A stitch in time

The hectic pace of fashion is being slowed down by a hands-on revolution. Tank meets the designers putting craft at the cutting edge

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Above, Ellery wears a top and shorts by Faustine Steinmetz. 

Weaving dreams: Faustine Steinmetz, Martina Spetlova, Phoebe English and Joe Richards
by Tamsin Blanchard

I find myself in the extraordinary studio of Faustine Steinmetz, attempting to learn how to weave. Steinmetz’s small team of weavers – many of them textile students here to hone their skills – is busy. A group sits round a table working on hand looms, their shuttles flying back and forth through the precise cobweb of threads that will come together to form a length of perfectly imperfect cloth. And there are two more looms here, floor-standing monsters with the size and presence of church organs. 

Michael Hawkins, Steinmetz’s partner, who left his own graphic-design business to work on her brand, attempts to give me a masterclass in the art of warp and weft. The rich, slubby fabric will be made into a polo dress, with the threads distorting around the middle to make it look a little Dalí-esque, as though it is melting into itself. It is doubtless time-consuming,painstaking work, but it looks relatively easy to do. So I take the shuttle and press the foot lever to make the threads separate on the loom and attempt to throw it from one side to the other, deftly skimming through. I was wrong: it is not easy. But it is hypnotic and satisfying when it works, watching the threads interlocking in perfect harmony. 

There is something elemental about creating a thing from scratch, whether it is a piece of perfect smocking, embroidery, handwoven cloth, some even stitches of knitting or a line of crochet. Like the crazy stitching on a jumper at Christopher Kane that’s used to suggest outsider art; a smocked sleeve and rows of rickrack that replace the designer’s usual flat digital print at Peter Pilotto; a loosely woven panel of net at Phoebe English; or a multicoloured dress made of a leather and ribbon weave from the designer Martina Spetlova, handmade by refugee women from around the world at Wereldwijven, a Dutch community project. 

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Left, Ellery wears a dress and trousers by Joe Richards and shoes by Nike. Right, Filip wears a jacket and shirt by Phoebe English.

Crafting is a compulsion. Perhaps its upsurge in popularity over the last decade is in direct correlation to the amount of time we spend staring at a screen, tapping at a keyboard, lost in a two-dimensional world. But to create great craftwork, you have to be consumed by the desire to make, all the time, whatever it is you’re making – to wrap that yarn around that crochet hook, to thread that needle in and out, to throw that damned shuttle. Over and over and over again. For anyone compelled to make intricate, time-consuming, beautiful textiles with minimal automation, the act of making is meditative.

For Steinmetz, the desire to weave came from a desire to make clothing that didn’t feel like anything she could pick up on the high street. “I started buying designer clothing and while it was very naive of me, I was expecting more haute couture-like fabrics made from scratch,” she says. “I was imagining a huge difference and, you know, there is a big difference in the cut but not always that much in the fabrics. Even if you weave something quite simple, it is so deep, there’s so much texture, and I realised all clothes are so flat. They are not really a nice, quality piece of clothing.”

So she bought a small handloom from a wool shop and taught herself to weave by watching videos on YouTube. She then spent three years honing her design skills at Central Saint Martins before founding her label, for which she weaves cloth from scratch. It is kind of a crazy idea and makes little commercial sense, except that she is making something that is unlike anything else. She says she fell in love with the idea of handwoven cloth when she spent weeks (and weeks) replicating an Adidas tracksuit entirely from scratch. “I loved the irony of that,” she says. “It was really the starting point.”

Depth and texture: hat, it seems, is what craft can bring to a garment. If you can see the slight imperfection of the hand, something no machine can achieve, it gives an emotional charge to a piece of clothing, a sense of personality, of character. And in a time when fashion has sped up into a frenzy of mindless manufacture for unthinking, compulsive consumers, the sense of another person’s toil – a stitch made for the sheer satisfaction of it – is worth so much more than a fancy label or a slick bit of marketing.

And while fashion goes through turbulent times, while the majority of people have little spare money to splash around on expensive clothes and accessories, the way to consumers’ wallets is increasingly through their hearts. It is something Katie Jones understands. Her work is all about time, the innate enjoyment she experiences when making something and the idea that the finished product will be cherished by the owner. She and her small team of makers (which includes her mother) may take 80 hours to create a single patchworked, crocheted denim jacket.

For Jones, also a Central Saint Martins graduate, crocheting is her form of creative expression. She crochets candy-coloured wools and links the results together with panels of denim. She adds lace doilies for sleeves, frills just because she can, and finishes her garments with beading, fringing, ribbons and pompoms. It works because she has a brilliant eye for texture, a delicate touch and takes real pleasure in colour. Her collection for spring/summer 2016 is called Kickback, Scootchie and the Sundance Kid and is full of clothes that could not have been made in any way other than by hand. 

