The recipients of New Gen Men, one of London’s most highly regarded initiatives for fledgling menswear design talent, were announced this week by the BFC. Backed by Topman, the scheme provides successful recipients with tailored mentoring support alongside their sponsorship, with a view to helping these emerging designers build their businesses. Among the latest line-up (and receiving the New Gen funding for the second time running) is shoe designer Diego Vanassibara. Diego cuts a dash not only with his unique personal style but also as the solitary men’s shoe designer within the line-up of colourful, largely East London-based fashion designers.
I caught up with Diego in his refreshingly leafy, suburban studio to discuss all things shoes. Originally from the South of Brazil, Diego initially studied architecture in his native country. Finding the Brazilian emphasis on engineering within his archictecture studies to be too restrictive, he switched to shoe design and came to London to study at the legendary Cordwainers College in Hackney. Graduating in 2011, Diego Vanassibara the brand launched in 2013. The shoes he designs are elaborate in their construction but still subtle, featuring elements of crafted exotic woods as components, sometimes lacquered to the gleam of a grand piano casing. They really have to be experienced in person to appreciate the story and passion behind them, but hopefuly the extracts from my interview below will give you an insight into the fascinating design process involved and the story behind the brand. What I really can’t recreate here is Diego’s very Latin gesticulations and occasional finger clicking as he enthused away.
SL: Where are you from exactly in Brazil?
DV: From the very south, near Argentina, about 1000 km from São Paulo; Fazenda Souza, which is in the interior. The very south of Brazil isn’t really visited, it’s a bit more mysterious. The landscape of the interior changes a lot… it’s freshwater rivers, caves and animals; Savanna meets Australia. Its very different, you have… expanses. There’s a lot of space, a lot of space down there.
SL: How did you get into shoe design?
DV: When I studied architecture there was a stage in the course when it got very technical, too technical and then I started to look at the profession and it takes too long for something to happen in architecture. I wanted something dynamic but I didn’t want fashion. I wanted something object-driven but I didn’t want to be an industrial designer either. Then one day I had a realisation it was shoes, it was a perfect match; a bit of fashion, a bit of architecture, a bit of product design. I was studying in the south of Brazil and I decided to come to Europe and I went to Cordwainers.
SL: Is there a shoemaking tradition in Brazil?
DV: Very much so. The south of Brazil was the major centre of shoe production in the world before China took over, maybe 20 years ago? A lot of factories closed down, a lot of people were without jobs. But now it’s coming back. Brazil has always had quality especially in women’s [shoes], so much so that before China the Italians were already making shoes in Brazil. You can find good shoes for men, they are not like European shoes, its a cross between smart and casual, the leathers are not so refined, the construction is not European. It’s not like what I do, they are not beautiful. So definitely, a big, big tradition, not in my family though, no one has ever worked in footwear. I am kind of the outcast, that was the thing that I liked about it, no one in my family did this before.
SL: So were you always into shoes?
DV: When I was a kid I had so many dreams, but not fashion, I didn’t have magazines. You hear the stories of people here… I didn’t have Vogue! For some reason I always like beautiful artisinal things and art. When I was a kid I had the books at school, there was no internet, no TV, I would see these beautiful buildings in Europe, that was the only reference point I had for art… that and carnival. So much so that one of my dreams was to become a designer of carnival, that was quite serious. Where I am from you are either a lawyer, or you work in the fields, or you are a politician or you work in metal mechanics: nothing to do with art! Shoes really happened when I was 19/20, that’s when I immersed myself.
SL: Did you set out to design men’s shoes?
DV: No! When I entered university, imagine doing men’s, please! How boring is that? I wanted a lot of room to work with and be crazy! Then in the second year of university I took up the challenge, and thought ‘let’s try men’s’ and I completely fell in love. I went to a sample sale and it was mostly men there, and I thought there is a demand here. Then I started to learn more about men’s shoes and was getting more passionate about it. Then you have a whole opportunity to change things, not many are people are pushing it.
SL: You use some very special materials, how did that come about?
