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Designer Lukas Vincent is surfing his own wave

Designer Lukas Vincent is surfing his own wave

This interview originally appeared in the print edition of RAIN magazine in the spring 2017.

Interview and portrait by Fabien Montique.

Lukas Vincent is the founder of the Melbourne-based label Ex Infinitas. He grew up in a small suburban beach town outside the city. After just one collection, his label won the 2016 Australian final of the International Woolmark Prize for menswear. Here, he considers the influences of the past and the future with friend and frequent collaborator Fabien Montique.

FABIEN MONTIQUE: Where are you at the moment?

LUKAS VINCENT: I happen to be sitting under a lime tree in the central courtyard of a traditional Tunisian house in the Medina of Tunis, trying to escape the blistering heat.

FM: How much traveling have you been having to do lately?

LV: I’ve just arrived from a week in Malta and am heading south to Djerba for a few days before beautiful Marrakech next week. I have a pit stop in Biarritz for a meeting, then to Paris, Milan, and Umbria for factory visits, before finally heading back to Australia at the end of month. I’ll be very happy to be doing less air travel once it’s done. Though it’s a blessing to escape the Australian winter.

FM: What is Ex Infinitas? Can you tell me about how it all started?

LV: Ex Infinitas was born after my life arrived at a bit of a standstill. I had just returned
to Australia after living in New York for
five years. I was quite dissatisfied with the career opportunities in Australia, while simultaneously questioning the overall state of local menswear. It was at this point that

I realized there was a window for creating something special, so I decided to take the leap and conceptualize the brand. The idea was to borrow elements from Australian surf culture and fuse them with strong tailoring to create a heightened luxury surf brand that would be appealing to the global market.

FM: Tell me about [the menswear trade show in Florence] Pitti Uomo this past season.

LV: Pitti was great. Being invited this year was a nice follow-on from the International Woolmark Prize final in January. It was my first time at Pitti, so I really had no expectations. It turned out to be a valuable opportunity to spend more time with buyers, editors, and agents, when everyone’s schedules weren’t so intense, like in Paris or Milan.

FM: You also used to live in Paris for some time and you’re planning to return there at the end of this year—what are some of the things you are happy to be returning to?

LV: Firstly, working in one time zone! With Australia a day ahead, it currently means I’m working all day and then, when most people are signing off, my day is beginning again in Europe.

I’m also looking forward to the beautiful energy of Paris. I always feel completely zen the moment I arrive. And, of course, getting to spend more time with my creative team there, who are all very close friends. There’s always a lot to squeeze into one month when I’m only in Paris for fashion week, so it will be nice to finally get into the flow of Paris life full time.

FM: How have you been able to balance having part of your creative team based in Paris already?

LV: It can be quite challenging. Thankfully, technology makes our lives a lot easier. We’re constantly on WhatsApp, exchanging ideas, sharing fabric swatches, references, links to websites or sharing models we find inspiring. By the time the process culminates closer to fashion week, everything falls

into place quite effortlessly. That said,
I’m definitely looking forward to doing this all under one roof in the same city— there’s only so much one can achieve over WhatsApp.

FM: Apart from Paris, in what other ways has the Woolmark Prize affected the way you work?

LV: As I’m a Woolmark Prize alumnus,
The Woolmark Company continues to provide incredible support for any future collaborations. I’m in the process of innovating some incredibly special merino wool products for the FW18 collection
that are entirely new in terms of the fiber itself and the manufacturing process. The Woolmark Company assists with projects that are otherwise usually impossible to complete. They have an incredible team that includes scientists, a trade-development department and everything in between,
so they are an invaluable resource of information and much-needed support.

FM: Do you have any daily rituals?

LV: A coffee right after I wake up, then ashtanga yoga, followed by 20 minutes of transcendental meditation. A light breakfast with a dose of spirulina and vitamins C and B. Then my day can begin.

FM: You must enjoy a level of solitude working in Melbourne that can be essential to the creative process. Are you concerned about losing this in Paris? And how do you plan to deal with your own creativity in relation to the business?

LV: I do think about this quite often. I’m inherently a person who needs solitude like we need air to breathe—it’s the only time
I am able to disconnect properly and listen to my inner voice. It’s my eternal compass. What I do love about Paris compared with living in New York is it’s much easier to
turn off and find quiet time. The nights are usually incredibly still in Paris, which is a beautiful thing. At the top of my list, though, is a studio facing a central courtyard with plenty of natural light. I’m sure I’ll be making frequent trips to Biarritz, too—the Australian ocean is the one thing I always wish I could take with me.

FM: You grew up in coastal Victoria and often credit that environment with providing the inspiration for what is now Ex Infinitas. Can you list a few of the things that influenced you most?

