The unbearable lightness of craft allied with modernism


As the round of Fashion Weeks approach (starting in New York on 12 February) some of the most eagerly anticipated shows will be those of new or newly appointed designers. One that I’m very curious to see is that of Hermes’s new womenswear designer, Nadege Vanhee-Cybalski, appointed in July 2014 after previous postings at Maison Martin Margiela, Celine and The Row.

That track record suggests a continuous thread of minimal, conceptual design but Hermes has quite a distinct corporate DNA, combining conceptual design with traditional artisanship and practicality. The company is part of a very Gallic culture that celebrates style and engineering excellence as matters of national pride but it has avoided becoming weighed down by it and it makes an interesting case study in combining artisanship with conceptual art and design.

  1.  Jealously guard tradition but wear it lightly. It was the creative freedom offered that Jean-Paul Gaulthier said had drawn him to join as designer in 2003. The website displays films and cartoons, making Hermes’ own icons the subject of jokes: I challenge you to watch the Observation of Orange Boxes films without a smile on your face. Shop window displays are designed by local artists displaying a confident relaxation of centralised corporate image control. Even the products themselves exude playfulness: Petit H is a highly inventive recycling of reject or leftover objects into unexpected new incarnations, showcasing the sheer inventiveness of its designers and artisans. The concept is celebrated in the book Metamorphoses by Sarah Moon, soon to be published in English.
  2.  Balance conceptual design with a high standard of engineering practicality. In a world of increasingly fast (and disposable) consumption, Hermes stands behind a commitment to care for its products throughout their lifecycle. You can only do this if you are confident that quality is paramount.
  3.  Support artisanal skills and sponsor artists to inspire design renewal in core products. The private museum at the 24 Faubourg Saint Honore HQ holds Hermes’s own historic products and other artefacts that continue to inspire designs. There is also the Fondation d’Entreprise that supports arts and artisanship all over the world. Residencies for young artists have enabled them to work with Hermes in-house artisans and production equipment to produce unique works for public display. In 2012, the Foundation funded a documentary about the work of Kunihiko Moriguchi, one of Japan’s Living National Treasures, and a practitioner of kimono painting (yuzen). In 2014 a new Skills Academy was established for artisans, engineers and designers, fusing transfer of artisanal skills with materials research and encouraging participants to push the boundaries of their disciplines and their creativity.

Conceptual design fused with light-hearted artisanship: they go together like a horse and carriage.  I shall be riveted to see the show after Paris Fashion Week begins on 3 March.

Fashion DIY 21st century style


Leafing through vintage fashion magazines, dress-making and knitting patterns are referenced as much as ready-to-wear. Even as late as the mid-1980s, Elle magazine published a monthly knitting pattern. I remember falling in love with one: a John Galliano design of fiendish complexity.  Its intertwining sections, intricate patterns and scalloped edging were the hardest thing my mother had ever knitted.  The huffing, puffing, sighing and other exclamations were worth it though. I still adore it and would never dream of parting with such a special, hand-crafted piece. I also know for a fact that there is no desire on the part of my manufacturer to re-supply that particular order.

Today knitting remains as popular as ever, especially with chunky, hand-knitted items a strong trend. DIY clothes-making, however, is on the verge of technological revolution as 3D printing (additive manufacturing) continues to evolve. Iris Van Herpen, a Dutch designer who worked with Alexander McQueen before starting her own label, has used the technique to produce pieces of haunting beauty that manage to look organic and space age simultaneously. Her SS2015 collection was inspired by a visit to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and is absolutely beautiful.

Other designers have been producing open-source programmes to enable anyone with access to a 3D printer to make their products. The problem so far is the materials – various kinds of synthetics that can make incredible shapes but provide no thermal insulation for the body.  As more designers experiment with the medium and as the costs of the technology fall over time, new techniques and materials will emerge and when they do, the fashion industry could be facing significant disruption. Small designers could produce unique or small production runs more cheaply. Customers could produce their own goods, perhaps with a more direct relationship with designers.  The technology itself will open up entirely new design possibilities.

One thing is certain: technology development and roll-out rarely proceeds without hitches or a backlash. There will always be a place for the hand-made artisan item and pressing the “print” button will never be as much fun as knitting your own sweater. But I think I know someone who might just vote for the printer.

