Take a look at the accessories on the international runways today — from hats to shoes, jewelry to various fantastical embellishments — and they'll often have one thing in common: They're British.
The flowerpot-shaped hat at Christian Dior Couture? Stephen Jones. The feline eye masks at Luella's last London show? Linda Farrow. The cage-like corset at Alexander McQueen's spring 2008 show? Shaun Leane.
And that's just the beginning. Jewelry designers Judy Blame, Johnny Rocket, Julia Belmacz; Shoe designers Manolo Blahnik, Jonathan Kelsey, Mehmet Kurdash of Gina, Nicholas Kirkwood, and leather artisans Paul Seville and Stephen Collins, all work regularly with major international fashion houses.
"In Britain, we think tangentially, we understand the conceptual approach," said Jones, who is also a regular exhibitor during London Fashion Week. This season he's making hats for Giles, Basso & Brooke, John Galliano, Marc Jacobs and Giambattista Valli. "I think we also really value accessories here."
"We've always been good with craft in London," said Blame, who works with Gareth Pugh, Comme des Garçons and Marc Jacobs. "I do see it as a craft. Accessories don't go out of fashion."
For many houses, accessories are becoming increasingly important, providing added drama as well as being a powerful commercial force. "We've worked with Stephen [Jones] for three years. He just takes the idea to another level," said Christopher Brooke of Basso & Brooke. "We work with our manufacturer to create good commercial pieces, and we put wearable dresses on the catwalk, but [the hats] make them aspirational. They elevate them."
Accessories designers say working for the runway allows them to stretch their boundaries and experiment, while at the same time build their own businesses and reputation. "It's like advertising, but with an international brand name. It works for everybody," said Philip Treacy.
Jewelry designer Leane, who has worked with Alexander McQueen and Givenchy, agrees. "I was doing all the couture shows. Consumers and retailers began to ask where they could buy pieces," he said. "In 1998, I started my own label, taking the styles I created for the catwalk and [making] commercial collections."Collaborations initially made up 80 percent of Leane's business, but today they're 20 percent, letting him to focus on his flourishing label. "The two complement each other. It's an experimental process, creating new pieces for the catwalk," said Leane. "You are constantly challenged in terms of weight and gravity. It can be really costly. And then you can still find it doesn't work."
For fashion eyewear maker Linda Farrow, special collaborations account for 60 percent of business. The company started working with designers in 2004, and now creates eyewear for Luella, Raf Simons, Eley Kishimoto, Matthew Williamson and Chloë Sevigny. For fall, a line with Antonio Berardi will bow.
The eyewear is made for runway and retail, and sold in designer outlets and at shops stocking Linda Farrow, like Colette, Browns and Selfridges. "You reach lots of different consumers. The Luella customer might be different from Williamson's. It extends your audience," said Farrow partner Tracy Sedino.
But most accessories designers say the biggest draw of these collaborations is the creative process, and the chance to work with the stars of the business. "Some things are a real labor of love," said Treacy, whose giant floral hats adorned the Valentino Couture runway in January. "You don't spend a week working day and night on Mr. Valentino's hats for the money. You do it because it's the pinnacle of what you do."
For fall, he's also doing pieces for Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Rifat Ozbek for Pollini. "Ultimately, we are all fashion animals," Treacy said. "We give up our services in the name of elegance and beauty. It's a total truth."
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