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Left, Ellery wears a top, brace and skirt by Phoebe EnglishRight, Ellery wears a top and skirt by Martina Spetlova and shoes by Nike 

It is not just Jones who finds pleasure in crochet. The social knitting network Wool and the Gang – a company that sells kits to knit and crochet yourself, as well as employing home workers to knit garments and accessories that are sold from the website – has a community of over 110,000 on Facebook, subscribers who love nothing better than a night in spent crocheting. The success of Wool and the Gang (the company raised over £1m in crowdfunding in October, financed mainly by its own loyal community) proves that the appetite for craft is here to stay. WATG sells its kits globally. They are particularly popular in South Korea, where keen advanced crocheters customise their knits, embellish them in new ways and revel in the deliciousness of their own creativity. 

This fundamental need to make stuff with our hands and our hearts is nothing new. William Morris, the radical social activist and Arts and Crafts Movement advocate, proved inspirational to the Bath-based designer Joe Richards. For his spring/summer 2016 collection, Richards spent hours in the Morris & Co. archives, rediscovering the amazing details, colours and finishes of the designer’s wallpapers.

What struck him most was the Japanese influence seen in a quiet minimalism – white on white – that he had not previously associated with Morris. Richards loved the tactile quality of the woodblocks, the way the printing was slightly imperfect and at times inconsistent, depending on how many times the blocks had been used. It was this feel that Richards wanted to replicate in his collection of pure, clean shapes based on handprinted patterns from the Morris archives. Get up close to his pieces and you will appreciate the tactile quality of the prints, which are perhaps most successful in his bold reproductions of enlarged passages from the Kelmscott Chaucer. The way Richards uses the text makes it look raw, almost punk.

If Morris were alive today, Richards muses, he would have been an art director or a filmmaker, a visionary of his time. Craft reassures us in an otherwise sterile digital landscape. Morris would certainly have approved of the extraordinary art and craft that is weaving its way through the studios of some of our most interesting designers, elevating mere clothing into something altogether more meaningful. §  

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Ellery wears a top by Koché 

Koché, bridging the high and the popular
by Bethan Holt

“I want my clothes to be special, but not difficult,” says the designer and Koché founder Christelle Kocher. So her debut spring/summer 2016 collection comprised 38 looks that blended her love of streetwear with the intricate craftsmanship she brings to her role as creative director at the Chanel artisanal subsidiary Maison Lemarié, home to painstaking couture-standard feather and floral work. The show’s final exit was an intricately worked bodice constructed from shreds of fuchsia, black and cream chiffon that floated away at the waist into a freewheeling flutter, with a sweep of intense sequin and bead embroidery at the shoulder. Styled with louche, wide-leg black trousers and clomping platforms, the look was the embodiment of Kocher’s ambition to show “extraordinary couture and nylon jogging pants in one collection”.

The fact that Kocher chose the bustling (and currently only half-built) Les Halles shopping centre, in the heart of Paris, as the location for her show is indicative of her plans to shake up what it means to be a luxury brand now. “Les Halles is where everyday people’s paths cross – they’re shopping or going to the cinema – and it is also where you get the train out to the suburbs,” Kocher explains. “The last thing I wanted to do was something private.”

The seeds for Koché were sown when Kocher was growing up on the outskirts of Paris, where Nike, Adidas and Ellesse were the de rigueur teenage wardrobe. But Kocher also remembers an early love for the world of high fashion. “I would sit in the kitchen with my mum looking at this incredible couture by Lacroix and Lagerfeld,” Kocher recalls. “I said, ‘That’s what I want to do!’” 

She studied at London’s Central Saint Martins, followed by stints at Chloé, Bottega Veneta and Dries Van Noten, before she landed the role at Maison Lemarié six years ago. Kocher sounds relaxed about her schedule: she “goes with the rhythm”, but tends to spend the mornings at Chanel, catching up with the atelier, before returning to Koché in the afternoon. 

“I’m 36 now, which is a good moment to know what you want and be confident in your vision,” Kocher explains. “It is also important that I can be independent and self-financing. I’ve been in fashion for years and always wanted to create this bridge between high and popular. Now’s the time.” § 

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Ellery wears a top, skirt and shoes by Giada. 

