PHOEBE
ENGLISH

Text by Jake Hall

 

The first time I call designer Phoebe English, we have to quickly reschedule: the UK is in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and there’s been an urgent response to her offer of using surplus fabric to make medical masks. Anecdotes like these epitomise the warm, principled designer, whose eponymous label has championed sustainability since its inception in 2011. What started as a “tentative experiment” to see whether she could sell clothes after graduating from Central Saint Martins quickly became a fully-fledged business, and now she shares her knowledge with a new generation of students – not just by teaching at various universities, but by maintaining a WhatsApp group filled with industry experts, too.Born and raised in the sleepy theatre town of Stratford upon Avon, best known as the birthplace of William Shakespeare, English was raised by artist parents that encouraged her and her sister to paint on walls, dye their hair and seize every opportunity to dress up. “Whenever I left to go see my friends, mum would say, ‘are you sure you want to go out like that?’” English laughs. “She thought we looked too boring!”Not only does the designer follow her parents’ working process by designing without an end point in mind, she pushes against fashion industry constraints by designing tightly edited, timeless collections of “peoplewear”. For FW20, she used only ‘deadstock’ – unused fabric otherwise destined for landfill or incineration – to realise this vision, trawling studios to find whatever she needed. It’s this pragmatism that sets her apart and defines this conversation about sustainability, transparency and the cultural impact of clothing.

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Let’s talk about ‘Nothing New’, your latest collection. How did you decide to use only deadstock?

PE
We had been trying to source sustainably certified, organic fabrics, but often they were being shipped from these far-flung places, which kind of felt like it defeated the point. London is so big, and there are so many designers already, so we set ourselves the challenge of making an entire collection and its subsequent production from fabric that was already here – and we managed to do it! We only worked with maybe ten or twelve studios in total, but we don’t do massive collections anyway. 

You describe your collections as ‘peoplewear’, but do you think the industry is starting to relax its attitude when it comes to gendering clothing?

PE
There are very small bits of progress. It’s definitely different to when I started my label, which is brilliant, but for us it’s more about responding to the people that buy our clothes – and that’s a big mixture. I think that’s how you should be showing your work really, but the fashion industry has such a regimented way of doing and categorising things, which can be frustrating.

What made you want to get into fashion in the first place?

PE
Some of my earliest memories are of clothes. There was a time where I liked fashion but was applying to drama schools – I wanted to be an actress but didn’t get in, so I kind of came back to fashion. It’s always been part of who I am, because I grew up in a very, very creative house. We were encouraged to draw all over the walls, and when I left to go see my friends, mum would say: “are you sure you want to go out like that?” She thought we looked too boring!

Growing up in Stratford upon Avon, did fashion become a form of escapism?

PE
Maybe. I remember the first New Look opening, that was quite a seminal moment! Being able to make choices about what to put on my body felt like such a big deal as a teenage girl, so it was like this treasure trove of hot pants and frou-frou dresses. I wore lots of pink and colourful prints, quite a lot of chokers and massive flares, plus those baggy trousers and tie-dye tops with butterflies on them. But New Look was a treat, really. We grew up wearing second-hand clothes from charity shops and car boot sales, but it never felt like a compromise: it was all about the thrill of the hunt, sorting through fabric for hidden treasures. Now, the kids I teach are like, “yeah, this is second-hand” – it’s a cool thing now.

Do you think that’s mainly to do with raised awareness of fast fashion and sustainability?

PE
There has been this real cultural epiphany. We had the organic food revolution years ago, but we haven’t had that for fashion yet – or we’re in the middle of it now, which is fantastic. It’s the same as food production: there’s no removing what you wear on your skin from the source it came from, it always goes back to the earth. It’s always been the same as farming, so it should be held to the same production standards. But as designers, we’re inherently removed from the source because we go through an education system that fetishises the idea as God. You’re taught to work on fabrication, fit and silhouette. Everything around that becomes either an afterthought, or no thought at all.

So, the teaching is that fabrics aren’t important, they’re just a means to an end?

PE
Exactly, but design can’t afford to work that way anymore. All those things need to be given equal importance, and that needs to start at education level.

What would be on your dream curriculum?

PE
I would take every single student to a farm and a landfill. It’s important to understand – and to be physically and emotionally connected – to both the source and the end point, which, sadly, is usually landfill.

