Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2007

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Peter Som ´93: A Designing Life



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Summer 2007

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Peter Som ´93: A Designing Life

Peter Som ´93: A Designing Life

He would draw for hours, adding clothes and accessories, creating a cast of companions in his fertile imagination. Today, these imagined characters have transmogrified into "Peter Som," one of New York´s most celebrated fashion labels.

Crai Bower ´84


Peter Som ´93 began sketching models using circles and triangles as a child. The drawings were always of women; the influence, he says, was
his mother.

Som´s studio projects a confident calm, as if the several people working there were preparing for an art history exam, instead of cramming for the imminent resort-wear deadline. The drama and megalomania, so familiar to an observer of reality television and readers of the The New York Times Sunday "Styles" section, is nowhere to be seen. This ease is manifest in Som himself, who enters with green tea in hand, quietly surveying his floor, where three assistants conduct research, another pins a gown and his pattern maker calmly cuts.

"I grew up dreaming about Barney´s, and I started subscribing to New York magazine in high school," says Som. "I´ve always wanted to be right here, designing my own label, living the New York life."

While Som´s arrival on Seventh Avenue was preordained at a young age, his runway touchdown was intentionally circuitous. He was raised in Marin County north of San Francisco by parents who were both architects. They advised their son to pursue a well-rounded education. Som, who attended numerous summer design programs throughout high school at Rhode Island School of Design and elsewhere, agreed. Still, he worried how a liberal arts education would lead him to the fashion world.

"My guidance counselor at Marin Academy suggested I look at Connecticut College because of its strong arts," Som recalls. "And I was ready to get off the West Coast, to start over in a new environment with new friends. I arrived at orientation and went on the backpacking trip. Suddenly: instant friends and camaraderie!"

Not surprisingly, his academic life at CC revolved around the arts.

"I basically lived at Cummings, taking art and art history classes," Som continues, "When I entered Parsons for graduate school, I quickly realized that not a lot of other students took a four-year detour like I had."

However, Connecticut College proved instrumental in Som´s first career break.

"I found a summer internship at British Khaki," he explains, "a label run by [fellow CC graduate] Liz Disario Lighton ´74. I was finally living in New York. I was also learning that creating sketches is the smallest piece of the fashion pie."It is very nitty-gritty," continues Som, who has been nominated twice for the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) Swarovski Perry Ellis Award for Emerging Talent. "You have to buy unseen garments from overseas, determine what colors won´t sell and, most importantly, establish who your customer is. I came back from that internship hell-bent on going to Parsons. I spent my senior year putting together pattern groups and stories every night in my dorm room."

Som attended Parsons and then returned to British Khaki to answer phones. He lasted three months. He then worked for Michael Kors and Bill Blass, developing his first solo collection at night, an arduous work routine he had honed at CC.

"My first collection in 1999 was straight from the gut, 25 pieces from five fabric groups," he remembers. "I took a booth at Coterie and my pieces sold. I was still trying to find myself artistically but I was on my way."

"Now I know my subject very well because I always see her jumping from my sketchpad directly onto the runway, then into her life. My woman is feminine, loves romance but is not cloying. She appreciates clean lines and always has lots going on in her life."

Som conjures many of his ideas from two of his passions, music and art. "Marie Antoinette" inspires his next collection.

"I was intrigued by the light and the boldness of the design and how it plays with the dark side of the story," he says. "I translated the light through the trees into many textures and I gave lift to my skirts with a little volume, trying to create a sumptuousness that was also light as meringue."

Som, who was guest of the White House this May as a Cooper Hewitt Design Award nominee for the second spring in a row, begins most days in the gym. He consumes his grandé, skim latte en route to his West 39th Street studio where, upon arrival, he answers e-mails and addresses the routine obligations of running his own label.

His days are packed with fabric meetings, where he will select patterns and yarns for designs that won´t be seen in stores for at least a year. In fact, in early April, he has already sketched the mood for Spring ´08. Som and his assistants will then look at pricing, while always imagining how designs will ultimately hang together. His workday frequently includes sales calls, in-studio events where he previews his upcoming collection and schmoozes with buyers and editors.

Evenings tend to book up months in advance, as commitments ranging from dinners with editors (or the First Lady), to black-tie charity events and cultural happenings keep Som on the go.

The fall Resort Wear shows are also in production, so Som meets with producers, model-casting agencies, selects music and envisions themes. His first Bryant Park show in 1999 received considerable notice. His collection, now numbering more than 100 pieces, ranks among the top sellers at Saks Fifth Avenue, and his designs are frequently cited in the editorial pages of Vogue, W, Harper´s Bazaar and several other fashion magazines.

True to the pattern he established as a child, honed in college and perfected when working for Bill Blass, Som chooses the intimacy of home for his creative environment. He spreads his sketchpads upon the dining room table of his West Village apartment, where he lives with his partner, Clayton.

"I do all of my hardcore sketching at home," he says. "I just get in the zone by listening to music, whether dance, classical or soundtracks from my old runway shows. I have to imagine my sketch as a real person. I get the attitude down by drawing everything from posture to hair to shoes.

"Basically, I love every single aspect of design," says Som. "Next I would like to get into home design and fragrance."

No doubt plans for home design and fragrance will also take shape exactly, one might say, as the designer has sketched it.


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