I challenge you to find someone who is more enthusiastic about tufts wool “tops” (the stuff that a sheep’s fleece is processed into before it gets spun into yarn) than Laura Lusuardi, the longtime global fashion director of Max Mara.  At the launch of Max Mara’s Woolmark collection at their Old Bond Street store a fortnight ago, Lusuardi thrusted a wad of super soft tops in my hands, urging me to feel it.  “There are 71 million sheep versus 21 million people!” she exclaimed.  “The ingredients of the wool is the lovely grass and the Australian sun – the sheep run free and it makes the wool super soft.”  Lusuardi of course knows a thing or two about a flock of sheep.  Max Mara is of course famed for their iconic camel coat but whether it’s camel, cashmere or Merino wool, Lusuardi’s wealth of knowledge of the various fibres, yarn weights and fabrication possibilities is vast.  And with that expertise, Max Mara have come up with a way of replicating the look of denim with its traditional 3/1 weave, but instead of cotton, they have used 100% Merino wool to showcase the lighter side to this natural fibre.

“Wool is a fibre that is most versatile,” said Lusuardi.  “You can have it light, medium and very heavy.  Wool is very easy to shape.  This wool-denim is new because it’s so fluid.”  Indeed, scrunch the fabric in your hands and it is far more malleable than traditional cotton denim and once released, it instantly returns to an unwrinkled state.  Lusuardi also pointed out the various examples of Max Mara that utilise wool – mixed with lycra or silk for instance – to create fabrics that feel like anything but wool, and are also suitable for the summer season with its breathable qualities.

On one of the hottest day of the year in London, I donned the double breasted jacket and matching trousers from the wool denim collection, into town (on the tube) and emerged remarkably perspiration-free.  And comfort aside, this also happens to be the first trouser suit in my wardrobe (yes, I triple checked just to be sure).  Max Mara’s ability to master wardrobe cornerstones makes the ensemble an easy one to wear and to mix in with some of my more adventurous pieces.  Lusuardi often photographs women wearing Max Mara on the street with her phone.  How does she envisage this collection being worn?  “With personality!  It’s exactly what I believe in it.  You can customise it as you wish.  Max Mara clothes aren’t overpowering and so you can wear it as you want.”  Don’t mind if I do…

Max Mara double breasted wool-denim jacket and trousers worn with Marques Almeida corset, Uniqlo shirt and Malone Souliers sandals

Max Mara x Woolmark wool-denim dress worn with Marques Almeida jeans, Coach shoes and Delada shirt

This post is sponsored by Max Mara

I joked to a friend that London is burying its head in luxurious looking baubles and fairy lights this year as a privileged rebuff to Brexit, Trump and what has generally been a year that I’m personally fine to see the back of.  Because the last time I was in town, wandering the streets of Oxford, Regent, Carnaby and Bond, London DID look particularly seductive.  It’s that warm glow of beckoning merchandise, whiffs of spice and all things nice and the sort of curated-to-the-hilt tasteful Christmas that have spawned about a bajillion books on the values of Danish hygge.

Except, I’ve not been able to enjoy any of this much.  This holiday period where my birthday bleeds into that Christmas lull, hasn’t been that merry.  Those of you who follow me on Instagram and Twitter might have sniffed out the reasons why.  I’ve not even thought about what wrapping paper I might use this year, which will surprise those who know me as an obsessive consummate papier freak, hellbent on matching up GSM to folding techniques, and ribbon texture to patterns.

Christmas pop-up shops are even further from my mind.  Pop-up.  Pop-off.  Whereas normally I’ll do a quick blitz weekend of pooting from one crafty affair to the next, this year will see the penultimate days to Christmas spent… well, not doing much to be honest.  I did however find some time to go and see Birdsong’s first physical temporary presence in Shoreditch.  Their feminist pop-up concept store is also another way of combatting the “heart breaking shiftiness of 2016” in Slater’s words.