LV: In all of us, it’s our individual conditioning that informs the choices we make and the way we’re influenced and therefore influence others. For me, growing up was a very particular experience. At the time, I would complain to my mother that we lived in the middle of nowhere and naturally wanted to be closer to the action. Now I find the opposite occurring.

The things that influence me most in terms of the brand are nuances that probably won’t be very familiar to those who aren’t Australian. But mostly it’s what I see when

I look out my window [in Melbourne] every day—dirt bikes racing down the street, men walking home from the bottle shop with a six-pack of beer—already drinking as they’re walking—a cigarette hanging from their mouths, in track pants and flip-flops. And the very real suburban energy that can at times be quite confrontational.

FM: Are you concerned about losing inspiration once you relocate to Paris?

LV: Thankfully, I can take inspiration with me anywhere in the world. It’s always been a very intuitive, subliminal process that comes from within. And I tend not to draw on paper so much as in my mind, which is more efficient. But I do consider how living in Paris might influence my inspiration. We’ve always talked about how creating this very “Australian” aesthetic wouldn’t work if it was executed in Australia—it
has to be done objectively from outside the country. Which is why, since the very beginning, we have always shot in Paris. From a design point of view, I’ll always be focused on the brand DNA, but it will be interesting to see the result of SS19, which will be the first collection designed in Paris.

FM: The need to escape the place where you grow up seems to be a constant of youth. This is often associated with teen angst. You’ve mentioned seeing your upbringing in a new light. How ironic is it that, once we’re older, we revisit these places and discover how much they’ve influenced the individuals we’ve become? We may then become nostalgic for the things we were so eager to escape.

LV: Absolutely. At 18 I couldn’t wait to leave home and have my own place. When that was no longer enough, I moved to New York without flinching. The incredible energy of that city was a surge of life for me at the time. It also happened to be during the global financial crisis, so in the end I was pulled back to Australia by what seemed to be an invisible rope.

It’s been five years since then and so much has changed. I come from an incredibly small family, which became even smaller when my grandfather passed away the year I returned to Australia. So moving to

Paris this time will be a very different experience—I won’t be rushing off like I did when I was considerably younger. And of course, starting Ex Infinitas has been a thorough investigation of my roots, so it’s led me to have a different appreciation for my heritage. The move is necessary, but it won’t be quite as easy as it once would have been. The more I travel, the more I realize how lucky I am to have been raised in such a beautiful country, despite being geologically so far from the rest of the world. But in this era, that could actually be considered a blessing.

FM: In Letters to a Young Poet, the writer Rainer Maria Rilke explains to a young
officer cadet that being an artist means not numbering and counting but “ripening like a tree, which does not force its sap and stands confidently in the storms of spring not afraid that summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them.” Would you consider yourself to have been restless while growing up?

LV: That book is one of my bibles. For me, reading this passage is like being in direct communion with God himself. Before I reached the age of 30 I was always in a hurry to achieve the next goal—more senior positions in my career, more money, a more beautiful apartment, a newer car, more clothes, more friends. I was definitely very restless growing up—my ambition sometimes has a mind of its own. Looking back, I realize now all of those desires were mere distractions from the true path that leads to those very things I no longer desire like I once did. This is the secret I wish I’d known earlier.

Moving back from New York was a time when life was incredibly sparse for me for many years. Sometimes life takes everything from you and lets you sweat long enough until you learn to pay attention to what is vital. For me that was as simple as living in the now. It’s with this [outlook] that I believe I began to cultivate more focused and disciplined work—and now the work tends to run my life. It’s a case of “be careful what you wish for,” but it has certainly brought me many incredible experiences that I’m very thankful for.

FM: Do you remember the first time you read these letters?

LV: I do. A close friend gave me the book when I moved back from New York. At
that time I happened to be living in a tiny bedroom with a single bed and a small desk that was at my mother’s place of work—a retirement home. You can only imagine the rest. Naturally, reading the letters was like a guiding light that compelled me to change my life for the better.

FM: Upon discovering the letters written by Rilke, did you feel a connection with the late poet [as if he were speaking to the ghost of your adolescence]?

LV: Absolutely. I had chills reading each page.

FM: When did you decide to become a designer? Was there a particular moment in your youth when you felt compelled to make this decision?

“I can take inspiration with me anywhere in the world. It’s always been a very intuitive process that comes from within. And I tend not to draw on paper so much as in my mind”

LV: It was actually something I was adamant about not becoming. I remember specifically mentioning in an interview I had at the university I quickly dropped out of after being accepted that I didn’t want to be a designer [Vincent had planned to study applied fashion at RMIT, Melbourne.]. It was probably not something you hear every day at a fashion faculty. I was enamored with fashion, but more with the image and the world of fashion, not always the design aspect. When I was young, I would wait in anticipation for the new campaigns to be released in the magazines. The images would always transport me to another world, and the direction each season was always unique. Now, unfortunately, that mystery has died—it’s something I have great nostalgia for and try to cultivate with my own brand as much as possible.

