Changing gear

Fashion design is providing an unusual source of inspiration for car designers, as barriers between disciplines continue to break down. Hannah Booth reports

The red Corvette parked outside the hotel that Julien Macdonald has booked for the afternoon isn’t his, says his PR, but I suspect the Welsh fashion designer would happily be spotted motoring round London in it.

Macdonald’s real automotive passion, he tells me, is the Ford StreetKa. His customised roadster – the new StreetKa is a

nippy two-seater, available from March 2003 – was unveiled a few weeks ago at Macdonald’s spring/ summer show at London Fashion Week, complete with a fluorescent pink exterior, gold hub caps, white tyres and a growling tiger on the bonnet.

Clearly, Macdonald’s model is a one-off. But the notion of car companies collaborating with designers from other disciplines, particularly fashion, is not. It is something automotive brands are embracing with zeal.

‘We’re trying to tap into what younger people want,’ says Ford Europe design director Chris Bird, who designed the StreetKa at the Ghia design studio in Turin. ‘The car industry needs more spontaneity and boldness, as well as inspiration from disciplines outside the sector. [Macdonald’s] collaboration is the first of many – it’s important to experiment with what’s happening in the wider world of design,’ he says.

Bird approached Macdonald, whose creations clothe celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Victoria Beckham and Kylie Minogue, and asked him to go mad with a StreetKa to see just how far car design could be pushed.

‘It’s a wild, crazy, young and sexy car,’ says Macdonald. ‘Cars are a lifestyle statement, and should be just as aspirational as, say, one of my dresses. I suggested ideas to [Bird] that he had never dreamed of, and he loved them.’

Certainly, all Macdonald’s ideas – from the diamond-encrusted Ford marque on the steering wheel to seat covers featuring prints from his latest collections – made it on to the car. The Ford design team was briefed to accommodate his every whim, which occasionally entailed rethinking its usual processes. For example, he wanted carpet flooring instead of the usual rubber and insisted the leather seats could be printed on, according to Ford colours and materials designer Nicola Ralston.

‘We did learn how to respond quickly to new ideas. [Macdonald] had a clear plan, and his choice of colours and materials was very different to those found in the automotive sector. Initially, his ideas seemed extreme, but they worked well,’ she says.

It was Macdonald’s radical approach to the brief that has impacted most heavily on Ford’s permanent design team, and stretched their way of thinking, says Bird.

The fashion industry’s approach to colour and material is something all car designers should embrace, he says. ‘The automotive sector has traditionally used steel and rubber, but it’s realising that softer, fashion industry-inspired materials are what people want.’

Henrik Fisker, creative director of Ford’s design team Ingeni, agrees. ‘Our industry can learn a lot from fashion designers, who tend to delve much deeper into the detail of things,’ he says. The car industry should embrace the speed with which the fashion industry uses the latest colours and materials too, he adds.

Ingeni has made a point of recruiting designers from diverse backgrounds, including product and fashion design, and employs a fashion designer as its colours and materials expert. ‘She brings a different way of looking at the details,’ Fisker says. ‘It’s a two-way learning situation – she can spread her knowledge to our car designers, and she in turn can learn about the practicalities of automotive design.’

The Ingeni team works well together partly because it has been set up on neutral turf and boasts an ‘open working environment’, he explains.

‘There are no difficulties. You can’t compare car design to fashion or product design, but the two can complement each other.’ Indeed, Fisker has used fashion designers’ expertise in designing brand extension products for Aston Martin, where he is design director. For the umbrella, for example, the fashion experts selected the material and created the handle shape, rather e e than the automotive designers, he says.

But is there the danger that traditionally trained industrial and car designers will feel excluded by such developments? On the contrary, Bird insists. ‘That is not the point. There is a high level of expertise in the car industry, of course, but designers can still learn. They need to open up and look at what’s happening outside their sector,’ he says. Collaborations such as those with Macdonald almost work as shock tactics, he adds – creating an extreme example of what, with a bit of toning down, could happen in reality.

‘Boundaries are blurring between design disciplines. The future is working less in isolation, but rather fashion, product, industrial, automotive and brand designers working together. Softer, more emotional and cultural factors are starting to have greater influence,’ he adds.

So could we all be changing our motors as often as our Jimmy Choo’s? It’s not an impossible scenario, says Bird. ‘In the US, young people always personalise their cars, with sound systems and seat covers. That trend is starting to come over here,’ he says.

The concept appeals to Macdonald. ‘Cars are sexy – just think about car advertising – but they can be stale and boring. People want to buy into something individual, not just a bog standard model. The car industry should wise up and give customers what they want. I design tailor-made couture dresses which start at £50 000 – just think what people would pay for a customised car,’ he says.

‘Fashion and cars work in the same way. A car must be as fashionable as the person inside it. The future is both [industries] working together, all selling the same dream,’ Macdonald adds.

Diamond-encrusted steering wheels are one thing, but it’s not unfeasible that cars could change their seat covers to match the ‘seasonal’ colours. And certainly brand extension products, such as the driving gloves, key rings, visors and hats that Macdonald has designed for StreetKa, are more viable products.

But a car is a huge investment, and as such it’s unlikely they will ever become fashion items, argues Fisker. ‘In practice, cars could incorporate changeable seat covers, but cars are really beyond fashion. They’re more about someone’s personality.’

It’s tempting to read too much into Macdonald’s collaboration with StreetKa. Ford is, after all, sponsoring his show and his collection’s colours are featured in the car. They are each scratching the other’s backs, but there’s a clear trend towards collaboration between the two sectors.

Rover approached fashion designer Matthew Williamson earlier this year to customise its Rover 25, incorporating Persian rugs, Indian silk door interiors and Christmas lights round the glove box. And Fisker has plans, still under wraps, for a futuristic show car from Ingeni.

Rover claims it has subsequently forged an ‘alliance’ with Williamson, but he has no firm plans in the pipeline with the car company. ‘We ask him for feedback and there is a communication flow between us,’ a spokesman says.

Audi has taken the product design route in its project with Jam Design. Jam has created an interesting series of art and design objects inspired by Audi car parts, such as a bench created from the Audi TT’s roll bars, chairs made from interlaced seat belts and a petrol cap light.

It started life as a PR project, much like Macdonald’s work, but has since developed a life of its own. The products feature in the latest advertising campaign, and will be exhibited this month ‘to coincide with’, if not actually be part of, London’s 100% Design show. ‘We’ve helped Audi to integrate what it does with contemporary culture,’ says Jam creative director Jamie Anley. It’s not unfeasible for the Audi project to be extended into jewellery, he adds. Speedometer necklace, anyone?

Macdonald is hoping his sexy StreetKa, worth over £1m due mainly to the diamonds, will end up ‘in the Tate Modern or somewhere’. It may be a museum piece already, but the concept behind it is only just starting to take off.

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