Getting Hands On
London Craft Week was an opportunity for me to get my backpack on, go to parts of London unbeknownst to me and learn about things outside of, but not wholly disconnected from the fashion realm. Eschewing press days and product launches, where I’m given a well-rehearsed press spiel, I decided to go probe around an array of skilled hands and singular makers instead. As Guy Salter, founder of LCW put it in his op-ed piece for The Business of Fashion, “Consumers need to experience “craft” not just as static objects or as brand-led ‘fashion,’ ‘luxury design’ or ‘art,’ but must also understand the full context in which they were made, why they are special, and meet the creators and see their remarkable skills up close.”
In its second year of running, LCW is a week of talks, demonstrations, open studios and workshops, where you’re exposed to craftsmen (and women) in both secret nooks and established quarters of London. The crafts on show, range from bookbinding to ceramics to basket weaving to the more fashion relevant processes such as hand-bag construction, millinery and jewellery making. LCW also highlights establishments like Angels Costumiers or the Royal Opera House, where skilled hands are essential to their day-to-day running. Numbers of attendees are limited and you have to pre-book tickets in advance, but I wholeheartedly recommend taking the time out for a dose of LCW, as a slowed-down act of indulgence in listening, observing and ultimately, learning. Do I learn and explore enough as a fashion blogger/professional? Or have I become complacent and lazy? LCW was in effect, my way of atoning.
Venturing to Patey Hats for instance, hidden on an anonymous industrial estate near Peckham, was perhaps the week’s biggest revelation. You might know their sister company Hand and Lock (which I visited a while back), famed for their fine embroidery, but Patey’s history goes back even further to the 17th century when the French Huguenot came to England and bought their skills of Parisian hat making. The most important thing I learn at Patey, was the difference between a hatter and a milliner. Patey’s studio director Ian Harding, was brutally honest in his assessment of milliners, whose skills he considered to be inferior to that of a hatter, who essentially makes hats that are heavily structured and built-up. Patey specialises in making goss-bodied hats like top hats, riding hats and ceremonial tricornes and bycorne, that you might see in mayoral ceremonies as well as hats for the military, Beefeater guards and the Queen’s guard. Basically, hats that you associate with events like Trooping of the Guard or official Royal Family ceremonies, have probably passed through Patey. Top hats – which you might think of as obsolete – are in demand because of the riding season in the UK as well as worn as part of uniform at establishments like banks and hotels. They undergo a process where the shape of the hat is built up with strips of calico dipped in a shellac-based paste called “coodle”, that are ironed on in layers. It’s an intense working environment where the smell of this pungent paste and the heat of the irons, are much the same as the processes dating back centuries. “Why change a process that worked 400 years ago,” said Harding, who is also a stickler for making sure all the fabrics, trimmings and embroideries that grace Patey’s hats are also made in Britain.
It’s a made-to-measure and specific-for-wearer business that doesn’t stray from tradition. It’s also a business and craft that thrives on rank and file, pomp and ceremony and the constructs of hunting, military and Palace seasons – facets of which might seem outdated and unnecessary to some. And yet you have the humblest of craftsmen and women, honing away on these supremely made objects, in this South East London enclave. “If we didn’t have these establishments and strands of British culture, we wouldn’t be able to support ourselves,” said Harding. There’s also an emphasis on sustainability and fixing and repair, especially when it comes to Buckingham Palace bearskins, which Harding categorically doesn’t make from scratch, preferring to recycle and restore, because of the unethical nature of the skins. “Our whole principle is about retaining the integrity of the hat, so we’re as much about restoring the hat as well as making new ones. If somebody has a hat, I would rather restore and repair it despite the fact that it takes three times as long.” Patey’s hats are the opposite of disposable garments and instead live on with wearers’ experiences embedded in the inside of these hardwearing shells. You left, hoping that traditions are somehow retained and maintained, just so that businesses like Patey could thrive.
A curious device used to measure the size of your head
Patey also makes the heavily ornate epaulettes that will adorn military uniforms
I got to discover the hidden beauty of the Chelsea Physic Garden, where the excellent textiles publication Selvedge, had organised an immersive Indigo Day, that was probably the most in-depth LCW event on the programme. It began with an entertaining presentation by indigo expert and writer Jenny Balfour-Paul, who happed upon the diaries and drawings of 19th century intrepid explorer Thomas Machell, who at one point was also an indigo planter in Bengal. This led Balfour-Paul to take a journey that mirrored Machell’s travels, documenting every step in her book Deeper Than Indigo. Then shibori textiles artist Jane Callender spoke about the science behind indigo during and led a workshop for people to create a deep blue tote bag, adorned with those distinctive resist patterns,. I have been obsessed with shibori since discovering the work of Hiroyuki Murase of Suzuman and even in its simplest form, achieved by a line of running stitches and knotted beads, the effects are quite stunning, especially when paired with the deep shades of indigo blue. Looking at Callender’s complex geometry-based shibori patterns, you can see why it’s so exciting to see what end result emerges, when the dye dries and you unravel the stitches. Both the emotive and technical facets of indigo dyeing were revealed on the day. Even my blue jeans dyeing disaster from when I was 14 (the blue-stained bath at my mum and dad’s house never quite recovered) isn’t going to deter me from giving indigo dyeing a go at home.