DV: I’ve always liked natural materials, the tactile: wool, wood. I climbed trees when I was a kid. I experimented a lot with wood at college. Whenever we travelled, especially somewhere hot and tropical, I would end up bringing back some wood to experiment with. It’s such a nice material. I wanted to bring it to the forefront, to the top of the shoe. We had been to Indonesia, where I saw people doing absolutely phenomenal things out of wood but I wanted a more modern proposition, not folklorical, it needed to look modern. We ended up meeting an artisan who spoke English and who had been to university, and his family, there is an area where everyone does something with wood, and he was very excited because he was only doing furniture, exporting beautiful furniture. So the idea was to combine the best of this tradition (the Europeans don’t really carve any more) with beautiful shoemaking. We wanted to make in Britain but unfortunately our shoe industry here does not tend to collaborate much with very young brands, so I ended up going to Italy, they are still OK to work with smaller brands. We started working with this family company, wonderful people, very good. There is that element of craft in what we do and respect for artisanship. This new range we are developing, its bigger and we will be offering different price points, still high end but including more of a weekend shoe.
SL: Does the family in Indonesia still make the wooden pieces, the carving and the lacquering?
DV: Oh, God yes! But for the lacquering we are working with a company in England, in London. It’s not easy to do the lacquering, when you have a large surface [the process is typically used for piano casings], its easier to hide, you don’t notice little defects or faults. It’s about 5 times you have to lacquer and sand, and you have to buff it at the end, it takes a lot of time. We have been building something really elaborate. But its great to expand your idea and offer something else.
SL: Where does the wood come from?
DV: We use mahogany and New Guinea rosewood and they come from a sustainable plantation. They are not from a native forest, they come from a plantation, they are generally younger trees, about 15 years old not 100 years old.
SL:How would you like to see your shoes being worn? Do you have a vision in your head?
DV:They are so versatile, you can wear even with denim. We don’t want to be niche, I don’t want to speak to one kind of man only, especially as a menswear brand. With clothing you can have a much more distilled point of view, because you’re offering the whole look. I can not offer the whole look… unless it’s like a boots-only party in Vauxhall!
I love when we lend them to stylists and the result is something I would never have thought of before, it helps me develop as a designer. It might be easier if I mention some designers: my hero in Japan, Mihara Yasuhiro who is actually introducing my shoes to Japan. Dries, my shoes go and fit perfectly… which is brilliant, because I love Dries. Ann Demeulemeester, Haider Ackermann, Lanvin, Marc Jacobs. Raf Simons, some of his things… there is something with what I do and the Belgians. Stylists style it with Italian tailoring, Bruno Cucinella, Vuitton and sometimes with London designers as well. I don’t want people to think Diego is this one thing. I want to have space to experiment.
SL: What is your vision for Diego Vanassibara the brand?
DV: I don’t want what I do to be seasonal. I want it to be with the times but I don’t want it to be too seasonal. All the craft behind it, if it’s too disposable it doesn’t make sense. The vision I have for the brand is very embedded in craft. I think that menswear also allows you to be like that, which is perhaps why I’m in menswear.
People talk about my colours, colour in mens shoes has not been explored enough I think. I push the boundaries but I understand that it has to be at a pace. It has been said that it appeals to the more normal guy because its still acceptable for him but also for the fashionista because the difference is enough for him.
SL:Why do you think there aren’t so many new shoe designers compared to young fashion designers?
DV: The reason for that is the complexity of making shoes. I appreciate that clothing is not easy but you can always stitch clothes in your house, it requires technical skills but shoes require a lot more technique and it is more expensive to have it produced. There is a level of complexity, you have to really love shoes. You have to be a bit more grounded!
SL: How do you feel about being based in Britain which has its own shoemaking tradition?
DV: I think that it’s an opportunity in the sense that Britain has the name, so when I align myself with Britain, it adds curiosity and interest. I would like to reinvent, to add energy. When you look at my designs there is an element of familiarity to them, I am not making something star shaped. The breakthrough I want is to really make people ask “Can you re-energise the shoes? Can you make them more exciting? Can you add a bit of fun, flair, design to them? Get a bit of dust off and move it forward?” Undeniably there is a classic angle to what I do, there is that element. There is a tradition, a history. The fact is that I love living in Britain, we’re a British-based brand, there is that influence. The contamination is good, cross-polination is very healthy. That’s what London always has, because you’re surrounded by people from everywhere, you absorb it.