I’m hesitant to add the loaded word “ethical” to what Birdsong do.  Their tagline “No Sweatshops, No Photoshop” is perhaps a more comprehensible way of describing what Sarah Beckett, Ruba Huleihel and Sophie Slater have collectively created.  I can crow “social enterprise”, “fair fashion” and “ethical sourcing” at you from dusk till dawn.  Those phrases can daunt a shopper.  The crux of Birdsong is, that they’re selling lovely things, made in partnership with lovely women’s organisations and charities and you feel lovely as a result.  You can delve deeper and look at the incredible women’s knitting groups or impoverished migrant women’s circles that create these things.  Or you can stop and admire aesthetics alone and just count on  the fact that by shopping at Birdsong, something good is coming out of that credit/debit card swipe.

They have bought their feminist-focused wares to physical fruition at their pop-up on 46 Charlotte Road, alas only on until Monday 19th.  No matter.  You have this penultimate Christmas weekend to head on down and pick up a selection of what I think are pretty ace gifts for a lot of people I know.

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Avocado/egg/pomegranate boob sweatshirts and tees?  They’re not just there for emoji lolz.  They’re a result of designer Clio Peppiatt working with the women’s migrant group Mohila in Tower Hamlets to hand paint these fun motifs, that means they can earn a living wage whilst their children go to school, which subsequently goes into a collective pot for the group.  There are also a few pieces from Clio’s AW16 at the pop-up too.

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cliopClio Peppiatt AW 16

Or how about a hand knitted jumper, lovingly made by elderly female knitting circles Knit and Natter in Enfield and The Bradbury Centre in Kingston.  Each tag tells you who made your cosy piece.

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I expect the printed tees, swimsuits and hand painted denim by public artist Ibiye Camp to fly off the rails.  As part of an ongoing series ‘Such a Fan’, Ibiye uses denim as her canvas for black pop cultural icons like Lil’ Kim, Beyonce and TLC as well as more historical figures such as Rosa Parks and Josephine Baker.  In addition to paying homage to these brilliant women, they also happen to be awesome to look at/wear.

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Perhaps one of the most poignant stories to emerge from Birdsong is that of label Two Neighbors, a collaborative enterprise created by an Israeli and a Palestinian, putting their differences aside and meeting in a border town between Israel and the Palestinian Territories to find a co-existing common ground by employing both Palestinian and Israeli seamstresses to give a modern spin on traditional Palestinian embroidery that has been passed from generation to generation by women in the south Hebron hills.  In grid formation, traditional motifs and symbols of Palestinian culture are cross stitched and Two Neighbors becomes the linking conduit to take that tradition and filter it through contemporary designs such as the tencel jackets that are being sold at Birdsong’s pop-up.

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Tonight, Birdsong’s pop-up will be doing a launch event in collaboration with the first period-proof underwear brand Thinx, who caused a stir last  year when their supposedly provocative ad campaign was initially banned on the NYC subway.  Thinx is the brainchild of Miki Agrawa, who spent three years designing these wonder knickers that are able to absorb up to two tampons worth of blood.  Having done a NCT class on postpartum bleeding and the joys of Tena Lady Pants (!), I’m somewhat intrigued by Thinx so will definitely have to get some for trialling.  TMI?  Well, that’s the nature of being a woman isn’t it and thankfully, Thinx don’t shirk from those biological truths.

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Being a sucker for African prints, I was also drawn to Khama, a group of designers and makers in London who work with a workship in Kasungu in Malawi to create clothes and accessories from that distinctive West African printed chitenge fabric, that has been ethically sourced and often produced in limited print runs.

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More underwear as Birdsong also gives substantial space to Pico, a London-based brand, that are entirely traceable from organic cotton farms to a fairtrade workshop in the South of India.

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Jewellery wise, the selection is again geared towards organisations that help women around the world better their lives.  Birdsong founder Sophia Slater makes an important point in this interview where she points out the pitfalls of feminism that is overtly focused on the issues of middle class white women and so the more global feminist stance becomes a unique USP at Birdsong.  “It can’t just be ‘Feminism Lite’ for middle-class white women,” she says.  “For us, worker’s rights, funding cuts and a lack of diversity are all top priorities.”  Jewellery designer Kirsty Kirkpatrick for instance works with the Fountain of Life Women’s Centre in Pattaya in Thailand to create her Jit-Win-Yan jewellery made out of semi-precious and regional gems, with all funds from sales going back to the organisation.  London-based jewellery label Finchittida, created by Lao-British twin sisters Tida and Lisa Finch focus their efforts on clearing the residual bombs in their mother’s home country Laos, left behind from the Vietnam war.  And Quazi Design‘s workshop in Sidwashini, Swaziland give full time employment to female artisans, in need of a living wage to support on average seven dependents per woman.