Callender demonstrating how to start off a shibori pattern
I got tiny glimpses in the world of ceramics and weaving thanks to a demonstration by a Wedgwood maker at the V&A and a weaving demo by apprentice weaver Ben Hymers of Dovecot Studios at the Ace Hotel. They were more like little tasters that definitely make me want to go up to see the real thing, therefore visits to the World of Wedgwood in Staffordshire and the leading international tapestry studio Dovecot up in Edinburgh are definitely in order.
In addition to physical craft on show, LCW also gave me another excuse to visit the wonderful William Morris Gallery, where the exhibition Social Fabric, exposes the politicised nature of African textiles like kanga fabric from Kenya and Tanzania. Using fabric to communicate news and political statements of course chimes in with Morris’ own stance on social betterment through craft. I loved the examples on show such as the kangas printed with figures like President Obama and Michael Jackson as well as South African artist Lawrence Lemaoana’s powerful hanging pieces.
It was also an opportunity to rediscover names like shoe designer Georgina Goodman, who specifically chose LFW to showcase her first project in the basement of Black’s club in Soho, after her label shuttered two years ago. Goodman is rebooting her label, albeit at a slower pace, and as such is concentrating on more freeing and creative ways of working, such as this series of sketches, artwork and ornate shoes that were originally intended for a film by Steven Shainberg (director of cult classic Secretary). The film is still in-progress but some of the shoes for the main character, who is a shoe designer that falls obsessively in love, have been made – with love – by Goodman. They feature remnants of delicate lace, gatherings of rare feathers and iridescent clusters of beetle wings. They’re the ornate counterpart to an accessible line of slippers dubbed “GG’s” that are streaked with Goodman’s trademark brushstroke stripes and copper splatters.
I was on surer ground with Chanel’s umbrella group of LCW events at Burlington Arcade, including learning about lace making at swimwear and lingerie brand Eres (which has been owned by Chanel since 1996), a glimpse at how Barrie knitwear and Maison Michel operate as well as an olfactory journey of Chanel No. 5. There’s something reassuring about going to hear about Calais leaver’s lace, seeing Maison Michel’s wooden hat moulds and going over the main components of Chanel’s best-selling perfume (citrus, ylang ylang, jasmine, sandalwood and vanilla) because these talks were inflected with the ethos and narrative of Coco Chanel. There’s a magical familiarity when it comes to the story of No. 5’s creation and there were also echoes in these intimate presentations of the way I previously experienced Chanel’s Paraffection houses.
Stretchability applied to the lace used at Eres, echoing the ethos of their swimwear
Barrie’s S/S 16 collection
Maison Michel’s blocks and felt hoods
Sophie, Chanel’s fragrance expert explaining the scent make-up of No.5
Finally, perhaps the luxury brand that was the most genuinely invested in craft was Loewe, who had a significant presence at LCW this year, thanks to Jonathan Anderson’s initiation of the Loewe Craft Prize, awarded by the Loewe Foundation. In the Loewe store on Mount Street, the work of Spanish artist/jeweller Ramón Puig Cuyás is being showcases, with a series of special brooches displayed next to his abstract sketches. Cuyás aims to make jewellery that would “appeal to people who do not like jewellery” by deliberately using non precious materials. As an infrequent jewellery wearer, Cuyás has certainly achieved his mission.
For two days of LCW, a Loewe craftsman was also present in store to show how the 40-piece Puzzle bag, Anderson’s veritable bag ‘hit’ for the Spanish house, is put together. I remember my visit to the Loewe factory in Madrid, before Anderson had taken on the creative reins and I’ve often wondered how the leather craftspeople there have reacted to his left field approach towards accessories design. Once the unusual jigsaw pieces are cut and sewn together though, the construction of the bag follows the same principles that have applied at Loewe for decades. In-store, the process was simplified and sped up for the sake of demonstrating to customers, but even then, the video that I posted on Instagram was by far the most popular of all my LCW posts. Such is the lure of the Puzzle.
“As a house, we are about craft in the purest sense of the word. This is where our modernity lies, and it will always be relevant.” In one quote, Anderson sums up why for-consumer participatory events like LCW matter. Showing hands, revealing processes and engaging people with production processes give meaning to the accumulation of “stuff”, that shows no signs of slowing down.