Styled by Design – textiles (and tractors) as fine art

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A tractor on a silk scarf is an unlikely mixture: the industrial expressed as luxury. And it’s a woman driving the tractor.  The scarf is on exhibition at Gray MCA’s latest fashion-inspired exhibition, Styled by Design and I couldn’t take my eyes off it.  I loved the irony, I loved the modernist design but I really loved the colours – a rich mixture of oranges and teals.  Although it was in a glass frame, I was longing to wind it around my neck.

Inspired to find out more about the designer, Olga Nikich, I tracked down her website and found more exquisite designs.  They take inspiration from the soviet industrial ideal but infused with nostalgia.  So we have typewriters deconstructed with keys popping out of their case; a sparkling bullet train roars right out of the scarf; twinkling stars in the Moscow sky recall military decorations.  The colours are also wonderful – bright and vibrant and set in striking combinations of purples and teals and oranges.  I wanted them all.  Then I found to my absolute surprise and dismay that this talented artist has no London shops carrying her work. Find her instead on her own website at http://www.olganikich.com

Once again Gray MCA has succeeded in putting together a thought-provoking exhibition that gives us the best of fashion inspiration, draws us out ahead of the curve and reminds us what it looks like when fashion and art collide to bring us the truly exceptional but functional object. Alongside designs from contemporary artists there are historic pieces by Picasso, Henry Moore, Calder and Cocteau.

Gray MCA’s Styled by Design exhibition runs until Saturday 7 October at Gallery 8, 8 Duke Street St James’ in London.  I highly recommend a view: it will transform your perspective on textile art.

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What do you do when you find an unfinished Alexander McQueen piece at a car boot sale?

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It was lying in a pile of garments on a school playing field, not the most promising location to find a runway piece, but then the item itself hardly looked the part. Made out of a giant houndstooth tweed, the neck to waist was a simple shell, darted into a very small waist.  Below the waist it was clearly unfinished, the tweed, lining and net under-layers trailing into rough edges.  It had a label inside and the fabric, lining and workmanship all suggested it was a genuine but abandoned piece.

There was no question of leaving it behind, even though I had no idea whether it would fit or even be wearable. Back at home, things became curiouser still as I now saw that it had been de-constructed. The lining had been sliced open horizontally at the waist, letting down what was clearly a peplum, and exposing the layers of net and tulle inside that would have given it volume and emphasised the tiny waist.

20171001_164222I let out a couple of waist darts and it fitted perfectly, so then it was a question of trying to re-construct the peplum. Luckily all the repair work was to the interior, sewing the bottom section back around the base of the zip and re-uniting the sliced apart sections of the lining.  The repair was not pretty – it looks like a giant scar running across the lining – but it was invisible from the outside making the top completely wearable.

The fabric identified it as part of the A/W 2009 Horn of Plenty collection, though it does not feature on any of the catwalk looks. Shown less than a year before his tragic suicide, in Horn of Plenty McQueen pushed silhouettes drawn from 1950s couture to grotesque extremes with clownish touches like oversized neck bows and exaggerated lipstick.  Hats resembled re-purposed lampshades, umbrellas and hub caps.  It was a comment on an economy crippled by excessive consumer debt and an environment blighted by landfill waste, all fuelled by runaway consumption and consumerism. No wonder McQueen called it a sackable offence – it was almost as if he was attacking the industry that had fostered his success.

20171001_164158Was it a failed runway sample? Was it part of the collection or a special order for a client that went wrong? Perhaps I’ll never know the story but the most exciting part of the whole thing was to work on a garment that had been created in the McQueen atelier for one of his last collections.  I saw the insides of the garment and the incredible workmanship and detail that went into it and somehow felt part of its creation.  In the context of that collection’s message about runaway consumerism and waste, I’d like to think that my rescue and salvage work was in the right spirit.

 

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One thing remains unfinished. The neck is a raw edge and looks as if it was intended to have some kind of collar attached – possibly another of those oversized bows or a cascade of ruffles.  But it feels wrong to do anything to it now.  I’ve repaired the damage and re-made the top.  I like the fact that, just like its obscure history, the top retains a little mystery as to its final design. With that and the scar tissue hidden inside, it really feels like a McQueen original.