Gabriele Colangelo at Giada, unconventional minimalism
by Prudence Wade

“Sometimes people think minimalism is something simple,” says Gabriele Colangelo. For the Italian designer, however, it is more an opportunity to “express the idea of elegance in a way that is very pure, very precise and absolutely sharp”.

Colangelo’s father, a furrier, founded the luxury label Colangelo Milano in 1971, but Colangelo studied Latin and Greek before being lured into the fashion business. In 1988, while still at university, he won a scholarship in a competition organised by Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, which runs Milan Fashion Week, beginning his return to the family industry. “I felt that it was an opportunity to follow my natural artistic inclination,” he explains. He still classes himself as self-taught, however, but his family background and positions at Versace and Roberto Cavalli have given him a comprehensive grounding in the industry.

In 2008, Colangelo founded his eponymously named womenswear label. Milan is a notoriously difficult environment for young designers, but Colangelo proved the exception. In 2014 he was nominated as the sole Italian finalist for the LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize. 

But apparently one label wasn’t enough, so last February he took the helm of Giada, a Milanese brand founded by Rosanna Daolio. The two brands have distinct lives: Gabriele Colangelo, which is more popular in Europe, is a “niche brand which stems from avant-garde experimental research” and focuses on “an idea of timeless beauty,” he says. Giada’s pared-back aesthetic, on the other hand, is more successful in Asia. Process and technique are key for both brands. Colangelo is always experimenting with innovative manufacturing techniques, from laser-cut leather to double-faced cashmere. For Giada’s most recent collection, Colangelo utilises these techniques to “amplify the craftsmanship and tailoring”. 

Whether he is working on his own line or for Giada, art remains a key influence. “Every collection usually has a cultural or an artistic influence,” he says. At the moment he is looking to the Danish painter Anne Tholstrup and the Austrian physicist, science-fiction writer and artist Herbert W. Franke for inspiration, with a particular interest in early computer graphic design, when images were imperfect. It is the flaws that appeal to him: “I really like to transfer that imperfection onto fabric, keeping it with the absolute sharpness of Giada.” The final result is, of course, flawless. §

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Ellery wears a top and dress by MSGM and shoes by Nike 

Massimo Giorgetti’s modern vision for MSGM
by Jainnie Cho

The embrace of the modern can be a painstaking business. Massimo Giorgetti, the founder and creative director of MSGM, says it took four days to handweave viscose ribbons onto net in order to create the intricate design on one of his spring/summer 2016 dresses. “I love mixing traditional procedures with the most innovative ones,” he says. Indeed, his designs are best defined by the artful mixing of influences. His appreciation of all forms of pop culture, paired with an exquisite eye for texture, reverberates in the youthful irreverence of MSGM.

With bright colours and a print-happy aesthetic, the six-year-old Milanese label’s commercial success has brought a much-needed spark back into the Italian fashion scene, which has faced criticism in recent years for its lack of innovation. Giorgetti’s reputation earned him another role last year, as the new creative director at Emilio Pucci.

Music is Giorgetti’s biggest influence. His unorthodox path in fashion has seen him move from retail to consultancy to design and even, briefly, to DJing. His musical heroes include MGMT (the inspiration behind the MSGM name; each letter represents an initial of one of the four founders of MSGM, although the other three subsequently left the company) and the Strokes. Music was also the catalyst for his skate-culture-influenced spring/summer 2016 collection. “There’s a song from 15 years ago by [the underground feminist electroclash band] Le Tigre which was featured in a film I saw about skaters and it suddenly came back to me,” he says. Much of MSGM’s early success and its subsequent cult following was thanks to its lavishly printed T-shirts and sweatshirts, which featured images like the “frog burger” (a frog pressed between hamburger buns) and the “I Love You” pictograph (a steak knife, human heart and horseshoe). But his accomplishments have not made Giorgetti complacent: “I have to keep moving and create something new for my customers. I always ask what is new and what is déjà vu.” 

One element that Giorgetti does not intend to change, however, is MSGM’s “high quality, reasonable price” formula. “You have to be smart,” he says. “If I’m doing something with expensive fabric, I keep the design simple. When I do fabric that is a little cheaper, I do something more elaborate. I think it is a modern way to do fashion.” It is certainly a modern way to approach craft; Giorgetti amplifies youthful palettes and shapes with artful details and procedures to create pieces that feel at once offhand and ornate. 

This modern vision, which was so apparent in his Pucci debut for resort 2016 (shown in a short video he dubbed the “Pilot Episode”), was notable for its use of vibrant and humorous technicolor prints, including an illustration of selfie stick-wielding tourists in Florence. He added multicoloured fringing to butter-soft leather belts and sporty zip fronts to silken jumpsuits. “Respect for the past as the essence of progress, no nostalgia attached”, read the collection notes. Which makes Giorgetti’s collection for Pucci the perfect embodiment of the man himself: nostalgia-free and moving Italian fashion forward with a new swagger. § 

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Ellery wears a sweatshirt by Eckhaus Latta. 

