Meeting CSM prodigy Juan Palomino in his Bermondsey studio
It is rare to meet someone that leaves a lasting impression. When first meeting Central Saint Martin (CSM) student Juan Palomino, there was such a passion and spark that radiated through his words, that I could not help but think how this young gentleman is destined to go places. Heralded as one of the Top 7 Youngest Designers in Peru, his work has also been featured in Vogue. With a deceivingly young face, his expertise and knowledge stretch far beyond fashion, being able to speak in-depth on subjects ranging from astrophysics to politics. He has a minor in Art History Italian Renaissance and followed astrophysics classes with other students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Currently in his work placement year, a period where most students opt to work for a large fashion house to gain industry experience, Juan is working at his own brand that is set to launch their first ready-to-wear collection next year. We met up with this promising 27-year-old designer at his lofty studio in Bermondsey.
I can imagine worse places to have a studio...
We were enthusiastically greeted at the door by Juan (middle), Vestaen (right, Executive Director), and Dan (left, Fashion Photographer).
You started designing when you were only 16! What got you interested in fashion at such a young age?
I was living in Lima, Peru at the time and being a fashion designer was just a dream at that point. Peru was still a developing country and the fashion scene was, and still is, not great, although it is improving. I went to a french academy in Lima, but their way of teaching was very strict and rigid and prevented me from expressing myself in my own way. In Peru there is only one way to make a skirt, there is no lee-way for experimentation. I only stayed for 2 years and then left.
Why did you not stay in Lima, Peru?
Fashion in Lima is for people who have money. In Latin society, everything revolves around your last name. Considering I'm a middle class guy, I knew it would be difficult to make it there.
What did you do after Lima?
Luckily, I was able to get a spot to study International Fashion Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York. There was a competition for four spots to study abroad at Central Saint Martins, and I knew I had to apply. When I was accepted, I was asked to sign a contract by FIT that I would come back to New York after my semester at CSM. However, I knew as I was signing it, that I would breach it. CSM had always been my dream school and I did everything possible to have them invite me to join them as an official student, which they did. However, they invited me back on the premise that I would to start my whole undergraduate degree over again. But for me it was worth it and I have been at CSM since 2015.
Do you ever regret starting all over?
No. CSM is one of the greatest things that can happen to a designer in terms of recognition.
You have been involved in a panoply of projects. Tell me about one of your first projects, called BIRTH AT SPACE.
I have always been interested in aerospace and actually followed classes in astrophysics while I was studying in New York. Elon Musk has always been a big inspiration for me too and as I was researching his plans to colonise Mars, I started to delve deeper into how it would be to actually travel there. I found that if you travel to space at 8% of the speed of light, the lack of gravity would make your body atrophy, causing most of the body's mass to congregate around the upper body, making you look pregnant. Therefore, I wanted to create a bodice that would depict how our bodies would mutate if we were to indeed become an interplanetary species. I created this piece in both black and white. The bodice was also selected to be worn by ballerinas at the Cirque du Soleil event at the Royal Albert Hall.
It is evident that you have a strong interest in science. If you wouldn’t have been a fashion designer, do you think you would’ve become a scientist?
Two options, I would have either become a scientist or a diplomat. I come from a family filled with politicians and when I was younger, I wanted to become a diplomat. I still do, as coming from a Latin country rife with political issues, you are very aware of the political instability and I would like to be involved in helping Peru get out of their struggles.
You were also selected to present at the Balenciaga Fashion in Motion event at the Victoria & Albert Museum! Tell me the story behind that.
It was a fantastic experience. The Balenciaga Museum in Spain along with the V&A museum in London selected twelve CSM students to create a design at the Fashion in Motion event. Before the exhibition, the twelve of us were invited to the Balenciaga Museum in Cristòbal, Balenciaga's hometown of Bilbao, Spain. We spent over ten hours in the museum looking through his original designs with only one hour break! After looking at his pieces, we were assigned to create our own design inspired by Balenciaga's artistry. One thing which really stuck out at me from visiting Balenciaga's small fisher town, was the theme of home and belonging. To Balenciaga it was very important that no matter how far you go, you should never forget the place you are from. That strongly resonated with me as I am from Peru and although I have not lived there in a while, I will never forget my roots. I therefore created a jacket inspired by the traditional clothes the Peruvian women used to wear after the Spanish conquest.
The whole jacket is designed using only a single piece of fabric and has no seams except for the sleeves. Inspired by Balenciaga, I made the jacket very easy to put on and take off, simply by using a zipper. At the back of the jacket, is a hoodie, similar to the cloth that Peruvian women wore to carry their children.
Having lived in New York and London, which city do you prefer?
Difficult question! I love both cities but I prefer London. I look back at New York with a strong sense of nostalgia, but I find London more raw and honest. I have lived in Camden Town, Shoreditch, Kensington and now in Bermondsey, and find that there is more happening here than in the US.
Which figures inspire you?
The astrophysicist Carl Sagan, fashion designers Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen and Che Guevara, not for his politics but his philosophies.
You are now working on your first ready-to-wear collection. Describe a typical Juan Palomino wearer?
She is bored of being conservative. She is definitely a rebel, kind of like a rockstar.
What's the story behind your tattoos?
They were quite a spontaneous decision. We were sitting with Rachel, the girlfriend of Dan and she asked to tattoo all of us. The line on my right arm is just a silhouette outline. Then on my left arm, the circle is inspired by Freemason, and the lines are my initials JP, in morse code. The tattoos were placed using stick and poke.
Did it hurt?
Juan: Yes, it hurt a lot!
Vestaen: Not at all.
What would you say inspires you in your design process?
Paying attention to science and looking around and asking how the most simple things work, like water. For example, in my T-shirt project, I questioned how the properties of water could be replicated in a fabric. I analysed crystalised water under the microscope in different conditions; tears from emotion, tears from an onion, etc. and found that the molecules had vastly different patterns.
I therefore tried to convey these patterns onto a t-shirt, which is shown above. A stylist used it for one of her shoots, and before I knew it, the shirt was featured in Vogue!
Where do you see Juan Palomino going in the next five years?
I want to see my brand expanding. We have been able to attract funding, so we are on the right path. I would also like to inspire people that are younger than me. Not because my work is great or anything, but so that kids in Peru can say, because Juan made it, why can't I.