Hint seeks out rising stars of design
May '08

To the proverbial mix of inspiration and perspiration, designer Damir Doma can add another ingredient: ambition. Born in Croatia, schooled in Germany, employed in Antwerp and now based in Paris, the 27-year-old has wasted no time launching his cultish and "emotional" men's line, now in its second season and already its 60th store worldwide. But the aggressive work ethic should come as no surprise, considering his mentor, Raf Simons, after whom he's has modeled his company. From his new headquarters in the 16th arrondissement, Doma spoke with Hint about his entrepreneurial spirit and soulful approach.

Let's start with the basics.
Okay, I'm a fabric freak. Things can be right or wrong just by choosing the right or wrong fabric. And it lends itself to my higher concept.

Which is?
To build a modern and sensitive men's collection. For years, I was so bored of men's fashion. The only designer who interested me was Raf Simons. With my line, I want to change the way men's fashion is made, to break up the suit. My line is about soft silhouettes and construction. I make jackets that look structured, but they're not stiff and they don't have things like shoulder pads. A man has to look cool.

Is music a part of your vision, as it is with Raf's?
No, music inspired me. I love art—that's my whole inspiration. And the emotion that comes with it. In fact, emotion is my inspiration. At the beginning of a season, I always collect photos and make what we call a mood board, or for me an emotion book, with all the feelings I'm trying to transform into clothes. It's a soulful way of designing.

What kind of art are we talking about?
I'm really into naturalists like Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys. These are people who are really into nature and organic shapes.

Can you describe such a piece?
A sleeveless hooded coat, all in one fabric. It looks like a blanket, and the idea is that you can wrap it around your body. It's something that keeps you warm—the feeling of safety.

Are there any similarities between you and Raf?
My work is very different from his, but one thing does come to mind. I used to sketch a lot and Raf does not. But now I find, in less than three years, that I've stopped sketching. It takes too much time.

How was it to work with him?
It was an amazing time. I really enjoyed it. It was the last season before he started to do the Jil Sander thing and before his second line, so he was very accessible to me. We were only a crew of four at the time and we sat at one big table. He was on my right. Now it's completely different. He has a team of twenty people and I can't even reach him on the phone.

Are you a fan of the Jil Sander thing?
Yes, I think it's great. He's really doing amazing work there. I think he's one of the biggest characters in fashion and for sure the biggest in men's fashion. For sure he has many talented people sitting with him now.

It won't be long before you're a big character in fashion.
I hope so, except the product is more personal and emotional with a small company. Sometimes you go to a small show and you can feel the emotion in the room because everyone knows each and they all know the designer. Big shows can be like a song without feeling.

Are you afraid of growing too quickly?
Not if we stay very professional. All the members of my team have worked for years with Ann Demeulemeester, Bruno Pieters and Haider Ackermann, which means big buyers come in and see familiar faces. It's all about employing the right people. If your team is only four people and one of them is an idiot, then you have a problem.

Let's talk shop.
We're only in the second season and already we have around 50-60 shops. Next season we aim to have 80-100.

And you already have accessories.
Yes, we've been doing a jewelry collection since the first season. And I started with shoes last season to offer a complete look, which is very important at the moment, especially for the Japanese market. At first it was only a boot and a shoe, but now we have a sneaker.

What's your background? Can you give us a snapshot?
I was born in Croatia, but we left when I was a kid. I went to school in Germany—in Munich, then Berlin. A week after getting my degree, I started to work for Dirk Schönberger in Antwerp. But only for one season, and then I went to Raf, where I did the knits. And I did all the fittings with him because I was always very good at cutting, which I think you can also see in my collection. At a certain point I went back to work for Dirk, for two more seasons, when he was bought my Ann Demeulemeester.

Those are a lot of Northern European names, and all good company to keep.
I agree. Ann Demeulemeester probably had the most influence on me, especially in the way I've built my company, like organizing production, handling labor and so on. Mostly I learned about the need to build a balanced label. They're very smart, and they've built a huge collection by not breaking it up every season. They renew pieces all the time and they really work with their archives. That way, the line has value as a whole.

Is that a Belgian way of thinking?
Yeah, that's something I always loved about the Belgians. I have to laugh at designers who have these funny, stupid themes all the time. One season they do black, the next season they do red. I don't get that philosophy. Even small independent designers do that, mostly in America. But I think, if you really do something all the way, it shouldn't be different every season. And if it's different every season, it becomes a big mess and you become an unstable character.

What about a women's collection?
The men's line is already very accessible to women. Many shops will put it in their women's departments, especially European shops. But I would never use the word unisex because that's a word I really hate. It's a men's collection. But yes, I do want to start a women's collection soon, maybe in one year's time.

You clearly have a head for business.
I know I shouldn't take design too seriously, but all the designers I've talked about take their work very seriously. I'm the same way. I'm just as serious as the people buying it. The Japanese, for example, spend all their money on fashion. Even students save up to buy a coat for 4000 euros, but they do it from the bottom of their hearts. They love to dress and express themselves. For me, fashion is not funny.

Damir Doma is available at Seven New York, at Lift in Tokyo, Park in Vienna and b Store in London, among other locations.