 

 

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More familiar names are also available at Birdsong’s pop-up in the form of Auria swimwear, made out of recycled fishnets as well as Alex Noble’s… well, noble EMG Initiative salvage t-shirts.

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It none of the clothing floats your boat, these brilliant drawings or surly girls in sassy clothes by Clio Isadora surely will, coupled with some lovely heartfelt bouquets by Bread and Roses, new florist venture that works with refugee women in Hackney.

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I’m guilty of making Christmas about ‘stuff’ and ‘frivolity’ as much as the next person but a visit to Birdsong is a pertinent reminder of what this time of year can really mean.

Birdsong concept store open until Monday 19th a December at 46 Charlotte Road, Shoreditch, London

There’s something grossly uncomfortable about this interview that Ed Meadham did with Anders Christian Madsen for i-D.  Over tea, Meadham opens up about the demise of the almost-cult label Meadham Kirchhoff, one of the saddest and in my mind, completely preventable losses of the fashion world.  The interview touches on the label’s insolvency, Meadham winding up in a coma, an unsanctioned sample sale of the brand’s precious archive as a result of a cruel case of profiteering and a personal isolation that left Meadham practically jobless for two years.  It makes for a tortured and bittersweet read because it brought up the waves of anger that I’ve touched upon time and time again about the fit-in-or-die mentality of the most cut throat parts of the fashion industry.  How genuine talent isn’t always necessarily rewarded.  How waves of press hype often malign the designers that deserve it.  How retailers are often restrained in their financial and sales-driven ability to buy as creatively as one might hope.

Certainly in the case of Meadham Kirchhoff, it was never the case that the public didn’t want what they were serving (which is the stark and plain truth behind many labels’ downfall).  The love was strong.  It was a rainbow outpouring of unicorn, heart and sparkle emojis from all over the world, reblogged and liked on Tumblr and championed by maverick-minded figures such as Tavi Gevinson and Ione Gable of Polyester Zine.  The mainstream press of course chimed in and celebrated the label’s high points as well when it suited them, but as Meadham recalls being blanked by certain people in the industry at a recent RCA show, it exposes the cruel fickleness of the industry.  Meadham ponders this volte-face: “It was like, ‘Are you not allowed to speak to failures?'”

There is of course no point in praising talent to the high hills if there’s no work to show for it.  So in an act of cathartic defiance and to trial a new way of channelling Meadham’s ideas, energy and yes, talent, Ronnie Newhouse of fashion agency House + Holme and Adrian Joffe of Dover Street Market invited Meadham to create a new brand for the store.  That warms the heart.  Two people with means, power and influence creating alternative paths for a designer that was always destined for alternative ways of working.

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br2The Blue Roses space at Dover Street Market replete with Meadham’s collages and scribblings

And so on Thursday on the ground floor of Dover Street Market London, a heart-shaped chocolate box opens up to the debut of Blue Roses, named in reference to the famous line in Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie.  With the support of DSM, Meadham has created a line of affordable tees, hoods, stockings and pretty pieces of frippery such as a Victorian velvet collar and matching sleeves.  Glitter encrusted sweatshirts are perhaps the only direct flashbacks to Meadham Kirchhoff’s early past but it’s an idea that still stands solid (literally) today.  The texture makes for a nice onomatopoeia and leaves its sparkly fairy dust all over my coffee table when I try it on at home.  It’s not really a regurgitation of greatest hits but rather essences of Meadham’s oeuvre and aesthetic that come with pleasingly and comparatively purse-friendly prices (starting at £58 for a tee and rising up to the £200s for the velvet and glitter stuff).  Former MK-heads were already enthusiastically rifling through the rails when I popped in to delve into the Blue Roses corner on Friday morning.  Some of the pieces are available on the DSM site but the best selection remains in-store.

Where does this leave Meadham then today?  It’s not quite a full on resurrection, nor would you expect a shouty comeback from Meadham.  The i-D interview ends with “I always wanted to put some beauty into the world. I tried very hard.”  The past tense tinged with sadness, in that last sentence seemingly comes with a hardened sigh of despondency over his output and achievements.  No, Ed.  You DID create beauty and it DID spread far and wide in the world.  With Blue Roses, there are signs of a beginning that could indeed flourish with the correct modifications that such a floral genus requires.  I, along with countless others will be sitting here willing it to happen.

