It’s become increasingly hard for independent designers to succeed in the fashion business today, but the key is having a unique point of view – and endless grit and determination. Whether it’s textile maverick Matty Bovan’s magpie mixes of colour and pattern, Steven Tai’s offbeat sense of humour, or Supriya Lele’s fusion of British and Asian cultures, these are the next generation of designers shaping the way we are dressing
In many ways, Matty Bovan is your archetypal young designer. Wild prints? Tick. Shocking colour clashes? Tick. More makeup than an eighties New Romantic on a big night out? Tick, tick, tick. To pigeon-hole him as just another wacky fashion upstart, however, is to underestimate his enormous potential. Bovan, 27, is a rare thing – a designer who sees textiles with the finely honed eye of an abstract expressionist, from the great tradition of wonderfully original English eccentrics that includes Zandra Rhodes, Vivienne Westwood and Bodymap.
His collection for AW17 includes a whole raft of techniques including crochet, machine knitting, screen printing, digital printing and felting. It’s the textile equivalent of sensory overload, but he does know when to stop. “I sometimes see it like I’m making an album and each track has its own personality so you have to approach them differently,” he says.
Bovan’s career trajectory has been as wiggly as one of his knits. After completing his degree at Central Saint Martins – something he was only able to do with the help of various scholarships – he decided to move back home to his mum’s house in York where he set up a studio in the garage. It made economic sense and gave him the headspace to focus on a variety of projects including his ongoing work as a contributing fashion editor for Love magazine; a print collaboration for Marc Jacobs; and Girlness – a film for Barbie’s birthday on what it means to be a girl in 2017.
- Sketches and colour references at Matty Bovan’s York studio
As a child, Bovan was encouraged in his creative vision by both his mother, Plum, and his grandmother who taught him to knit. He also took inspiration from the inventive way his mother decorated the house. “My favourite bedroom as a child was lilac with red net curtains and those wiggly mirrors, as well as disco ball-esque cushions – it was a very intense combination!” For the past two seasons mother and son have collaborated on the accessories – the earrings, charms and necklaces that finish off each look so perfectly.
- Matty Bovan’s autumn/winter 2017 collection
Bovan’s multi-disciplinary approach and his flexibility make him a real talent to watch. While he’s already collaborated with his childhood partner in crime, Barbie, he says he would love to dress Bjork and Róisín Murphy. “Anyone who has a strength of character and knows their own style,” he says. Just like him.
Steven Tai has a quirky sense of humour. He likes playing games like Resident Evil 7 and his favourite Netflix show is the off-the-wall comic strip Rick and Morty. For AW17, his collection was based around sleep, with great cocoon coats so you can wrap up in a duvet even when you are not in bed. It was called Sleep Now, Work Later because, he says, we never get as much sleep as we’d like to.
The day we spoke, the 33-year-old was mainlining coffee having arrived in London at 5.30am on a flight from Macau, heading straight to a 10am seminar and then a briefing with his team at his Hackney Downs studio. The former Portuguese colony is where Tai was born. His mother still lives there and runs a factory where Tai produces his collections. His grandparents were also in the manufacturing business. “I wouldn’t have started my own label if it wasn’t for that,” he says.
- Details at Steven Tai’s Hackney studio
Tai’s family moved to Macau from Shanghai but emigrated to Vancouver when he was nine. He went to business school in Vancouver but changed course when he enrolled for a fashion degree at Central Saint Martins in London. He graduated in 2011, and won the prestigious Chloe Prize at the Hyéres Fashion Festival the following year. Yohji Yamamoto was the judge. “I was petrified,” Tai says. “I got so anxious. I just didn’t know what to say to him! I could tell he has a really funny sense of humour. He makes jokes but people around him are too nervous to laugh. I was laughing on the inside.”
Tai set up his own label in 2012 and now shows his collections in London and, for the past two seasons, in Shanghai. Although he says China is a difficult market to break into, it now accounts for half of his sales. For spring/summer the collection is expanding to include more types of the Steven Tai girl in different stages of her life. His girl, he says, dances to her own rhythm. “We have a strong sense of humour and irony. I was an outsider a lot of the time and always a bit of a geek so I had to embrace that about myself.” All he needs now is a good night’s sleep.
With no plans for a glitzy flagship, and absolutely no intention of spending thousands on a glossy ad campaign, Malone Souliers is a luxury shoe brand that means business. But they are determined to do it in their own way.
