Adam Jones’s magic sweater is but the latest example of fabric innovation to make a mark on the fashion scene. Textile designers have long played a key role in the industry, as demonstrated by a show dedicated to Zandra Rhodes that commemorated the 10th anniversary of London’s Fashion & Textile museum.

A dress  from Zandra Rhodes 1974 collection

Arranged over two floors, the exhibition, which closes this weekend after a seven-week run, highlights Rhodes’s work from the past five decades, including some of her less well-known pieces (designs from her 1974 collection).

Although Rhodes is a highly regarded fashion designer, she describes herself as a textile designer – along with her contemporary Celia Birtwell, she is one of the very few textile designers who made the leap from backstage magician to household name.

“The consumer is often completely unaware of textile design. This may be partly because fabric is so much part of our lives,” says Clare Johnston, head of the textiles programme at the Royal College of Art. “We grow up with the immediate familiarity, traditions and heritage of cloth, and develop a tacit understanding of fabrics even if it is just based on function and need.”

Oriole Cullen, modern textiles and fashion curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, says fabrics led the way in fashion as far back as the 18th century. “Styles of dress and clothing changed comparatively slowly but new fashions in textiles emerged every six months or so. Silk weavers even used the designs of freelance textile designers, an occupation that we tend to associate with modern times.”

Indeed, of the more than 100 degree students who graduate from Central Saint Martins’ courses in textile design each year, many go on to work on a freelance basis. Eline Le Callennec, an embellishment and print designer, has collaborated with fashion designers Alexander McQueen and Mary Katrantzou and enjoys the freedom that freelancing offers. “My experiences as an in-house designer felt constraining at times, and the delivery pace of many studios make it hard to be truly creative,” Le Callennec says.

Michael van der Ham dress

Michael van der Ham (a dress from his autumn/winter 2013 collection) works with freelance textile designers to design and develop all the fabrics used in his collections. “For me, it is really important to have fabrics that no other designer is using,” he says. “The collections should be as special and exclusive as possible.”

Within days of graduating from Central Saint Martins with an MA in printed textiles, Jonathan Saunders was commissioned to design prints for Alexander McQueen, going on to produce the bird-of-paradise print that became one of the highlights of McQueen’s spring/summer 2003 collection. Saunders is now known for the vibrant, geometric prints and use of traditional silk-screening techniques in his own designs.

Perhaps the closest heir to the Birtwell/Rhodes crown is Katrantzou. She studied architecture at Rhode Island School of Design before transferring to Central Saint Martins to study for a degree and later a masters in printed textiles. She has since helped establish London as the contemporary home of print, mapping out an idiosyncratic style that fuses complex textiles with elaborate silhouettes, and is constantly exploring different techniques.

“This season, we experimented with weaving our own engineered metallic brocades and jacquard as well as an innovative way of printing Swarovski crystal mesh combined with mohair wool by hand, using tiny needles to pull the fibres through the mesh,” Katrantzou says.

It was while studying for her masters that Katrantzou decided she would launch her own label, and her architectural background came into play. “I became interested in the way printed textiles can change the shape of a woman’s body,” she says. “Fashion allows me to bring all my influences together to inform my designs.”

Clare Johnston says textile designers are an essential force in fashion. “It is impossible to think of fashion without fabric design and innovation. You simply cannot have one without the other.”


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