The big 3 0 has been hitting a few people in the fashion business this week and now it's the turn of hat duo Bernstock Speirs aka Paul Bernstock and Thelma Speirs to look back and go all misty-eyed over their retrospective, which is currently at the Fred Gallery until the 24th November. The thirty years that Paul and Thelma experienced together from their beginnings as fashion students at Middlesex University also happen to coincide with the tumultuous times in London's fashion timeline. They started at a time when there wasn't really an "industry" to speak of. It was also a time when people who were creative just made things, got on with it and hoped for the best. Whilst neither Paul or Thelma came from a millinery background, they wound up fashioning some rag-adorned trilby hats and cobbling some hoods by moulding them over kettles, which were spotted by Jeff Banks, who wanted them for his Warehouse shops. Along the way, they've been on the dole, done cleaning, ran club nights and also designed clothing lines. Read Charlie Porter's lengthy interview with the pair for all the ups and downs and anecdotes of their colourful career, that really illustrate why there are so vibrant as London creatives who through a series of happy accidents have ended up with an established business.
This illustration of some of their biggest "hat hits" include the famous topless hat which Kylie Minogue wore on her first album cover, as well as numerous quirky takes on conventional hat shapes – the trilby, the bowler, the cycle cap. Their veiled beanie is currently garnering a waiting list (yes they did in fact design it before Raf Simons) and their bunny cap has of course taken off with a life of its own, hopping around the world in a plethora of colours. The common denominator is that they're all functional and entirely wearable without sacrificing design quirks that are immediately appealing. By combining something like the sporty cap with a pair of rabbit hears, they have created a product that has legs to endure. The exhibition sees several styles such as the bunny cap, veiled beanie and glitter cycle caps arranged in colour co-ordinated rows on the walls. It's as if the duo revel in their capacity to create a sellable and commercial product and at the same time, have lost none of their own integrity and belief in their designs.
Downstairs we get to see a moodboard homage to Thelma and Paul's past – thirty years of fun that have included the infamous Kylie cover, designing hats for Jean Paul Gaultier's show, making films with Issac Julien and in general benefiting from a cameraderie of designers, creatives, editors, buyers and stylists at a period of time when spontaneity and lack of commercial awareness was rife.
You might recognise some of the collaborations that they have done with Peter Jensen.
An example of the relaxed nature of the period when Bernstock Speirs first started out are these lookbooks produced in the 1980s when actors, buyers, editors and pop stars were featured wearing their hats. Paul and Thelma approached people such as Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, the group Bananarama, Colin McDowell and Caryn Franklin and they all casually participated in these shoots without too much to-ing and fro-ing. A far cry from the agents, third parties and endorsement fees of today.
To this day, it feels like the duo just get on with what they do without the need for fanfare, marketing or strategy. They've been based in their studio and shop at the top of Brick Lane for twelve years without wanting to open another. They happed upon a hat factory in Luton by looking them up in the Yellow Pages and they still work with them today. They tried out clothing design for a while and decided that it wasn't right for them. Their collaborations have been born out of friendships and chance meetings. There's something very warming and reassuring about the way Bernstock Speirs just amble along quite nicely.