Launched in 2014 by creative director Mary Alice Malone and business brains Roy Luwolt, the duo are already competing with established names, boasting 250 outlets across five continents. Jessica Chastain, Oprah Winfrey and Amal Clooney are all loyal fans. The secret is the complementary talents of the two founders, who met at a dinner party. MA, as Luwolt calls her, is obsessed with the craft of shoemaking – and has a sharp eye when it comes to a cool pair of kitten heels – while Luwolt has 18 years of experience developing strategies for luxury brands.
The son of a diplomat, Luwolt grew up moving between 45 countries. Malone spent her childhood in the Pennsylvania countryside and was selected for the Olympic equestrian junior team. She dreamed of becoming a painter but transferred a talent for making things to a degree in shoemaking at London’s Cordwainers college.
“I love the very human interaction that making shoes has,” says Malone. “You are making this object that someone will put on, that could change their self confidence, their outlook, their day and even possibly their life. Maybe they just got a new job wearing your shoes.”
For London fashion week in February, Malone Souliers put the designer centre stage, making a pair of shoes live to showcase the craftsmanship to press and buyers. “You can be really hard on yourself,” she says of the process. “You put one nail out of place and your ruin the whole shoe and have to start again. On the day, I was able to be in my element so it was a rather enjoyable experience. I was just happily making shoes.”
A Sai Ta’s mother gave birth to his older brother on a boat between Vietnam and Hong Kong. His parents were refugees from the Vietnam war and ended up in the UK in the late seventies. A Sai, 29, the second youngest of seven children, grew up in south-east London. His father, a carpenter, left when he was six, leaving his mother to bring up the family. She earned money as a seamstress, sewing clothes at home. When he speaks to his mother now, they do so in a hybrid language that only they understand, a mix of Vietnamese, Cantonese and English.
- A turtle pin and avocados at Steven Tai’s studio
As a child, he changed school often, so never had all of the right uniform on the first day of class. “I remember wearing these green tartan trousers and everyone else was wearing grey trousers,” he says. “I felt so silly and then the coolest kid at school said ‘where did you get those trousers? I want my mum to get me a pair,’ and I realised how clothing can form an identity and how much you can tell about someone.”
The Ta household was a noisy, hectic place filled with his older siblings and their Portishead and Massive Attack posters. A Sai – who was called Andrew as a child but reclaimed his Asian name after a trip to Hong Kong when he was 18 – would go to charity shops with his older sister and liked to customise hand-me-down clothes. He got his first weekend job at H&M at the age of 16, and worked in retail during his BA and MA in fashion at Central Saint Martins. He quit his last shop job at Selfridges only last year, where his designs were being sold on the floor above as part of the Fashion East pop-up. They sold out in a week.
At the end of his BA, Ta was awarded the L’Oréal creative prize. When Kanye West was at the college to interview prospective designers to work on his Yeezy brand, he was intrigued by Ta’s unique textile experiments and invited him to spend three months in LA. “I learnt a lot just seeing how much passion he had,” says Ta, “and how open he was to learn made me realise you have to keep pushing your vision out there, it gave me the confidence to believe in myself to do it.”
Ta’s first collection, part of the Fashion East show last season, was a colourful exploration of textiles and texture – the frayed, distressed fabric has become his signature. “I stumbled on this overlocking technique just by accident,” he says. “I didn’t have much money so I collected all the thread from school to create my own fabric – and it came out in these really interesting shapes.”
Molly Goddard gets excited by the idea of embroidered doilies and Victorian nightdresses, is a “bit obsessed with fabric manipulation techniques” and loves visiting craft fairs. She thinks it’s a shame that craft has such a “dodgy Pinterest persona”. If anyone can restore craft’s bad rep, this 28-year-old designer, smock-lover and Rihanna favourite can.
She set up her label in 2014 and her brightly coloured, voluminous taffeta and tulle dresses have been earning her accolades ever since – from being snapped up by Dover Street Market after her first show, to being a finalist in this year’s LVMH’s young fashion designer prize. Goddard has made a name for herself for shows big on concept: for AW15, models took part in a life drawing class, SS16 saw them layer-up cheese and lettuce sandwiches on a production line and for AW16 the Tate Modern catwalk took on the form of a just-finished dinner party.
Goddard’s work has been described as “dishevelled bohemian crossed with punk princess”. But Goddard herself is wary of summarising: “trying to describe it always makes it sound a bit rubbish, doesn’t it?” But try she does: “There’s a clumsiness … a slight awkwardness to [my designs] in that they’re a bit wonky and imperfect.”
