From basket weaving to pottery, the fast world of fashion is seeking something simpler. Lou Stoppard reports on the rise of all things handmade, both on and off the runway
Designers are loving handmade, artisanal pieces, with embroidery, appliqué and patchwork leading the way.
Earlier this year, while the rest of the fashion pack were in Paris for the catwalk shows and the corresponding glut of champagne, freebies and parties, esteemed US fashion journalist Deborah Needleman had given up her place on the front row to visit the John C Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. “Instead of being at some nice hotel, being driven to all the shows, I was in this shack for a week, making brooms,” she says.
Last November, Needleman quit her fast-paced role as editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, a job she took in 2012 after helming other fashion and lifestyle titles since 2005. On announcing her resignation, she confidently informed reporters: “I want to take a break and spend more time alone. Reading. Thinking. Gardening. Basket weaving. No shit.”
She wasn’t joking. She’s since been on a “craft mania” trip, as she calls it. First, it was basket weaving, then it was perfume making, then spinning wool. “These things had never appealed to me – I had no
interest in making stupid little craft things that were cute – but when I was leaving T, I got it into my head that I just wanted to weave wicker baskets. It came out of nowhere. ‘I’ve left my job to go weave baskets’ – it’s almost like the ultimate bullshit cliché,” she laughs. “It was about bringing myself back to my values and what interests me. With baskets, it was a tactile thing: growing the willow, cutting the willow. It was a way to connect with the seasons and the process of the whole year. You appreciate things more when you understand the process behind making them. And making things is the opposite of multi-tasking. I was used to a job where I always had lots of things going on at once.”
Others are also yearning for the simplicity that Needleman was seeking. Naomi Bikis, fashion features editor at UK magazine Tank, resigned from a full-time job to balance writing with ceramics, a passion she picked up in 2013 after joining an evening class at a community centre. She revels in having to spend weeks concentrating on one thing, and having a break from her phone. Model Lindsey Wixson is also good with her hands – she recently announced she was retiring from the catwalk to focus on “new endeavours with designing interiors, pottery, sculpting, carving and inventing for the future”. It all sounds a bit Eat
Pray Love, but really it’s about having the time and chance to learn precious skills that may die out rather than the opportunity for escapism.
Many people first get involved in fashion for the love of beautiful things. They’re spellbound by couture creations or the craftsmanship of designers such as Alexander Mcqueen and John Galliano. Often, a new hobby is about getting back to the roots of one’s interests; Needleman’s basket making began partly from a journalistic perspective, an intellectual investigation. “When everyone has a shorter attention span than ever before,” she says, “why is there a mania for simple, repetitive acts that lead to a tactile product? But then every time I go to do something like this, I love it.” She’s uncovered a new side to the fashion industry: “Craft people are interested in fashion, but from a different place to those of us in the depths of it. They’re interested in a way that a lot of us were in the beginning, but then it moved further away from us the more ‘in’ we got. It’s not the advertising, brand, marketing or show-cycle part of the industry.”
On the runways, designers are keen to shake off the veneer of the latter and associate with the former by also championing craft. A raw, vaguely cosy look has been dominating the recent shows. For AW16-17, Christopher Kane showed patched-together pieces complete with feathers, trims and streaming ribbons that looked joyfully stuck on. For AW17-18, Prada similarly showed fluffy, fuzzy cardigans that looked as though they were the handiwork of an eccentric grandma. All very chic, all very craft fair.
“Customers are tuned into designers whose clothing has a story behind it,” explains Natalie Kingham, buying director at Matches Fashion. “One of our bestselling designers from our all-year-round vacation studio, Kilometre Paris, appeals to this sensibility: [founder] Alexandra Senes works with artisans in Mexico, who hand-embroider antique shirts and smocks with scenes from locations, such as Brazil, and each shirt comes with a travel guide for its destination. We also stock Carrie Forbes, whose handcrafted shoes take up to a day to make and each pair is created using traditional Moroccan weaving techniques. Clients enjoy the sense of craftsmanship behind the garment they’re wearing.”
At Raf Simons’ much-anticipated debut for Calvin Klein 205W39NYC, there were prairie references topped off with quilt-like coats. Stuart Vevers’ AW17-18 show for Coach 1941 had a similar feel – full of outerwear that looked like vintage blankets and sweet floral appliqué. A folkloric thread ran through the Alexander Mcqueen and Valentino shows, too. Mcqueen showed lots of tapestry and embroidery, while Valentino had swinging bohemian dresses in earthy and rusty tones.
