Now that the high street is pretty near the top of the list of horrors of the Eighties, it is no surprise that textile designer Rebecca Earley thinks bespoke tailoring is the way forward for textile and fashion designers. It’s true she may be biased; the opportunities that have come her way since she graduated with an MA in fashion from Central St Martin’s three years ago have meant she hasn’t even had to flirt with the mainstream. Jones snapped up her entire final-year collection, while she turned down a placement in Carl Lagerfeld’s studio, and became instead one of the new generation of British designers who struggle on – with meagre sponsorship – to carve out a name for themselves in the years after college.
Earley started out creating her own fashion label and, despite being successful very quickly – she has dressed, among others, Cher, Kylie Minogue and Bjrk since graduating in 1994 – stresses that she is not a fashion designer, but a textile print designer. Unlike many fellow textiles graduates, she was determined to make a go of it in the UK, and selling hand-printed scarves for Liberty and Barneys in the US and Japan provides her with a stable income. “I can do lots of designs and experiment using the scarf format, but it is too restrictive. I need more of a challenge in terms of placement.”
Hence her bespoke label – temporarily entitled Dress – which is set to kick off this autumn. Earley explains the method: “People come with an idea for a fabric or object and put an idea together themselves. I then make a capsule range out of that.” As a preliminary, she was part of a one-day show at the ICA earlier this month where she dressed fellow exhibiting artists as a hairy monster, a Formula One racing car driver and a vulture. They came to her for outfits and she produced garments that very much reflected their identity, she says.
Making clothes to create an “identity” has become her priority – and with it the formation of a link between fashion and art. Hence, she is planning an exhibition of around 50 outfits. They will hang on a rail in the middle of the gallery while photographs of the garments will be displayed on the walls. “If you make a beautiful ball dress, then why not photograph the belle of the ball wearing it?” she says, denouncing the traditional idea of simply hanging textiles on a gallery wall. The fashion/art idea started earlier this year, when Earley was invited to be part of an exhibition of British artists, entitled Supastore, in New York. Exhibiting alongside Damien Hirst and Gary Hume, she came up with huge prints of Fifties underwear printed on to fabric and stretched over wooden blocks.
While exhibition work allows her to be more conceptual, when it comes to clothes, her main concern is to create fabrics and prints that are practical. Images are central to Earley’s designs, but are not there to make a bold statement. “Someone would have to pay me a hell of a lot of money to put an image of, say, a vibrator on a dress. Red or Dead broke a barrier with mad prints of fish and chattering teeth in the late Eighties, and it was a very particular look. I appreciate what they did, but I like to make something that is more wearable,” she says.
Feathers, pins, crushed paper, lace and chicken-wire contribute to Earley’s style. So delicate are her designs that even her barbed wire prints are the stuff of sophisticated women in their 20s and 30s rather than dubious European punks. Flowers are also a no-go; her only floral print is a one-off using gypsophila, because it was sent to her in an anonymous bouquet. “There are so many more interesting things to print than flowers,” she says: she has printed old lace, old jeans and fishnets on to new fabrics – an idea copied, to her fury, by other designers.
Earley feels secure having a handmade label, as manufacturers can’t mass-produce her “heat photogram” printing process. This takes the common heat-pressing process, where paper patterns are transferred on to fabrics, a stage further. As well as paper, her templates consist of garments and metal objects, and she uses heat-sensitive dyes and an airbrush to accentuate definition on to microfibres. With computer technology hot on her heels and manufacturers eager to interpret her ideas, she is constantly coming up with original production ideas.
“Textiles have to be about new fibres, fabrics and processes, using the computer to come up with new products,” says Earley. As technology becomes ever more sophisticated, she is “experimenting like crazy”. She predicts the Stork printing system, which inkjets on to fabric in the same way as printing on paper, is about to change the face of textile design. However, the 250 000 printer is still only capable of doing 1.5m lengths costing about 100 a metre. She urges students to take up technology and identifies the best print students as “those using interesting processes. Hand-painted splashy stuff and bright colours are really dull. The interesting work involves using rubber, leather, metal; fusing and embossing materials”.
Earley also lectures in Printed Textile Design at Chelsea College of Art and is working with a weaver and a knitter on a research project into ecotextiles. “No manufacturer can be 100 per cent environmentally friendly”, she says. “People have tried and it’s impractical and too costly, so they drop it.” This said, Earley is experimenting with embossing, working with a jeweller and metal-workers to create new templates. “Since colour is the major pollutant in the industry, why not opt for embossed textiles where texture sells cloth?” she asks.
As well as exhibiting her work in galleries and setting up Dress, Earley is keen to pursue consultancy work. “I want to be in a position where my input is crucial to development, where I sell my knowledge to a manufacturer, and that knowledge comes by me constantly doing my own thing. And that’s what I would say to anyone. Do your own thing.”