These designers believe that traditional craftsmanship is the future of fashion
Meet the new names and established brands who are opting for a much slower form of production
On the first Monday of May this year, the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York were groaning under the weight of beaded trains, feathered capes and human-sized tributes to a cat called Choupette. Among the gargantuan gowns that were created to pay tribute to the late Karl Lagerfeld was an otherworldly all-white ensemble, painstakingly hand-crafted by Róisín Pierce from her studio in Ireland. It was worn by Alexa Chung and, perhaps unbeknownst to many of the night’s spectators, it embodied a sentiment that is echoing throughout the collections of fashion’s most promising young designers. There is, among these new names, a shared approach which involves returning to traditional forms of craftsmanship and, therefore, a much slower form of production. Their collections suggest that to fashion our future, we must return to the past.
Chung’s outfit for the event was a look taken from Pierce’s third collection, ‘Two For Joy’ and consisted of a top and a skirt so intricately made that it’s almost impossible to describe the overall effect. Even Pierce’s technical description of how she created each piece is poetic by its very nature: "The look Alexa wore was crafted with our contemporary hand work developed in-house, patchwork cuts of satin crepe and delicate flower star organza embroidery are trapped, intricately layered, twisted, smocked and manipulated, creating intricate soft floral sculptures that pucker. Hand appliqué was used in an ethereal layering effect of delicate organic flowers and deadstock bows that float."
These techniques aren’t just about the end result, however; Pierce’s process is inherently political. Each collection is made exclusively in white, which Pierce says brings focus to the "redesign and advancement of older techniques". Whitework, for Pierce, is so much more than embroidery; she feels that her own practise of it is lending new respect to an "art form typically coded as female and [therefore] deemed lesser than. I see these crafts as being both oppressive and liberating to women – oppressive due to the political and religious regimes they were created under, and liberating due to their position as a tool for financial freedom during times of hardship. I’m interested in that delicate balance, and telling the stories of female resistance and endurance." By examining the Irish techniques used by her ancestors and employing these to create something entirely modern, Pierce shares an exploration of heritage with fellow designer, Ibrahima Gueye.
Gueye was born in Senegal, where he learned to sew by watching his mother. Now, based in Milan and working for Versace, he continues to use his own work to explore various aspects of his African heritage; specifically, he is starting to rewrite the stories told by traditional clothing. His main focus is on the Béthio, a kind of woven loincloth worn by women as a tool of seduction within marriage. Gueye has reinterpreted it in the form of striking, fringed dresses which are expertly cut on the body – they seem to reveal and conceal the form all at once.
"The art of seduction is one of the oldest weapons women have in their possession in most patriarchal societies, so it became obvious for me to use this traditional archetype to build the story of this collection," he says. The story is based on the annual Simb ceremony, during which men, dressed as lions (and often lionesses), take to the streets for a symbolic carnival of dance that is infused with mysticism. It’s something which has captivated Gueye’s imagination, particularly due to its representations of gender and masculinity in a country which criminalises homosexuality and trans identity.
"In the majority of African countries gender defines sexuality. I wanted to open the discussion, with a subtle provocation to interrogate and defend plurality. It has always been there, but yet still today it is demonised, so… I’ve decided to use traditional archetypes and techniques but presented from a different point of view." He has already created pieces for Lori Harvey and Candice Swanepoel and, just like Pierce, uses upcycled materials to minimise waste as much as possible.
While upcycling is now standard practice for many designers, that doesn’t mean it can’t still make a statement. Xylk Lorena, known simply as Xylk, is the brains behind Grocery Bags, a phenomenon which, in part, involved him using Filipino grocery totes as his canvas on which to print large, vivid images of famous luxury bags like Hermès Birkins and Louis Vuitton’s Keepall Bandoulière duffels. With a heady mix of creativity, humour and – to put it bluntly – balls, Xylk’s £34 shoppers soon went viral and sold out many times over. For him, just as for Pierce and Gueye, the very act of producing his designs was imbued with a sense of defiance.
"The grocery bags are made from recycled polypropylene which is made into strips of new plastic and then woven into a sheet we then print on. Once the design is printed on to the new material, we cut and sew the bags by hand. Good design solves everything so I think that innovation [can] blur the lines of accessibility and open doors for who can do what. In my case, through humour, now everyone can have a £100,000 bag."
His attempt at democratising fashion, however, was threatened in February of this year, when he discovered that both his Instagram and Shopify pages had been taken down without explanation. "I see it like a bad foul call by the referee during a basketball game," Xylk says. Ultimately, I know what I got myself into and understand the consequences that come with it." With his online shop back up and running, he’s also focused on other projects like LiFE DESiGN, which he describes as "the first luxury streetwear brand coming out of the Philippines".
It’s not just a new generation spearheading craft, however, There are, of course, many heritage brands which have been employing traditional manufacturing techniques for years. Johnstons of Elgin, for example, is one of the last remaining vertical mills in the UK, where for over 225 years it has made some of the finest cashmere and merino wool products. The fibre is sourced from Mongolia and China but every step of the production process is carried out at the mill and is, as a result, much slower than some of its peers. This is, of course, inherently more sustainable as a general approach.
"It’s possible to convert cashmere to a scarf in a few weeks if it made uninterrupted progress through the mill, but in practice the process of crafting is so complex that is very unusual," says Chris Gaffney, Johnstons’ chief executive. Recently, the brand was awarded B Corp Status, which requires business transparency emphasising environmental and social factors. As well as sustainable manufacturing, Johnstons benefits its local community, employing over 1,200 people at its mills in Elgin and Hawick in Scotland, ultimately providing economic and social benefits in a rural setting which may not otherwise be available.
