Once upon a time an aspiring fashion designer called Christian Dior dreamed of ladies with silhouettes like flower petals. Using around 50 metres of fabric to create skirts that accentuated the waistline, he made his dream come true. How dare he waste fabric so recklessly, cried the outraged establishment of the post war austerity era, but women across the world fell in love with this new look and so, an icon was born.
Dior’s ‘New Look’ remains as iconic today as it was 60 years ago but the fashion industry landscape is vastly different. The eccentricity of designers such as Dior and the craftsmanship that turned his visions into reality, providing much of couture’s cachet, is in danger of extinction. We often hear insiders lament the demise of les petites mains (literally ‘little hands’). At the same time, the mass exodus of brands – both luxury and high street - to the Far East in the name of cutting costs has put the issue of labour on the agenda: miserable working conditions in third world factories and the ensuing rise of the Fairtrade movement are all well documented.
And yet there are a number of London-based designers whose oeuvre combines craftsmanship with Fairtrade: garments made in their own factories with good working conditions, where staff are trained and supervised by the designers themselves. These are independent designers with sizable production, who have redefined the concept of couture fashion into their own brand of artisan clothes-making, creating a niche between high street and the high fashion of Paris and Milan in the process. With their originality, not only have they been able to claim space on London’s catwalks but they have also become part of the phenomenal talent that has staked London’s claim to being the most cutting-edge of the fashion capitals.
Bernard Chandran hails from Malaysia, where he launched his career and built up an impressive client base (including royals from Malaysia and Brunei) before heading to London. Despite being a complete unknown when he arrived, within a few seasons he made his mark by reinterpreting traditional Malay garb for a modern, fashionable audience. Thanks to his quirky vision, he became part of the tapestry that makes London so innovative, and includes pop royalty in the guise of Lady Gaga and Tori Amos among his fans. Garments are made in Bernard’s atelier in Kuala Lumpur, where he manages a technical and creative team of 70 people, comprised of both local and foreign workers (mainly from India). Every member of staff goes through rigorous training before they are, in Bernard’s words, ‘allowed to touch the real stuff.’ ‘I have always believed in quality craftsmanship,’ he adds. ‘I believe that’s our strength even though ours is a ready-to-wear presentation. We emphasise quality, good cut and craftsmanship.’ All materials for the collections are sourced from reputable suppliers.
One of the greatest challenges for Bernard is to find staff with the potential to develop their skills and be up to the creative challenges of the prêt-à-porter market. For those with a ‘passion for excellence’, the rewards are great: fair working conditions, wages commensurate with commitment, paid annual leave and equal treatment of local and foreign workers – in a nutshell, the opposite of the horror stories about sweatshops in developing countries. The most talented even get the opportunity to work on the catwalk show in London, including Fazlur Rahman who arrived from India four years ago without qualifications and in search of employment. Chandran gave him a chance and unearthed an artisan, whose beadwork is the equal of anything produced by a Parisian petites mains.
Another ethical designer currently making it big is homegrown talent, Jas Sehmbi. His biggest claim to fame is the ‘DJ bag’. Radical when he first made it, it responded to the needs of the culturally dominant 90s dance scene and soon became ubiquitous as the music itself. The kudos that came from an authentic association with street culture carried over when Jas set up his label, Jas MB in 2000. Unlike the music industry where success is measured in terms of whether or not you make it in the States, in fashion, you get real cred if you make it in Japan. With over 300 Japanese outlets, a standalone store in Fukuoka and a new flagship opening in Tokyo this November, Jas is very cool indeed.
So what’s the secret of his appeal? The answer is that it’s all made in Britain. Everything is produced in east London, albeit using Italian leather (‘the best’), zips from Switzerland and cotton for linings sourced from a green supplier in Taiwan. His colourful team - including workers from the local community, über cool graduates from Central Saint Martin’s, interns from local colleges and family members – is symbiotic with the label’s cosmopolitan, British feel, so sought after around the world. Given that Sehmbi lives and works in the city that’s home to some of the world’s best fashion schools, you could be forgiven for thinking that usable skills come as standard but paradoxically, he is facing the same problems as Chandran when looking for colleagues. ‘Colleges create talent but there is no craftsmanship to help production wise. A craftsman is someone who’s broken their hands to learn and put together a product. You got to feel how to twist and turn leather, how to manipulate it… We lost that craft. In this country, we have no ateliers and factories left.’
The high cost of production in the UK means that as a rule, the moment designers reach a critical mass of interest, they are pressured to move their production abroad in order to respond to demand from the international fashion buyers’ market. Big London Fashion Week names who developed organically, including Ashish and KTZ (the duo Pejoski/Bezovski), have their ateliers in India and Indonesia, respectively. Like Chandran, they have trained their staff but are forced to regularly shuttle backwards and forwards when production starts. When the catwalk action kicks off tomorrow, the media focus will be overwhelmingly on the glamour of the catwalk with little insight into how precarious it is to be an independent designer and how much passion and dedication goes into sustaining a business. Unless something is done and done fast to reclaim our crafts, London as a source of cutting-edge innovation is at risk of becoming a fairy tale for the future generations.
Lida Hujic is the author of The First to Know: How Hipsters and Mavericks Shape the Zeitgeist (www.thefirsttoknow.info), available from select independent bookshops including Artwords, Foyles, Magma, Muswell Hill Bookshop, Pages of Hackney, Rough Trade and galleries including The ICA and The Serpentine.
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