It feels like these conversations don’t happen often enough on a mainstream level. Pop culture can still be dismissive of fashion, but you really fight for it to be taken seriously.

PE
It’s part of an ecosystem – not only financial, but skills-based, too. When you’re part of a business, you realise how much of a knock-on effect there is. Dresses are dresses, but how good my designs are can impact whether or not someone can eat and pay their rent next month. We have to respect that.

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You touched on the difficulty of sustainably sourcing fabrics earlier, but could you expand a little on the general challenges of running a fashion business sustainably?

PE
We had to re-educate ourselves, because it wasn’t a part of my education and the technology is changing all the time. Twenty years ago, it would have been really hard to use some of these fabrics. We realised that we needed to research and learn about these sustainable certifications, but it’s such a massive subject that you can feel like a fraud, or like you’re greenwashing. It’s all so murky – even some of these certifications put in place to help people buy with confidence don’t mean what you think. We have been learning about ‘closed-loop systems’, which basically mean that nothing is released: water is purified and put back into the system, no dyes are put into rivers, et cetera. But then there are systems with water reduction in mind, regenerative systems, the difference between compostable and biodegradable… there’s so much to think about, which is why I made a WhatsApp group. We need to be able to learn quickly, so that was an attempt to give access to experts and help people find the right answers.

That’s really cool, because media conversations around sustainability can sometimes be quite overarching or make it difficult to know where to look.

PE
Definitely – it’s so hard for designers to know this, so god knows what it’s like for consumers! I use the analogy of food: if we wanted to buy an egg in the UK, we could go into a shop and know that a battery farm egg is worse than free-range, which is worse than organic. It would all be labelled clearly, but it’s so murky and confusing with clothes, so there’s a huge amount still to be done in terms of clarity and public awareness. Also, I’m absolutely not an expert on this: sustainability is complex and contradictory, and I’m really still a student. There’s no perfect way of doing things, but hopefully by doing it imperfectly over and over again, we can make steps towards a more perfect way of doing things.

The easiest solution is to create clothes that are built to last, and it does seem like your designs are deliberately classic and timeless – is that fair to say?

PE
Yes, I think it’s important not to make trend-led collections. To me, the mark of success is whether someone can still wear the pieces in ten years. It might sometimes mean our clothes aren’t as jazzy or exciting as others, but we have our own followers, so it’s been a case of accumulating people that appreciate what we do along the way.

It’s also custom-built with everyday wearability in mind, and that can sometimes be frowned upon because critics do tend to favour super experimental or avant-garde designs.

PE
I just didn’t want to have anything in my collections that couldn’t be sold, so I started stripping back. I don’t want to make eight different pairs of trousers for stockists to browse and only order one – and we’re a small brand; they’ll never buy all eight. So we edit tightly, but then some stockists won’t buy from us because they’re used to picking from huge rails – even though their order would realistically be the same size either way. That’s always been frustrating, but I think it’s wasteful to invest energy and resources into pieces that might never get ordered.

Does that tie into your decision to show small-scale presentations instead of traditional shows?

PE
Yes, plus I really like that it’s casual. People have just come from New York, they’re about to go to Milan… Everyone is tired and stressed, so I like that people can swan in, look at the clothes and swan back out again. My friends come with their kids, and they’re there alongside the American press. I like the mixture of people, and the fact that it’s not super formal or serious.

It’s strange, because we always hear calls for fashion to slow down. Now we’re amid a global pandemic which has ground the industry to a halt and forced alternative ways of working. Do you see this slowdown lasting?

PE
I hope it does. Fashion actually can slow down, and it has in the past. My grandmother had a fraction as many clothes as I have, but she didn’t need all those clothes. Culture works in swings: we live in a culture of excess and mass production, but there’s no evidence that things won’t swing back to the point where having less is more fashionable. That’s why working in this industry is exciting. As a designer, you have influence, which means you can dictate whether it’s fashionable to use furs and synthetic fabrics. That’s a very powerful and privileged position to be in.

Finally, how do you want to use your influence as a designer?

PE
What we’re trying to do is constantly move and shift. Fashion is a mirror of our cultural times, so I would like the brand to stay at a size where it can keep moving and help inform relevant ways to design and make clothes. At the minute, we’re at the size where, if we want to change something and we can afford to, then we can do it the very next hour. That’s a nice position to be in.

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