THE BEST OF BRITISH COUTURE
Britain, for instance, has a love affair with the practice that dates back more than a century. British designers such as Charles Frederick Worth, Lady Duff Gordon, Edward Molyneux and Norman Hartnell blazed the trail for haute couture and came to dominate Parisian fashion. In more recent times, Alexander McQueen followed John Galliano to the helm as chief designer at Givenchy in 1996, while another British-born designer, Bill Gattyen, stepped up to head the studio at Christian Dior last year following Galliano’s infamous departure. British design influence on haute couture is quite plain to see. Here in London, we might only be able to use the term couture, but we have a crop of talent that could give the French houses a run for their money. Chief among this creative pool is Nicholas Oakwell. A few days before Paris Couture Week, his second couture collection lit up the Ballroom at Claridge’s, cementing the view of many that we have a truly gifted designer in our wake. The uncompromising execution of each of the 23 creations in this jewel-inspired extravaganza imbued each garment with a dazzling beauty, and it is the innovative techniques used in their construction that really sets Nicholas Oakwell’s gowns apart. “Trying different techniques and experimenting, that’s the great bit about doing a collection. At the beginning, the workroom team and I often gathered round saying ‘oh, I wonder how this would work if we do this or do that’,” says Oakwell. Of particular note on the experimental front is the treatment of the beading on the gowns. Throwing convention out of the window, Oakwell’s atelier stacked bugle beads on top of each other in one dress, made tassel fringes from them in another and used sequins cut by hand into halves and quarters in other pieces to ensure the light refracted in an unusual way. “We just tried to use beading and sequins in a different way. Rather than placing them flat, directly onto the fabric, we wanted to try and make them move and become two dimensional,” Oakwell enthuses.
In many ways, Oakwell’s decision to defy convention was driven by his source of inspiration for the collection, iconic jewellery house Grima. “During his heydey in the Sixties and Seventies, Andrew Grima was renowned for using a lot of gold, particularly different colours of gold. At a time when gold and silver were never thought of as being seen together, he invented this new way of placing it that made it jar, but in such a beautiful way that his designs just worked. I found this fascinating,” comments Oakwell. “This was the spark for wanting to do beading in a different way. I didn’t want to be literal and take a piece of jewellery and replicate that in fabric. Andrew Grima stepped around the normal procedures and was inspired to do things differently, which was very much our mindset when it came to embellishing the fabric.”
The result of such innovative thinking is a collection of garments that are cascades of gold and silver, as glittering and opulent as the Grima jewels that inspired them. The Pompidou gown in tulle with bugle beads for example (pictured right), is an absolute triumph. It was inspired by the Sunburst brooch given to Madame Pompidou by The Queen in 1972 and Oakwell reveals that this dress took some time to get absolutely right. “It was making sure the direction of the bugle beads were in the right direction and the density and the movement of them were correct. The design required the beads to radiate across the chest and arms, so it was quite a challenge getting it to match and lay correctly,” he reveals. In many ways, the end result - a prefect showcase of craftsmanship and attention to minute details - is a celebration of how great British couture can be. It also rather nicely showcases that intangible element, the reason why these gowns command the price tags they do. It’s that feeling someone gets when they put on a couture dress. “You know, I’ve had clients come back to me and say ‘when I wear one of your pieces there’s something different,I feel completely different’. They don’t know what it is, they can’t put it into words, there’s just this feeling,” reveals Oakwell.
It’s a sentiment with which fellow British couturier Stephane St. Jaymes can relate. “When I finish a dress and the client puts it on, there’s a minute when she’s stood in the mirror and she’s like a ballerina swishing about. This is when I know I’ve done a good job,” says the designer. “Women just want clothes that flatter the bits they’re insecure about. It’s the art of making them feel beautiful. It sounds really clichéd, but I’ve been dressing women since I was 16 and this continues to be their ultimate goal.” At 44, St. Jaymes’s skill and experience are evident in the construction of his garments – as beautiful on the inside as they are on the out – and his pursuit of perfection is revealed when he begins discussing his attitude to designing. “For me, making dresses is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I will sit there and drive people mad, making the design perfect, getting the proportions right. It’s recognising that sometimes moving the waist placement half a millimetre will make all the difference.”
Interestingly, his view of couture in Britain is that designers aren’t bound by the rules that govern couturiers in Paris and, thanks to a long history of bespoke fashion, the tailored look is where British designers excel. “Every country has its own style,” he says. “In this country, we’re not as whimsical as the French. Here, it’s about the tailoring and, because of that, British couture can stand on its own, it has its own individuality.” So next time you’re hunting down that perfect gown, remember this: British tailoring is among the best in the world. And with designers like Nicholas Oakwell and Stephane St. Jaymes at your disposal, you’ll be in very safe hands indeed.