FM: Did your parents have any influence over your decision?

LV: My mother is a very working-class woman. When I was young she worked two jobs as a single mother to support me. Even more recently, when the brand was in its early stages and of course experiencing many teething problems, she told me to stop and get a job. My father, on the other hand, a hippie, has never had a “real job,” so you can imagine there is an extreme difference of opinions between the two. I think I inherited the creative DNA from my father and pragmatism and the ability to work hard from my mother.

FM: What would you say is your earliest memory involving fashion?

LV: At 19 I had a chance encounter with a successful Australian designer and began working closely with her the following week—it had a very fated quality to it. Soon after I was at the W Hotel in Sydney doing a hair and makeup trial in my room with a then very young and barely discovered Gemma Ward. I think she was 15 or 16. I remember her being super-shy, but she had this ethereal energy. It wasn’t long afterwards that she became one of the greatest supermodels of her generation, which was really no surprise.

FM: How much is intuition part of your work?

LV: It’s all intuition. I dropped out of university, so I’m obviously not educated in fashion, so intuition is all I have. And this is something they can’t teach you at school.
I know plenty of educated people who don’t go on to great things, or after uni they go down a completely different path. I think there is a real danger of being over- conditioned at uni and losing your unique voice. That’s the reason I dropped out—I have a very real phobia of being influenced too heavily by others.

FM: Tell me about your design process. How do you begin a collection?

LV: A new collection always stems from where we want to direct the brand narrative. The idea behind the brand was to follow this surfer from adolescence into maturity—his triumphs and his struggles. In SS18 you
will see a certain level of added polish compared with SS17. Right now we’re working on FW18 and discussing the struggles this ’70s character is having as he’s being forced to put down his board
for an office job—what this boy’s idea of appropriate office attire is as a surfer.

We’re also a very fabric-driven brand, so a lot of the time I have an idea of color and texture, which nine times out of ten I see in the new fabric collections from Italy. From there the fabric becomes like a paintbrush, in a way. We use it to paint a new picture for the season.

FM: You’ve mentioned before that, like Miuccia Prada, you begin a collection by starting with something you hate. Dries Van Noten works in a similar manner, finding inspiration in the things he doesn’t necessarily consider beautiful. How do you apply this to your own process?

LV: Coming from Australia, I see many things in the collective milieu I certainly don’t love. I think Australia is one of those countries renowned for a lack of taste, unlike Europe, where people possess this innate ability to always look chic and polished. Even when they don’t have an interest in fashion, it just seems to be in their cultural blood. For me there is a constant desire to improve things, and that’s really where the motivation to work from the ugly stems. If I see something I don’t like, my first response is, “How could it be more aesthetically pleasing?”

It’s always a very instinctual and habitual reaction. And so, the end result tends to be a cross section of the old and new, which leads to the definition of the brand name
Ex Infinitas, being the nexus of intersecting periods between past and future. Or the old and new remastered for the now.

FM: In his book Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything, the cultural critic Stephen Bayley discusses how aesthetic values can change over time and how a measure of what is ugly is, in essence, necessary in order to understand beauty. He makes the point that, without ugliness, there would be no beauty.

For FW17 you collaborated with the brand UGG. Can you tell me more about this decision. Does this collaboration tie into your brand ethos of “elevating the mundane”?

LV: Absolutely. Much like there wouldn’t
be any darkness without light. The fundamental nature of life is that it is in
a constant state of flux. And throughout life, perceptions change as we have new experiences and gain new insights. What
we hated 10 years ago we could most definitely feel a connection with today. UGG is a brand that has always been associated with the ugly, hence the name. But it’s a brand that also has a very long history with surfers, which was part of the decision to collaborate, too.

The challenge was how do we encourage people to look at the traditional UGG boot with new eyes? How do we make a beautiful object without abandoning its brand ethos? We focused on using the long-haired breed of merino sheep and moved the fur to the outside of the boots or slippers, where it can be appreciated for its beauty, as opposed to only seeing the underside of the skin.

FM: What would you consider the most difficult aspect of what you do?

LV: As a designer you’re constantly exchanging information with a vast amount of people in many different areas of the industry. The sheer volume of information being exchanged between countless businesses and individuals can be quite overwhelming, particularly in the early stages, when you don’t have a huge team to filter it all or take ownership of the many responsibilities.

You’re expected to wear many different hats. I’ve worked for large companies that have an entire building of staff dedicated to the one company objective. Now we output the same level of work with a few staff in-house and a few external consultants. For me there is never a chance to switch off, it’s very much a constant race to catch up on the multitude of tasks, barely leaving time to do anything creative. So achieving a work-life balance is the most challenging aspect.

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