Diego Vanassibara will be showcasing his latest collection at London Collections: Men in June. His shoes are sold in stores around the world including Joyce in Hong Kong. Watch this space for UK stockists. Meanwhile you can buy online at Diego Vanassibara.com or Grey Book.
Baartmans and Siegel are the latest young British designer to announce a collaboration with high street chain River Island. I tend to be a bit lukewarm about high street/designer collaborations in general, mainly because the few purchases I’ve made from such designer hook-ups are now gathering dust. However, River Island has been working with some of the most interesting young British designers recently, having produced collections with Joseph Turvey and T.Lipop to date. This approach feels like a more relevant exercise than trying to translate very established luxury brands into mass-produced budget fashion à la H&M, being more akin to Topman’s long term support of YBDs. Baartmans are regulars on Sharpened Lead and their relaxed but luxurious aesthetic has had me hooked since I came across them at an early L:CM. Expertly co-ordinated to build anticipation, photos of the collection are embargoed until June, when the collection will be showcased for the first time in a specially-produced film, timed to tie in with LC:M. However, some painterly fashion ilustrations of the collection have been released as a taster and as a loyal follower of the Baartmans & Siegel brand, I share them here. We’re told to anticipate key pieces such as a double-breasted blazer, a signature puffa and footwear in the form of “petrol-effect snow boots”. Such hints, and promises of technical experimentation and retention of the pair’s well known attention to detail and craftsmanship, suggest that their strong design personality will shine through.
As tributes to the late Frankie Knuckles, godfather of house, continue to pour in from across the music world following his death this week, its clear that the musical genre has had a huge influence, but what impact has this massively-popular music subculture had on British fashion, if at all?
The arrival of house and the later onset of the rave era in Britain has often been derided by the likes of sartorial commentators like Robert Elms as marking the end of club dandyism and triggering an era of pastel tracksuits.
In fact, many of the influential dandies and club kids from the Blitz club era embraced house because the music came from a newly-emerged urban, black gay subculture and therefore appealed to the free spirits and mavericks within the club scene here (as evidence, Boy George is still a house music DJ to this day).
One designer who is particularly knowledgable about the origins of house in the U.S. and the club scene around it is Kim Jones, style director of menswear ar Louis Vuitton, whose graduation collection, (bought in its entirety by John Galliano no less) was inspired by the seminal Chicago scene:
“My graduate collection, called Music Box, was inspired by The Music Box club and the people that went there. I got a lot of flyers from early Chicago and collected records that were played there and The Warehouse and Paradise Garage. I did an installation at The Pineal Eye after graduating called Edge of the Looking Glass based on the club. Later on, Derrick Carter and Honey Dijon told me the saw my collection of records and flyers there and were wrecked that some young English kid knew all that stuff prior to the internet.”
In terms of fashion, while early British house clubs like Shoom encouraged comfort for all-night dancing (hence the baggy T-shirts and tracksuits), in fact, as with every other era of nightclubbing, what you wore was still immensely important. Boy’s Own fanzine and sleeve notes on the back of records like Terry Farley’s Balearic Beats compilation offered clues to the esoteric dress codes of the early UK house tribe: (“smiley faces”, “poncho’s, ponytails and body paint”). Even dungarees and Kickers had an unlikely fashion moment.
Following the explosion of Britain’s take on the genre, ‘acid house’ in the late ’80s, central London entered a boom period of clubbing, when the minutiae of what was worn by the (then) still exclusive crowd was as important as the (usually Stateside) label of the 12″ dance mix being played. A brief relaxation on sartorial codes for the benefit of dancing and sweating was followed up by the emergence of ‘designer’ fashion as a staple, which, for men in London meant shopping at the likes of designer emporium Jones, World or The Duffer of St. George. There was certain knowingness in how an outfit would look under the strobe lights. The difference with house music as a subculture was that there was no permanent, prescribed uniform, the key to inclusion was to smile and the willingness to dance all night. As with every subculture however, there were regional differences, like the still-enduring influence of Manchester’s casual streetstyle look which venerated high-end, often European, sportswear brands.
