Textile queens delving into the fine print

By Zoe Walker

Creating your own bespoke fabric designs is one way to stamp your mark on a collection. We meet three local textile queens.

Emma Hayes holds her Riverbed screen-printed bed throw from her MM Collection. Photo / Babiche Martens
Emma Hayes holds her Riverbed screen-printed bed throw from her MM Collection. Photo / Babiche Martens

It was British designer Zandra Rhodes who recently dubbed textile designers the "Cinderellas of the business" - the hard-working creatives behind the scenes creating the things that we often take for granted; the print, the weave, the embroidery. Rhodes, herself a textile-focused designer, explained to Women's Wear Daily, "If you see a fabulous Chanel suit in a beautiful weave on the runway, you can be sure Karl [Lagerfeld] didn't design [the fabric]. I'd like to see more credit given to textile designers for all their work done in the background."

That recognition is slowly growing, for textile print designers especially - helped along by recent print-heavy seasons that have seen more designers turn their attention to and appreciate the power of an originally developed pattern.

Some credit a group of young London designers with sparking this renewed print mania - Mary Katrantzou the obvious example, with her decorative photo-real prints that have featured Faberge eggs and Ming vases, digitally manipulated images of opulent rooms lifted from old issues of Architectural Digest, and blown up, exaggerated images of feathers and flowers.

There are others, too, developing their own textiles and helping make London the "capital of print": Louise Gray, with her vibrant collages of pattern and texture, Maarten Van Der Horst's hand-painted prints, Peter Pilotto's modern graphics, Erdem's elegant digital prints and Jonathan Saunders, whose background is in printed textile design. These are all designers who consider a print developed especially by, or for, them as intrinsic to their design approach as it is to their brand - an attitude that is slowly picking up pace here with local designers increasingly developing bespoke prints, often with the help of someone else behind the scenes, or "Cinderella".

Think of Aucklander Jimmy D's ongoing print collaboration with artist Andrew McLeod; Twenty-seven Names' floral peace textile print created for them by Wellington-based designer Marta Buda; Trelise Cooper's moody swan print developed by her in-house team; or Salasai's specially developed washed-out tartan. Stolen Girlfriends Club, who last season adapted artist Karl Maughan's dazzling garden works into textile prints, continue their development of unique prints for winter with a Day of the Dead print, featuring interlinked skulls and skeletons developed by Carina Kohler, and a yardage print featuring a scratchy indian ink collage of illustrations by artist and "surfing buddy" Nanda Ormond.

Creative director Marc Moore says it has taken some time to get to the point where they can afford to commit to minimums required by factories, but it is worth it. "Having our own signature prints is a huge positive for buyers when they are looking to order from us. It sets our collection apart from other designers and gives the garments more value - they almost become collectable in a sense."

A graphic black and white print (on this week's cover) featuring an intricate maze of illustrations of thorny roses, a human heart trapped in a spider web and skeleton keys is another standout print of the season, created especially for the label Blak Luxe by textile designer Liz Wilson.

A former design assistant to Karen Walker, Wilson's thoughtful approach to textile design is obvious when looking at some of her past work - a haunting digital print of forest fires, pine trees, smoke and fog on a tailored jacket helped her win Fashion Quarterly's Young Designer of the Year 2011, while a print using imagery of Rome's Trevi Fountain was a feature of her winning outfit for the Peroni Fashion Design Competition in 2009. While at Karen Walker, Wilson created some memorable prints, like a series of puff ink prints that glowed in the dark and contrasted "symbols from ancient talismans and amulets with modern objects of power or destruction - a strange concoction of MiG fighter jets, scarabs, AK-47s and peace symbols", she explains.

Wilson hand-drew each object with a vivid marker to look like lace and crochet, bringing together two disciplines of textile design, embroidery and print.

When asked what she considers a good textile print for fashion, Wilson is torn between spontaneity and something more considered. "It depends on the context but the most striking prints can be the ones that look like they took minutes to make, so I admire spontaneity. At the same time, there are people creating perfect intricate designs like Mary Katrantzou that I really respect. I'm also a bit fan of the absurd and the deliberately mundane.

"I guess in my own work I'm usually looking for a part of the print that is only revealed on the second look or to add a touch of humour. I made prints for Karen that had lovely flowers in them but on closer inspection they had muscular spiders resting inside. We also made delightful lacy prints of blowflies."

