Attending fashion school offers emerging designers a solid platform to explore design techniques, learn basic methods, and master essential skills. However, it's not the sole pathway to success in the fashion industry. In fact, some of the most celebrated fashion designers in history never set foot in a design school.
Ready to follow in the footsteps of visionary designers from Karl Lagerfeld to Giorgio Armani and Manolo Blahnik, 28-year-old Los Angeles-based designer and stylist Jonathan Marc Stein did not attend design school - at least not fashion design. When watching an Alexander McQueen runway show from the 1990s before class while studying for a degree in Mechanical Engineering, he felt a calling to pursue this creative interest and has never looked back.
Launching his eponymous brand in 2017, Jonathan has risen as a pivotal upcoming designer, blending elegance with a cutting-edge flair in his couture designs. Featured in Harper’s Bazaar, L’Officiel, and Cosmopolitan, his designs have been worn by celebrities like Mackenzie Ziegler and Laura Marano for major events, and he has showcased his collections at international Fashion Weeks.
FashionUnited caught up with the young designer following the launch of his Autumn/Winter 2023 collection to learn more about his rise to fame, being self-taught, and building a brand.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be a fashion designer?
JMS: I felt like I had no choice but to be an engineer. It was either become a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. So I went to engineering school. It was during my sophomore year that I was waiting for one of my classes to start and was scrolling on YouTube to pass the time. I came across a 1997 Alexander McQueen runway show, and it really hit me. I was always interested in art. I used to paint, I used to sketch, and the artistic side of the show really inspired me to teach myself how to sew. From then on, in between classes, I would sew, and I would go fabric shopping and make clothes. A year later, I was invited to show at Columbus Fashion Week and everything kind of just snowballed from there.
How does your engineering background influence or shape your design approach?
JMS: Many people are surprised by the correlation between the two, but there are so many similarities. There's actually so much math involved when it comes to fashion design. Maths is key for precise measurements, ensuring the perfect fit. Moreover, you can't ignore or defy physics - the fabric's weight and structure must be balanced. For instance, if I'm designing a heavy 100-pound bust, the right material combination is essential to ensure it's supportive, well-fitting, and aesthetically pleasing.
What are some of the challenges and advantages of being a self-taught fashion designer?
That's a hard question. Although I lack the technical foundation of formal fashion design training and missed out on lessons about fabrics, garment structure, and pattern making, it does offer a unique advantage. I think that gave me a creative edge that I may not have developed otherwise. Similar to solving a math problem differently in high school but still arriving at the right answer, my lack of traditional training allows me to innovate. Through trial and error, I devise my own methods, creating beautiful pieces without relying on conventional techniques.
However, my non-traditional fashion background means I am constantly learning from scratch. I've had to learn each technical detail, from stitching methods to using boning for structure, by myself. While I figured out everything on my own, the disadvantage is the time invested in self-learning and experimenting.
What are some of the foundational elements that define your women's and men's wear collections?
When creating collections in my studio, the process and outcome often change from season to season. However, my style has evolved to the point where all collections have common elements. Leather has always been my favorite medium to work with and is prevalent throughout all of the collections that I create. I often utilize metallic hardware, which can include buckles, chains, studs, and ornamental zippers, to name a few. I even combine these components into many of the garments that I make. I find it beautiful to pair these edgy and structured materials with more delicate and feminine ones such as flowy silks, sheer tulle, or even organza.
What makes leather your favorite medium for fashion?
I think that leather is one of the very few materials that can take on so many different forms. It's so versatile it can be robust and thick or feminine and delicate, unlike silks, which lean towards being flowy and soft. While suiting has fabric limitations, leather effortlessly straddles between being pretty, edgy, delicate, and structured, which is one of my favorite things about it.
How do you balance your use of leather with current views on sustainability?
Of course, balancing sustainability and my love for leather can be tricky. While vegan leather, often plastic-based, lacks durability and is environmentally challenging, I've partnered with an ethical supplier. They source leather as byproducts of the meat industry, ensuring it doesn't go to waste. With environmental certifications, they utilize 100 percent recycled water, have a minimal carbon footprint, and rely on 90 percent solar power. Given the fashion industry's significant global waste, this approach feels most responsible currently, though I'm considering future alternatives to maintain this balance in my collections.
My recent AW 2023 collection features my smallest carbon footprint to date. I utilized 80-90 percent recycled or deadstock fabrics. Patterns, like the one in the DAN/IEL jacket, are designed to minimize waste. The designs are blocky, avoiding darts, resulting in minimal scraps, which I repurpose. All metal hardware is recycled, and transportation was carried out exclusively via electric vehicles. I'm committed to making these small adjustments to drive industry-wide change.
Looking back, how would you say your design style has evolved over the years?
There's a huge difference between the first collection I ever made and now. My first collection was not great, to say the least. But, I was still learning and finding my own personal sense of style while figuring out what I wanted my brand to become. Back then, I would emulate other brands and test new designs. Eventually, it evolved into the brand it is today. But one of the main differences between the first and current collection is probably that I am taking far more fashion risks now. I am taking my own style and pushing it to the max, being more daring, more sophisticated, and more me.
Where do you see your brand within the LA fashion scene?
Los Angeles fashion has always contrasted with that of other cities. It often materializes in the form of glam and shine with a facet of edge. I feel that this is often what I produce within my studio and put onto the runway. I chose to set up my brand in LA because this is where it all happens: the stars, the red carpets, and the flashy events. I have proven myself to be able to produce beautiful luxury clothing that can be worn on the red carpet amongst the stars but also dazzle on the runway.
What are three of the biggest moments in your career as a fashion designer to date?
The first moment has to be my first LA Fashion Week show. It was a crash course in industry basics and staging a runway show, which is one big brand advertisement for your brand. It was important for me to showcase my style and thematic integration. This experience paved the way for my NYFW show, which landed me several major clients, marking another milestone in my design career.
The second moment was my first big client and the subsequent moment of recognition I received. I worked with Lauren Morano, dressing her in a blue-purple sequin dress, which she wore unknown to me, to an HBO Emmy after-party in 2018. Not only was it my first major client, but it was also my first big moment of recognition as she earned a spot on Cosmopolitan's Best-Dressed list. Beyond personal fulfillment, it was affirming to see my designs resonate with others. For me, design is about balancing business success with the joy and artistry of the journey.
Number three would be my first international show at Arab Fashion Week in Dubai. Not only was it an opportunity to show my designs on a global platform, but I also won the Golden Forever Rose Award. I beat other major designers like Valentino for the award, which made me feel like I had earned my place at the table.
Looking forward, where would you like to see JMS in the next five years?
I hope to continue forward with what I am doing and support the constant evolution of my brand, my style, and my technical skills. I want to become a household name and expand internationally. I'd like to show at leading international fashion weeks, such as Paris, Milan and London.
However, I think the biggest aspiration I have within the next five years is having my brand become a household name. Having my work recognized on an internationa scale in this manner would definitely be an achievement.