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img_3033Blue Roses velvet frilly collar and sleeves worn with vintage dress

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img_3075Blue Roses long-sleeved tee worn with Sacai shirt, navy tulle skirt and Marques Almeida furry trainers

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img_3082Blue Roses pink glitter top worn with Minki Cheng skirt

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As you can see from this visibly straining shirt (unbuttoned for comfort, not for styling prowess) and my poor attempt at doubling up menswear trousers as maternity wear, the bump is now fully out there.  Bearing in mind, this was two weeks ago during London Fashion Week and now obviously, it has grown to even more grand proportions.  The one saving grace in this bit of I-don’t-do-maternity-wear experimentation is the diverting antics of a beautiful jacket by British duo Teatum Jones from their Woolmark Prize-winning collection, that has now dropped into stores worldwide, with its primary panels of wool lace and a waxed coated finishing over the embroidered checkered wool that makes it hard to believe it’s 80% Merino wool.

tj_vogueukPhotograph by Jonathan Daniel Pryce for Vogue.co.uk

tj_londonpaulPhotographed by Paul Gonzales/London Fashion by Paul – Wearing Teatum Jones Woolmark Prize “Quincy” jacket with Toga shirt, Ximon Lee trousers, Prada shoes and J.W. Anderson Pierce bag

Actually, the entire collection comprises a myriad of deceptive textures as Catherine Teatum and Rob Jones went deep into their research into the making of their collection from start to finish.  “We are real believers in education,” said Teatum.  “We immersed ourselves in all things wool and exposed ourselves to the entire supply chain.  We are also inspired by human stories; people who fight for what they believe in.  We research this person and their story in a very primary level way – the places where they lived, if they are still alive we talk to them, read about them or listen to their music.”

That fascination began with an English nun Agnes Moirragh Bernard, who envisioned a Wool Utopia in 1892, and founded the Foxford Woolen Mills in County Mayo in Ireland.  To this day, the mill is still producing throws, scarves and other woolen goods, prompting Teatum and Jones to produce their own backpacker’s blankets there, complete with leather holsters.  The physical integration of that potent starting point into Teatum Jones’ production process gives solid credence to the collection.  It’s a very human story of economic emancipation through cloth and craft that really resonated with me, when I first saw the collection presented back in February.

The geometric foiled borders on those Foxford blankets led them to work with a 130 year old French guipere lace mill in Northern France, which prompted a new textile discovery.  “We absolutely loved the lace they created but they had never really considered working with wool,” said Jones.  “In an almost Disney-like scenario, if you can imagine it, you can create it. In our heads it was a simple transition: swapping nylon or polyester or cotton for Merino wool yarns. There was lots of trial and error with different yarn counts and different suppliers, but in the end we achieved what we set out to do and created a truly innovative and unique Merino wool lace.”  To give the collection extra verve, they then ended up in Italy to develop a stretch wool with elastane, that would then be bonded to the lace to create a more pliable foundation.

The stand-out pieces are of course the ones where the origin of the collection are on full display like the skirts with blanket tassel edging, the primary-hued geometric lace patternation, where coated embroidery and that beautiful Merino lace come together.  In the body conscious skirts, cut-out tops and slimline trousers, that stretch wool bonded with the lace really comes into its own. balancing out with the more traditional thin Merino polonecks and chunky knit jumpers.

The collection is currently available at Harvey Nichols, Saks Fifth Avenue, Leclaireur, Isetan, Boon the Shop and online on MyTheresa.com.  The Quincy jacket from the collection, that I got to wear must have caught someone’s eye as it’s currently sold out on the Saks site.  For Teatum Jones, the wooly journey goes on as their current A/W 16 collection used 80% Merino wool and in the ever trans-seasonal ways of working, 40-50% of wool managed to creep into their S/S 17 collection.  “We are honoured and excited and it’s just the beginning; we have only scratched the surface,” said Teatum.  “This award lets us ignite the magic of wool, so the customer sees the romance in wool.”  It’s this modern day imagining of Sister Agnes’ Wool-Topia that unlocks innovation in this age-old natural fibre.

 

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