So what of today? While veteran designers like Raf Simons still look to the work of graphic designer Peter Saville and The Hacienda, a new generation of designers is inspired by their own formative experiences at the parties and clubs which emerged from the shadow of the original house movement. Conceptual menswear designer Martine Rose‘s AW14 collection features reproduced rave flyers from the Wild Life Archive attached to the garments with great reverence, their selection based on parties which she and her friends attended. Christopher Shannon, another young menswear designer, announced his SS14 show last year with an invite featuring young lads in a bedroom plastered with rave flyers. The collection itself was inspired by his recollections of the era of the superclub in his native North West.
Much has been said about ’90s fashion recently, most of it inaccurate and not really reflective of any real decade: the most convincing trends being the chunky, high tech trainers, long sleeved T-shirts, graphic prints and of course, the tracksuit. But the actual legacies of the initial boom years in house music are the enduring casual street style look and the peacock, knowingly dressed-up tendency in London clubbing. Fashion in house music is a fluid thing, much like the music itself, there is no definitive item or look that is “house.”
The music itself has a more obvious presence. At LC:M shows in particular, electronic music is the norm, from banging techno to more eclectic beats (Lou Dalton’s shows are always soundtracked by music selected by Horsemeat Disco for example).
While originators of house like Frankie Knuckles (who as a teenager, apparently, originally intended to be a fashion designer himself) may not have always been aware of the whims and permutations of style of later generations on the UK dancefloor, the music he invented celebrates a sense of freedom and coming together that remains an inspiration to today’s designers.
Beyond her collections shown twice a year at L:CM, young British menswear designer Lou Dalton has also established a reputation for producing one-off collaborations with some of the world’s leading stores. Liberty was the first London store to have Lou Dalton on it’s rails and is currently being rewarded for its foresight with a unique sweatshirt designed to sit alongside the SS14 collection.
In her full-scale collections Lou blends a romantic sensibility with luxurious yet rugged materials, often celebrating the great outdoors, and it is the unique fabrication that makes this particular collaborative piece special. The all black design combines a spongy jersey body offset by panels of fabric with a Braille-like, raised texture. Being black-on-black, the piece would benefit from close-up inspection (better still a stroke) to reveal its tactile qualities. The ingenious curves to the panelled sections (no blocky patches here) recall the mesh panels in Lou Dalton SS13, where sharp tailoring was expertly fused with sports mesh.
The sweatshirt is, not surprisingly, available exclusively at Liberty.
Photographer and design magpie Todd Selby‘s book Fashionable Selby has just been published and I got my hands on one of the first copies. Originally known for his photographs taken inside the homes of designers and other creatives, (usually showing off their eclectic, maximalist collections of ‘gorgeous things’), in this new book, “The Selby” focuses his attention on the studio spaces of people working within the fashion industry.
There are big names – Dries Van Noten, Isabel Marant, Nicola Formichetti – but some of the most interesting characters and spaces explored belong to people I hadn’t heard of before, like Dutch stylist and exhibition designer Maarten Spruyt, and ‘punk’ design trio Blackmeans from Japan. If his last book, Edible Selby (based on photographs taken in some of the coolest professional kitchens around the world, as seen in The New York Times) made me want to go and eat in all of those places at once, then Fashionable Selby makes me want to dust off my personal world-travel souvenirs to appreciate anew, Gollum-like, while simultaneously getting creative with the (imaginary) craft basket.
Selby’s photos capture his subjects passion for their work. He clearly has a knack for bonding with his subjects because there isn’t a posed or self-conscious photo among them (Formichetti’s piece possibly being the least spontaneous). London-wise there are features on bespoke shoemaker Sebastian Tarek, the legendary Andrew Logan, props and accessories designer Fred Butler, vintage clothing dealers Cosmo and Richard Wise and my personal favourite, designer Julie Verhoeven, whose work I have long admired and who always communicates a visceral sense of excitement about what she does. From organic dyers to vintage clothing dealers, couture artisans, ethical Angora farmers and accessories designers, this is a unique and insightful look into the creative workspaces of some of the interesting characters in global fashion. The visual chaos and colour in The Selby’s photographs make the factory visit/artisan manufacture porn (beloved of a certain type of menswear blogger), look very humdrum indeed. In essence, this book isn’t really about fashion at all but pure creativity, communicating an invigorating sense of people doing what they enjoy most and sharing their joy in having a space to do it in.
