It’s Kind of a Funny Story: Derek Lam and Jan-Hendrik Schlottmann

Next up in our series that profiles fashion couples on how they met


MR: How did you two meet?

Derek: We met at a nightclub in Thailand and were sort of introduced by mutual friends.

MR: And when was that?

Jan: May 2, 1997.

MR: You remember the date!

Derek: It’s also my parents’ anniversary, so it’s not hard to. But I was much younger, and I was living in Hong Kong at the time, and I used to go to Bangkok, Thailand all the time. Every two weeks. It was kind of the Miami of Southeast Asia, and Jan was there for vacation from Paris.

MR: You were living in Paris at the time?

Jan: I actually studied in Paris. I was born in Germany, but I studied in Paris, and I started working in Paris. I worked in the fragrance industry.

MR: How did you keep in touch after that?

Jan: We met again the next weekend! It was very jet-set back then, but also at that particular time I was actually going to an island with friends just a few days before, and we were going to see more friends in Bangkok. Derek and I ran into each other on a Friday night and then met each other again the following weekend.

MR: By chance or on purpose?

Jan: On purpose!

MR: So it was kind of love at first sight?

Jan: Kind of. I was falling in love. Derek likes to be pursued, and I don’t have any qualms about pursuing somebody when I fall in love with them.

Derek: I think that’s kind of part of our nature. I’m kind of more laid back — if it happens, it happens. It carries over into the way we work too. Jan is very much like, “No, this is what we want to do” and goes full throttle, and I’m always like, “Simmer down.”

Jan: So we met in May, then we saw each other the following weekend, then he came to Paris to see me in July for a whole month, which is really kind of daring! I was like, “Oh my god, if this doesn’t work out, I’m going to have a house guest for a month?”

Meanwhile, Derek had Plan Bs and Cs and Ds and called all of his friends in London just in case, you know, this didn’t work out…

MR: A few contingency plans.

Jan: And obviously it worked out. Actually, he was planning on coming to Paris and staying with me for longer but then I got a job offer in New York, so I moved earlier than he did. I was coming to New York in October and you moved back here —

Derek: — the following January.

Jan: But we met all the time. It was really fabulous. We met in Brussels. In Paris.

Derek: And at that time I traveled a lot for work. I think that last year I was freelancing so I had a lot of time. It was kind of like, “Okay, I’ll see you here, I’ll see you there” so it was a great time to just travel and enjoy myself.

MR: Do you think that there was something to the distance? “Absence makes the heart grow fonder…”

Derek: There was very little absence because it was every week.

MR: But even now, because of texting, there’s just this sort of constant obsession or a need to be in touch. I think it’s rare that there’s a week of not talking…in a relationship that actually works.

Derek: Well, I mean he would constantly call me. Constantly. Like two or three times a day. And I’m not a telephone person.

Jan: Which I didn’t know at the time!

Derek: And one time I remember walking in the streets, and I was like, “You can’t call me anymore!” Like what is there to talk about?

Jan: Well, there was the time difference. Derek is not a morning person, and I would always get him in the morning.

Derek: It was three times a day and I had to say —

Jan: It was not three times a day.

MR: So you launched Derek Lam together?

Jan: Yes. In 2003.

MR: Did you know he was going to be a good business partner because of how persistent he was?

Derek: I don’t know if we knew going into it, I’m going to be great at this, you’re going to be great at this, and we’re going to make something great. We were in our early thirties and wanted to be challenged in our career. We thought it was ideal to kind of take all the things that we would love to do in terms of building a brand, building a company, and working with — really leading — a group of people. We’d talk about how we would implement things, and what are the philosophies that we believe in.

Jan: We had to really get used to working together: who does what? Who is responsible for what? It was tricky.

Derek: You know, I think it was actually a good two years before we could really clearly identify what our roles were. I’m very much a compartmentalized person, whereas Jan is much more gregarious and wants to be involved in everything. It was me getting used to that, and saying if this is going to run smoothly there can only be one cook in the kitchen for a specific task.

