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August 22, 2013

Meet the Designers: Cuan Hanly of Jack Spade

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We spent a week this summer invading the offices and going inside the minds of six American menswear heroes. In our fifth installment, Jack Spade creative director Cuan Hanly (that’s pronounced “COO-in,” if you’re curious) discusses Charles Eames, growing up in Ireland and style that’s tough enough for a hardware store.

MEN’S SHOP DAILY: Legend has it that Jack Spade started by making bags—and selling them in a perhaps-unexpected venue.
CUAN HANLY OF JACK SPADE: We sold our first bag in 1997, and it was sold at a hardware store. I think the idea was to put bags in the hands of people who actually use bags, and who use ‘em for function. So it was the idea of a builder, a painter, an architect having a bag—and it was primarily a tote bag at that point—that could be multifunctional. It was something that would carry tile samples around, but then equally, you could bring it to work and use it in the office. So that was really the origin, and then over the years, the bag range developed greatly—outside just the tote shape, and outside the hardware element. But it’s always been about timeless functionality—stuff that always works and continues to work.

Jack Spade bags have earned kind of a cult status.
We have people coming into our stores that have had our bags for eight or ten years, and now they’re broken-in and battered, but they absolutely love them—because it represents that kind of journey and experience with a product or an object carried with you.

Eventually, around 2009 [when Cuan came on board], you guys started rolling out clothing in addition to bags. Is the same “form meets function” philosophy reflected there as well?
I believe so. It’s something that we focus on a lot. We select raw materials that have durability. We concentrate on the way things are constructed in our design process. So, yeah, I feel like we want the apparel to act in the same way as the bags—in the sense that it becomes a favorite shirt or favorite jacket or favorite pair of trousers that you’re gonna go back to all the time.

What inspired you and the Jack Spade team when you were designing the fall collection?
We were very interested in the crossover in the creative world, of work and play, and the kind of blurred boundaries if you’re working in a creative environment—that really you never stop thinking about it, whether you’re at home or at work. We did a photo shoot with an artist called Geoff McFetridge. He’s a graphic artist out in L.A. It’s just interesting seeing how he lives his life—he’ll go surfing in the morning, then he’ll go to work, and it’s just kind of a complete blurred line.

How did that play out in some of the pieces?
Following what I said about bringing the concept of “play” into it, we have what we’re calling our Tangram pattern. [Case for iPhone here; sweater coming soon.] It’s like where you take little blocks of wood, and you create shapes out of it. Actually, it’s supposed to be like a little flying bird. So that was a motif that we used throughout. We’re pretty well-known for color and pattern, so we wanted to bring that in, but in a way that remains wearable, because it can go un-wearable very easily. We got such a phenomenal response for this sweater.

Well, people love tangrams. What led you to choose that as a theme?
We were also a bit influenced by Ray and Charles Eames, because their creative environment was very much [a blurred line between work and play]. They did a lot of toys. They used to do the House of Cards and so on, so this kinda felt like it was a follow-up from that—taking essentially what are kids’ toys but doing them in a way that makes them feel a little more intellectual and sophisticated.

 

There’s a great leather jacket in the collection.
It’s Italian lambskin. One of the things we’re really interested in is how product wears and how the user affects the product. So, we don’t tend to break our product in too heavily before people buy it. We love the fact that if you wore this, and if I wore this—or if you carried one of our wax bags and I also carried it over a period of a couple years—they would look completely different, ’cause we have different lifestyles, and we use them in different ways. So, we like the aging process. We like the way that things age [depending on] how a customer uses them.

Of course Jack Spade is still making great bags. Which pieces are you looking forward to for fall?
Definitely feeling a big drive toward briefcases. So we have our classic Waxwear, which is this guy [above left]… our slim briefWith technology these days, iPads and so on, a guy doesn’t need a really big briefcase anymore. He’s carrying less from a paperwork point of view. We’ve been using waxed canvas for a long time, and it just has such a beautiful character. I think it’s better and better the more you use it. Again, it’s our fascination with how things age and wear, and waxed canvas is just one of those things that really wears in beautifully and becomes like an old friend the more you use it.

It’s apparent in some of your accessories that Jack Spade is funny. Has a sense of humor always been part of the brand?
I think it’s always been there. It’s something that attracted me… from the outside, before I joined the brand [in 2009]. I think it’s not a juvenile humor; it’s self-effacing humor. We like to refer to it as an unexpected wit. It’s a little bit of a surprise, ’cause I do think our customer is interested in discovery and in finding things that they’re not expecting to see. You’ll find cards in your [Jack Spade] wallet, when you buy your wallet, that have the top-ten chess moves—little things like that.

