Axminster in Devon and Liberia on the coast of West Africa are worlds apart; the former is a peaceful haven in a little nook of Britain, while the latter has been ravaged by civil war and violence in the past few decades. Their common link? Oliver Thame, the graduate menswear designer from Central Saint Martins who hails from the sleepy town in the south-west and channels the conflict experienced by the child soldiers of Liberia into his graduate collection.

His garments, currently being revised and reimagined for his new label, hours, are a clash of juxtapositions: peace and violence, soft and hard, the brand new and the uncannily familiar. He looks younger than his twenty-five years, but any assumptions are shot down when he starts to speak with mature, sharp clarity about the inspiration for his designs.

With his brother currently serving in Afghanistan and his partner Zana Ajvazi having witnessed violence first-hand in her native Kosovo, conflict is in such close proximity to Oliver’s immediate circle that he had to explore it creatively. “I think it’s important to engage with what’s happening around you and in the world, and to have an opinion on it. Whether you choose to say something about the current economic climate, or what’s happening in Aleppo right now, and with everything else that’s going on, I think you’ve got to be aware that whatever the message, you can actually make an impression.”

“I think it’s important to engage with what’s happening around you and in the world, and to have an opinion on it.”

Specialising in print and textile design, having previously completed the Fashion Print BA at Saint Martins, Oliver was assisted by four first-year MA students (Oliver Hui, Rebecca Jeffs, Luke Shaw and Eddie Cumming) to create his graduate collection. He spent last summer researching the story behind his collection before beginning the design process. An important influence on Oliver’s designs was the French-Liberian film Johnny Mad-Dog by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, which was “really harrowing to watch. What inspired me was their attitude towards styling, using it as a form of protection during combat. I felt their dress-code offered a metaphor for their tragic reality, trapped between the naivety of childhood and the destruction of conflict.” He then looked at the work of photojournalists in countries affected by war and discovered images of child soldiers in Liberia during the civil war in the 1990s. “They had outlandish outfits and were intimidating and flamboyant. The collection was about communicating this hard, eclectic mix of clothes.”

Oliver describes the images he first saw as upsetting and fascinating in equal measure: “the kids adopt these alter egos and try and incite fear in the enemy. They also believed that these outfits were like a protection from the bullets… they thought that the bullets coming towards them would be confused by seeing these two different people. They have their own invented names, their own look. So, for me, it was about maintaining that contrast and building a story around a group of individuals.”

The boxer shorts in the collection are emblazoned with names invented by the designer, each one representative of the character traits of each individual, playing with words in the contradictory manner that is at the core of his collection: Deborah Dread, Saint Demise and General Unrest, to name a few. Oliver experimented with felting; individual elements working together to create a whole. The sportswear silhouettes are reimagined and de-familiarised through unusual pairings of textiles and patterns. Fabrics like ripstop nylon were felted into some of the skinny trousers; he mixed silk and viscose with wools and cotton jersey, military grade merino wool and alpaca (sponsored by Incalpaca Peru). “There wasn’t a huge expanse of fabrics, but it was more about using the fabrics I’ve got and different patterns and colours which gave that kind of varied collection.” These fabrics were engineered into textiles and then garments by Oliver in the CSM studios, where he has been holed up since last September. “All the textiles were made… screen-printed, felted, steamed, heat-pressed, sublimated. It was a long process!”

Next to his design team, Oliver’s partner Zana, who studied BA Textile Design at CSM and now works as a freelance fabric developer for the likes of Rick Owens, has been an important influence in his work. “She was there every step of the way. We work together on the whole process of things; developing the textiles, creating the story around the collection and also building these identities, and styling the looks to create that.”

“You exist in a bubble in this university, so that first-hand experience working at Christian Dior when Raf Simons was there was really special”

Oliver’s work experience is extensive; he previously interned at Christian Dior Couture and John Galliano. “You exist in a bubble in this university, so that first-hand experience working at Christian Dior when Raf Simons was there was really special. They would supply us with research and a brief and we’d have our own little “interns room” with machines, fabrics, and you could do sketching, or make textiles, or do some embroidery.” With Galliano, his role was similarly hands-on. “It was before his appointment at Margiela, so it was on a one-on-one basis. We’d go around flea markets, go to exhibitions, do research and things like that. We’d be developing ideas but it was never really clear what we were developing them for… it was quite a secret what the plan was!”

Oliver and Zana have now joined forces for their own label, hourswhich will build on their expertise in textiles, promoting contemporary craft and collaboration: “the whole story of hours focuses on a collective belonging to something. It’s also about creating clothes with a timeless appeal and having trans-seasonal pieces available to anyone who wants to be a part of that world, whenever they want.” With collaborations already lined up, they plan to stay in London and work with as many creatives as possible to promote their designs and build their network. Their strength? Having a multidisciplinary approach to textiles design: “When you sample, something can look amazing as a small swatch, but to be a good textiles designer you’d have to see how that would work in a garment. Some pieces can stand alone as a piece of art, but it’s more interesting to see how it’s applied to garments,” said Zana.

Oliver’s collection takes something dark and brings it into the light, as he constantly pushes himself and his textiles to find new meanings in everything he sees and touches. The designer’s ability to create something beautiful out of anything he sees is exactly what is needed in our current climate. It’s only the beginning for Oliver and hours, but he’ll be on our minds for much longer than that.

 

 

 

Take a look at the hours lookbook here.

Words Flo Allday