How Savio Jon became India’s anti-fashion designer
Muse and BFF Sacha Mendes catches up with Jon on his new collection, his outsider cred and life in Goa
Goa-based designer Savio Jon recently made his return to Lakmé Fashion Week after a 10-year hiatus. His S/S 2017 collection was every bit as inventive, thrilling yet totally laid-back, as one has come to expect of anything Jon. Holland wax fabric patches, a dress fashioned from an electric green fishing net, and a deconstructed bandhani tunic with zipper details all walked straight out of his imagination onto the runway.
Jon’s love for fashion took hold of him early. At five, he was already thinking about clothes; at 12, he sat at a sewing machine and made outfits for his sister. Among his earliest inspirations was his father, who wore distinctly ’70s-style safari suits and tailored trousers, the structured silhouettes influencing the young designer. Like many artists, often misunderstood, Jon grew up on the outside looking in. But that didn’t bother or deter him. He flourished on the sidelines and came into his own.
And who better to witness and trace his journey to fashion stardom—and now back to the runway—than Sacha Mendes, his muse, best friend, compulsive collaborator and proprietor of Goa’s fashion fixture, Sacha’s Shop. Here, she talks to Jon about his new collection, life in the Sunshine State and making grocery-bag couture…
Sacha Mendes: So, I am to interview you as your muse, and I was just thinking about what that meant, and what our roles are in each other’s lives. I feel like that really isn’t us. How do we describe our relationship?
Savio Jon: (Laughs) Collaborators. Or best friends.
SM: Siblings even, sometimes. I suppose ours is one of those rare friendships where you play so many roles in each other’s lives, that maybe it’s enough to just say we’re connected.
SM: I want to talk about my favourite story of yours, which involves you cutting up your mother’s grocery bags to turn them into dresses. What triggered that?
SJ: My mother always put away her grocery bags, like most mothers, to recycle them. I remember seeing them and identifying a neckline and an armhole, and thinking about turning them into something wearable. I would try them on after cutting them up to check if they fit. I think the design of the grocery bags in the ’70s was not as flat as the ones now.
SM: Were you already thinking about design then? How old would you have been?
SJ: I was thinking about clothing, yes. I must have been around five or six.
SM: That early on, you knew instinctively that you wanted to cut clothes?
SJ: I saw the possibility of a garment in everything quite early on. I started sitting at the machine to sew clothes at the age of 12, I think. I made clothes for my sister; clothes she could wear, not like doll’s clothes you play with. (Laughs) I took it very seriously. Also, you know the funny thing is that I went to a Martin Margiela retrospective in London in 2010, and discovered he had done the same thing with grocery bags back in the ’70s. Of course, I had no concept of Margiela or fashion back then. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to think that we were both worlds apart, but bound by a similar experiment.
SM: It’s amazing how two people with very separate lives and no knowledge of each other are somehow connected.
SJ: Yes, and when I came across his work for the first time, his ideology and basic understanding of design was something I completely related to. To me, his work was unpretentious, unlike many of his peers at the time.
SM: Having grown up in a quiet village like Siolim in Goa, I’m trying to figure how you began this journey?
SJ: My father worked in the Middle-East when we were very young and he would dress a certain way—in safari suits with tailored trousers; Italian fabrics, Italian shoes; very structured dressing. I really enjoyed seeing that; I think it could have triggered my obsession with clothes. The other huge influence was pop music, especially ’80s pop: Madonna, Boy George, Cyndi Lauper. I was following them all on BBC Radio and Top Of The Pops. I was listening to them and dressing like them, with the Boy George sharp eyebrows and everything. I was making do with the little I had.
SM: That must have been bold for Siolim, even back then. I’ve always thought you were years ahead of your time. Could that be true?
SJ: A lot of people didn’t get what I was about. I don’t know if I was ahead of my time, but I think I was already a part of another movement, quite far removed from Siolim, and I didn’t realise this until much later. Did I tell you I applied to NIFT when I was in college?
SM: You had mentioned it.