The family of Belgian designer Dries Van Noten has been dressing the people of Antwerp for three generations, and now the work of its most famous son is being celebrated in Paris.
Strictly speaking, the Dries Van Noten exhibition, which opened in Paris on Saturday, is not a retrospective. We were told at the exhibition’s opening in Musée des Arts Decoratifs not to expect the Belgian designer’s career highlights, but that the show would instead reveal the creative process. The exhibition begins with the designer’s initial inspirations, by way of a room celebrating various artists through song and film titles, album covers and pieces by fashion designers of the 70s and 80s. The room emphasises the inter-connectedness of fashion within the greater cultural picture, and also gives an impression of the pivotal creative times that Van Noten emerged into as a young designer and part of the Antwerp Six. London features heavily here as an influence, through images of David Bowie, punk, and archival pieces from designers including Vivienne Westwood, but there is also evidence of America’s counterculture: Divine, Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson. Some of these spikier influences might be surprising given that the designer is known for louche, elegant fashion but it explains that a Van Noten garment is never just a piece of clothing, there’s always something extra there: an intention, a gesture or a subtle visual clue.
In terms of his menswear, off-centre heroes loom large in what he has to say about men and how they dress. There is a strong theme of foppishness and elegant androgyny with The Duke of Windsor, Cecil Beaton, David Bowie, Marcel Proust, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas and Visconti’s leading men all cited as archetypes. Van Noten has an interest in cultural outsiders, the kind of people who struggled for recognition and acceptance in their own time but pushed us further on in terms of tolerating difference.
But Van Noten is no period costume reconstructionist, as his glam, punk and new romantic roots demonstrate; the elegant designer also has an edge, and a sense of humour. While fabrication often gives a firm nod towards historical richness, it is juxtaposition that he really mastered – a single mismatched fur lapel, antique florals fused with hi-tech sportswear – always with a certain knowingness, a disregard for evoking any specific time period.
Paired up with Van Noten’s own designs are inspiration boards showing relevant archive pieces from the museum’s collections. A Francis Bacon painting, a butterfly collage by Damien Hirst, portraits of Proust, Lord Alfred Douglas and Cecil Beaton are just some of the artworks on show. Van Noten is an expert in both reading and communicating the subtle visual codes of dressing. He has an interest in both revealing and concealing human traits, through subtle design gestures and evocations. Clothing can allow for people to create themselves anew, he says, including the potential of blurring genders. The displays include menswear and womenswear, an intentional statement about the rules and codes of dress. In one telling interpretation, a 1930s cabaret scene is described as being like a birdcage, the feathered costumes of the female dancers within merging with the men’s suits, blurring the gender lines and adding fragility to the spectacle.
The exhibition is punctuated by a striking slowed down video installation featuring models wearing Van Noten’s designs but given the reflective surfaces of the glass cases – inset video screens and vivid displays within them – all this leads to sensory overload and disorientation, with many an eager fashion fan literally bumping into the shiny surfaces. Upstairs the exhibition has more focus on the elaborate processes involved in creating his womenswear, but throughout, there is an attempt to emphasise androgyny even when it isn’t being addressed directly within the collection. Esoteric themes such as enchanted gardens, feathers and camouflage (which Van Noten interprets as a natural phenomenon rather than purely in a military sense) are explored here, also India, from intricate beadwork and fabric printing to the excess of the Rajasthani historic aristocracy and contemporary Bollywood.
A show based on something as intangible as inspiration could have felt very disconnected as a story, but Van Noten’s world has been expertly curated. The exhibition forms a circle, you start where you came in, and Van Noten’s comment on his own creative process is both an introduction and a final statement:
The starting point of a collection can either be very literal or abstract. A painting, a certain colour, a thought, a gesture, a smell, a flower, anything really. What matters to me is the journey from the first flash of inspiration to the final destination, the individual garments, the collection.
Dries Van Noten: Inspirations runs until 31 August at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.