Central Saint Martins graduate Shanti Bell tests the limits of the materials she works with so as to give them new and unexpected meanings. Strength and vulnerability cohabit her garments, lined with curved wood panels.
As a fashion designer, what sparked your interest in furniture?
When I did my BA at Central Saint Martins, I wrote a whole dissertation on how a piece of furniture can be a form of memory. Looking at how furniture differs from home to home, I realised how it generally displaces an extension of the self. There is so much personality and meaning within every piece of furniture, and often there’s a reason behind why people own what they’ve got in their space. To me, there is a human connection between furniture and the body. I really do see furniture as an extension of the body as it’s something we engage with on a daily basis. Even without thinking, we sit on a chair countless times throughout the day, we lay on a bed, or lounge on the sofa. I find it to be quite a natural crossover.
How have you brought and applied these core elements of furniture to your garment designs?
I love how furniture acts as a means of support—there’s a practicality to it in that it holds us. I often take reference from chairs as I’m really drawn to the fact that they carry our weight. They carry us when we’re tired and I guess at our most vulnerable. Sitting kind of is a moment of respite and solace, and I feel like it’s something we often take for granted. Not only are they comforting, but they also provide support. And I think that clothes have the potential to offer this, too. I wanted the same structure to be reflected in my clothing.
“There is so much personality and meaning within every piece of furniture, and often there’s a reason behind why people own what they’ve got in their space.”
What steps did you take from there?
As I didn’t have much experience working with wood, which is the most widely used material for chairs, I took myself to a furniture workshop where I learned the fundamentals of woodworking. I kind of just threw myself into that world and within a month, I built five pieces of furniture, which was really fun and rewarding in that I got to learn the limitations and boundaries of the material. Then, I literally took a chair and stuck it on the body, but I found it to be quite a simplistic reading that wasn’t quite conveigning what it was that I was trying to express. So I began looking at chairs through an abstract lens and became more interested in their construction. Halfway through the final year of my BA, I developed this technique of bending wood and creating cuts of wood, and that, for me, was very enlightening and was kind of the moment where I knew how I’d go on integrating bits of furniture into the body. The human body is soft and curved, so when putting a hard plank of wood on it, well, there isn’t much synergy. But as soon as I started to curve the wood to the shape of the body, it was way more conducive.
What does this curving technique permit you to do and explore?
The possibilities are endless, really. Something I really like to do with a material is push its boundaries. By bending the wood, some of the curves I was aiming for ended up cracking under pressure. Wood is hard and not that malleable, but the way I work with it challenges what it can be and look like. When looking at my pieces, I think a lot of people don’t even realise that it’s wood underneath and can’t quite wrap their heads around what it is exactly. Yet this is what I like—to make people question, and think a bit deeper about materials.
To what do your shapes refer to, and what do they look like?
A lot of it began with my brother and I have conversations about life and things, and how growing up in a single-parent family he felt he had to take on the “man of the house” role. Immediately when he told me so, I felt it was important to share and further understand this experience as I learnt that he wasn’t alone with these feelings. Through my designs, I was trying to mirror vulnerability by bending and testing the limits of the stiff material that wood is, and show not only the beauty of being vulnerable, but also that there is strength in being so. A lot had to do with a sense of weight within the garments. I wanted the garments to look full and heavy, and for them to feel thoroughly light. I really wanted to create a visual interpretation of the pressure and personnel baggage we each carry around through 3D forms connected to the garments, and how relieving it is to be transparent about it.