Wilson's print for Blak Luxe reflects that desire for a hidden secret and a twisted prettiness - Blak Luxe designer Teresa Hodges describes it as looking like an antique lace or brocade, even with the twisted human heart, thorny roses, cobwebs and scarab. The development of the print, says Wilson, happened organically between the pair after discussing the winter collection's theme. "We were looking at dark fairy and folk tales, charms and witchcraft. I was also quite inspired by the work of Kay Nielsen, a Danish illustrator. I wanted the print to convey the clues needed for the kind of quest that was often described in old fairy tales." The print helps sum up the collection, something that Wilson believes is key to the power of print.

"Bespoke prints have the ability to bring together the different ideas in a collection and a great print can be a really bold way of telling the audience what you and your collection is about."

Textile designer Emma Hayes is another pushing the bespoke print agenda locally, with her label MM Collection. She creates beautiful "things" - silk throws, cushions, bags and accessories - that showcase her stunning prints that use traditional handprinting techniques and digital processes, including an eerily beautiful river print that grew from layering watercolours marks, a marbled design on a scarf that drew inspiration from a fascination with oil slicks and emulsions, and a rockpool design that saw Hayes looking at froth on water as it hits the beach or over pebbles. These prints are a development of Hayes' earlier interest in textiles, which had seen her hand-screenprint her own clothes. After working in London, Hayes moved back to New Zealand and worked closely with Cybele Wiren - another designer who develops her own prints each season - before launching MM Collection last year. This sits alongside MM Studio, a design consultancy that sees her do a variety of graphic and interior design work as well as develop prints for fabric companies and other fashion designers.

For such designers, Hayes being able to develop their own textile is a huge advantage, and while she admits it can be expensive, says it's not impossible. "Even if you're small it's not impossible to get work done." Hayes says textile design has possibly been overlooked here, mainly because our industry isn't anywhere as niche as overseas, and "I think that has happened with other craft as well". She mentions New Zealand's rich history of textile design as an example, and a source of original inspiration - while studying at Unitec, lecturer Douglas Lloyd Jenkins sparked an interest in textile designers working in the 1950s, like Frank Carpay, A.R.D. Fairburn and the legendary Avis Higgs.

Higgs has inspired elsewhere too: Starfish designer Laurie Foon and then-designer Carleen Schollum were so inspired after seeing Higgs' work at the Dowse Art Gallery that they rang her up, went to her house for tea and discussed a collaboration. The Wellington-based brand featured the textile designer's Duck Pond print in a 2005 collection called Black Swan. "It [the print] was designed in 1949 and still gets such an incredible response if ever we wear it," says Foon.

Since that career highlight, Foon and her team have continued to use and develop their own prints. "Prints and textile design have become one of the most essential elements of our collection as they are the signature of each range. Our prints embody the absolute essence of each collection by supporting the story behind each one," she explains. "Another reason why creating our own prints become essential to us is that the inks we use are water-based, biodegradable and non-toxic. It's important for our manufacturing processes to have that traceability."

There are other reasons Foon likes to develop exclusive prints, although they aren't necessarily the same as other designers. "If designers in New Zealand are being sought after for our originality it only seems fitting to use original prints, that tell unique stories and aren't rip-offs from somewhere else.

"We are also grooming textile designers through our universities and it makes sense to harbour and develop this skill."

This next generation approach is reflected in the label's relationship with young textile designer Greta Menzies, who has worked with Foon and her team for the last five seasons. A recent Massey University Honours graduate, Menzies initially approached Foon, who asked her design a T-shirt for a collection in 2010 - and she has designed repeating and placement prints as well as embroidery design since. For winter Menzies designed a playful star print developed from star motifs drawn in different media, "flung across a surface to make an energetic 'check' effect. The visual noise is offset against a 'neat' background of mini stars. The layout of the print was directed by Laurie and her design assistant and I focused on creating motifs that captured the theme," says Menzies, who has also produced prints for lingerie label Womama, and fashion labels Stitch Ministry and Kowtow.

For Foon, the work of textile designers is something to continue to celebrate, for several reasons. "Textile design is the course I would love to do if I had the opportunity," she says. "Their work is so tactile and non-conformed."

- NZ Herald

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