The three-day fedora (almost)

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With a long, late summer bank holiday weekend on the horizon, it seemed like a good opportunity for a millinery project to get me in a more autumnal mood.  I had an ocelot-print felt hood and suddenly the time seemed right to turn it into something, but what? My eye has been attracted to high crown hats just lately so I started to think about a fedora-cloche hybrid with a steeply sloping, narrow brim.  I made a few sketches but decided to be guided by the felt itself.  Instead of blocking the hood like a cloche, I would drape and crease the felt and just see what folds it naturally took.

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The inside-out felt hood

Day 1: I started by stiffening the felt hood.  I made up a solution of 1 part PVA glue to 4 parts water and then added an equivalent amount of methylated spirits and whisked it up into the foulest cocktail you’ve ever seen.  Then, taking a short, stubby brush, I turned the hood inside out and started working the stiffener into the felt in circular movements, spiralling down from the crown.  Its really important to do this in a well-ventilated place – outdoors if possible – because you’ll be exposed to potent fumes for at least 20 minutes (depending on how many hoods you are working on). Once that was finished, I left the hood to dry and stiffen overnight.

 

 

Day 2: The next day I readied my block, covering it with clear plastic to protect the wood but avoid risk of colour transfer from the plastic to the hood. I held the hood over a boiling kettle to soften it enough to turn it back the right way around again.   Then, placing it on the block I was able to start gently moulding the felt.  It seemed to fall naturally enough into the dimpled crown shape of a fedora, and then moving downwards, I turned up the brim on one side and worked it around into a steep slope.  The hat was starting to take shape as a forties-style, draped and 20170827_134956slant-brimmed hat.  As I worked I tried it on every so often to check that the style worked for me, not only in a front-facing view but all the way around. It can be so easy to forget that the side profile of a hat can be even more striking than the front view. Having checked the sides, I decided that the brim needed better definition. Borrowing from cloche technique, I took some cord and cinched it around the circumference where I wanted the crown to meet the brim and where the sweatband would sit inside and the hat band outside.  I nailed it in place and then left the hat to harden into shape, sitting on the block.  This marker line would be a crucial guide for aligning the interior and exterior bands with the position of the hat on my head, especially important when working with an asymmetrical brim.

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 Sweatband pinned inside the hat

 

Day 3: I faced what I knew was going to be a tricky step.  As I suspected, the hat was a little too large.  This was because the high crown had lowered the position where the conical hood would sit on my forehead.  What to do?  True milliners please look away now: as it was not a dramatic mismatch, the unorthodox solution I devised was to sew in a sweatband that fitted my head snuggly and hope that I could make it align with the hat.  It was somewhat of a bodge job but it worked. Pinning the sweatband into place was difficult but once I started stab-stitching it in, things got easier.  I smoothed the band against the felt as I went and made sure I kept the band aligned with the marker line I had created.

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Hatband #1

The final stage was to add the exterior hat band.  I experimented with several different colours: mustard is always great with leopard, pale blue was interesting, oxblood was bold, emerald was opulent but limiting.  I settled on a pale primrose that seemed subtle enough to blend with the print but keep some contrast.  I cut the ribbon to the circumference of the hat with an additional 2.5cm overlap and ironed it into a curve before sewing it together.  Then I cut a second, 12cm piece of ribbon to wrap over the join and sewed that into place too.  By tradition, for ladies’ hats the ribbon join is positioned on the right.  I gave the hat a final check on my head before putting in a few tiny invisible stitches to hold the band in place.

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Hatband #2

 

 

Day 4: A day later, the primrose band just looked wrong. I replaced it with a new hat band in oxblood and now it looked right.

 

So where did inspiration come from? As I looked at the finished article, a remembered image started to re-surface and a quick rifle through some of my files uncovered it: a picture from Vogue Paris, perhaps 2 years old, featuring a leopard print coat with a stunning pastel blue Stephen Jones hat.  Subconsciously, I think this image was guiding me all the time, I just never realised it until the hat emerged.