Jan: I think for us it was clear from the beginning that if I was doing this as a business, I believed in his talents. I wasn’t starting to design or running all of the things on the runway, so there was always a really clear definition. I think where it started becoming a little harder was with the marketing decisions and things like that.

Derek: But both of us had a mutual respect. He was not involved in fashion, per se, before. He was in the fragrance world. He worked at Prada and developed their cosmetic collection.

MR: He smells very nice.

Derek: And he has an amazing nose. He’s not a perfumer, but he has that instinct. We had and have a mutual respect for the field that each of us worked in. He’s a marketer, and I don’t know marketing, so he’s much stronger in that.

MR: Jan, you said you were instantly in love, but what was the moment for you, Derek that made you think, “Okay fine, I like him.”

Derek: It’s very hard for me to open up to people — it takes a lot of time. I didn’t have some sort of criteria that I’d check off. It’s just, over time you trust somebody. I think that’s the core to every relationship that I have: do I feel comfortable around this person, whether it’s Jan or someone else, and can I open myself up?

When we met, we just had so many mutual interests that it wasn’t really a challenge, but I was coming out of a relationship that was totally smooth sailing in terms of our rhythm and what we liked. When I met Jan I was like, “Oh, it’s not as smooth as before, but maybe that’s good,” because you kind of discover new things and stay on your toes and don’t take things for granted.

It’s kind of an ebb and flow. Someone can fill in those moments when you feel like you just want to recede a little bit. Over time, too, you build a kind of mutual confidence in one another. And it’s a relief for me because you know, he’s much more social, much more out there, and I’m much more like [whispers] “Oh god.”

Jan: Yeah, if I wasn’t there, Derek would have the same food every night. He would come home at ten from work, watch television and go to bed.

MR: So Jan shakes up the routine a little bit.

Derek: When we go out for a company event or something, I’ll leave and be like, “Oh my god, I’m so tired, and I gotta go home and take off my clothes,” but Jan is like “Oh my god! That was great! Let’s keep going!” Like coming back from the Met Ball, I was like, “Really, the Standard?”

Jan: I dragged him there for the first time in four years.

MR: What do you find to be the best and worst parts of working together?

Jan: That’s a good question…the best part is to see the result, obviously. I think the best part is that you actually create something together. The most difficult is that it is very hard to carve out moments in the relationship where you are actually by yourself, which can be sometimes challenging, right?

Derek: Yeah, I think the fact that you’re creating and building something together is very exciting. I think the downside is that it occupies your whole life, and we always say, “Okay, let’s try not to talk about work now. Let’s not do pillow talk about work.” But you know that lasts about half an hour and you inevitably go back into work.

Jan: You know, we actually have a dog now. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a dog, and that changed the dynamic a little bit. Now we’re talking about the dog, which is actually great! That is a very nice change.

Derek: 80% of our conversations are about looking at the organic development of the company: is everything working properly? How do we make it work better? What’s the issue? Why? Do we have the right person? Are we giving them the right tools? It’s not like “Oh my god, Jan, why did you put this number on this sheet? It doesn’t make sense,” and he doesn’t come to me and say “Why did you design that?”

Jan: We talk about the big picture for the company. Where do we want to go from here. Retail. Website. Those are things we talk about a lot.

MR: Jan, do you ever inject a fashion opinion? Like, “Well, I don’t really like this skirt.”

Jan: I do, yes, but I never say, “You have to take it out.”

Derek: My favorite occasions are when we’re doing looks for the show – I work with Elissa Santisi – and we’re sitting there, and it will be a look that we’re struggling over. It’s like the fifth shoe, with or without a belt – you know, the minutiae where you’re at the point of just staring at your navel. And then Jan will come in and be like “Oh, she’s cute!” and walk out the door!