Life in patchwork


Last week a fashion-insider friend introduced me to Hammersmith’s Vintage Fair. A monthly event, held at the Town Hall, it gathers a broad range of vintage dealers, some of them specialists in particular eras or designers. There was just about everything, from antique textiles to costume jewellery. The dealers were keen to impart their knowledge and enthusiasm for their stock and not just to make a sale. It was a busy, happy atmosphere with a mixture of shoppers from the serious vintage stalker to family groups.

The stall that absolutely stopped me in my tracks though was Fuji Kimono. The kimonos drew me in: a gorgeously tactile array of silks and a table of fabric patches, obis and other accessories. Then I noticed the second rail. Not silk but traditional working clothes in indigo cotton. Some of the items had been patched repeatedly and washed so many times that the cotton was almost silken. In scale, the garments were smaller than most western clothes but clearly sized to allow ease of movement and layering. Ties and fastenings appeared in slightly baffling places.  I could have spent all day there trying on different items because what was most fascinating was the feeling of transformation. I felt different wearing these clothes and I looked different too.

As working clothes, they would have been fairly mundane items but they had been cared for attentively and expertly. Patches toned with the garment, subtly changing it with every application, so that as it aged it changed its form, becoming increasingly asymmetric, unique and expressive of its owner.  The flamboyant beauty of the kimono silks had initially drawn my eye but the time-worn work wear was where a life was lived and expressed.


The whole experience reminded me of what makes markets and fashion so absorbing: the opportunity to find the unexpected, see things in a new way, try on a new identity, discover beauty in the unexpected.

Subverting subversion


How do you simultaneously subvert convention whilst acknowledging your debt to heritage and tradition? The stories and anecdotes about the emerging punk scene in 1970s New York in Chris Stein’s fantastic Negative – Me Blondie and the Advent of Punk are thick with the themes of subversion, disillusion and economic hardship.  It started me thinking about how you keep destruction (or deconstruction) creative and whether economic downturn is necessarily a route to artistic creativity.

Japanese fashion makes a fascinating case study of creativity, traditional values and macroeconomics. Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Comme des Garcons have built their design reputations on subversion of conventional values but at the same time repeatedly referenced their Japanese heritage. A silhouette may recall a kimono or hakama; materials may use traditional artisanship like indigo or shibori dyeing; or collections may embody traditional values like wabi-sabi (the desire to cherish objects as they age and return to their natural form). At the same time, their distinctive design aesthetics have deconstructed, challenged and rejected convention. In Yohji Yamamoto’s own words: “Ever since I began, over 35 years ago, I’ve been designing for people outside society”.

Though these houses were founded in the 1970s during the Japanese post-war boom that created corporate giants, they continued to blaze a trail for new designers throughout the economic stagnation that set in in the early 90s. They have encouraged subsequent generations of designers towards a design-led rather than commercially-led aesthetic. Kunihiko Morinaga of Anrealage, for example, has produced highly conceptual clothes in geometric shapes or in distorted proportions that nevertheless transform into beautiful and practical garments on the body.

As with many societies experiencing economic difficulties, street culture emerged that sought to subvert convention. Where 1970s London and New York had punk, Tokyo has seen an array of street cultures referencing manga or anime cartoons, theatrical and film costume or traditional concepts like Kawaii (or “cuteness”, at the root of the Lolita and Gothic Lolita trends). Interviewed in 2010, Naoto Hiruka of the Japanese street fashion label, H.Naoto said: “the key to our future success is to keep our eyes open for things that are marginal and idiosyncratic”.

This seems a million miles away from the European fashion industry. Though macroeconomic comparisons are increasingly made between Japan and the Eurozone, it is hard to find European designers reacting to economic downturn with a move towards a more challenging design aesthetic (though John Galliano’s debut for Maison Margiela may be a notable exception). What we seem to be seeing instead is a move towards nostalgia with looks drawn almost directly from the 1970s. In a difficult commercial environment this makes sense – people more readily buy things they immediately appreciate. But as design, however beautiful the clothes, they lack something precisely because they are so easy on the eye.

Back in the throes of the financial crisis it was common to hear economic commentators urging regulators not to waste a good crisis. Perhaps this should be as true for fashion.

