fortunate in coming from Singapore; we are very exposed to the rest of the world, it is a very small, condensed city but very up-to-date with what's happening outside. I've also been very lucky because my parents have always been very supportive. They're very big believers of me and my siblings pursuing what makes [us] happy. They always knew I was going to do something art related. It was always a question like "so what are you going to do? What is the difference if you are a graphic designer or a photographer?" and you know, "at the end of the day are you going to get a job?" You know (haha) these are things that parents always ask. And even when I decided that it was fashion design it was something that they were just like "okay as long as at the end of the day you're happy doing that, that's the most important thing."
And then a series of events lead to that conclusion that...its a long story again...So we have to go to the army in Singapore, so I did that when I was 18 for three years. And then after that there was a period of like, "I don't know what to do but I know I have to go to college." I did a graphic design stint for a while -- I was a junior graphic designer for a month or two, hated the job (haha). I hated the job but I learned a lot, picked up all my illustrator and Photoshop skills from there, and then worked for a local jewelry designer who has since been a great friend and a mentor. She has been so so so amazing. she was in advertising for 10 years before she did jewelry and she's just been this wealth of support and knowledge and, you know, she's always pushing me and saying "great now you can design so go work for sales. Go learn the business aspect of it" and she's always so helpful. And during that period she really helped me to build up connections, she linked me to designers from back home who had studied at Parsons, and I talk to people about it like "Ok, what is it going to be like, being a fashion designer"
And also I applied for a scholarship and only a select few back home get it, and that funded half of my education so that was another sign that I was like, "okay this is the route that I need to take". And then even being here in New York, in Parsons... Yeah. So many affirmations along the way and scholarships that have helped me to stay here because that was another thing. Financially, my parents would not have been able to fund my education here.
So it's just been, I would say, a very smooth journey despite all the hard work that needs to go into it but somewhere the universe has been telling me "this is what you need to do and follow your heart and pursue it one step at a time, one hurdle at a time." And it's been a good ride!