They have been London’s digital print pioneers, building their label in earnest — and with little fanfare — over the past eight years. Now, with backing from two outside investors, the designers behind Peter Pilotto are breaking new ground, with a footwear collection, plans for a bigger business and more product — printed and otherwise.
Theirs is not a typical London story: Unlike so many of their contemporaries, Peter Pilotto and Christopher de Vos didn’t study at Central Saint Martins, the Royal College of Art or anywhere else in the British capital.
Pilotto, who is part Italian and grew up in the Austrian Tyrol, and de Vos, who’s Belgian and Peruvian, met as students at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, alma mater of Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela, Veronique Branquinho, Haider Ackermann and others. They later moved to London, and created their first joint collection for spring 2008.
“It was quite hard to just to enter a city like this, we pretty much started from scratch,” said Pilotto during an interview with de Vos in the designers’ vast, polished concrete studio overlooking London’s Regent’s Canal. “It was a massive challenge.” Yet London embraced their bold prints and embellishments, distinctive color palettes and sculpted shapes with gusto. And the industry backed them from the get-go with sponsorship and business support. “Their complex geometries, especially artful dresses, and sporty separates performed very strongly across a wide range of customers,” said Leila Yavari, fashion director of the Munich-based retailer Stylebop.com, which carries the collection. “And print definitely helped usher them into the spotlight.”
Their work ethic and instinct for business and strategy also helped them to win a host of acco- lades over the past two years, as well as attract new investment.
Escada’s owner Megha Mittal and London’s MH Luxe, a small investor with a portfolio that includes Esteban Cortazar and London modeling agency Marilyn, each took minority stakes in Peter Pilotto earlier this year, for an undisclosed price. In May the designers won the inaugural Swarovski Collective Prize, a 25,000 euros award for innovation, and last year walked away with the British Fashion Council/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund prize — a 200,000 pound award. Twenty-four hours after winning the Vogue prize, they unveiled their hit, one-off collection for Target.
Now, change is afoot.
“It’s important that we offer the full spectrum of a woman’s wardrobe,” said de Vos. “We want to be a reliable brand where the offering is expanded from day to evening. It’s been amazing to focus on one category, which I think is the key to success when you are a small designer. Focus on something, be patient and see it grow. But growth comes with challenges and that’s obviously what we’re working on.”
After a long collaboration with Nicholas Kirkwood — who did shoes for their runway collections — ended, they were determined to stay in the footwear game.
“We felt an urgent need to continue, to pursue that look, that vision, and our customers had always asked us to do more,” said de Vos. “It’s important to Peter and me that things feel natural and aren’t forced. We push each other — and ourselves — in everything we do, but it has to still feel like the right moment. And shoes felt right.” The collection for spring 2016, part of which made its debut on the catwalk last week, encompasses five styles in two to three colorways. There are cutout sandals with bright, delicate swirls and four-inch heels, flat sandals adorned with linear strips like a lineup of colored pencils, and two midheight heels. Prices for the shoes, which are made in Italy, range from $595 to $1,350. Their inspiration this season came from images of a wooden intarsia technique for furniture. “We decided to translate this into leather, and we found and developed a very similar technique by mixing different colors of suede and leather. The inlays create a very graphic and rich 3-D effect which we’re very excited about,” said de Vos. Pilotto added that it’s crucial the shoes have appeal from every angle. The vertical strip running down the front of the high sandal, for instance, is all about elongating the foot.
Pilotto said shoe designers often focus too much on the side view. “While we analyzed every view we said: ‘Show us the front, that’s what really matters.’”
Shoes are only the beginning of the brand’s new growth curve.
While plans for a handbag line and a stand-alone store are both in the pipeline, the priority now is to develop relationships with wholesale partners and grow that end of the business. “Our intentions are to understand better where the gaps are in our offerings, and how we run the business individually with each retailer, to have direct conversations with them,” said de Vos.
Peter Pilotto has 200 wholesale clients including Selfridges, Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Harvey Nichols, Joyce, Lane Crawford, Matchesfashion.com and Net-a-porter.com.
Product innovation is another priority for Pilotto and de Vos, whose hands are perpetually busy creating new surfaces, textures and patterns for their collections. In the past, the designers, who work side by side in the studio, have used crystals to embellish floral jacquards and black denim as well as rustic yarns and silicone rings to create flower appliqués.
Even their northeast London studio, where they make nearly all their samples, is a testament to their ethic and aesthetic: It’s home to a sea of cutting tables, sewing machines and mood boards, but also filled with cognac-colored mid-century modern furniture and tree-trunk stools made by the Italian furniture designer Martino Gamper, in primary crayon tones.
For spring 2016, they used cotton and French lace for the first time, working smocking and ruffle details and embellishments onto their lean silhouettes. They get a buzz out of putting a new spin on traditional materials and techniques.
“Nostalgic for us is never about nostalgia. It’s about identifying things that are still existing, that have a culture and history and turning them into something totally relevant for the woman of nowadays,” said de Vos.
So adamant are they about pushing their designs into new territory that prints now represent about 30 percent of the collection, down from 100 percent.
“It is exciting to see them evolve now and work their art in a different way while still staying true to their DNA,” Mittal said. “They have enormous potential and I am excited to support them to take the brand to the next level. We are in their midst of building our team, which is an important next step.”
Indeed, the designers are looking to beef up their management team, and are currently looking for a managing director. “We definitely need more support on the business side,” said de Vos.
Stylebop’s Yavari said Peter Pilotto is not a brand to be pigeonholed, and points to the “fluid fabrics, fresh silhouettes, the softer feminine details that amply showcased their expert tailoring skills,” for spring.
There’s little doubt more spoils await these two princes of print.