The white heat of technology: knitting

London’s Fashion and Textile Museum is in the final days of its Knitwear: Chanel to Westwood exhibition (closing on 18 January) and I visited it wondering whether knitted garments could ever truly be considered cool or sexy. As I walked in the first thing that accosted me was one of Sibling’s pieces from AW 2013.


There were cobweb style jumpers from the 70s punk label, Seditionaries, started by Vivien Westwood and Malcolm MacLaren.


I was sorely tempted to liberate an early Comme des Garcons jumper, its distressed look intended to recall tangled fibres like a fisherman’s net.


Knitwear can definitely be cool and sexy. As I left the exhibition though, I was thinking about how technology has changed the nature of knitting and knitwear. This show begins with hand-knitted garments, displaying a (literally) homespun familiarity and comfort. From the 1960s, machine-knitting technology started to change the nature of design with densely-woven fabrics for sports gear or more complicated patterns or designs. By the 1990s, Julien Macdonald’s use of machine knitting and unusual materials was producing garments that bore only the loosest relationship to the traditional Fair Isle. 20150109_133848

So where do we go next? Personalisation seems to be the latest direction.  Sibling and some other contemporary labels are taking us back to a home-made look but in exaggerated proportions or silhouettes. At the other extreme, Knyttan is fusing ditigal and machine-knitting technologies to allow customers to design their own knit and have it created before their eyes. They currently have a pop-up shop in the New Wing at Somerset House. You walk in, choose or design your knit on an ipad and then watch the knitting machine go to work.   They don’t call it Factory of the future for nothing.

The art of showmanship


As Fashioning Winter draws to a close, I was pondering what has made it such an interesting and inspiring exhibition for me. Comparing it with other exhibitions I’ve loved, they have all placed fashion into a broader social, artistic, artisanal or historical context. We all get dressed in the morning but taking the time out to think about what we put on our backs, why we put it on and what it says about us is a worthwhile activity once in a while. The best fashion exhibitions cause us to do this whether we are fashion enthusiasts or not. Here are a few that really inspired me in the last few years.

Madame Gres, La Couture a l’Oeuvre, Musee Galliera/Musee Bourdelle, Paris, 2011. This one was the best I’ve ever been to. Musee Galliera, Paris’s fashion museum, was in enforced exile while their building was refurbished. Madame Gres had originally wanted to be a sculptor so what could be more natural than to hold the show in the house of a sculptor, now a museum itself? The dresses appeared alongside the paraphernalia of the sculptor – tools, stonework, workbenches – and this perfectly brought out both the sculptural nature of the dresses and their similarity in draping and pleating to ancient statuary. Walking around, it encouraged the viewer to connect the dresses with the workroom environment, their historic and artistic inspiration and the life and ambitions of the designer.


Balenciaga, Fashion Collector, Musee Galliera/Les Docks Cite de la Mode et du Design, Paris, 2012. Also during Galliera’s exile, this exhibition focused on Balenciaga’s collection of historic Spanish clothing, including eighteenth century coats and nineteenth century jet-encrusted mourning dresses, many including artisanal embroidery. Pieces from his personal collection were displayed alongside work from Balenciaga’s own archive and showed clearly the inspiration he derived from his collection for his couture of the 40s, 50s and 60s. It brought a whole new perspective to the work of one of the most innovative designers of the twentieth century, showing his roots in Spanish traditional and artisanal dress.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! Somerset House, London 2014 and Daphne Guinness, Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York 2011. By contrast these exhibitions showed the perspective of the fashion collector and the surroundings and people who helped to define their style. What was interesting here was to see a broad spectrum of the wardrobe of a person for whom fashion was an essential element of their personal expression. Of course there was couture but in many ways the most engaging aspect was seeing, close-up, that these pieces were love-worn, bearing the scars of use. It also gave an interesting insight into the motivation of the collectors – the artistic value of the clothes certainly but also the personal “performance” in displaying them and combining them with other pieces, using the original designer’s inspiration but bringing their own personality and artistic expression to bear. To a greater or lesser extent, and with varying success, we all do this.

Hermes Leather Forever, Burlington Gardens, London 2012. This show offered a glimpse of the atelier behind the most luxurious leather goods in the world and the hand-crafting and artisanship that create them. Scenes from the workrooms, raw leather samples and tools were set alongside a large collection from Hermes’s own archive of bags, shoes and other leather goods. The time, care, raw materials, training, and functionality of design together make the case for taking pride in making and using artisan-crafted items, knowing that as they bear the marks of wear and use they will only become more completely our own. I left thinking about where the things we buy come from and the responsibility the consumer shares with the creator.