Snap up some Louboutins and Dress for Success

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Fancy a pair of Louboutins?  Or a Lanvin vest dripping with flapper-style beading?  Or perhaps a butter-soft Chloe perfecto in lush olive suede is more your thing?  Then you need to know about Dress for Success and their pop-up shop in Covent Garden’s Neal Street.  It opened today and will be there dispensing gems like these to lucky clients until Saturday 19 August.  Miss it at your peril.
Even better, you can feel good about every purchase you make because Dress for Success is a charity doing wonderful work.  If you’re reading this blog then I don’t need to tell you about the power of clothes to make a person feel confident, strong and ready for challenges ahead.  But clothes can also be a source of anxiety.  We’ve all known the problem of having nothing to wear, despite a wardrobe bulging at the seams and rails buckling under the strain of too many hangers.  But for some women, the problem of having nothing to wear is real, especially when it comes to facing the crucial test of a job interview. Dress for Success has their backs because it not only clothes them but preps them for the interview, boosts their confidence and – once they’ve been offered the job – provides them with a capsule working wardrobe.
So if you’re in London drop into the shop and snap up some Louboutins.  Or even better, donate some clothing or volunteer your help.  As a volunteer for them myself I can’t remember a time when I had so much fun, met so many wonderful people and laughed so much. So beware: you may get much more out of this experience than those fabulous Louboutins.
#DFSlondon
35-37 Neal Street, Covent Garden, London; 11-7pm until Saturday 19 August.

The Cocooning Power of a Good Coat

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Rhapsody in Red, illustration by Gordon Conway (1894-1956) for Britannia and Eve magazine, December 1929, from the Fashion and Textile Museum London’s current Jazz Age exhibition

What does a good coat do for you? The coat in the Gordon Conway 1929 illustration above ticks most of the boxes: the wool fabric delivers warmth, weatherproofing and comfort; the lavish collar looks glamourous and wonderfully cocooning; the colour gives an instant shot of pzzazz to cheer up the dreariest winter day; and the silhouette is svelte and elegant. For an expensive purchase like a coat it is essential to know what suits your shape and your needs – long and voluminous can be great on the tall but overwhelming on the petite; the camel coat is a classic but there are thousands of colour variations that will flatter (or not) different skin tones; luxury fabrics can be delicious to wear but may not withstand the worst winter conditions. Choose wisely and you’ll have a friend for life: in my own case it’s an ancient single-breasted Burberry heavy tweed overcoat, so old even the tweed is wearing thin, but it still keeps me warm and dry and still attracts compliments. I won’t ditch it until it actually falls into shreds.

The development of the overcoat has been strongly influenced by military uniforms, so its no conincidence that around this time of fashion-at-the-frontyear the fashion magazines will be running their annual features showing military-style greatcoats against dramatic landscapes. We can all conjure the image of Napoleon on campaign in Russia, or more recent images from Grace Coddington’s stunning work for Vogue setting rugged tweeds against highland heathers. Masculine styles worn with a feminine touch are a perennial classic and most of the masculine styles referenced by designers today have evolved from nineteenth and early twentieth century military and sports tailoring. Most famously of all, Burberry and Aquascutum developed trenchcoats to protect soldiers fighting in the trenches in the First World War. The style evolved from the nineteenth century military greatcoat but with additional, practical details – shoulder straps to hold epaulettes and D-rings to attach maps.

 

Country sports also played their part, giving us the shooting jacket, a multi-pocketed, belted tweed; the redingote – a long fitted coat deriving from “riding coat”; the frock coat – a waisted and flared-skirted coat, deriving from the frock coat with tails used in dressage or without tails as used in show jumping and hunting; and the polo coat is a double-breasted over coat with a half belt at the back, popularised in Jazz Age America and since then by classic labels like Ralph Lauren. There were also variations on the basic styles: the Ulster coat has a short cape over the shoulders for extra rain protection (think Sherlock Holmes); the Chesterfield is a Victorian double breasted style that has become a modern classic of city-wear.

Thejazz-age-opera-coats twentieth century has seen much greater diversity of design in women’s coats. As fashion design emerged as an industry in its own right, coat design became more trend-led, designed to complement the entire outfit. So in the 1920s coats became low-waisted and bat-winged to sit comfortably over low-waisted dresses with fringing or draping.