I roll my eyes, but he releases the tension. And Elissa loves him. Whenever we get stuck in those moments she’s like, [imitating in a whisper] “Where’s Jan? He’s so much fun!”

Jan: I actually appreciate that I am able to see it with an eye that is completely naïve in a way. When he shows me the sketches, it doesn’t talk to me. I need to see the full thing in the end. I really don’t even know if a collection is good or not until the show is over for some reason, even if they do looks.

MR: Do you have non-work related “things,” so to speak?

Jan: Travel. Travel and books.

MR: What kind of books do you like?

Jan: Oh my god. What kind of books? I’m a big fan of Edmund White and then I read a lot of French detective novels, like Georges Simenon. It’s always the same kind of story, but it’s very ambient of Paris of the ‘50s, ‘60s. And Derek is devouring books. He reads all the time.

Derek: We were talking about how we both have that thing – I’m sure many people have it – where you’re getting to the end of a book that you really love, and you don’t want it to end. So, I haven’t been able to finish two books that I want to know the end of, but I just can’t finish – one is The Goldfinch. I haven’t read the last 10%.

Also outside of work, we love doing architectural projects.

Jan: Yeah, Derek loves architecture.

Derek: I think that it’s sort of a relief in life. It’s not about having the home itself, but it’s about creating it, building it, having that project as an outlet. I was always sort of like, why do people need seven houses? That’s crazy! Palm Beach, one on the lake, Aspen – I mean, that’s crazy. Why would you even want to manage that? And now I’ve realized it’s not about having the home itself, but it’s about creating it, building it, having that as an outlet. And you know so many people who are like “You know, we never go out there. After we built it we never go out there.”

Jan: They never go!

Derek: But I think it was just so that they could create these projects.

Leandra: I think that happens with clothing also. I just want to love what I have and wear it all the time and found that the more I have, the less I wear. And I don’t like that. I know that’s much more micro but —

Jan: Yeah, I do that too!

Derek: Well I think that’s the thing. The brilliance of fashion is that it’s instant. You can have it. I totally believe in impulse. I totally believe in just falling in love with something and saying I have to have it, obviously if you can afford it, but that’s the brilliance of fashion: it’s immediate. When you’re talking about bigger projects, or things that you have to invest a lot of time and money or thought behind it, it becomes heavy. With fashion, you can go out and buy a lipstick.

I was once sitting with a writer at a fashion event — someone I had admired for a long time — and I was like, “Why are you here at a fashion event? I mean, you’re a writer.”

And he said, “Fashion is more immediate. I can sit here for five years and what I thought I was going to write about is no longer relevant.” Because you know, maybe he was writing something more topical. But with fashion it’s quick, and it’s a very spontaneous reaction to what’s happening in the world.

I don’t believe though, in every scenario, that the product should be immediately available. I think it’s good to say you have to wait. It has to be produced with time and care and can’t be that immediate.

Leandra: The only thing is that now is there’s social proprietorship; somebody will see something, love something, and then immediately blog about it, Instagram it, put it on their Tumblr and Pinterest, so they feel like they’ve already digitally owned it.

Derek: I think that there is, again, that sense of immediacy where you can fulfill whatever fantasy or whatever sort of mood you’re in with fashion, but I think that for me, I always try to look at the clothes and realize that I don’t really create hyper-photogenic clothes; I’m conscious that these can be photographed on the runway, of course, but I also want to give something special, something for the person that actually goes to the store and sees the piping, or the particular lining, or the way it’s constructed. Little things that you maybe don’t see on the photograph.

MR: It’s interesting that you say that you believe in impulse, and that idea of “I-have-to-have-it-now,” because it seems like the trajectory of your relationship was a little bit more docile from your point of view: “Okay, well this guy is calling me, I’m gonna see him, and what happens happens.” Did you have that impulsive moment of, “I have to be with you. I have to have you?”