- Molly Goddard’s signature tulle and smocking
“Childlike” is a word that often crops up – “growing up always interests me,” she says, “I love seeing what little kids wear.” Another is “girly” – she’s been asked how she feels about that one before. “I sometimes wonder if I should sit down and actually think about these things, actually what do I think?” A moment later: “I think there’s nothing wrong with the word ‘girly’ … it has negative connotations but it doesn’t have to be negative.”
At a time when fashion seems fixed on feminism, her often-oversized designs have been celebrated for speaking to the kind of dressing that’s done to please no one but yourself. While sure of her own feminist beliefs, she’s less sure of how her work connects to them: “The shows for me are about bringing people together and encouraging people to wear what they want – and, I guess, not dress for men. I don’t know.” Goddard’s mind, understandably, is perhaps busy elsewhere – she has London fashion week to prepare for. She describes the collection as “a little more grown up maybe … maybe a bit less colour – it’s more controlled in that sense, but not in a boring way”.
- Molly Goddard’s autumn/winter 2017 show at London fashion week
With fans like Rihanna and dresses that make grown women swoon like seven-year-olds, perhaps it doesn’t matter that she hasn’t thought it all through; her clothes speak volumes for themselves.
Dora Teymur is sure of something: that he doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed. It makes speaking to him about his work – beautifully ugly handcrafted shoes beloved of street style stars and Solange Knowles – an interesting exercise.
Of certain things we can be sure: he is 25 years old. He’s originally from south-east Turkey. And he’s largely to thank for the mule being the It shoe of the year. Even though mules, Teymur concedes, are “tricky” – “it’s like leopard print: either you’re super chic, or you’re Erin Brockovich”.
- Studded shoes by Dorateymur
On other topics he is less definitive. Ask him to put his design aesthetic into his own words – “I’m looking at lifestyle and character and music … nostalgia is part of my work”. What era is he nostalgic for? “I can’t be specific about my work, it always depends on my mood. I’m inspired by the classic, although I can’t describe my work as classic, but I am very much inspired by what is classic.”
Teymur is not trying to be difficult or evasive – he is just terrified of being “stuck in one certain place”, pinned down. His work is always evolving, he says: “What scares me the most is saying ‘this is my work’ and then your mind changes, you evolve, you like making different things.”
He started his Hampstead-based brand, Dorateymur, in 2012, during his second year at Cordwainers college. The brand is now stocked at Browns, Net-a-Porter and Opening Ceremony. His signature styles include the Nizip, a mod-ish ankle boot that wouldn’t look out of place on Twiggy or Felicity Shagwell; and the elegant Harput loafer, with its square toe and extravagant metal logo ring. For his AW17 collection, Suburban Melancholia, he crafted heels in the shape of miniature elephants – inspired by ornaments he has seen in people’s homes. The concept behind his upcoming London fashion week collection, he says, is “the new aesthetic” of the near future, informed by the development of new technology and AI. Given his a fear of being pigeon-holed, it would be remiss to try and predict even the near future for Teymur. One thing we can say: let’s not rule anything out.
While chatting with Alice Archer a broad variety of names pop-up in conversation. The designer, 32, is an expert in embroidery and worked for Tracey Emin on her embroidered artworks before launching her own brand in 2013. Mary Queen of Scots is another inspiration – the ill-fated queen embroidered while incarcerated. Meanwhile, John Singer Sargent – in an unlikely partnership with fashion photographer David LaChapelle – provides the mood-board material for her upcoming spring/summer 2018 presentation.
Training in fine art at Goldsmiths and textile design at the RCA, Surrey-born Archer describes her time with Emin as formative. “I learnt loads of techniques of hand embroidery,” she says. “I try to bring that to my work – the feeling of spontaneity.” Emin herself was a blast: “She is fantastic, extremely fun and generous – a strong woman. She made me feel ambitious.”
- Embroidered dress and kimono jacket for autumn/winter 2017 by Alice Archer
Archer’s aesthetic is luxurious, grown-up, louche, glamorous – with robes as something of a signature. The clothes are expensive – up to £2000 for a dress – but they are already on the radar of those with bottomless budgets including Pippa Middleton and even P Diddy. The rap mogul wore one of her robes. “His girlfriend bought something at Barneys,” says Archer. “It was just by chance that I saw it on Instagram.” Archer’s dedication to the glamour that appeals to the superrich remains undimmed even if it impacts on her day-to-day. “I love designing occasion wear,” she says. “I have nothing to wear in the day but a great collection of amazing dresses. I had a million weddings this summer - I think 10 - and wore a different dress to each one.”