In the 1930s Jean Patou introduced a more womanly, curvaceous line closer to the body. It is a silhouette that is already emerging in the 1929 Gordon Conway illustration at the top of this post and is highly reminiscent of the look adopted by Hollywood screen sirens.

 

wartime-utility-coatsThe 1940s brought rationing and Utility. In response to shortages, the government commissioned fashion designers to produce clothing designs for mass production that used fabric with maximum efficiency. People were encouraged to re-use and re-purpose existing clothing and so female coats became more fitted to the body, shorter and in some cases closely referencing masculine styles – especially when an absent husband’s wardrobe was available to be raided.

Was this where the fashion pendulum started to swing, as each succeeding trend reacts violently against its predecessor? Christian Dior’s 1947 ‘New Look’ turned the tables on 40s austerity with circle skirts and a tiny-waisted profile that brought back some longed-for glamour. So as the 1940s became the 1950s, coats had to accommodate this return to volume with swing styles, flaring out from a narrow shoulder.


It was only a matter of time before fashion reacted again and the 1960s brought minimalist, space-age designs. Balenciaga, star couturier of the 1950s led the way with rounded, cocoon-style coats and Paris picked up the baton as Paco Rabanne, Courreges and Yves Saint Laurent delivered neat coats in the high-waisted princess line. Think YSL’s iconic designs for Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, Givenchy’s beautiful orange coat for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Oleg Cassini’s neat ivory coloured coat for Jackie Kennedy to wear at her husband’s Presidential inauguration. These coats were the perfect complement to the pared down miniskirts and slim trousers of the decade.

The 1970s brought a certain nostalgia to coat design, from YSL’s 40s-style fox fur chubbies from the notorious 1971 collection to full length capes and great coats to balance bell-bottoms or maxi dresses that emerged in the middle of the decade. Perhaps in reaction to the ‘soft-focus’ style of the 70s, the 1980s came in with a harder edge and a sharp shoulder as designers like Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana worked on an inverted triangle profile

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Where do you go to escape the constant cycle of trend reversal? The 1990s brought us deconstruction and the rise of the avant garde Belgian designers* and the Japanese designers, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons. In Martin Marigela’s hands the classic camel coat was subverted, the collar attached inside out. The result is a piece that looks as if it should be familiar but unsettles the eye (see above).

Today? Globalisation has brought an “anything goes” attitude. So draw from the best of the past, work out what suits you but beware of adopting any look too literally. Find your style and personalise it, have fun and experiment.

 

*NOTE: The ‘Antwerp Six’ were Walter van Beirendonck; Anne Demeulemeester; Dries van Noten; Dirk van Saene; Dirk Bikkembergs; and Marina Yee. Though not strictly speaking one of the Antwerp Six, Martin Margiela had graduated from the same fashion school but, rather than show under his own name in London as the Six did, he instead moved to Paris to work for Jean Paul Gaultier.

A transatlantic embroiderer’s treat

 

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Woman’s ceremonial robe, Metropolitan Museum, New York

 

New York’s Metropolitan Museum and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum are each providing a feast for an embroiderer’s (tired) eyes.   London’s V&A is celebrating the Opus Anglicanum – perhaps one of the earliest examples of national branding of a commercial product in which the collective skill of England’s medieval embroidery industry was focused on the production of ecclesiastical vestments and chivalric devices.  It is truly a wonder, not only of art and artisanship but also that so many of these fragile pieces have survived through the centuries.  See it in London or online before it closes on 5 February 2017.

The New York Met offers us a complete contrast with the Secret Life of Textiles, a tiny gem of a display in a single room (gallery 599 until 20 February 2017) that shows us some of the earliest examples of the lavish embroidery, voided velvets and brocades that are currently gracing every fashion publication for the autumn-winter season.

We see an exquisite Chinese ceremonial robe (above, Quing dynasty, nineteenth century) in a bright blue silk, trimmed with cat fur as a cheaper alternative to sable, ermine mink or fox.   Despite economising on the fur, the silk is lavishly embroidered (see below).

