Architect John Pawson takes part in Fantastic Man’s Questionnaire series and tells us why a white shirt is more than just a wardrobe staple.
Fantastic Man: What type of garment is key to your personal style?
John Pawson: It’s very difficult to beat a white, white shirt.
How many examples of this garment do you have in your wardrobe?
I have very few things, probably a few white shirts along with a few pairs of chinos. I hang on to my shirts until they are literally ripping apart. I think it’s from my mother; she had this thing where she thought that men with threadbare shirts were somehow honest. She loved patches on jackets.
What is it specifically about white, white shirts that you love?
They are such beautiful things to slip into, like white linen sheets. Also I just love the colour white, I could be an evangelist for it. I daydream about beautiful alabaster, or sea salt, or white sands in the sun, or Moroccan plasterwork that’s slightly veiny like old porcelain. Obviously white isn’t technically a colour in itself but it’s so varied and it reflects colour. It picks up its surroundings: the green in the garden, for example. You can’t beat it.
Do you know where your attachment to this garment comes from? Is it something from your youth, or something you picked up from a specific person? When, who?
I remember when I was younger and spent time with the designer SHIRO KURAMATA in Japan, he would always have the most amazing starched white shirts. When you sent them to the cleaner there they would always get starched unless you asked them not to so they’d be absolutely rigid to get into. They felt like cardboard but looked amazing.
Is it hard to keep white, white shirts clean?
To keep shirts as fresh and as white as possible I wash them on their own, not even with white socks or T-shirts. But I have learnt to never bother about stains or things spilling on me. I was in Marrakech with my wife CATHERINE at a restaurant, they brought the tagine out and the waiter dropped the lid straight into it and it just went, ‘splooosh!’ Just like that, absolutely everywhere. Of course I was wearing white and it made this incredible pattern all over my shirt. Everyone there was looking at me and I didn’t react, they were all amazed that I kept wearing it but I quite liked the pattern. In general I feel it’s important not to care too much about material things. A man once came to interview me, he’d just had a long haul flight from India and he was in the most beautiful yellow-brown linen suit, he’d kept his MONTBLANC pen in his inside pocket during the flight and when he opened it to start making notes he discovered it had exploded. It had leaked completely through the inside of the jacket and also all over his white shirt – he couldn't carry on. He was completely done and just excused himself and left. I thought it was fine though!
“I wash them on their own, not even with white socks or T-shirts.”
Is there anything you can’t stand getting stains on?
Funnily enough one of the only places I really don’t like getting stains on is my pullover. They’re hard to see and they rarely look good; usually just like you’ve spilled a bit of messy food down yourself. Ties as well, you can’t have a stained tie. They’re so hard to dry clean. But really the key to stains is to not lose your head and not get upset. It’s the same with losing things.
Do you lose things often?
From time to time. We went away to Spain recently for a long weekend, there was a change of plan and I couldn’t go home to pack so CATHERINE very kindly packed for me but she forgot my shirts. I had this one white shirt that got washed every morning, because in Spain it could be washed and dried in an instant. I just felt free. Once British Airways lost my suitcase on the way to Tuscany and I didn’t get it back until just before I left. It was sort of fun. Actually, it felt really good. Luckily I was there for a holiday rather than a presentation for a client, that would have been a bore. I actually don’t check-in my presentation clothes any more just in case they get lost, I make sure I have them with me at all times.
Who or what do you look at for style inspiration? Do you look at fashion?
No, not really. CATHERINE buys most of my clothes for me. She tries to get me to wear blue shirts because they match my eyes but I obviously prefer white ones, then I tend to wear grey trousers in the winter and khaki in summer. Most of my things are from RALPH LAUREN. I should make more of an effort really. Shoes are a bit of an effort; they’re hard to get for someone else so I often get those for myself. I recently wore out my red trainers so I went and bought myself a new pair of bright white ones; these are called ‘Pure White’ by ASICS or something like that.
They’ve got some interesting stains on them.
I spilled red wine on them the first day I got them. It was my son BEN’s 27th birthday and I managed to get a big splash of red on them.
What are the green marks?
It’s some sort of plant. I was deep in the undergrowth in Spain, you see, and I managed to get lots of bits of plant stuck into them. Can you see the thorns too? I got most of them out but there are still a few in there. I’m going to hold onto these for a while though, despite the stains. It’s such a pain getting new ones.
What amazing tip for wardrobe management or maintenance can you share?
Use white clothing in moderation. The all-white suit is not a good look; you end up looking like a dentist, or a sailor, or a steward on an airplane.
Interview by Eliot Haworth, Assistant Editor, Fantastic Man