Central Saint Martins graduate Rebecca Jeffs interned at Dior and Margiela before presenting a collection that explored how fashion distorts the human shape. Savile Row tailoring, velcro, wedding shoes and 6,000 hand stitches all meet in her universe. We spoke to her as she embarks on the new chapter of her career.
Rebecca grew up in Manchester in the north of England, where she spent her childhood years designing, dreaming about costumes, and creating visual characters for her friends and pet dog. In 2008, she came to London in after finishing school to acquire a one-year diploma at London College of Fashion and continued immediately at Westminster for its fashion degree, but took the decision after one year to transfer to Womenswear at the neighbouring Central Saint Martins. “I was attracted to the lack of restriction within CSM and I wanted to be surrounded by people and talent that would make me question and challenge my work and myself,” she says as she recalls her first days at the institution.
Rebecca’s research circulates around fundamental questioning of the basics of clothing and body: the justification of the cut and construction of garments, their asymmetric interaction with the body, the complexity of the female form. “I’m interested how clothes have been built around the body throughout history, and the various ways in which we have attempted to shape it,” she explains. This led her to discover the work of Benard Rudofsky, the Moravian artist and architect who in his work sculpted figures and body parts as though imagining an underlying shape of the body in a humorous yet poignant way. Inspired by this idea of distorting the human shape, Rebecca collaged together a timeline of corsets (fashion history’s biggest distortion of the human shape) from 1800-1900, to develop a series of asymmetric obscured silhouettes. “I came across images of pregnancy and maternity corsets, with lacing that could be released as the pregnancy developed and openings with a clasp on the breast for feeding. It just seems insane now, but it really struck a cord,” she explains.
Pinstripes run through Rebecca’s graduate collection in her silk jacquard trousers as an ode to her time at Savile Row, where she as a design assistant for Nick Tentis witnessed the intricate technique and craftsmanship of classic menswear. “It taught me the refinement of classic menswear and the consideration of the smallest details,” she tells us about the complicated process. “I must have toiled about 15 pairs of the asymmetric patchwork trousers. One tiny alteration caused a domino effect of changes. I really enjoy creative pattern-cutting, but it’s a battle perfecting the final pattern, knowing that the final result is a millimetre out…”
This sense of obscurity prevails in her graduate collection, which developed as she was writing her bachelor’s dissertation. She became obsessed with early Modernist theories of dress, Italian futurism and utopian ideals of clothing and femininity, informed by the work of female Russian constructivist Varvara Stepanova. “They had quite contrasting opinions of the power and place of dress in society yet they seemed to make sense together,” she reflects. “Stepanova believed clothing should be designed and be treated just as a machine – why conceal all that makes it work and how it is constructed. The Italian futurists believed that clothing could create political change.” The highlight of the collection is a dress in a deep ochre, made from vintage millinery grosgrain ribbon, completely hand-stitched (“about 6,000 stitches – thanks to my helpers.”) to achieve a lavish couture detailing.
Rebecca had acquired invaluable technical training when she midway through her degree moved to Paris for a year to further her practice with some of the greatest designers in the world. She interned at Christian Dior under Raf Simons and after, Maison Martin Margiela’s Artisanal line under the just 31-year old Matthieu Blazy. “Working at Margiela was an invaluable experience for me, he is really talented and so young!” she says of Blazy. “It was incredible to see the whole collection develop from start to finish in such a close environment, working side-by-side with the designer and atelier. There was real value and consideration in each idea and piece, which gave me the confidence to work this way.” By spending time in two very different (Dior being hierarchal corporation and Margiela being a collaborative collective), but equally reputable fashion houses, Rebecca learned the value of editing and refining – without treating her ideas as throw-away things. “I learned to work with an idea until you had squeezed the best out of it!” she adds.
Vintage white satin bridal shoes, delicate ribbon, wig-like headpieces, a man’s classic white shirt, pinstripes, and corsets; From the boyish to the overtly eroticised feminine, Rebecca’s oeuvre negotiates different kinds of womanhood, and is as such both celebratory and critical. She considers fashion, which has been the vessel of much gender-typing in society for centuries, a “double-edged sword” for the discussion of how we perceive women today. “I think the popular promotion of fashion is at fault for much that is wrong with the representations of women today, but it’s also an advocate for moving this forward and eliminating it,” she says, as she explains how she developed her concept of questioning femininity. “By exaggerating, highlighting or revealing certain areas of the body but also distracting from and concealing others to create a romantic but alarming nuance.” This sentiment certainly came across, with Suzy Menkes describing it as “Girls on fire. For once, the woman’s look is matching the new power of the fashionable male.”
“I think the popular promotion of fashion is at fault for much that is wrong with the representations of women today, but it’s also an advocate for moving this forward and eliminating it”
For the official show, Rebecca styled her fantastic looks with floppy ribbon head pieces, inspired by the bizarre styles and extreme size of wigs worn in the 19th century that often included ribbon. “I didn’t want to adopt the classic techniques of merely decorating, I wanted to off-play it, wrapping and folding it around the head in a messy manner.” She collaborated with CSM jewellery student Ami Masamitsu to create the sleek silver closing mechanisms, creating a clean and very modern expression in the otherwise saturated collection. “Using mainly white fabrics was an accident waiting to happen,” she reveals in retrospect, “but honestly, it was the point in which I made the decisions as to which looks I would present – committing to my final line-up.”
After much blood, sweat and tears (literally) in many years of fashion college, Rebecca Jeffs is more than anything, ready to work. “I want to be challenged by the real world, working with other creatives professionally,” she reflects. “But I don’t feel ready to let go of my own vision and ideas. I have so much more I would like pursue within my own work.”