Photography by Haruki Horikawa. Styling by Eunice Jera Lee. Hair by Takanori Yamaguchi. Makeup by Joanna Banach. Model: Hannah Noble at Elite London. Stylist’s Assistant: Francesca Prudente. All clothing and shoes, Phoebe English. Mouthpiece, R/P Encore x Phoebe English. Turban and Stockings, customized by stylist.
Sitting in her Hackney studio, the quietly intellectual Phoebe English scans the room and postcard-tacked wall as she talks me through her Spring 2013 collection. The Warwickshire-born designer was picked up by Vauxhall Fashion Scout after her L’Oreal prize-winning graduate collection from Central Saint Martins.
Not even two years into owning her eponymous label, which she designs in concert with creative director Rose Easton, there is already a clear signature to Phoebe’s work. Although concerned with movement and theatrics, her designs are restrained in color and adornment, and thoughtfully skew considered ideas of beauty and femininity. Phoebe is surely a woman designing for women. Her keen sense of weight and fit comes from a tangible place and defines her designs as erudite, a word that aptly describes the designer as well.
Lucy Morris: What has it been like working with Vauxhall Fashion Scout?
Phoebe English: London is very political about where you show and who you show with. But actually we have found that with international buyers, it has very little effect. It has been really good to have the support of a group of people. After graduating, it was nice that all I had to do was focus on the clothes; Vauxhall looked after the show and I got a small space to work.
Lucy: How was your Spring 2013 show for you?
Phoebe: It was fun, an anti-climax in a way. I like doing the show, but it would be interesting in the future to perhaps try a different ways of presenting, as it’s such a fixed way of people seeing your work. When I did my first fashion film, I was interested in having more control over how people saw the pieces. I have contemplated possibly doing a film instead of a presentation. But the show format is good and it has, in a way, been around for a really long time. I would really have to think about it because it would feel like you were really going against everyone.
Lucy: Can you describe your Spring 2013 collection?
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Phoebe: It was based around the idea of pairs and repetition. A lot of the looks are two pieces that are engineered to interlock together to make one piece, which is only evident to the wearer, so it feels more intimate. My work has always been about inventing new ways of making things work on the body and producing an engineered textile where the decorative nature of it is denoted by how it’s actually made. So the production becomes its decoration.
Lucy: Like the beading technique you’ve used?
Phoebe: Yes, [those pieces] are rubber coated and glass beads that have been knitted into latex, so it is not embroidered; it’s part of the fabric. I wanted these organic accumulations but in manmade rubber. It feels quite organic, but it is quite structured.
Lucy: As a textile designer, do you consider the fabric before the silhouette?
Phoebe: Every time I work on anything there is a different beginning. The thing that usually comes first is the general composition of the collection, before I decide on fabrics or textures. People often think that the textiles come first because I am fundamentally a textile designer, but I find those are the pieces that I have to work hardest and most laboriously to get right.
Lucy: Do you think your work can be quite minimalist?
Phoebe: Yeah, perhaps. I am very aware of how much the eye can take in, so I like to be measured in how much visual information goes into each look or collection. I like it to be edited and balanced; I think about harmony and discord a lot. So it has become about taking things away, rather than adding on. I am more interested in things in their raw state and the purity of the idea. I like toiling and canvas calico because that is the fabric that you use to express your initial thoughts. Often things in their primary state can be at their most interesting. I am restrained and I suppose it is a reaction against overly used digital print, which is like a barrage, where your senses are visually bashed.
Lucy: And minimalism feels very timely.
Phoebe: I am glad that comes across. I spend a lot of time in the Victoria & Albert Museum and looking at pieces of design that are old and trying to work out why they work now, so I am really interested in longevity and aesthetics that will last. I am not massively into trends and things that will stop being interesting or relevant to people quickly.
Lucy: That definitely comes across because your collections have a very clear signature.
Phoebe: That is the major difference between being a designer and an artist: If you are an artist, you are often trying to communicate something, whereas when you are a designer you are fundamentally making a product and the only thing that you are trying to communicate is in reference to work you have done before and your own experience as a creator. I am always trying to get a balance between renewing and continuing. I think it is good to have different inspirations, but when it comes down to it, it always ends up looking like something that has your hallmark on it anyway.
Lucy: Where do you think this hallmark comes from?
Phoebe: I was very interested in theatre for a long time so I always seem to make textiles that have a performative value—moving in an interestingly manner or behaving in a particular way in the light. My mother always wore black when I was little. My parents are both artists and family friends say they can see my mum in my work, so I think it comes from where I am from and the people who brought me up, too.