So what next? I’m planning on checking out a few other exhibitions in coming months – first on the list is the Fashion and Textile Museum’s soon-to-close knitwear show, Chanel to Westwood.

Christmas Pearls: winter light


This picture, taken in the forest in Boxing Day, made me think of the descriptions of frost fairs in Virginia Woolf’s book, “Orlando”:

 “All the time they seemed to be skating on fathomless depths of air, so blue the ice had become; and so glassy smooth was it that they sped quicker and quicker to the city with the white gulls circling about them, and cutting in the air with their wings the very same sweeps that they cut on the ice with their skates.”

Frost fairs on the frozen river Thames enabled the city’s residents to skate or glide on ice before modern processes were invented to create ice rinks in the late nineteenth century. With the invention of processes to make and maintain indoor ice rinks, the popularity of skating grew in the 1920s and 30s. Fashioning Winter celebrates the glamour of city skating with a display of skates and pictures, curated by Beatrice Behlen, Senior Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts at the Museum of London.

In her 1928 novel, Orlando, dedicated to Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf added to the romance of skating when she set London’s frost fair as the backdrop for Orlando’s love affair with the Russian princess, Sasha, herself dressed in “velvet and pearls”.

Christmas Pearls: pearly kings and other things


The Victorians began to create jewellery using a variety of new materials, often deriving from their fascination with the science of the natural world. From jet used in mourning jewels to keepsakes made of human hair, almost any organic material was liable to be crafted into something. Out of this trend, mother-of-pearl began to be widely used for pearl buttons in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Nacre can be sourced from a range of molluscs and so mother-of-pearl was a much more accessible material than pearls themselves. In London, it became common practice for market traders to distinguish their seniority by sewing mother-of-pearl buttons on their clothes and this gave rise to the “Pearly King”. An East London phenomenon, Pearly Kings and Queens are charity collectors who draw attention to themselves by their flamboyantly decorated black suits.

With the Maison Martin Margiela mother-of-pearl encrusted jacket, the trend has come full circle as precious material was first made accessible to all; inspired creation and mutation and was finally re-evaluated and re-created as an object of artisanship.

Christmas Pearls: Encrustacean


Fashioning Winter’s White Perspectives display, curated by Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov contains a Maison Martin Margiela kimono-style jacket, entirely encrusted with mother-of-pearl buttons. Its an eye-catching and very beautiful piece and one would imagine that it would be extremely flattering to wear, reflecting and refracting light back onto its wearer.

It recalls Kunihiko Morinaga’s “Folded Jacket” and “Full Metal Jacket” from his 2007-08 Anrealage collections celebrating the obsessive nature of craftsmanship. The former is encrusted with 5,000 white buttons, the latter with no less than 15,000 gold-coloured buttons. Morinaga himself was inspired as a student by Maison Martin Margiela’s conceptual designs and by the motto, “God is in the details”.

One can’t help wondering just how many spare buttons these jackets might come with……

Christmas Pearls: beauty in the mishape


Baroque pearls, with their odd shapes and ridges, seem never to have achieved quite the cachet of round pearls. One person who fully appreciated their individuality and artistic potential was the jeweller, Fulco Verdura. His early life was spent in Sicily, absorbing baroque style in the architecture and art around him. Later he travelled to Venice and to Paris where he met Coco Chanel and formed a historic design partnership, creating the famous byzantine cuffs.

By the 1940s Verdura had moved to the US and built a highly original and successful business there. Some of his most celebrated pieces were pins or brooches, which had become very fashionable in the 40s as a way of lightening up otherwise sober suits.

Verdura began to design a series of pins based on single baroque pearls, embellishing them to create animal forms – a swan, a camel, an elephant, even a rhinoceros – whatever inspired his interest. His design process was simple: he put the pearl onto a sheet of paper and drew around it, adding different heads and tails, before setting stones about it. His designs recalled the grotesques popular during the Renaissance.

It has become a cliché to pair the words “flawless” or “perfect” with pearls, but sometimes it’s the misfit that packs a greater punch.