LONDON — Browns Fashion has always been known for taking chances on young talent: Founder Joan Burstein famously bought John Galliano’s entire graduate collection off the Central Saint Martins catwalk and helped to launch the careers of the young Hussein Chalayan and Manolo Blahnik, among others. Now, it’s hired CSM student Conner Ives to create a range of T-shirt dresses for the store.
Although the retailer may now have a different owner, branding, strategy — as well as an edgy new store called Browns East in east London — the store is staying true to its gutsy, independent-minded ethos.
“It’s the 2.0 version. I just want to really push Browns to the forefront and take it one step further because we have a bigger team now,” said women’s wear buying director Ida Petersson, who has been focusing on adopting a global perspective and introducing new talent from across the globe that’s often sourced via Instagram.
The latest name on her list is Conner Ives, an American-born, London-based young designer who may still be in the midst of finishing his design degree at Central Saint Martins, but who has already garnered attention, after sharing his designs on Instagram and scoring commissions from the likes of Adwoa Aboah and Rihanna.
Drawn to the rawness of Ives’ talent and his “grounded” attitude, Petersson said she was determined to find a way to work with him, even though he is yet to launch his label and has no structure in place to support production.
“We were obviously very conscious of the fact that we didn’t want to make him fail his degree, so we found key shapes from his core collection and then gave him full creative freedom” to design for Browns. The capsule collection consists of 44 one-of-a-kind T-shirt dresses, each one hand-sewn by the designer. They are made from vintage T-shirts that Ives sourced from organizations such as Salvation Army and Goodwill.
“Unless you go to a couture atelier, you don’t get that kind of level of detail,” Petersson added. “Having seen pieces he made himself in person, I knew that it couldn’t go wrong. He has such a great eye for pattern. Not all designers do, and that’s why most of them have full pattern-cutting departments.”
Ives said he jumped at the opportunity to work with Browns as he had always “associated it with his heroes.” At the same time, he said he faced a lot of challenges trying to balance Browns’ demands with his responsibilities as a full-time student.
He said he tried to maintain “a sense of honesty” with the collection: “There’s so much of me in the collection. I am too small of an entity right now to outsource any of my work. It also speaks to the time that I’m in right now, which I think is quite honest. All the labels get stitched by me, I do like the sentiment of that.”
The T-shirt dress also represents his affinity for subtle designs and allowed him the opportunity to produce the collection using second-hand materials:
“There are so many used T-shirts out there in the world. That’s always my starting point, I go to markets and stores and seeing how much waste is out there made me realize that new and old design can live together,” said Ives, who — like many designers of his generation — is putting sustainability at the core of his design process. “The clothes right now really maintain a level of purity, they aren’t made in a foreign country by minimum wage workers and a lot of respect goes into that process. That’s something that I care a lot of about and I’m not planning to let go of it.”
The collection will make its debut at Browns East, the company’s new outpost, with a special pop-up space on Feb. 14. It will be available online later in the week.
“I can pretty much guarantee that it’ll be gone too quickly,” Petersson said. “I’m just worried about keeping it in place long enough to celebrate him and give him a nice show space.
“I think the younger generation, the Millennials are very influenced by what celebrities wear on social media. Anything Rihanna wears, it’s gold for fashion buyers and it brought Conner to a whole new level. It allows people who might be sitting in a little studio in Poland or Peru or anywhere, to build a business. From a buying perspective, from a creative perspective, I think it’s one of the best inventions that has happened in the last 10 years or so.”
Other names introduced by Petersson include Wright Le Chapelain, a label by Central Saint Martins alumna Imogen Wright and artist Vincent Le Chapelain, and the emerging Chinese and Korean labels Blindness and Shu Shu Tong, respectively.
She said it’s the right time to be adopting this strategy given customers’ desire to stand out in an oversaturated market.
“Five years ago, the world wasn’t as small as it is now, and maybe it wouldn’t work. But what we see from our customers these days is a desire for something that is individual. There’s a real demand there, people are getting bored with seeing the same thing everywhere,” Petersson added. “We’re still going to buy Gucci and do massive buys, but being able to have this mix of amazing young talent gives us a point of view and a point of difference. That point of difference is everything these days, it’s a way for us to get customers in.”