In addition to bags and clothes, Jack Spade launched a line of watches this past year. What sets Jack Spade watches apart?
All of the metal-case watches are Swiss movement, so we get the interior from Switzerland. They’re sapphire-crystal faces, so basically anything but a diamond is not going to scratch your watch. We developed this guy, which we call the Dual Time. This is actually a movement that we developed ourselves. It’s got an internal rotating bezel, and by turning the fourth hand, you can set a second time zone, and it keeps in sync with the main movement, so you can look at two time zones on one face. It’s based on an old ’50s pilot watch that I have.

What does it mean when we hear “Swiss-made” or “Swiss movement” when it comes to watches?
It’s just the level of quality, really. That’s the main thing. Switzerland is the mecca of watchmaking. Generally, our products are a lot about the functionality, the durability and the quality of the product, so we felt it was appropriate for our watches to have that.

For guys with less money to invest in a top-quality watch, you have options under $100, too.
We launched with what we’re calling our ‘Graphic’ watches. These retail at $98. They’re a great opportunity for the brand to show its personality. [For example], the ‘Graphic’ watches are not Swiss movement; they’re Japanese movement. So what we put on it is “No jewels, not Swiss.” We never try to be something that we’re not, so it’s important that, when we do something like this, we’re not pretending—it just is what it is. So we kind of embrace the high and low of things, in a big way.

Do you have a watch collection of your own?
I do. I probably have over 30, ranging from top-end to low-end. I picked up an old Elgin in a flea market in L.A. That was kind of one of my better finds, ‘cause it was in one of those boxes where they’ve taken the straps off and it’s just the cases. And I spotted ‘em and had a quick look at it, and I was like, “Hmm, this looks really good.” It’s an automatic one, and it was still working. The guy looked like he knew [his stuff], ‘cause he had other, much higher-level watches out. And he said $30, so I was like, “Will you do it for $25?” and he said yes. So that was a little bit of a prize “get.”

 

You guys use a lot of color, but it doesn’t feel loud.
We tend to build our own color palettes. We don’t really follow color trends, so we create a lot of our patterns and colors ourselves, so I think that’s something that our customer comes to us for. They’re not gonna see this type of pattern anywhere else. The color combinations feel interesting. We don’t always put the “right” colors together, which I think is something that people kind of like.

This sweater has an interesting effect—with some interesting colors.
It’s a bit like a Donegal tweed but, as you can see, pulling out colors that you wouldn’t normally see in a Donegal, like the bright green and bright pink and so on.

For the layperson, could you define what Donegal means?
It’s just basically where you take a darker color and you shoot brighter colors through it. So they’ll pick different-colored yarns and feed it through while they’re weaving, and you get these kind of little small specks of color. I mean, I think originally it probably represented the moss on the heath in Donegal. I guess that’s where it came from originally. Don’t quote me on that! [Sorry, Cuan.] But being from Ireland, I think that’s what it looks like.

How do you utilize these giant fabric books [pictured above]?
They’re all vintage. They’re pretty incredible. You can take patterns off them and work them in different fabrications. I’ve got about 30 of these books that we dive into when we need to. “Spring 1969″—these are a little crazy. We got some great color inspiration from them as well. You can pull color palettes out of them. I also collect scarves. They’re a great source for swimwear patterns.


You guys have an interesting collection of artwork and memorabilia around the office.
We just collect them anywhere and everywhere: eBay, flea markets, vintage stores. There are two or three of us who do a lot of the collecting, and we just amalgamate and collect stuff all the time. Collecting is a big part of the team and the brand, so we just continue the art collection. Generally, it’s just stuff that has a little element of humor to it or kind of an odd sense to it. We like oversized things as well. In the prop room, you’ll see some things that are kind of oddly sized. As I say, it’s a collection of the classic but equally the slightly odd.

How do you and your team find time to go thrift-shopping? Do you pencil it in as dedicated research work?
Yeah, we do. We do road trips to particular things. We’ve done a few to L.A, and then… you know, flea markets on the weekend, or you just see stuff. eBay is a great source for stuff… I just love the idea that some things people completely disregard, we find really interesting. You know, one man’s fat is another man’s meat. Or is it the other way around?

  

For eBay, it seems like you’d need to have a specific item in mind that you’re searching for.
My watch list is very extensive. Some of them work well, but eBay is always a little bit risky. I remember I was buying—don’t ask me why I was buying it—but it was just this beautiful brass doorknob, and it was supposed to be off one of the cathedrals in Boston. And it was only like a dollar, so I was like, let’s get it. And it took ages to arrive. And three or four weeks later, I just got this little envelope, and it was kinda handwritten, and it was basically a postcard of the doorknob, and that’s what I had bought. So you never know. Sometimes you fall afoul of eBay, but most of the time you get pretty interesting stuff.