Similarly, Maison Michel is a milliner established in 1936 and belongs to Chanel’s Métiers d’art collective, which celebrates the skill and artistry of embroiderers, feather workers, flower makers, goldsmiths, pleaters, shoemakers and milliners, to name a few.
"Every step of the way traditional manufacturing techniques and craftsmanship are involved, without that, an idea stays an idea, up in the air and not grounded," says Priscilla Royer, artistic director. "I usually come up with an intention for the hats by hand-feeling, whether this season I want them hard or very supple and we take it from there."
She worked closely with Pierce in 2019 when the young designer was chosen as one of 10 finalists in the running for Chanel’s inaugural Prix de Metiérs d’art. The prize involves ten designers being matched with an atelier to produce a small collection and it was Pierce’s gravity-defying hats crafted from pure white lace that scooped the €20,000 prize. "She came with very strong ideas without knowing it could be done or even how. I simply guided her through the process," says Foyer. As for Johnstons, it has just collaborated with a young designer called Sabina Savage on a collection of cashmere stoles.
By nurturing this young talent, Johnstons of Elgin and Maison Michel are helping to preserve the centuries-old craft techniques which are at the heart of their businesses. It’s an approach under threat from fast fashion brands and the level of mass manufacture which has become so ingrained in society. But in the same way, there’s also a new generation of celebrities choosing to wear pieces from nascent brands and emerging designers that are made-to-order, as opposed to turning to a major fashion house. There’s Dreaming Eli, founded by Elisa Trombatore, who hand-makes all of her pieces, some of which have been worn by Rita Ora and Munroe Bergdorf.
"Going back to craftsmanship means restoring the fundamental connection between fashion and art," Trombatore says. "By having a handmade production, we are giving back value to the irreproducibility gesture of creating in a society where everything can be reproduced."
Ellie Misner, another London-based designer, is also using the made-to-order model. She began upcycling old corsets during the pandemic and is now creating clothes which are inherently more inclusive. "I’ve always been so in love with the idea of a garment being made to fit perfectly around a body instead of the other way round," she says. "I make couture for everybody, it’s not just for skinny bodies anymore (and it shouldn’t be)." She recently dressed Dove Cameron for the Barbie premiere and counts Paloma Elsesser, Ellie Goulding and Paloma Faith among her other famous fans.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of such exposure for these brands, something which Ivy Kirk, a New York-based designer discovered firsthand when one of her blouses was selected for an episode of And Just Like That, worn by the character of Charlotte. Kirk is mainly inspired by needlework techniques of the 19th century and she makes most of her pieces from deadstock materials. Everything is made by hand at a small workroom in New York City and Kirk says she sees her clothes as "future heirlooms". The costume designers of AJLT asked her to make a blouse based on one of her dresses but she was unaware that it had actually been used in the show until she saw it on screen.
"I was so excited to see it had made the cut," Kirk says. "This kind of exposure is incredibly important. As a small brand, it can be a struggle to get exposure that reaches such a broad audience. We have had a major increase in interest but unfortunately, because the fabric is deadstock, we’re very limited in the number of pieces we can make. Though, for that reason it’s even more special"
Can this made-to-order model really present a legitimate alternative to the relentless fashion machine? Social media has definitely played a part in convincing us that the answer could be yes. Over the past few years, it has come to be a space in which mostly female-founded brands can establish and promote themselves. Brands like Olivia Rose The Label, founded in 2017 by Olivia Rose Havelock, who started making pieces in her bedroom. Now, she counts Selfridges as a stockist, has a studio in Edinburgh – but still makes each item by hand. MaisonCléo, the French label run by Marie Dewet, only uses leftover fabric from French couture houses and factories. It has been worn regularly by Emily Ratajkowski and has, therefore, become something of an Instagram hit. The label only creates limited runs of each piece but also works on exclusive drops with some of fashion’s most influential retailers, including Net-à-Porter, Selfridges, Le Printemps and Opening Ceremony.
What these designers all have in common is that their clothes are inherently political. Whether it’s Pierce reclaiming "women’s work", Ibrahima’s exploration of gender and sexuality or Xylk’s rejection of a system he perceives to be elitist and exclusionary, the use of slower, more traditional forms of craft and production are allowing them to explore these ideas and create something entirely new, without the devastating environmental impact that usually accompanies this process. More importantly, whether it’s demi-couture or the more contemporary designs of Olivia Rose The Label, there’s a spirit to these clothes, a soulfulness that’s restoring the idea of value. As Trombatore says: "To have true change, we need a revolution in the way that fashion is made and perceived. Having clothes that can easily be reproduced destroys all the value of that piece – why would I care that much about a dress if I know that I can always buy another one exactly the same?" Pierce agrees, suggesting that "this attitude of disposable fashion is really scary. However I also think people can sense authenticity. In my experience, clients don’t mind waiting eight weeks to get a bespoke piece made. Not everything needs to be so quick and instant. Where is the joy in that?"
Perhaps joy is the answer; we must rediscover the joy of clothes but not as a disposable commodity. But Pierce – and her fellow crafters – are determined to restore the joy, taking us back to a time when cloth was precious. A time when clothes were something to be lived in, loved and, crucially, kept.
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