In conversation with Jasper Conran, fashion designer and newly appointed chairman at The Conran Shop. First published in the December 2012 edition of ELLE Decoration UK
When we meet, Jasper Conran, second son of Sir Terence and his first wife Shirley ‘Superwoman author’ Conran, is fresh from making a speech to 600 people, in French, in Paris, to present his vision for The Conran Shop, as he is now officially chairman of the whole kit and kaboodle. ‘I’ve been riding the tiger of fear,’ he says cheerfully, by way of explaining how he’s seized this new public-speaking mantle, and is relishing it. What’s strikingly clear is that this is not a shoo-in default handover from father to son; this is a new role that’s been earned.
Prior to this, Conran has carved a very distinct niche for himself in fashion and homeware, with his super-successful ‘J by Jasper Conran’ diffusion range for Debenhams and lines of glassware and crockery for Waterford and Wedgwood. In 2008 he was awarded an OBE for services to fashion, and he won’t be giving up any of his current commitments, despite his new responsibilities. But taking on The Conran Shop wasn’t an easy decision to make. ‘I never imagined this is what I wanted to do. I have my own creative life, and this is taking over someone else’s business,’ he says. ‘But what’s been so gratifying is seeing how much of my own creative energy I can put into it. It’s a very different kind of creativity.’ Certainly, since the appointment, he seems noticeably fizzing with energy and enthusiasm, with hundreds of ideas already for what he could do. ‘I feel liberated!’ he declares. ‘This role is about igniting the fire. I believe design is 99 per cent opinion. And I’m a typical Sagittarius; I send the arrows up into the air, and expect others to catch them.’ And will it be easy for him to make the shift so fully into home rather than fashion? ‘Home and the idea of making a home have always been very central to my thinking.’
Nevertheless, it can’t have been easy being born a Conran. He responds succinctly: ‘I won’t pretend it’s not difficult being the son of God.’ Despite his parents divorcing when he was two and Conran living with his mother, the omnipresent Terence loomed from the very start of his creative life. ‘I told him I wanted to go to either Central Saint Martins or the Royal College of Art, and he said I couldn’t because he was governor of both. In an instant, all my childhood dreams came crashing down.’ Ultimately, Conran enrolled at Parsons School of Art and Design in New York, launching a first capsule collection of womenswear at the prestigious American department store Henri Bendel when he was just 19 years old. ‘I always loved cloth, so very early on the instant thing for me was clothes, making shapes,’ he says. And throughout his career, Conran has designed costumes and sets for ballet, opera and theatre, even winning a Laurence Olivier award for Costume Designer of the Year in 1991 for Jean Anouilh’s The Rehearsal at London’s Almeida Theatre. Undoubtedly it’s this strength of personal vision that will serve The Conran Shop well. As he puts it, ‘I want to build up the sense of joy for the customer; this has to be the place to go. We’ve got to be ahead of it all, but I don’t want to put technology ahead of humanity. It’s about good living.’ He pauses, before adding, ‘There is a legacy and it needs looking after on many fronts. I have a sure enough certainty of myself, and what I stand for, for it not to be subsuming. But it’s going to have to run its course. Either way, I’ll be doing what I love – being creative.’
Tell us five words to describe yourself… Smallish. Blondish. Busy. Fun-loving.
What’s your favourite colour? I call it geranium. It’s between orange, pink and red. Strong but not aggressive.
What scent do you wear? ‘Eau Sauvage’ by Christian Dior.
What book are you reading right now? Counting my Chickens by the Duchess of Devonshire.
Do you have a favourite painter? This is a difficult one because there are many. [long pause] Possibly Duncan Grant. There’s something so familiar in his work. Oh, wait, no, Rothko beats everyone hands down! I’ve walked into a room of Rothkos and been just spellbound.
What is your greatest regret? I think I would have liked to go to university, but I don’t know that I was academic at the time.
If you could change your nationality, what would you be? Brazilian! Just for the good bottom.
Who is your favourite fictional character? It would have to be Mrs Danvers – the housekeeper in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca – because she’s just so fabulously wrong. But I also love all the Dickensian characters.
You’re having a dinner party and you can choose famous guests from the past or present. Who would you invite? Coco Chanel, Elizabeth I and Winston Churchill. Genghis Khan would be good to throw into the mix. Napoleon, and Nelson, and Marilyn Monroe! I’d sit her between Winston and Genghis. Oh, and Colette.
Have you ever failed at anything? Oh yes. Soufflés! And I think I’ve failed several times in my career. You have to learn from failure. It’s sometimes more important than success.
Are you religious? I like to think I am, from a moral standpoint. It’s how you live your life, how you treat people, how you respond to what’s around you. I think I’d have liked Jesus a lot.
Do you have any pets? Three dogs: Buster, Frank and Quincy. They’re Tibetan terriers.
If you were an animal, what would you be? I’d be a bird, because I think I’d like flying. Maybe a parrot for the plumage.
What can’t you live without? My iPhone, for all the things it can do. I take pictures of everything I find beautiful or interesting.
When was the last time you did something really stupid? Oh, it was probably falling in love with the wrong person.
Do you believe in luck? I do, but I think you can make your own. Life is a mixture of the incidental and what you make of it.
Do you have a motto? In peace lies wisdom. Or…Oh just get on with it!
Jasper resigned his position at the Conran Shop in September 2015.