Myth quashed. People DO talk to each other on the tube in London. After seeing the Fashion East menswear collections, I got on the tube at Covent Garden and Holly Fowler came up to me to give me her business card. I'm more than happy to kick it old school and find designers through face to face encounters. A few months later, I finally managed to go and see Holly's studio and find out more about her mesmerising painted world.
Central Saint Martins collection followers might remember Holly's graduate collection from the 2011 BA show. Browns carried on their tradition of picking up on graduate designers immediately and then asked Holly to create a small collection for them, transferring her painted motifs from stiff canvas to more wearable silk. After stints at Louis Vuitton, Diane von Furstenberg and Zac Posen, Holly came back to London to get serious about growing her hand painted work and so came up with a S/S 13 collection, which then led to another exclusive collection for Browns, and also for Bergdorf Goodman and Capitol stocking her collection. That's quite an impressive stockist trio for someone who admittedly "stumbled quite organically" towards her label and initially wasn't aware of seasons, lookbooks and the formalities of creating and selling a collection.
That free flowing start to Holly's label almost runs parallel to her painting style. Influenced by her CSM tutor Howard Tangye (looking looking forward to his Kickstarter-funded book Within), who often told her to stop and step back from a drawing, Holly's black ink drawings took on a spare and fluid spontaneity. The lines remind me a little of Henri Matisse or Toulouse Lautrec but with an innate femininity that comes from her admiration of Cartier and Bvlgari jewellery. It's that trompe l'oeil jewellery effect combined with dreams of maharajahs, bygone princesses and Wallis Simpson that inspire her regal shapes as well as her opulent motifs. She also has an imaginary muse called Pamela. That's Princess Pamela to you and I. She's based on Holly's grandmother, someone who dressed up for every occasion and took pride in her appearance. Holly illustrates a tale for every season based around the adventures of Pamela. For S/S 13, Princess Pamela finds herself in the frozen aisle of a supermarket having lost her rings in amongst the lasagnes but then finding a golden crab with diamonds in its eyes. And so it is a crab finds its way on a pink silk shift.
From inspiration to the final garment, everything about the way Holly works is endearingly introspective and steeped in an imaginative dreamer territory. Holly might chalk up the designs on the garments but the paintings are done free hand and so often, no two are exactly the same. The danger in taking on large quantities for stockists, is ensuring that they all retain that freehand quality which is why in the future, she's also looking into the possibility of combining digial print with hand painted work to retain her handiwork signature. It's that tactile hand painted charm, which has seduced those prestigious retailers and a set of bespoke clients in America, who have commissioned Holly to create a distinct garment for them. Labour of love is an oft-used phrase but it certainly applies in Holly's instance as she talks in disbelief about being fortunate enough to be paid to paint. It might take up to three weeks (that's working from 8am to 10pm everyday) to paint one single gown but Holly clearly revels in getting lost in these canvases that then take on a life of their own, swirling around the body as though the painting was animated.
Holly doesn't want her work to exist in a strictly rarified plane though. For Browns, her hand painted leather jackets, slippers and bags (complete with the most charming of painted silk linings) as well as shorter dresses she'll be creating for her forthcoming S/S 14 collection, means that anyone could be hooked into her work, even if they don't have a calender of "society" functions to attend. I quite like Holly's dreamer inclinations towards princess ankle length gowns and stiffened flared out proportions. As houses such as Valentino are showing, there's a way of making those longer lengths and demureness, relevant and even subversive in some cases. Princess need not be just be for dreams only. They can exist in real life too.