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Shear Genius

26th Jun 2016

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Teatum Jones is the award-winning London-based design partnership of Catherine Teatum and Rob Jones. They are united through their love of human narrative and the way this translates into fabric and ultimately design. The duo’s love of bold pattern, exquisite fabric and modern and refined shape speaks to an audience of super smart, confident and creative women, and has seen them referred to as London’s young ‘textile pioneers’ and ‘innovators’.

These justifiably applied accolades have been reaffirmed recently with Teatum Jones winning the 2015 FT Womenswear Designer of the Year and the Woolmark Prize – the first British designer to secure the award in its 63-year history.

Catherine, tell us about winning the Woolmark Prize and what this has meant for your business?
The Woolmark Prize means so much to us. In a creative sense it represents the best possible outcome of the amazing educational journey that Rob and I went on in order to create the six look collection for entry. Our collection represented the British Isles – we wanted to draw on our experience of working with wool in previous collections but anchor this back to our heritage and what was once a core industry here. We wanted to get into the mindset of British wool and the British mills.

Each of our collections begins with a story and we treated this capsule collection in the same way. I’m from the West of Ireland originally and, while I was visiting my parents, I read about a very inspirational woman, Agnes Morrogh-Bernard, who in 1892 founded County Mayo’s Foxford Woollen Mills. That was a time of great famine for Ireland and she saw the mill as a diversionary industry to farming – the land is poor in that part of Ireland and its inability to support farming meant that people were starving. The mill produced luxurious blankets from fine wool, spun locally, which were then sold all around the world.

Agnes faced so much adversity and opposition to her plans but succeeded in spite of this – the mill is still going today. We used the original blankets and their embellishment as the model for the Woolmark collection and looked at ways to create a new angle for the story, modernising them with geometric foil prints and hand embroideries on skirts and jackets. The ‘lace’ that finished the pieces was created in collaboration with a French lace mill, who were persuaded to spin with Merino wool instead (a requirement of the competition). The effect was quite beautiful and something that hadn’t been seen or done before. That same mill has continued to produce wool lace since we introduced the idea and this has informed the conversations that they themselves are now having with designers about bespoke commissions.

What usually happens at the point of judging is that the Press love the very creative brands for the visual impact that they will have in the media, while the retailers definitely look for commercial viability. Andre Leon Tally told us after we had won, that this was the first time that both sides were united in their decision on a winner.

From a commercial perspective, winning the Woolmark Prize has given our company the financial clout to allow us to grow and develop through the next phase of our business life.

You have just shown on the main schedule at London Fashion Week, after your retailers ‘encouraged’ the British Fashion Council to respond to their customers’ demands to see you included. How important is it to be on schedule?
We have been showing on the official schedule since 2014 and before that we showed ‘off schedule’. The British Fashion Council’s decision to put us on schedule has paid huge dividends, particularly for our international buyers and the global Press. Since we’ve been on the main stage we have been really well received, meaning we’ve had to increase the size of the venue in response to the number of requests for invitations to our shows.

Last year we moved from showing on the Friday to the Saturday, which is great for the American audience, who come over on the red eye and just see a small number of shows before heading out of the country again. We are now included in the shows that they see. The US audience is huge for us, and so very important when you consider their vast number of internationally revered retail outlets. The UK holds some of the most iconic stores in the world, but If you compare a store like Saks, which has over 100 outlets in the US, to Harvey Nichols, which has four shops in the UK, you can see why America has such enormous buying power. We officially launch in Saks in New York this August and will fly there to formally open the space ahead of the start of Fashion Week.

What inspired your latest collection for A/W 2016?
We have never looked at fashion periods or eras for reference. Instead we like things that are not affected by fashion. The starting point for us is always a human narrative, and if the person that we are interested in is still alive, then we try to meet them, speak to them and build the story from there.

Our last collection was inspired by the Liberian Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee. I was watching a documentary about Hilary Clinton and her role in the US Primaries and listened to Gbowee speak. She played such a small role in the documentary but her voice had such resonance that we decided to find out more. Gbowee had led peaceful protest in her homeland and tried to affect change by bringing down the dictatorship of Charles Taylor. It took many months of phonecalls and conversation before we finally got to meet Leymah Gbowee - we met her for dinner here in London.