Also from the Quing dynasty but an earlier eighteenth century piece is this badge of rank (below), executed in satin embroidered with silk, peacock feathers and gold thread.  It shows a bear as the insignia of military rank.  The elevation of the rank is underlined by the use of peacock feathers that also give the piece an iridescent glow, offsetting the gold embroidery perfectly.

 

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Chinese, Qing Dynasty badge of military rank, Metropolitan Museum New York

 

There is also European work on display, including a cut voided velvet in a lush midnight blue satin fabric.  This is just the kind of fabric that inspired the young Fortuny.  In fact, a contemporary, Henri de Regnier, described the scene:

‘Mother and daughter open a massive chest in the corner of the room….The first appears: a fine piece of dark blue velvet made in the fifteenth century, goffered with stylish arabesques.  The shade is strange, deep and pure, like the colour of night.’ (Peacock and Vine, A.S.Byatt (2016) p52-3)

 

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Voided velvet fragment from fifteenth century Italy, Metropolitan Museum New York

 

If you can, see both these wonderful exhibitions and marvel at these early examples of exquisite artisanship and technical skill.

Countess Greffulhe: muse to Proust

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New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology is currently showing items from the Countess Greffulhe’s incredible wardrobe, on loan from Paris’s Musee Galliera.  I went, wondering what relevance these nineteenth century gowns could have on twenty-first century fashion but I came away deeply inspired, and particularly by the power of the sleeve.

Much has been written about the Countess as the inspiration for Proust’s character, the Duchess of Guermantes in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu but in fact her wardrobe spans a wider period leading up to the Second World War.  During her life she not only commissioned gowns from the leading couturiers of Paris, she actively collaborated with designers like Worth, Fortuny and Poiret in the design process.  She particularly championed female designers during the 1930s – Jeanne Lanvin, Louiseboulanger and Nina Ricci and the FIT has some beautiful examples of these on show.

But back to the sleeve.  The Countess’s nineteenth century Worth gowns all drew dramatic impact from their leg-o-mutton sleeves – a long sleeve, tapering from a dramatically inflated shoulder down to a tight wrist (see below for a similar Worth gown).  Sleeves like this will flatter the waist and the neck, slenderising and drawing the eye.  Highly fashionable during the Belle Epoque around the turn of the twentieth century, they fell out of favour in the 1920s as fashion moved to more minimalist shapes.

 

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Richly embroidered velvet coat, later nineteenth century, Worth from the collection of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris 

The Countess clearly appreciated the leg-o-mutton sleeve and it features on almost all of the earlier gowns.  She even defied trends of the 1930s to use them in a show-stopper of a gown commissioned from Maggy Rouff and this one just stopped me in my tracks.

 

It was constructed in the simplest, unembellished black silk velvet, with a high neck, fitted bodice and a straight, full length skirt.  Its full dramatic impact came from the leg-o-mutton sleeves.  As a design it was timeless, in fact it recalled some of today’s designers, like Victor and Rolf and Oscar de la Renta, that have made similarly dramatic use of this type of sleeve.

Maggy Rouff (1876-1971) learnt her skills as a couturier working with her mother at the house of Drecoll.  She founded her own house in 1929 and quickly established a reputation for producing exquisite evening wear.  This was often cut on the bias, orientalist in influence and owed its dramatic power to cut and sculptural elements rather than embellishment.  Seeing the gown on display at FIT, it seems a tragedy that Rouff is not better known today.  Perhaps that is because her house did not survive long after her own retirement in 1948, closing in 1956.   Whatever the reason, it would be wonderful if one of the major fashion museums would devote a show to this designer who was clearly influential in her time as well as being one of the pioneering female designers of the early twentieth century.

The best exhibitions, of fashion or anything else, leave one mulling new ideas and thoughts for days after seeing them.  This one does just that and for me, it was not only a reminder of the dramatic potential of a sleeve, but also a clear demonstration of the value of knowing what suits you and defining your own look.

If you are in New York, see this show before it closes on 7 January 2017- as usual with M Saillard’s and Ms Steele’s exhibitions it is thought-provoking, inspiring and beautifully displayed.  And, M Saillard, Ms Steele, if you see this, please give us a Maggy Rouff show to remind us all of the dramatic flair of this overlooked female designer.