Any other tips on vintage-shopping?
It’s a lot of fun. I do a lot of it. If you spoke to my wife… it’s like, I’ll come home with more jackets, and she’s like, “Didn’t you just buy one of those?” I’m like, “The pockets are different. That’s very important.” Luckily, we have a basement.

What was it like growing up in Dublin?
It was great. I mean, it’s a fantastic town. It’s an odd combination of feeling like a small village where everybody knows everybody—but it’s a capital city, so it has that bigger-city vibe to it as well. So it was a really nice combination of closeness to family, but then feeling like you were part of a bigger strata across the world of capital cities. We try to go back there twice a year.

How did you go about becoming the creative director of Jack Spade?
I studied design in college, and then I worked for a long time with Paul Smith in the UK. My wife’s American, and we moved over to New York about seven and a half years ago, and I started working as a creative director at Original Penguin. I was there for just under three years. And then, I basically always loved Jack and what it represented, and at that time they were looking for somebody to head up the brand. So I came on board about five years ago.

Were you always interested in clothing and style?
Yeah, I think so. I was certainly interested in design and architecture, photography, clothes. So, it wasn’t necessarily specifically about clothes, but it was just a broader sense of design and aesthetic—that’s always been a big interest of mine. And I do a lot of photography personally, so that’s something that’s close to my heart as well. So, it’s just a general fascination and love of design across a lot of different disciplines.

What made you choose to be a design major in college?
I think it was an interesting combination, because there’s a technical side to clothing—design and construction and raw material. I was always very interested in architecture as well, and it felt like almost kind of architecture for the body—the way you construct things and the way you design ‘em and the technical side of it. So that’s always fascinated me and, I think, drew me to it.

Did you dress well as a kid in high school?
I guess. You’d have to ask my friends!

Were there school uniforms back in Dublin?
There were, yes. I kind of [liked them] in a way, because they were super classic… black blazer and gray trousers.

Did you and your classmates do things to kind of personalize the uniforms?
To a certain extent. Not too much, but… wearing trousers a little shorter or untucking shirts. That was about the extent that we were allowed. The tie undone was a big thing I always remember.

What else were you into growing up? Music? Sports?
I grew up listening to a lot of Van Morrison… Neil Young… and a little bit of Led Zeppelin, so kind of a broad spectrum of stuff. And I did play a lot of sports—a lot of cricket when I was younger. That was a big part of my youth—which obviously has a uniform also. I got hit pretty badly as a kid [playing cricket], smashed my nose up. The batsman just—bang—straight to my face. But it’s a great game. It’s like a game of chess… I guess it’s like any sport—when you’re into it, you can tell the subtleties and the nuances of what people are doing and what the impact of those are gonna be.

You guys have a Galaga-slash-Ms. Pac-Man arcade machine here in your well-appointed employee break room. Do you hold the high score?
It doesn’t log the high score. I’m one of the people who plays it most, though. Galaga is one of my favorites. It’s great. We’ve set it so you can basically just keep playing, no quarters required.

Who are your top style icons of all time? 
Oh, let’s see. I think Cary Grant is definitely—do you know the movie To Catch a Thief? You should definitely see it. It’s pretty amazing. So, yeah, he would be up there. Just again, that kind of really super-classic, simple but great color combinations. Not afraid of pattern. On-screen and off-screen, just beautifully perfected style. JFK obviously was another—an American icon. And going into, you know, Jackson Pollock and people like that, where it’s a little bit left of center in their design aesthetic—or their clothing aesthetic as well.

Who’s that grizzled gent in the black-and-white photo there [pictured two photos up]?
Edmund Hillary—explorer, Mount Everest. That was one of the kind of kick-off thoughts about our holiday concept, ’cause it’s the anniversary of them conquering Mount Everest, Hillary and Tenzing. Obviously, he wore amazing mountaineering gear, but then he’s got this really nice kind of softened English-tweed aesthetic in his non-mountaineering wear. So, an interesting guy.

How about a design icon? I see Dieter Rams referenced on your office wall.
His design philosophy was pretty amazing—less design is more. And you think, with Apple and where they’ve gone with a lot of their product, I think it’s drawing a lot of influence from him. Just the simplicity of it. It certainly resonates with me: as little design as possible.

 
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Key items from Jack Spade’s fall collection:
Merino Wool CardiganSuede Tote | Quilted Vest
‘Waxwear’ Backpack | Donegal Sweater | Leather-Strap Watch

SHOP ALL: JACK SPADE

 
 

[Photos by Robin Stein. Interview by Justin Abbott.
Special thanks to Cuan Hanly and the Jack Spade team.]

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