At Home With
David Saunders of David David, Fashion Designer and Artist

If you were somehow unfamiliar enough with the London fashion scene that you’d never encountered the work of David David, née David Saunders, a primer in his background certainly wouldn’t help much. Saunders is best known for a whirlwind rise to prominence that began with a job as head sculptor in YBA Tracey Emin’s studio, stumbled into a fashion line that won him a coveted spot in London’s Fashion East runway show, and now entails an obligatory mention of fans like Kanye West, Agyness Deyn, and M.I.A. each time it comes up in conversation. It’s not that it’s much ado about nothing — we were huge admirers of Saunders’s line by the time we ended up in his flat last February, a block away from our favorite London boutique Darkroom — but all that star power conveys very little about a charmingly blithe collection consisting of a handful of wearable silhouettes festooned with hand-drawn kaleidoscopic graphics, except maybe how he ended up with it in the first place. “I fell into fashion by accident, really,” Saunders recalls. “It was just a process of who I was living with and what parties I was going to. I started making hand-painted t-shirts for myself, and people” — presumably the right people — “would be like, ‘Where did you get that from?’”

David David didn’t become a proper label until Saunders — who had studied fine art at Chelsea College and worked as a gallery tech before graduating to Emin’s studio — fell into the crosshairs of a fashion PR agent, who tried to sign him as a client before he even knew what his endeavor was meant to become. “It was completely ludicrous to me,” he says, because he still considered his t-shirts art; some took 6 hours to paint, others took several days. Slowly, though, as he began digitizing his pieces for production and the buzz around them grew, David David became the kind of brand that collaborated with Fred Perry and Henry Holland, was stocked in Dover Street Market, and commanded full-page coverage in the likes of Vogue UK, not to mention expanding to a full range of garments for both men and women. When we visited Saunders earlier this year, though, he was actually in the process of pulling the business back to its roots, focusing more on the core t-shirt line and looking for ways to buy himself time to return to his personal practice. “That’s the main goal for this year,” he told us. “I still draw all the time, but it quite often feels like it’s for work rather than part of my artistic process. It would be nice to work as an artist and then most likely put that work back into the company, but to at least start completely as an artist. I’m quite looking forward to that.” Check out this slideshow of photos we took inside Saunders’s home, then head over to his personal Tumblr to learn more about his point of view.

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Before he became a fixture in the London fashion scene, Saunders studied fine art painting then worked for Tracy Emin for three years. He liked the job, but “realized I wanted some notoriety for myself — she was getting all of it,” he laughs. Here, in his two-room flat, hangs one of the early hand-painted t-shirts that were a precursor to his David David brand.

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His output now looks more like this — the same geometric motifs, but drawn into the computer using a digital pen and then splashed across everything from shirts to umbrellas to beanbags.

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Above, pieces from his Spring/Summer 2009 campaign, for which Alice Dellal modeled. “I became interested in transferring paintings onto garments,” Saunders told Vogue in 2008 of the line’s origins. “Geometric prints on canvases never worked for me — they were too stagnant. Geometry has to have some fluidity to it, which is why it works well on fabric.”

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When we visited, Saunders was just starting to think about Spring/Summer '12. “I’m looking at the artist Stuart Davies, a mid-century American painter,” he said. “I picked him up because he makes quite similar work to what I’m doing, and it’s always good to see someone else's point of reference. He works a bit with fluidity, though, so I might go crazy this season and put curves and circles in the collection.”

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Saunders keeps inspiration files for every season, and they’re not always what you’d expect to associate with geometric compositions. “My inspirations are often just from everyday life,” he says. “I also spend a lot of time going to galleries and reading books as inspiration. It’s not like how fashion labels get quite aggressive and say, ‘Right, this collection is based on,’ I dunno, ‘Audrey Hepburn.’”

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A very early David David sketch. “I make a lot of preliminary drawings and sketches, and that’s where the bulk of my process is,” he says.

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In the office-like corner of his apartment — which is literally around the corner from Darkroom, one of his stockists and a major Sight Unseen inspiration — a tiny guitar leans against a chair which may or may not be upholstered in a David David fabric (we forgot to ask).

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This chair, however, we’re certain is a David David original: It’s a collaboration with the up-and-coming design studio Glass Hill, produced on commission from Philips de Pury and launched this past May as part of Clerkenwell Design Week. Saunders hand-drew the motif using pencil crayons.

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A piece of fabric printed with dozens of color samples — the type of thing we’d imagine to be crucial to Saunders’s harlequin creations.

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Equally fitting for his aesthetic: Two vintage geometric quilts adorning his bed.

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Maybe the most interesting thing we found in Saunders’s apartment, then, were drawings of his that had absolutely nothing to do with either color or pattern, like this bald man staring up at some kind of woodgrain monster.

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A framed David David print hangs on the wall next to an amazing experimental handbag Saunders made out of acrylic rods.

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Even more experimental: A painting by his niece, who may take over the company someday at this rate.

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Above Saunders’s bed hangs bits of ephemera, a funny drawing of a turtle, and framed at right, the starting point for a guest-designed range of polos he did for Fred Perry’s Blank Canvas series in 2007, three years after he started David David.

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Another look from Spring/Summer ’09, when linear geometry gave way to more freeform scribbles. “I’m always sketching, so most of the prints will come from a simple sketch that’s really quick and speedy, almost like an idea,” Saunders says. “Then the idea gets developed on the computer.”

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“When I’m working on a computer, though,” he continues, “I never really think of it as a computer, just a fast pencil. What I like about the computer is that I’ve always been quite impatient — I could never get my head around oil paint, for example, where each piece would take 10 weeks. Also, with Illustrator, any mark you decide you don’t like, you can remove again.”

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Two finds from a “jumble sale” down the road — on the left, a painting purchased by a friend for 50p. On the right, what Saunders claims is an original Picasso print he bought for 3 pounds from a girl whose family handles estate sales. “It was found with a Picasso poster from a poster shop,” he says. “Obviously one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”

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More anonymous artwork, hiding beneath a clothing rack in the corner.

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Above Saunders’s mantel is another mix of work and pleasure — Pinnochio puppets, tchotchkes, and a framed image from his Spring/Summer ’10 collection, which saw his patterns zoomed in at much larger proportions.

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Zooming in on one side of the mantel, we spotted this striped vase (one of a pair) which also looks like the starting point for a David David design (maybe this t-shirt?).

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One of Saunders's prized possessions; note how the plastic is perfectly formed to hold each section of the sandwich. Design ingenuity.

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Hung high above his desk, looking down over the room, is another old Saunders drawing with equally spooky eyes. Despite his success in fashion, he says, “I’m the only one who can give myself a title, so: I am an artist.” And as one would assume given his background, he doesn’t actually design the garments he sells — he hires experts for that part.

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A poster advertising his goods alongside those of Gareth Pugh, who did his own star turn at Fashion East two years prior to Saunders before defecting to the Paris shows. In fact, T magazine specifically named David David as a potential heir to Pugh’s throne back in 2008.

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In the entryway, a tribal mask whose facial markings bear yet more signs of similarity to Saunders’s graphic sensibilities.

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Wedged in front of an amazingly chintzy plate in the kitchen, a mug bears the same pattern used on the Fred Perry collab.

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And wedged underneath the kitchen fireplace, lord knows what.

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Saunders tucked into a corner, patiently waiting for us to leave — he was late for his shift at the London food co-op The People’s Supermarket. He did put up with our poking and prodding around his bedroom though, and for that we commend him.