At the menswear shows, Rei Kawakubo of Comme Des Garçons collaborated with Mona Luison, a textile sculptor in Brest, France, who furnished jackets with strange, childish details. Other mega brands also sought to associate themselves with the artisan
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feel of smaller creatives: Fendi enlisted illustrator Sue Tilley (immortalised in 1995 by Lucian Freud in his painting “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”) to offer charming sketches of teacups, banana skins and bathroom taps for prints on T-shirts, bag charms and silk shirts. A few seasons back, the look was all shiny, logoed sportswear; now, it’s about customisation and DIY. Charles Jeffrey, the designer of the moment, showed jeans cut from paintings and knits customised with duct tape. Art School, the fashion collective led by Eden Loweth and Tom Barratt, pushes vintage-looking garments covered with glittery embellishments, all while using their runway as a safe space for the transgender community. Rottingdean Bazaar, the brainchild of James Theseus Buck and Luke Brooks, has positioned itself between the fashion and art worlds. It combines innovation and wit to create tracksuits furnished with polyurethane foam casts of seemingly random objects, such as matches and hammers.
You could call it a return to tactility after years of gloss and surface. The boom of social media and e-commerce gave rise to fast fashion, which was based on clothes that photograph well and are quick to purchase online. The brands that have been dominating the scene, from Vetements to Off-white, have been the ones offering visual immediacy – strong graphics, playful puns and punchy if vaguely facile political slogans – on simple, normal shapes. With people paying upwards of $1,000 for logoed hoodies, there was bound to be a backlash. “The internet is amazing, but it doesn’t make anyone happy. No-one is happy after spending two hours on Instagram – you’re only ever happy in the real world,” argues Needleman. “Look at the designers at the giant houses – they’re miserable. They’re not free. People were surprised I quit my job because of how we define success, but to me, success is being able to do what makes you happy and satisfies you.”
The thirst for something touched by hand is also about getting bang for your buck and investing in quality. For this reason, former fashion writer and brand consultant Fiona Mackay partnered up with her friend, designer Alexis Barrell, to start a craft-focused home textiles and clothing brand called Karu. “We wanted to create products that make you feel at home, wherever you are, whether that’s a blanket, a shirt or a dressing gown,” Mackay says. “They had to be made well enough to last, be unique in design and, most importantly, to have something less tangible: soul – the look and feel of something that was made by human hands, using crafts that have been passed down through generations.” In part, the project was a reaction to their experiences in fashion. “I was commissioned to design the textiles for a boutique hotel in South Africa, which took me to India where I was introduced to the incredible crafts and techniques of the artisans working there,” Barrell explains. “I’d become a bit disillusioned with the trend-based fashion industry, especially with all the waste involved, and I was interested in creating something more meaningful for customers and rewarding for makers.”
To Mackay, the interest shoppers are taking in handmade pieces is also down to the repositioning of sustainable fashion thanks to the activism of key initiatives, such as Fashion Revolution, a movement that encourages consumers to consider who made their clothes. “A few years ago, the idea of artisanal craftsmanship or sustainable fashion implied that the design or style came second,” she says. “Now, that’s just not the case, thanks to big names such as Stella Mccartney who have championed transparency of the supply chain, ethics and sustainability. There’s also a change in the attitude of consumers, driven by world events and access to information – for example, reports on climate change or disasters, such as Rana Plaza [in 2013, five garment factories collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,135 people].”
This all comes down to a search for something real and good. That sounds like an old-fashioned idea, but it fits with the mood of today. This has been the year of “staying woke”, aka being aware, engaged and outspoken. It’s the notion that is to blame for that
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terrible Kendall Jenner Pepsi advert, which attempted to coopt the post-trump enthusiasm for protest to sell drinks. Being woke has had a positive effect, too, boosting the popularity of outlets and makers who can offer the authenticity a modern shopper is looking for. There are woke Instagrammers who share behindthe-scenes shots, cutting through the veneer of the curated and crafted “perfect life” we’re so used to seeing online. Leading the charge are celebrity trailblazers Amy Schumer and the entire cast of Orange Is The New Black, who take a warts-and-all approach to social media. Credit also goes to Lena Dunham, who, on wrapping the final series of Girls, reflected: “I hope that Girls is gonna represent a moment in which it became okay for women to show the full range of their complexity. Being messy, or inappropriate, or sexual, or having dark urges, or acting like a fucking bitch, became alright and became something you were allowed to show on TV.”
Women who speak out are now finding a place in fashion, an industry known typically for presenting a shiny, cookie-cutter mould of femininity. Adwoa Aboah is the latest It-model, fronting campaigns while talking openly about her struggles with addiction and mental-health illness. Her close friend Slick Woods is also commandeering attention, modelling for Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs. These women are politicised and proud; they cut through the bullshit. And this isn’t a fad: the participation rate in the 2016 Australian federal election was 95 per cent, up from 92 per cent in 2013. It’s cool to be engaged. And as Needleman says: “It’s about an appreciation of what’s real.”