THE POWER OF YOUR PERSONAL STYLE
We chefs are not renowned for our fashion sense. At least, not traditionally speaking. But all that is changing. Recently, in an article published in the Financial Times fashion section, the author even went as far as to ask the question: “are chefs the new menswear influencers?” The question isn’t that outrageous when you consider that a lot of chefs are starting their own chef-wear lines, and for better or worse, many of their “lockdown looks” are inspiring people outside the culinary sphere to consider incorporating more practical, utilitarian wear into their day-to-day lifestyles. Whatever your style, I’ve learnt that what you put on your body has more power than I think we realise.
My personal style
It’s changed a lot over the years, but I would say that, generally, I’ve become more myself. One of those standout moments that definitely influenced my style was when I worked for ELLE magazine in a previous life. I soon worked my way into the fashion rooms, writing desks and catwalks of Paris Fashion week as a backstage photographer. You learn a lot behind the scenes, especially about what works for you (and what doesn’t). After finishing my studies as a Chef, I did a degree in photography where my final-year thesis was about layering. At this stage I was with Jackie Burger at ELLE, and still have a small notebook containing everything she, Chris Viljoen (then Fashion Editor) and Tamara Rothbart shared with me on the streets during Paris Fashion week while sipping rosé in the cafés of Paris.
Some of these notes, diligently jotted down in the pages of my old notebook included:
- To feel empowered by your clothes
- Clothes are a visual statement of one’s feelings.
- Layers behind conceal.
- Consider the fabric’s effect on you and and your skin.
- Grasping the beauty of concealing and revealing
- Tribal DNA, captured in messages and in patterns.
- We speak to be misunderstood.
- If you want to really understand someone, you would need to understand the negative spaces between words.
- I am an introvert, albeit a loud introvert.
- The inside always comes out.
Mostly, though, I learnt how important it is to put your own stamp on your personal style. One small addition to my accessories over recent years, for instance, is that I often wear a bracelet or cravat around my wrist. It’s not in response to any trend, really, but my grandfather used to wear a cloth around his wrist whenever he went fishing. It was a practical thing – he’d use it to wipe his hands – but it gave me a link to my personal heritage, which always reminds me where I came from.
Over the last few years, I’ve also grown more aware of my need to wear glasses. I got my first pair when I was about 14. I didn’t really need them back then, but I loved how they made me feel – and I definitely need them now! But because glasses frame your eyes, they make a big statement, and for that reason, it’s important to choose the right pair. I like a strong frame – something confident that doesn’t make any excuses. I’ve always been a great admirer of Tom Ford. His passion, not only for his work and personal style, really resonate with me, and I find his eyewear to strike just the right balance between bold and elegant.
How my style energises me
I’ve really got a thing for uniforms. Hahahaha! Seriously, though, what you wear is what you project about yourself to the world. It’s a way of letting others into your world – a way to show them what kind of person you are or how your mind works. Chefs have a reputation for not looking after themselves, and it’s a real problem. But it’s changing, and I feel very strongly that looking after yourself starts with the way you dress. I think it was the famous 19th-century chef, Marie-Antoine Carème, who said that a chef must always project an image of cleanliness – sterility even. I don’t know about that last bit, but I fully agree that when you set foot outside your door (inside it even), looking your best means that you pay yourself the respect you deserve. But when a chef enters the kitchen, nothing should give us greater pride than stepping into that crisp, white uniform, ready to make magic! And this, in my mind, should really go for anyone.
How to define your personal style
I can’t speak for everyone – our journeys are all different – but I think it’s important to give your look a lot of thought. If you look at Steve Jobs, for instance, he wasn’t a fashion icon by any means, but he had a very strong personal style – one that truly worked for him, and that didn’t take over his day. I’ve learnt a lot from the French. When a young man turns 18, his parents buy him a really expensive suit, and that suit stays with him until he starts his first job. Then, the onus is on him to buy his next good suit, and that tradition follows them throughout their lives. The point is you don’t need a huge, big wardrobe full of stuff. You just need to choose your clothes well, and make sure they really work for you. Other than that, I like a classic pair of frames, a good watch and, of course, an accesory to put around my wrist.
What I find sexy
I love seeing skin. I’m not talking about flaunting all your best assets – I’m not a spier-tier (someone who loves muscles). I find the mind irresistible. But where this translates into the physical is that I’ve grown to understand that dressing well says something about your intelligence, which is so sexy. Other than that, I think we all need that one piece of clothing we put on that just makes everyone want to touch us. 😉
You can see immediately when someone isn’t comfortable, especially at public events that call for something dressier. And the sad fact is, being uncomfortable breaks your confidence. But you know what, if it’s not quite right, you can also make it work. I’ll always remember what my good friend, Jackie Burger, told me: “If it’s too big, own it.” I don’t always interpret this literally. Rather, if a thing isn’t perfect, don’t draw attention to it, because letting something own you means that’s all that people will see. I don’t generally like wrinkled clothing, for instance (it’s a no-go in the chef world), but you know what, if it is wrinkled and there’s nothing you can do about it, make it super wrinkled. If you wear it with confidence, no one will bat an eye.
DRESSING FOR THE OCCASION
An invitation to dine with the French President
I clearly remember getting that invitation to the Elysée Palace a few years ago. I declined because Jacob Zuma was going to be there (a conversation for another time). But if I had gone, I would have gone the full black tie. For a high-profile event like that, you can never go wrong with a crisp white shirt, a pair of black designer undies and elegant, thin black socks under an impeccably tailored suit – with a great pair of black shoes. You want to look dashing, but don’t want to stand out. It’s not about you; a lot like a wedding, in that sense.
If I’m presenting an event, I want to be as comfortable as possible. And that doesn’t mean pyjamas. This is where what you do takes centre stage. I always opt for a chef’s jacket and have another freshly pressed one on standby. But even though it’s a uniform, the shape and fit is all important. Then, a good statement piece always gives you a wonderful boost of confidence, like a gorgeous leather apron embellished with gold lettering.
For me, this is the kitchen. In the last few months, we’ve been totally absorbed in our planning for KLEIN JAN(my new dining experience at Tswalu Kalahari). Throughout the process, the evolution of the chefs’ uniforms was a top priority. It’s the most respectable item of clothing a chef can wear. The shoes were also a big deal. But through all the planning, it was also vitally important to me that the clothes work for the person wearing them. Since they have become an important part of our lives for the foreseeable future, masks were also an important consideration. I don’t like masks that get too fussy or “unique”. A plain black mask that fits well is the best option, in my opinion, no matter what the occasion.
When I’m having one of those days
Sometime last year, when France went into lockdown for the second time, I posted a picture of myself on Instagram with the caption: “Dressed up to make Minestrone on a Sunday. I know, just say you understand please.” I was wearing a blue velvet jacket (one of my favourite pieces of clothing) and a white shirt. Whether or not I was wearing sleeping shorts didn’t matter. The point was, it lifted my spirits at a time when I really needed it.
In the end, life is about the journey, which means you’re allowed to change your mind – often! If your personal style changes in a few years, let it. Most of the time, the actual cooking brings you more pleasure than plating the dish.
JAN Leather Apron