Derek: Well, I think that’s honestly the dichotomy of me. When it comes to my work, I’m very sure about what kind of response I want to create, but with everything else in my life, it’s much more laid back and kind of left open. But I think that I’m missing a limb, because everything that should be 360° in my life is geared toward my work, and there’s the other side that’s kind of, well, not withered away but…

Leandra: Well, everything can be geared towards your work because you have the comfort of knowing that you have a loving partner, obviously. I feel that way at least. Sorry, I’m projecting.

Jan: Yeah! That would be nice if he said it!

MR: We can put it in his mouth!

Derek: Work becomes for me — the work that I do, not just the design, but the whole work thing — it’s just my outlet. It allows me to be other than me.

MR: What do you think are the most valuable things you’ve taught each other?

Jan: Patience…I learned patience. Derek really grounds me because I am much too impulsive. I think he taught me to be more considerate.

Derek: It sounds like he should be the designer, right?

Jan: No! Why?

Derek: Because usually designers are impulsive.

Jan: Yeah, but you are much more cerebral.

Derek: Well, I’m here to teach him everything, so I don’t know what I’ve learned! [Laughs]

Jan: Well, obviously I love his taste and his creativity, so that’s a given. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be his business partner, but like I said: what I’ve learned from him really is maybe to be more considerate.

Derek: And the opposite is that he’s taught me to be more spontaneous.

Leandra: So you meet halfway.

Derek: Not always. There are moments when you’re like, “Okay. I give up. Let’s just do it.” You kind of win some battles, lose some battles, and sometimes, yeah, it is a compromise. I don’t really love the compromise so much because I think it’s too middle-of-the-road. I’d rather be kind of left or right of the needle, so that’s usually where we try to land.

Jan: I think there have been really cute moments in our life where Derek was hesitant, and I was like, “No. This is it. This is really how we should do it.” And then Derek actually trusts and goes with it.

Derek: You know, for me, I always just kind of meandered through life. That was always kind of my philosophy. A part of me is like, “Yes, I have plans and I make objectives and I have goals,” but they’re not the overriding thing in my life. I kind of just meander.

When starting this business I always said, “You know, if it succeeds for one or two seasons, or even if it doesn’t succeed, then at least I have this thing to put on my resumé.” That’s always kind of been my point of view: to not really force too many issues. It’s wishy washy, but it works for me. I’m always meandering.

…Especially at airports. Getting to the gate.

Jan: I had to hold the gate once. I held it for 15 minutes because Derek couldn’t find the gate. He was stuck in security behind me and I knew that the next flight wasn’t for six hours, so we’d be stuck in the airport for six hours if we missed it.

MR: Any advice for people looking for relationships?

Jan: Oh my god, we would be the worst…but I do have one piece of advice: it’s a lot of work.

Derek: To find somebody?

Jan: No, not to find somebody, but to make a relationship work. I learned it the hard way. Not the hard way – the interesting way. I think that when you become an adult and you grow up you realize it’s not just about falling in love. It’s all about learning to respect each other and to trust each other and grow together. It’s hard in this city to combine two people who have driven careers. We travel, we have events to go to. It’s super hard. It takes a lot of wisdom to carve that time out.

Leandra: A relationship is like a shark, right? If it stops moving, it dies.

Amelia: I’ve never heard that! Do sharks die if they stop moving?

Jan: Yeah, because they can’t breathe anymore.

Amelia: Poor sharks.

Jan: Finding someone is a different thing, though. Finding is something I can’t explain. My mother, I tell you, my mother’s story is funny because she was a widow for like 20 years, and she fell in love at 75 going to the opera with a guy her age.

Derek: He was just sitting next to her.

Jan: He had two tickets and he was alone, so he sold one ticket to her, and they have been together for four years now. You know, when you don’t look at all, it just happens. You just have to be aware and have the ability to see it. 

MR: Last question: What’s the principal thing that you love about each other?

Derek: That is too personal.

Jan: I would agree, it’s too personal.

MR: I think that’s kind of sweet.

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