A strong consensus that always comes through loud and clear from a lot of the designers that I’ve interviewed in the past is that they want to design clothes that are relevant, worn and have a life in the real world on living and breathing bodies, as opposed to making pieces that are fit for a museum. Sounds like a duh-brain statement, and is of course fair enough seeing as fashion is supposed to be worn by our backs and isn’t created with the purpose of sitting static on a mannequin under low lighting. Still I doubt any designer would refuse what is normally seen as an accolade or an honour of being ‘curated’ into an exhibit or better yet, having an entire exhibition dedicated to their work.
Words such as ‘curate’ or even calling clothes ‘pieces’ are annoying fashion writing pet peeves, which I’m definitely guilty of but with with the following two ‘pieces’, I can’t shake the feeling that their fated destination into a museum is anything but inevitable and hopefully that is no bad thing when they are ‘curated’ into an exhibition twenty or more years from now, long after the designers have spent time breathing relevancy and life into them.
Matthew Harding along with Lily Heine and Simone Rocha are three of 2010’s Central Saint Martins MA students that Topshop have chosen to work with to reproduce their graduate pieces. Nope, it’s not yer’ normal diffusion collaboration where a weakened version of their original designs are fielded out. It’s a like for like sample replica, where tweaks are instigated by Topshop to make what are seemingly complicated designs – wearable and sellable, albeit in limited quantities. In the case of Harding in particular, the structures in his original MA collection mean that ‘wearable’ isn’t a word that springs to mind yet here it is – on my back, in a flurry of snow that London was hit by this morning – and not under low lighting on a mannequin.
I went into the Oxford Circus store where the collection along with Heine’s layered tunics and tees and Rocha’s headpieces were being sold and people were certainly marvelling at Harding’s creations sitting on the shop floor, intrigued by their presence and were also naturally slightly intimidated. I myself found it quite astonishing that something with this level of construction and seeming unwearability was sitting there with a Topshop tag on ready for customers to snap it up. For me it marks something of a shift in the mass retailer/designer collaboration where something like this is a risk-filled but ultimately rewarding for those select customers that want to invest in design on this level.
At the store, I also bumped into Harding himself who was there to check out the pieces and perhaps see who would be his prospective customers. I counted myself as one of them as I hauled both the black mid-calf dress and the white top into the changing rooms, settling in the end for the latter. Throwing Harding some questions, he reveals more about the process of working with Topshop and how this wondrous collaboration came to be…
As a recap, what was your MA collection inspired by and how did you come up with those ways of putting structure into the pieces?
My MA collection was originally inspired by lynda carter and the late 70s as well as naum gabos kinetic string sculptures. I was also looking at some old Greek folk costumes which had really great silhouettes on the arm, it looked like armour made from fabric, this developed into the kind of ‘shelf’ silhouette of the sleeve (the top that Topshop produced was actually the catalyst for the rest of the collection). It was really a trial and error kind of thing getting to the final result.
Were you surprised when Topshop approached you?
Extremely! I love Topshop but I never thought my MA was too commercial! When they first contacted me I thought “They probably want to do some simplified versions of a few pieces, maybe a digitally printed top to look like the catwalk pieces or something” then when I spoke more with Caroline (buyer for Topshop) I was incredibly interested to see how well they could pull it off as the pieces are quite complex.
Did you oversee the production process? Did you have to change anything from your original design to put the pieces into production?
It was really great working with Topshop, there’s a good team over there. The production went quite smoothly for me, I was in contact with the team throughout the process and developed the branding also. In terms of changes, there’s a few small design changes like the zip down the back of the dress going down the whole way and certain fabrics – the main thing for me was that it wasn’t possible to recreate the dirty effect of the sheep’s wool but I think for the customer this way is probably better.
Are you happy with the results? Do you think Topshop can afford to take more risks like this and does it differ from other high street chains in that its customer are that much more open-minded?
I am extremely happy with the results. There are a few little things which aren’t as good as my original samples but there are also a few things which are done in a slightly nicer way, so it balances out.
I think Topshop are so passionate about young designers and exciting design. These risks in production are worth it as Topshop have the knowledge and the facilities to do something of quality, and it’s something exciting (hopefully) for the customer. It’s a slightly different thing compared to other recent high street collaborations, it’s more covert and about showing new ideas to a new audience. Topshops collaborations are always a big pat on the back to London designers and the fact that their customers are more aware of what’s happening in the industry and are more design conscious helps a lot in these decisions.
There’s a dichotomy going on in this highly engineered design that I couldn’t resist – it’s both complex and simple at the same time. The lines that the top impose on the body are pretty dramatic yet when you are zipped into the top, it’s not as challenging as one might think. The construction of it also enforces a certain posture too as you move about bringing to mind various ‘hard’ structures in different periods of Western historical dress.
The second of the museum-worthy pieces (even if the designers are unwilling…) are these well-documented Rodarte A/W 10-11 shoes by Nicholas Kirkwood aka the melted wax heel shoes that were on offer at the recent Kirkwood sample sale (did I mention it ended up becoming a buy 1 get 1 pair half price situation???) in both this neutral/cream colourway and the more vivid red/powder blue style. What can I say about these that I haven’t already said before – I harped on about them in greater detail in the Selfridges‘ Shoespaper (celebrating the new Shoe Galleries) which I guest-edited back a few months. “The shoe is a clash-mash that shouldn’t work but does. With so much going on, it could have been detail overload but then again this is Kirkwood with a free rein to go outside the realm of this own collections with this rare opportunity, he ran with it,” is what I said and as a collaborative effort between two designers with very strong ideas, this shoe goes beyond the call of lazily ticking the shoe box in a catwalk show and really did much to complete and inform Rodarte’s outfits.
What happens to these ‘pieces’ ten, twenty or thirty years from now I don’t know. I might be predicting museum-worthiness in the future but for now, there’s still life in them yet for wearing, which is exactly I intend to do with them, although perhaps in less dramatic weather circumstances.
N.B. I haven’t of course gone mad, going out like this freezing the tits off my toes and my face. This particular set of photos are purely demonstrative. Like any other good-for-nothing photo-opp-seeking blogger, I was just attracted to the tempestuous weather going on…
N.B.B. Fear not for snow spillage on the Kirkwood shoes… the watermarks have disappeared!