Jean-Christophe Vilain : Sleek as Silk


Jean-Christophe Vilain : Sleek as Silk
Christophe Chommeloux

21 August 2018

Design, creativity, concepts, strategy, the Creative Director of Jim Thompson puts his multidisciplinary talent at the service of a comprehensive and harmonious approach to the development of the prestigious firm, a symbol of the refinement of Thai silk.

An architect by training, Jean-Christophe Vilain was, as a student, already just as interested in fashion as he was in architecture. Not particularly obsessed with long-term projects, he also liked frivolity.

When he started in Paris, he had the chance to immediately be hired by influential agencies: Archistudio and Jean Nouvel when it was delivering the Arab World Institute.

At the same time, he began a creative studio with friends. One of his associates was a photographer, the other a videographer. Jean-Christophe mostly worked on campaign concepts.

To this, he added a third activity, which quickly became more concrete: he met Chantal Thomass in Paris. Although he had never yet worked in fashion, she took notice of his portfolio and of his way of working, and immediately o ered him to draw lingerie for Japanese women.

Already, silk…

It was fabulous because I was among frivolous refinements in the morning, and I was working on structural issues and on long-term projects in the afternoon with architecture. In fact, I don’t know if it was my training or my vocation, but I realized very quickly that
I could not see things from a single angle and that horizontality, being able to link things together, fascinated me. I don’t enjoy working without creating synergies. For example, using different levels of language in communication or, when it comes to time, combining very short-term responsiveness with operations that take much longer to implement.

How did you come to work for Jim Thompson?

Actually, I started working with Gérald Mazzalovo, the firm’s CEO, before coming to Bangkok. He had asked me to help him in a working group to try to define the business model, the ideas in their main lines, the identity approach.

When the business plan was accepted, he called me. I was in Montevideo on an exploratory trip, and he offered me to immediately come work on the setup and on all of the changes that we are now making. It was a little over two years ago.

You had already worked together…

We had done a lot of work together! It started in Madrid, I had just delivered a study on all of the brand identifiers to Loewe’s French owner, the late Louis Orevoit, who was getting ready to cede his shares to Louis Vuitton. This is where I met Gérald, who had come from Ferragamo. He had been appointed by LVMH to head Loewe.

Gérald saw my work and asked me to work exhaustively, going back five or six seasons, on the entire core business of the firm, it’s style’s potential.

This was the beginning of a long collaboration, first at Loewe, and then I followed him to Bally. We also worked together for Clergerie, for Pininfarina in Turin, and then on other studies as a consultant pair: Gérald on the business and financial part, and me on the creative and strategic part.

Clearly, you have both thought a lot of about the conceptual side, about a brand’s identity…

Yes, that’s really Gérard’s hobbyhorse. He’s extremely demanding on this aspect, and me too actually. What interests me are the laws of gravity and coherence in the system, in the business: to be creative but, above all, to initiate actions that are compatible or complementary with other actions, to grasp the machine as a whole.

In the creative process that is at work at Jim Thompson, you talk about dialectics. Does that mean that the brand is confronted with contradictions?

Paradoxes, certainly, but not contradictions. It’s actually a way of creating a much richer universe. With Jim Thompson, we are in constant contact with tradition, but also with a very modern and contemporary vocation and ambition.

In the creative process, I try to follow the original idea, the spirit of the brand’s creator, a worldview and a connection to this incredible culture.

And then, it’s the material that guides me. I’m totally in tune with Sullivan’s formula: “Form follows function”. For us, shapes, silhouettes, volumes, everything comes directly from the material and “Shape follows silk.”

Of course, it always comes back to silk…

When Jim Thompson disappeared, the product took root through the development of tourism, and the stores appeared naturally to sell these products, what we call “personal goods” nowadays. But the business of fabrics has always remained fundamental, as an anchor in the relationship to the material, because the sector, from cocoons to processing, is above all based on the fabric. It is first and foremost the material, and then its interpretation through derivative products.

We get the feeling that you are trying to accelerate the development of a more modern, more daring side, while reinforcing the image of an international luxury brand.

Contemporaneity is a search, and it’s decisive, it’s extremely important. We have the assets, for example the Art Center and the very strong brand culture, a culture that is continuously conveyed by people like Eric Booth.

Jim Thompson was passionate about culture, a collector, anything but superficial in his approach to things. This message remains anchored in the brand’s culture: to take an interest in history, to take an interest in people in a profound way and, at the same time, to develop a vocation to travel in both modernity and creativity.

This contemporaneity is reflected in certain products, such as the Draja, this leather bag that is both rooted in a language, and so is traditional–it is really a shape that refers to Thai culture–but, at the same time, is totally in step with modern uses.

Fabrics, personal goods, shops and restaurants all depend on the potential of this brand that just wants to evolve and settle in the luxury market, which is something entirely legitimate, thanks to its materials. As such, we are indeed working to develop the firm on an axis of radical luxury, because we are convinced that it is, in essence, a luxury brand.

From where does the diversification into bars and restaurants come from?

I think that, actually, gastronomy is really connected with Jim Thompson’s love affair with culture. I do not think that he had a direct vocation to develop restaurants at the time, but he often organized cocktails and parties at home. For me, there is always a relationship, direct or indirect, with his house. The Jim Thompson House remains the essence of the brand.

So, actually, we didn’t invent anything. It’s been written from the beginning, with the fascination of a man for a material, silk, combined with a passion for feminine beauty and an obvious attraction for the jet set, the social side.

In my opinion, Jim Thompson was a gifted person, probably in business, but also, above all, in terms of relationships: he had incredible acquaintances.

In the end, then, creating bars and restaurants is quite natural. When we are here at Spirit, we feel that we are in an area that is neither purely “fashion” nor purely prefabricated “lifestyle”. We feel that this is an authentic area, a living space, a space of culture where everything is connected.

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