Brexit. Trump. Grasping the times we live in still resembles a surreal nightmare. Until recently, fashion has always been a glitzy outlet of escapism, where creating a desirable fantasy was the goal. After one hell of a reality check, we have seen more themes of activism in fashion now than ever before. British designer Phoebe English has been no shrinking violet in this movement, producing collections that shed light on the human experience.
“I hope almond milk’s ok!” Phoebe stresses after already making my tea. She hands me a porcelain mug showcasing Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’- a nod to her artistic background. Her private office is how you’d imagine a 19th century philosopher’s. An entirely wooden-paneled interior, complete with an antique chaise lounge and pot plants. Garments from past seasons fill the intimate space with pops of colour. “I grew up in a house without a garden, so when I moved here I was like ‘ah so much space for plants!'”
Behind a pair of large black-framed glasses and a slick bun Phoebe appears waify. She has an ethereal pixie-like quality about her, so it doesn’t come as a shock when she reveals: “I wanted to be in the circus and I did loads of gymnastics and trapeze and loads of acting. I also thought I was a fairy, like a flower fairy. But I always loved fashion.”
Growing up in Stratford-Upon-Avon with artists for parents, the theatrical elements of her childhood are certainly present in her emphasis on the female character. “My mum would bring home all these massive sacks of fabric from the Royal Shakespeare costume department for her students. I would always sneakily raid them and that’s how I kind of learned about fabric.”
Since graduating from MA Fashion at Central Saint Martins in 2011, the British designer’s brand has flourished, showing at London Fashion Week and selling in Dover Street Market. The launch of Phoebe English Man in 2016 has shown the diversity of her aesthetic, but it is her womenswear line where Phoebe’s heart truly lies. And which recently has become an outlet of frustration with the troubling times we live in.
Her most recent AW/17 and S/S17 collections were notably different from her previous work, both in practice and as a form of social commentary. “I don’t think it’s really possible to make work at the moment and not be affected by what everyone can quite clearly see is happening,” the designer explained. ‘Tyranny’ titled her latest collection presented in Fitzrovia Chapel, depicting the individual themes of tyranny, fear, apathy, voice, courage, unity, repair and hope.
A bold step for the designer, not only in subject matter but also in aesthetic. “I don’t use print, and I don’t really use colour that much because they’re not my safe areas and they’re not where the strength of my practice lies.” The signature Phoebe English black didn’t stand alone this time. Colour was daring and used quite literally, ranging from fiery red, to organic green and jewel blue. “I guess I was trying to address fear by addressing my own fears and my own weaknesses in my own practice.”
Individual head crowns featuring blue ballpoint pens, miniature black spears and golden leaves decorated the eight female characters in a theatrical take on symbolism. “I’ve never really worked that literally before and it was kind of a really conscious step I had to take. But it kept coming out and I had to just go with it and just hope that it was read in the right way. It was a real risk and I was quite nervous about it.”
A reflection of the shifting moods in our current political climate, for Phoebe it wasn’t about being a protest show, but rather a physical acknowledgement. “Making it into images and lasting objects that were defining that time. I was trying to capture those weird awful things that were happening, not to glorify them but to make sure they were acknowledged and reflected in the greater image making in the world.”
‘Tyranny’ bears a continued approach from her prior S/S17 collection, which depicted seven characters mirroring the seven days after the Brexit announcement. “Seeing a place you’ve known your whole life completely change in one day into this disgusting country – where it’s suddenly okay to be racist and normal for all these hate crimes to be happening – it was really unnerving to watch happen.”
As opposed to a lineup of corresponding looks, an emphasis on the individual distinguishes these collections from her previous work. Exploring characters, as powerful symbols of the human experience, that present a unified front amidst themes of fear and uncertainty. It doesn’t go unnoticed that she chooses women to forefront a romantic and passionate depiction of these emotions.
Perhaps what has been the most intriguing aspect of her recent work is the insight into the designer’s emotions firsthand. “I was so angry when I was designing that collection, and furious and heartbroken and devastated and upset and scared and worried, and that was everywhere all over the country.” She speaks with overwhelming passion on this issue; you can see why her work has been affected whether consciously or not.
Part of Phoebe’s charm is that you immediately feel at ease with her, a rare quality in the fashion industry. “I’m just a grown up flower fairy. I don’t really fit into fashion that well.” Removed from all the frivolous glamour and parties, she prefers to watch from the sideline, putting all her energy into her practice. “That’s how I sustain my work output, by not being too out of my work practice and in the industry.”
Though her recent work reveals an exposed vein of anxiety about the world we live in, Phoebe prefers an outlook of optimism. “I think there’s a lot of things to be optimistic about, that we have to really acknowledge and cling onto, because I don’t know what else we can do right now.” Ultimately it’s compassion that binds us together, and Phoebe English champions the strength of female character as its source of inspiration.
Words Harriet Wolstenholme Photography Phillip Koll