Anyone with half an eye on Palace, the favoured brand of hypebeasts everywhere, might recognise Blondey McCoy – the skater has been their face for five years. But that’s just the entry level intel on this rising star. McCoy is an artist and designer as well, with his own label Thames London, which he founded in 2015. Following a collaboration with Fred Perry, this London fashion week the brand is launching a collection with jewellery designer Stephen Webster. Did we mention that McCoy has just turned 20?
While most people his age are still learning how to use the washing machine, McCoy speaks as someone with world-weary experience. “I have been in London and skateboarding since as long as I care to remember,” he says. The collaboration with Webster came out a chance encounter. “I vaguely remember bumping into Stephen on a night out,” says McCoy. “He told me that he’d mentioned Thames to his daughters and that they were aware of the label and had insisted on the collaboration.” The collection interprets the theme of London with an eye on the landmarks. It features Eros – the angel of Piccadilly Circus – on sovereign rings and pendants, and the razor blades associated with punk reworked in gold.
- Sovereign necklace and knuckle duster ring by Thames London and Stephen Webster
McCoy grew up in London with a British mother and Lebanese father. He says his designs come down to his attitude to his hometown. “I’m a real tourist,” he says. “I feel lucky everyday to walk the same streets as my current and past heroes, I love Soho and all of its heritage from [Francis] Bacon and [Sigmund] Freud to [Paul] Raymond and [Quentin] Crisp … I think it will always be a creative melting pot as long as there is room for people to inspire each other to be individuals.” McCoy might be young, but joining those London heroes already looks likely.
When you come from a family of doctors, choosing a career as a fashion designer might understandably raise some questions from your parents. “There was a point when I was younger when they suggested me being a lawyer,” says Supriya Lele. “But I was always stronger in the arts at school.” Lele is, in fact, proving herself to be something of a fashion talent. Graduating from the RCA last year, the 30-year-old had a presentation at Fashion East, the well-respected new designer showcase. It prompted i-D magazine to call her “the British-Asian designer everybody’s talking about.”
Lele’s debut was a collection inspired by her background, as someone with Indian parents who grew up in the UK in the nineties, and had a moment as a goth. It featured a diverse casting, with models wearing Indian jewellery as well as draped clothes recalling Indian dress, mixed with satin blazers, leather trousers and 10 denier tights. “I am British and Asian and there is a dialogue between the two,” explains Lele. “Growing up I never wore Indian clothes but family members, like my aunties in India, would wear saris every day. It’s about being from one place but also another.”
- Belt detail by Supriya Lele
Her show at Fashion East this season will continue on this theme but the designer remains in the minority on the London fashion week schedule. There are still relatively few non-white faces coming out onto the catwalk for the customary post-show bow. While her identity is a rich vein of inspiration, the wider politics of race in fashion is less analysed. “I don’t feel like an anomaly but you don’t see that many British Asian designers,” she says. “I don’t know why that is. Perhaps there is more [that the fashion industry] to engage with that community.” Lele’s presence – and the hype around her collection – can only be a step in the right direction.
Rejina Pyo describes her clothes as “effortlessly elegant with a playful modern twist”. If that sounds straight out of the fashion book of hot air, she follows this up with something a little more thoughtful. “I think that’s my natural aesthetic and my personal taste. It’s easier when you’re being honest to yourself,” she says. “I wear my clothes and feel privileged to test them out. I might wear something and go ‘oh yeah, but I feel restricted’ and then lose the waistline.”
It’s this kind of real-life-friendly thinking that has arguably put Pyo, 34, on the radar of editors and stylists since launching in 2014. Working with Roksanda Ilincic before starting her own label, Pyo’s clothes have a similar modernist simplicity. Her Greta dress, a puffed sleeve midi design with bodice detailing around the waist, has been worn by fashion director Caroline Issa and stylist Kate Foley – women who are endlessly photographed outside fashion shows. That profile is likely to reach a new tipping point this season as Pyo is moves from presentation to have her first catwalk show at London fashion week.
- From moodboard to look book, designs by Rejina Pyo for autumn/winter 2017
Pyo was born and raised in Seoul and moved to London to study at Central Saint Martins when she was 25. It was her first trip out of South Korea. How did she acclimatise? “I think it’s easier for us coming to the west because we see a lot of films, know what its like,” she says. Nine years on, she feels London is home. “The more you live here, the more you get the underlying text,” she says. “Now I feel I belong here more [than South Korea] because I am very supported. London is very open.”