SJ: Well, I didn’t get through, and I was absolutely devastated that I didn’t. But looking back, I’m glad for that. I developed a style that was my own, and stayed away from textures and embroidery that otherwise defined most of the fashion scene here.
SM: But you did study at Central Saint Martins.
SJ: That came much later—it helped me sharpen my technique. So that became my formal education, without distorting my vision for the label.
SM: I think you transformed from someone who was the odd one out, to someone who developed a really strong sense of individuality.
SJ: I suppose, though I’ve always stayed true to what I wanted to do. The tags people attach to you change based on the way they perceive you, but I wouldn’t say I transformed into anything. I became a bit of a rebel because I didn’t fit in. That reflected in my clothes too: seams were reversed, and there were those safety-pin details. It was all very punk rock, which was against the grain of what was acceptable here.
SM: Have your clothes always been reflective of what you’re feeling?
SJ: Yes; most of the time when I design, I am responding to an experience, mood or feeling that is current. I can’t sit and reference costume history and create mood boards.
SM: Do you have this ideal person you want to design for?
SJ: I’m interested in making clothes for people who are happy living out their normal lives. They could be writers or gardeners or anything for that matter. I want people to wear their clothes
SM: Tell me about your S/S 2017 collection.
SJ: It was all about fabrics—natural cottons, silks, wax cottons—and shapes and prints. It was quite conceptual, less of a collection and more of a wardrobe. There was a very strong reference to menswear—I have always loved the simplicity and clean lines of a sharp collar and cuff. I like to take that and mess it up a bit; manipulate it, deconstruct it. Like the black dress in the collection was actually fisherman pants and a kimono with tiers. The first few pieces of the collection were men’s shirts differently deconstructed. And then we threw a slip dress in there that was very feminine. So, it was all about a bit of this with a little of that.
Savio Jon S/S 2017 collection
SM: I loved the details, like the vintage buttons and trimmings that were rare finds from your travels. They made each garment feel like a limited-edition piece.
SJ: Yes, also so much of a collection comes to life in the last few days before the show. For me, the soundtrack to the show, and the footwear are actually what tie everything up so perfectly. I pay a lot of attention to that.
SM: I loved the song the models walked to. I remember we spent an entire dinner trying to decide what the soundtrack could be. What was it called again?
SJ: ‘The Audience’ by Matthew Herbert.
SM: When we came out of the show, some of our friends attempted to put words to the collection, but I don’t think anyone really managed.
SJ: I didn’t want to define this collection. I didn’t want it to be too ‘thought about’; I just wanted people to feel a certain way when they saw it. I like keeping things open to interpretation in that sense.
SM: We’ve had some fun travels together, and I know that a few of my favourite collections have come from those journeys. To what extent do your adventures play a part in the design process?
SJ: Travel always recharges me. I love diving into the food, art galleries, vintage shops, textile shops and museums. Not just from the point of view of fashion or retail, but as an experience. It could be the music playing as you walk into a space, or a fragrance that triggers a memory. These are all very important parts of an experience. When I visited Copenhagen last year, I went to this flea market, where I met a few people who connected me to a few other markets that would otherwise not be listed in a guidebook or advertised on social media.
SM: So you’re trying to translate these experiences into your garments. I find that so exciting.
SJ: Yes, I am. You find such interesting things and meet so many fascinating people along the way. And then it all comes together in a collection.
SM: You’ve always created and curated your own little world at home, and you’re very much at ease in this existence. Tell me about your private space and how it has affected your work.
SJ: My way of life is casual and laid-back, and it allows me to just be myself. I think I’m living exactly the way I want to live, with my family and close circle of friends. So much of what I do design-wise reflects that. Sometimes I could be very focused, working in my studio, and then the next minute, I find myself in the bazaar buying vegetables for lunch. There is no separation between my work and my life. And I think that comes through in the functionality of my clothes. Our lives are about the different roles we play—we’re in the bazaar, in the kitchen, in the studio… I think it would be silly to dress up differently for each of these situations. In my mind, it should be one garment that could go anywhere with you.
Photographs: Shivani Gupta