This story first appeared in the November 18, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Brand launched: 2011
Studio location: Deptford
Price point: $228 for a linen camisole to $2,200 for a woven silk half jacket
Retailers: Dover Street Market London, Ginza and Isetan
Starting a fashion label was not part of the original plan for Central Saint Martins graduate Phoebe English.
“I’m only designing because I failed to get into drama school,” says English. “I wanted to be an actress. This is sort of my back-up plan that has taken on a life of its own because the drama school didn’t take me. I did a foundation course in design, then strangely I got into Central Saint Martins.”
She notes, however, that fashion doesn’t really differ from drama. “I still work with creative people for an extended amount of time that culminates in a show. So I guess it’s not that different,” she says.
English’s Plan B has been gaining momentum each season: Her creations may have started out as highly conceptual — skirts that looked as if they were fashioned from wire caging and dresses that resembled clumps of fabric — but she has rapidly moved on.
Recent collections have been a mix of the darkly romantic and fragile, with silhouettes that are often rough-edged and made from hand-woven textiles. The spring line had a naïve, monastic feel: plain dresses adorned with delicate velvet garlands in blood red or black.
Dover Street Market was one of her earliest supporters; she has created installations for the retailer’s New York and London spaces. “They were our first stockist and I was more surprised than anyone when that happened. They placed an order for a small collection just after I graduated, and I registered my company the next day. They’ve continued to support me with buying and collaborating on projects and installations. It’s very different from working with other buyers,” she says.
Other wholesale clients include Isetan, H Lorenzo, I.T. Hong Kong, and Boon The Shop in South Korea. The designer also has a small Web shop.
English benefited from the New Fashion Venture Program sponsored by London’s Centre for Fashion Enterprise, an incubator program through which she shared studio space with Craig Green and Thomas Tait. The two-year program offers free space and mentoring in all aspects of the business, from legal to funding to sampling.
She credits her team with helping the label to thrive, and proudly says they’ve “never delivered late to any stores” — unusual for a small, independent designer.
In June, she launched men’s wear (more minimal than her women’s), has begun doing fashion films and her London Fashion Week women’s presentations are getting bigger. For the moment, she’s enjoying the journey.
“I don’t have big plans or ambitions. I guess the biggest plan is to survive and keep going,” she says, “and to produce good work that people want to wear and enjoy.” — Lorelei Marfil
Brand launched: 2012
Studio location: Knightsbridge
Price point: $275 for a sweater to $5,000 for a coat
Retailers: Barneys New York, Five Story, Farfetch.com and Avenue32.com
Alexander Lewis launched his namesake label in 2013, and his decision to show only resort and pre-fall collections gave him an immediate point of difference. “What the industry needs is newness, you sometimes need to break up the system,” says the Brazilian-American designer.
Born in Chicago and educated in the renowned British boarding school Harrow, Lewis returned to the U.S. to study acting at the University of Southern California. His diverse background and years spent crisscrossing the globe have always acted as a creative springboard. “All the different memories, smells and images I’ve been picking up from England, the U.S., Brazil and traveling definitely impact my work.”
Lewis says his client is equally diverse and, above all, ageless. He cites his mother, sister and grandmother as having had the most influence on him and who all wear his clothes in their own way. “My woman looks like she is about to go to a dance party or maybe, she’s just dancing for herself at home.”
Or even singing. On the day of the interview Lewis woke up to the news that Lady Gaga wore a full look from his fall collection — a silvery jacket and plum trousers with a metallic sheen — during a recent walk in South Kensington.
Some women directly inspire his creative process. For spring, he collaborated with artist Flavie Audi. “I didn’t want to start designing main [seasonal] collections just for the sake of it, I wanted them to have a purpose, and that’s why I’ve been collaborating with different artists these past three seasons. Also, working with women and seeing things from their perspective is always intriguing to me.”
Making the most of his participation in the Swarovski Collective 2016, he used the crystals to translate Audi’s glass sculptures into filmy dresses with intricate embellishments and iridescent prints.
This play on texture has been a common thread for him. It’s a defining part of his aesthetic, along with trompe l’oeil silhouettes, knitwear — among his best-selling categories — and ultrasharp tailoring, which he credits to the Savile Row training he received upon his return to London.
Past seasons’ designs have included featherweight slipdresses in diaphanous tulle, dreamy net skirts embroidered with mermaids and palm leaves, sensual midriff tops and playful intarsia sweaters. Wholesale clients include Barneys New York, Club 21, Avenue32.com and Tinker Tailor.
Lewis envisions expanding his label to encompass different categories, in particular handbags and footwear, enabling him to offer his client a full wardrobe.
He’s also thinking seriously about raising outside investment: “I would only remain independent if the company could go where I want to take it on its own.”
Longevity is Lewis’ other main goal. “When I was younger, I thought that as a business if you survive two years, you’ve made it. Today, if you survive 10 years, then you might have a chance of keeping control of your company in the long term.” — Natalie Theodosi
Brand launched: 2013
Studio location: Hackney
Price point: $297 for a white cotton poplin top to $1,492 for a silk satin and hand-embroidered organza dress.
Retailers: Harvey Nichols, Young British Designers and rejinapyo.com
After graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2011, Korean-born Rejina Pyo teamed with Weekday, part of the Hennes & Mauritz Group, on a collection that won the Han Nefkens Fashion Award in 2012.
With kudos from the prize — a biennial European award for exceptional work by a designer operating at the cutting edge of fashion and art — and money from the collaboration, she launched her label the following year.
Fine art, texture and color are among the abiding themes in her work. Her aesthetic revolves around classic shapes and pieces that women can wear every day. “I design based on timeless garments,” said Pyo. “I want it to be clothing that’s alive, that can last 10 years.”
Past seasons’ designs have included experimental yet approachable silhouettes and youthful, stylish plays on form and function: Reversible coats and trousers transform from cigarette to wide-leg with the pull of a zipper, and embellishments in her latest collection included obi-like fastenings or spots of gold foil.
Wholesale clients include Harvey Nichols, Net-a-porter.com, I.T. Hong Kong and Avenue32.com. She is a beneficiary of the New Fashion Venture Program sponsored by London’s Centre for Fashion Enterprise, a fashion business incubator offering designers free studio space, one-on-one mentoring in business, legal, funding, and access to sampling and production machinery.
As she was building her own label, Pyo also worked in the studios of London designers including Roksanda Ilincic and Christopher Raeburn. Despite her background — and support from the venture program — the challenges of remaining an independent designer remain. For example, she says companies that sell the same fabric to Burberry for 10 euros per meter charge designers like her 50 to 100 euros per meter because they can only order a small run.
Pyo’s creativity stretches farther than fashion design: Her husband Jordan Bourke is a professional chef, and the two recently launched a Korean cookbook of their favorite recipes, “Our Korean Kitchen,” published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
“Being able to focus on something else was such a luxury to me,” says Pyo.
Her label is a work in progress. “Nothing happens overnight. You often compare yourself with people who are already established, but if you look at, for example J.W. Anderson or Roksanda, they’ve been in the business for 10 years. It takes time, you know?”
In terms of future plans for her company, direct retail will play a larger part. “Regarding the Internet and what’s happening in Korea, there’s a lot of direct retail rather than going through buyers,” she says. “But for now I want to take it slowly. When the time comes, we’ll see.” — Lorelei Marfil