Eckhaus Latta, elusive and unpolished
by Natasha Silva-Jelly

Since its inception in 2011, Eckhaus Latta – the eccentric, at times sublimely weird label from the American designer duo Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta – has made a distinctive mark on the New York fashion scene. Most notably, with its arty, homespun point of view and the intentional lack of bells and whistles – flashy sets, models of the moment – at its runway shows. Instead, its catwalk presentations emphasise the clothing – the designers’ penchant for down-and-out silhouettes, knitwear made on a hand loom by artisans in Peru and pieces cut from American deadstock, flawed and discarded fabrics.  

Eckhaus and Latta, who both attended Rhode Island School of Design and who made Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list this January – create their collections between New York and Los Angeles. Like many avant-garde labels, it is shown as part of Made Fashion Week, considered the edgier cousin to New York’s traditional schedule of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. Last September Eckhaus Latta’s spring/summer 2016 collection – their eighth – signaled a tipping point.

“Our language is centred around not necessarily being polished,” Eckhaus says. “We like things that feel worn, that feel distressed.” Indeed, spring/summer 2016 was eerily provocative, with an emphasis on lust, nudity and gender fluidity via pieces that were slashed to within an inch of their life, alongside some great, wearable basics and, dare we say it, pretty prints. Of course there were the opulent textiles – tinted denim, organic Peruvian cotton, glass bugle beads, canvas, foam and painted velvet. Polished certainly doesn’t seem to be a priority for this subversive pair. § 

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All of Filip’s clothes are by Ed Lee

Ed Lee, the accidental collector
by Sara McAlpine

“Slow and steady” is Ed Lee’s mantra. Whether in reference to the louche feel of designs, or the relaxed pace of production (overseen by his mother), a sense of ease underpins the the 26-year-old, London-based designer’s character and process. Since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2014, Lee underpinned his heady evocation of bohemian glamour with a rigorous focus on craft.  

There is a sexual decadence to Lee’s work that echoes David Bowie’s Thin White Duke and Marc Bolan’s stage persona, borrowing from both male and female silhouettes for his provocative menswear. But Lee’s references aren’t bound by one decade. “I suppose I’m an accidental collector of vintage fashion,” he says. “I don’t buy it to wear; I just want to have it because there’s something about the texture that I like and want to work with.” He pulls apart fashion history, fusing the long-gone and recent past, with elements of 1990s Kurt Cobain in a ditsy print dress and the silken underslips of a 1920s flapper. 

Lee’s process hints at where he gained experience: in the artisanal atelier of Maison Margiela, whose tradition of deconstruction sees vintage styles and patterns reworked into something new. In Lee’s own work, this is visible in the baroque embroidery of a plunge-back waistcoat, made of trimmings from vintage dresses and textiles, or the gold appliqué on a striped button-up tunic reworked from a vintage scarf. “Fashion moves so fast now that it is easy for something to lose its charm,” he says. “It makes people crave something different, like craft. Something you can really touch. 

From the gilded embroidery of his 1970s-style shirts to the tactile surface of a snakeskin jacket, it is a collection that asks not just to be touched but worn. This sylph-like sensuality apparently appealed to One Direction’s Harry Styles, a surprising early adopter of Lee’s looks. The designer says he was shocked when Styles starting wearing his clothes: “I hadn’t even made up my mind as to whether I’d start my own line! But after that, things really picked up.” However, rather than getting swept up in the maelstrom, Lee is intent on taking things slowly. “I enjoy the pace of discovery and production,” he says. He is exploring the work of the designer Mariano Fortuny and the painters Elizabeth Peyton and Adrian Ghenie for autumn/winter 2016. “We’re experimenting with colour,” he explains, “then we’ll see how music and everything else plays into it as we drape and draw. That’s where the energy works its way in – slow and steady.” § 

Womenswear photography: Amy Gwatkin / Styling: Sivan Currie / Hair: Thomas Silverman from Radio Hair Salon using Bumble and bumble / Make-up: Linda Andersson using MAC Cosmetics / Videography: Stine Deja / Model: Ellery Romanko at Wilhelmina

Menswear photography: Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie / Styling: Bobby Hook / Grooming: Bunny Hazel Clarke using Bumble and bumble and MAC Cosmetics / Model: Filip Izworski at Models 1