Designs for All
Vogue Knitting, Holiday 2017
By Christina Behnke
Kansas native JAMES COX grew up in a family of makers, learning needlecrafts as a child, but didn’t take up knitting as a hobby until he was in his twenties. Armed with an arsenal of skills, a how-to book from Woolworth’s and plenty of creative verve, the advertising creative director tackled his first project: a custom Fair Isle cardigan.
Nearly 40 years later, having designed “a closet full” of sweaters, he decided to leave his jet-set career behind to launch the James Cox Knits label of high-fashion knitting kits. Now two years later, he has teamed up with Skacel Collection for the yarn-shop-exclusive James Cox Collection.
How did you go from designing for yourself to selling kits and patterns full-time?
People who saw my sweaters—because I wore them all the time—encouraged me to sell my designs, but I wasn’t interested in entering the world of fashion manufacturing. Then about five years ago I walked into a beautiful designer men’s-wear boutique in Paris. The owner asked me who designed my sweater, and I told him I designed and made it myself. He gave me his card and said, “When you have your line ready, I want you to call me.” I still have his card in my wallet. So, I walked out of there thinking, You know, maybe I’m a fashion designer. At the time, my partner and I were in the process of moving our home to the Caribbean. So, I thought I could develop a fashion line that I could sell on the Internet. With my background in marketing and advertising, I’ve developed a lot of brands. So, I put it together, and built a website, and organized all the public relations, and I launched my line two years ago.
What was the process like as you developed your initial line?
I went into my closet and pulled out a few pieces that I thought would be appropriate and started putting the website together. The web developer I worked with is exceptionally talented; he has been a creative director for major agencies in the digital world. And the photographer I use—ironically, his name is Jim Cox. He was a model for twenty tears, then became a stylist and eventually a photographer. He and I spent, on and off, about nine months on photography. Then I brought in one of my greatest friends from the world of marketing, Mary Gendron. She and I worked out the public relations strategy. That look us about a year before we launched. I think it was a really good investment, because we were picked up within a week by Apparel News—we got a front-page feature and a full page in the publication. And that led to an invitation to be in the gift bag for the Oscars. The actor B.D. Wong has volunteered to be a model, and so we’ve been doing photography with him. We’ve gotten a very nice response and it has been exciting.
What was it like choosing yarns and approaching yarn companies?
That was very interesting and fun. I have a niece who is a knitwear designer, and she’s worked for major brands: Guess, BCBG. She and I collaborate, in terms of choosing the perfect fit for fiber and design concept. I would share with her what I wanted to do, and she’d say, “Instead of cashmere, I’d look at alpaca.” Then she made introductions to lots of companies, and that’s how I learned about distributors and manufacturers. What I was looking for was a really high level of quality in term of manufacturing, as well as stability and continuity in the yarn line. And, of course, I was interested in companies I would actually like to deal with, which is why I’ve been so successful with Skacel. They’re just a fantastic company, privately owned; their corporate culture is like one big family.
How would you describe your style?
I wanted to put together classically inspired concepts with contemporary expression: How would you produce it and make it relevant today? One of the garments in the James Cox Collection for Skacel is a bomber jacket similar to the one shown here. Another is a polo shirt. And a Henley. So, I’m taking on classic garments that have stood the test of time. One of the garments in my collection is a white shirt. Actually it’s a sweater, but the construction is similar to that of a classic white shirt.
Your patterns feature something unique: a row checker that lists the stitch count for every row. How did that come about?
My niece and I wanted to be sure that our patterns were carefully crafted and thoughtfully written. At the same time, we wanted to be sure that they would fit into a project bag, would stand up to being handled, and would be a bit precious. So, we conceived this idea of a row checker because we know what happens when a knitter thinks he or she will come back to a project in a few days, but it ends up being a few months. The row checker is a simple document in the way its presented, but it’s complex in the way it’s crafted, because mathematically it must be very precise and tied to the specific size. There are little check blocks for every single row listing stitch count on every row and all the shaping or anything else that’s distinctive and unique. It’s all identified, so nothing ever gets lost. Those are included in every pattern I’m doing with Skacel.
How did you begin your partnership with Skacel?
Over the past year or so, a lot of yarn companies contacted me and asked me to design for them, but I decided I would like to collaborate with Skacel on the James Cox Collection. For this particular collection, the patterns will be sold only through Skacel and at local yarn shops that carry Skacel yarns and patterns. They will not be available through my website or anywhere else. One unique thing I’m doing with Skacel is not only giving stores the patterns but marketing support as well, so they have all they need to create email blasts, social media content, guidelines for knitting classes…I’ll be putting together another collection for Trendsetter Yarns, and three or four other companies are also interested. So, the James Cox Knits Collection will grow, but segments of the collection will be exclusive to a single source.
Though you initially conceived your designs for men, they’ve become popular with women as well. What is the key to creating a truly unisex design?
The first pattern I sold was to a woman. When she finished it, she sent me a photograph of her wearing it. I realized that women, like men, relate to my designs because they’re timeless and universal. I can’t walk down Rodeo Drive or Park Avenue without dropping in all the boutiques to see what’s going on, and it’s obvious to me that his gender-neutral phenomenon is here to stay. I tell myself, If I create an idea properly, it can be interpreted for different people; they can pick a different color, or they can tailor it a little bit differently. And it’s proven to be true. It’s been terrific.
You’ve said that you prefer to sell ideas rather than off-the-rack clothing items. Why is that important to you?
When I began to consider my career, I wasn’t sure where to go. I’m from a small town in Kansas, and as a young man who liked art, I didn’t really have a lot of exposure to the creative channels that are out there. I finally discovered graphic design, which led to the world of communications. Ultimately, I ended up in the advertising world. Advertising introduced me to all the other creative work out there: It’s the product of a visual person—art director—and a verbal person, a copywriter. The people who do the strategic planning and thinking will decide: this is what we’re trying to accomplish with the particular communication for this particular company or product. So, that was what I learned in my career. And along the way, I discovered the satisfaction of collaborating with other people instead of working in isolation. I have always enjoyed that.
What I’ve observed about knitting is that knitters like to talk to other knitters and share their enthusiasm as a designer. I thought, rather than manufacturing garments, why don’t I design knitwear? As a designer, I’m actually selling an idea for something—that’s my contribution—but the knitter is actually going to make this thing happen. What personalizes the design is how the knitter chooses to execute it. On my website I’m going to add new content related to the Skacel collection that will include instructions for how to customize tailored patterns. So, the person who makes it will not only say “I created this,” but will also be involved in the creative process. He or she takes greater ownership, and it becomes “ours” rather than “mine” or “theirs.”
Photography by Jack Deutsch, Grooming by Nick David