We based our collection on patterns and shapes that have their foundation in Gbowee’s culture and the way fabric is draped and worn in Liberia.

Your designs are stocked all over the world as well as being featured on some of the most prestigious fashion websites. How important is the digital marketplace to the world of fashion?
Incredibly important. Its importance plays right into the dialogue that is happening around the new shift in fashion to consumer retail and how this should be re-structured. For me as a consumer the delivery and return services are probably the most important when you’re buying into a product online. As well as how a luxury product is visually and clearly presented. Building a Teatum Jones e-commerce site is part of our current strategy and it will be launched in the latter part of this year.

Who would be your ideal celebrity ambassador, or who would you like to see wearing your designs?
From a personal perspective, I would love to say the civil rights activist Maya Angelou. She has been a hugely important global figure and has had a profound impact on the world. In Hollywood, I would love to see Tilda Swinton wear our designs. She is a very unique talent and has an incredible look.

Fashion is very demanding and physically challenging. How do you think the industry is changing and what is directing that change?
The conversations that are being had at the moment focus around the business model rather than the creative side. In recent years the consumer has become much more of a dictator in terms of the way they buy, what they want to buy and how they buy it. In an age where everything is instantaneous, the consumer wants to buy as soon as new designs roll off the catwalk.

There’s a real tug of war at the moment between the brands to have prominence through change. Burberry for example is merging some of its menswear and womenswear in one big show, and making certain items available immediately after their show. You do need a swift and responsive manufacturing process behind you to be able to execute this though and for any emerging label (us included) to be able to invest in this kind of structure is nigh on impossible.

In the US, designer Rebecca Minkoff has completely changed the way its business presents to the public. By re-presenting their S/S 2016, rather than their A/W16 offering in February, they made the pieces, which had seasonal resonance because of when they were shown, available just eight weeks later. This meant that the social media excitement that’s generated when a brand shows a collection hadn’t died down by the time the pieces were available to buy, thus satisfying the desire for immediate gratification, and the consumers’ willingness to pay full price for something that’s ‘of the moment’.

It makes sense really, but adopting it across the board will mean turning the global fashion industry on its head, resetting timings and placing your designs in the hands of a wider audience, all of whom you have to trust implicitly to embargo what they see until the time of launch and sale. That said, it’s a really exciting time to be in fashion - everything is evolving and we are a part of that.

What’s next for Teatum Jones? Any plans for menswear or interiors?
Rob and I met in Italy, when we were designing menswear, and so we have thought a lot about this transition. The fabrics that we design work so well with tailoring so there should be a natural progression there.
There’s a gap in the market for exciting and interesting but grown up clothes for men who want something different to the standard uniform of black, grey and navy. In fact, we hope that our designs offer a welcome relief from this camouflage that we all seem to have adopted.

We have also recently been looking at shoes and how to incorporate these into our collections, and as a stand alone offering. We have already worked with leather artisan Una Burke, and shoe designer Kat Maconie, so are actively looking once more at what we can do in partnership.

Interiors wise we are speaking to one of London’s most iconic stores about collaborating on homewares using signature Teatum Jones bold fabrics. This is a really exciting development for us because ultimately we are building Teatum Jones to be a lifestyle brand that encompasses a vast scope of design disciplines.

You work in London. If you weren’t here, where would you choose to be based?
Probably somewhere the sun shines! That said, Rob and I are both Londoners born and bred, which is pretty unique at London Fashion Week. London has something that nowhere else can quite match so I don’t feel we could leave. We could establish a sister studio though, and if that were an option then somewhere like Barcelona would be amazing.

Tell us about a favourite ‘secret’ place in the Capital?

There’s a cool old scooter cafe on Lower Marsh, near where we work, which has hot chocolate you can stand your spoon up in, as well as really good French wine. We often head there before or after meetings, or see if we can get people to meet us there. After hours there is a whisky shop in Soho called Milroy’s. There’s a bookshelf at the back of the shop and, after 6pm, this opens up to reveal a hidden bar that does fantastic whisky cocktails. It’s our new favourite place.

Teatum Jones;