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Organic Matters: Hannah Lees on her Kirkwood collaboration

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For his latest collection, shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood has collaborated with British artist Hannah Lees, combining her natural artworks with a minimalist design. Elizabeth Finney finds out more

Contemporary artist Hannah Lees describes her work as ‘pickled’. This might conjure up images of aged foodstuffs floating ominously in a jar at the back of a neglected kitchen cupboard, but the finished product of her labours is a series of delicate and distinctive dyed silks. Some of these are currently pinned to the walls of the Nicholas Kirkwood flagship boutique in London’s Mount Street.

Elizabeth Finney
Fashion

During her post-graduate degree at the Chelsea College of Arts in London, Lees started to really reassess her work, searching for new direction. “I found a book about natural dyes and I was flicking through it and found that one of the ingredients that you can use for natural dye was old onion skins. I thought, ‘I have loads of those!’ So, I started experimenting,” says Lees. The process is called ‘slow dying’, and it entails putting matter onto a cloth, bundling it up and jarring it in vinegar or brine for around four months to let the cloth take on the natural dye over time. “I like the idea that it’s quite hands-off. It really appealed to me.”

Lees has been working with this process for more than seven years, experimenting with an array of different materials and ingredients, often sending cloths back into the jars multiple times over the course of a year to get the desired effect. “I’ve experimented with quite a lot of different fabrics. With some, the dye just doesn’t take, and some look disgusting,” Lees explains. “I tried Fuji silk because I liked the lightness of it and how it took on the colour, but it has this matte finish.”

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NATURE MEETS NURTURE

Lees’ ‘pickled’ silk cloths have been the inspiration for Kirkwood’s latest collaboration, dubbed the Courtney group within his autumn/winter 2018 Imperfect Tension collection. Brought together by Kirkwood’s fondness for contemporary art – he’d already purchased pieces from Lees’ husband, Jack Lavender – the collaboration was borne out of neighbourhood familiarity and friendship. “I’d given him a ‘pickled’ cloth that both Jack and I had made together – I just thought it would be quite a nice thing and that he’d find it interesting,” says Lees. About a month later, Kirkwood contacted her about using her pieces as a design for a shoe collection. “I took some cloths to him in the studio and left them with him to have a play around with. He then selected three or four that he was really into.” 

Kirkwood is known for seeing out stories to inspire his designs and in recent years has been exploring the combination of organic and fabricated elements within a collection. Inspired by Lees’ use of natural dyes and techniques, it was decided that they would digitally print her pieces onto silk to be used as the upper of the shoes – Lees realised that this was just a new way of framing her work. “Initially he wanted me to make all of the cloth for the shoes by hand, but feasibly that wasn’t going to happen. The original cloths are a bit like watercolours – if you put them in bright sunlight they will fade,” says Lees. “I think he was worried that I would feel that digitally printing it was cheapening it in some way, but actually I felt like it really moved my practise forward.” 

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HANDS OFF

The final Kirkwood designs, much like her ‘pickled’ cloths, were a complete surprise to Lees. “I have so much trust in Nick; he was very in tune with what I was doing so I was really happy to let him figure it out,” she says. “There’s something nice about being surprised when you see something like that. I’m really glad that he went with his own instinct and it was reassuring that I genuinely enjoyed wearing them too.” Her nature-inspired silk prints were formed into a scrunchie upper and set against a linear coloured Plexi heel. 

“I was fascinated by this ‘pickling’ process Hannah developed; I’d never really seen anything like that before,” says Kirkwood. “I loved the idea of incorporating something natural and contrasting it with a linear graphic heel. Contrast is a recurring theme I like exploring in my work, as it allows me to investigate unfamiliar territory as I never really know what the result will be. Combining ‘pickled’ organic fabrics with man-made elements made a lot of sense to me, and seemed like a natural fit.” 

In contrast to the fashion world of the last century, Lees’ work came from the concept of pragmatism, from a desire to use whatever is abundantly a waste material in her life and from not wanting her work to have a negative environmental impact. “Nick has definitely got to me with his minimal technology aesthetic – working together has pushed me to think about how my practise can go forward,” she explains. “I also like to feel like I’m using everything. More and more I’ve been thinking about surplus – there’s so much waste and I don’t want to feel like I’m contributing to that.” This mindset has led Lees to explore her home looking for things to add to her jars. Pruned cuttings from her eucalyptus tree, leftover koji rice and the last pieces of saffron in the packet are all things that have been bundled into her cloths. 

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STYLE IN SURPLUS

This search for useful surplus is becoming more and more common in the industry, with many designers hunting down sustainable alternatives for those materials that are harmful to the environment. Earlier this year, Kirkwood himself produced an exclusive Net-a-Porter collection of consciously crafted Beya mules, which are made using leather tanned with rhubarb roots, as well as a pair using a ‘fruit leather’ made from apple waste. Looking ahead, he has also been exploring the possibilities of other sustainable materials, including mushroom-based and lab-grown leathers. Always striving to move forward with innovation and design, Kirkwood will undoubtedly continue to unveil designs closely linked with contemporary art.

As for Lees, there’s plenty on the agenda, from group shows and installations to new levels within her work with ‘pickling’ cloths. “I’ve been working on a few projects that are in their early stages,” says Lees. “One is textile-based. I had a conversation with Nick about the art and fashion crossovers – my mother is an incredible craftsperson; she is happiest behind a sewing machine and she’s been badgering me for about five years to do something together, so I finally gave in.” 

nicholaskirkwood.com ° hannahlees.com

Pictured: Dyed fabric designed by Hannah Lees on display at the Nicholas Kirkwood boutique. Plexi Heel Scrunchie Sandal in Orchid, Moss and Amber. Casati Studs Scrunchie Mule in Orchid, Moss and Amber. All images courtesy of Nicholas Kirkwood.

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