How Sydney Pimbley won the LVMH scholarship and started her own brand

Welsh designer Sydney Pimbley graduated from BA Fashion with Knitwear at CSM in June, receiving the coveted LVMH scholarship for her final collection. Comprised of clothing labels her Grannie had collected over 40 years, wool picked out of barbed wire fences in random fields and charity shop fabrics dyed with carrots, it was a celebratory study in sustainable design. Now Sydney is launching her own label, starting with her debut collection, Woman is Fickle

Her approach to design was forged by seemingly opposing forces, at opposite ends of the fashion spectrum. An internship at Maison Margiela in Paris taught her the beauty and intricacy of couture. Meanwhile, her mother taught her how to knit one weekend and started a love affair with medium; by the end of the afternoon, Sydney had already made a top. Both experiences taught her the value of making by hand, crafting a garment from start to finish, and cherishing the item you end up with. We spoke to Sydney about her creative process, the LVMH scholarship and how her approach to sustainability is nothing new.

Could you describe your creative process? 

My creative process involves both a visual and physical element. I am a magpie image-collector, permanently on the lookout for inspiring pictorial research, whether that is in an archive or gallery or through travelling, watching films and just keeping an eye out for the unusual and beautiful. Every few months I compile these images and identify my interest and narrative for that time period. 

I learnt the importance of in-depth visual research at CSM and Maison Margiela. I have boxes of pictures, drawings and magazine clippings stored from over nine years of working and collecting. I go through these at the beginning of each project. Diving back into old work creates a sense of consistency from project to project, which encourages a development of my style. From this stage, I start the physical process of collaging, playing with layouts, scale and colour. This helps me to develop the story, colourway and garment shape in a playful way.

My Grandparents were the muses for my BA collection. Their ‘make do and mend’ mentality stemmed from living through WWII.”

At the same time, I’m always looking for new materials, fabrics, trims and fastenings. I often come up with garment shapes and styles by draping. Reusing and repurposing fabrics brings them new life, but a little bit of their old life is still there, which I find tantalizing.

How does your Welsh heritage play into your design aesthetic? 

I think your family and heritage inevitably inspire you. For my final collection at CSM, I travelled around Wales, visiting woolen mills and farms to experience the craftsmanship and wool production taking place first hand. I’ve taken inspiration from the textures and shapes of miners’ working clothes, right through to traditional women’s dress from the 1800s. My use of wool, natural fibres and shearling also have a connection to Wales. On a visit to the fashion archive at St Fagans National Museum of History, I saw my ethos reflected back at me in the natural dyes, reuse of fabric scraps and the lack of synthetic materials. 

My Grandparents were the muses for my BA collection. Their ‘make do and mend’ mentality stemmed from living through WWII. Recycling is in their nature and that has been passed onto me and my design aesthetic. I carried that mentality into my new collection, Woman is Fickle. Some materials – like the labels – came from my Grannie, the yarn was sourced from Wales and the wool was plucked from the barbed wire of sheep fields and doilies sourced in vintage and charity shops.

You got the LVMH scholarship in your final year. What was the process like? What were you asked during the interview and what work did you show?

It was quite an intense application and interview process. The scholarship is open to all of the fashion design students and it starts with an online application form and a summary of your portfolio. Then you drop off your portfolio for it to be assessed. After that, it’s the final interview. This consisted of a panel of five people – some from CSM and some from different areas of LVMH.  Questions included: Where in the industry would you like to work? Where do you take your inspiration from? What is your approach to sustainability? The panel focused on my sample work. That is one of the great joys of knitwear – you have something tangible for people to interact with in interviews. I believe my approach to sustainability and the story about my Grannie was what won me the scholarship. 

Receiving the scholarship meant I could invest in higher quality vintage materials and models. I was also able to pay for the final year of university so I have less debt on my shoulders going into the future.”

How did that impact your graduate collection? What did you do differently because of the extra support? 

Receiving the scholarship meant I could invest in higher quality vintage materials and models. I was also able to pay for the final year of university so I have less debt on my shoulders going into the future.The award gave me a platform and recognition. The French news channel TF1 created a documentary about my work

LVMH is such a generous supporter of CSM. As well as the scholarship money, they arranged for scholars from BA and MA to attend the Hyères fashion festival. We were able to discuss our approach, meet industry people and discuss ideas.

You did your foundation at Camberwell and your BA at CSM. How did the two experiences differ? What was the most significant thing you learnt from each? 

Both were perfect for what I needed at the time. Camberwell was very open, fast paced and experimental, which quickly expanded my thinking. It helped to establish my self-belief and showed me the importance of having a muse. CSM helped me to develop a unique style and celebrate that. I learnt that your story as a designer is a critical springboard for your work. Also, CSM facilitates connections with people who will help shape your future in the industry.  

The sustainable fashion movement often focuses around the return to craft. As a knitwear designer, what are your thoughts on this? Why do you think craft is so important to sustainability?

Craft is the opposite of fast fashion. It takes time, love and expertise, so people value it more. A smaller scale creates a community-centered, holistic approach. The level of time and detail that goes into creating couture is a real craft. To be skilled in a craft, you have to be passionate. It’s the same with sustainability: you need a real interest in it to make a difference and have an impact.

You are releasing your first collection this month. Why have you chosen to start your own brand now? Did you consider doing an MA or looking for a job? 

I considered both – I had offers from the MA and the industry. After taking some time over the summer, I decided that starting my own brand felt like the right thing to do. I wanted to continue pursuing my own work and sustainable approach rather than entering into an existing fashion house.

My first womenswear collection plays with breaking conventions. It conjures images of fluid femininity with the muse as a fun and fickle character.  It’s a real reflection of my style and my love for underwear as outerwear. How people feel when they wear my pieces is really important and I get to see that firsthand by launching my own label. That is my motivation.

I see my garments as art pieces, so I want the people who acquire them to enjoy them, the materials they are made from and what they stand for.”

Will the brand be based in London? 

Yes, I just moved into a studio space in Marylebone. My work has a connection with the UK, our culture and traditions. I also source my materials here, so it feels right to be based here. It’s home and I think it’s important to feel comfortable in your surroundings in order to thrive creatively.

Who are you designing for? Who is the brand customer? 

There is already a lot of interest in the collection from people keen to wear unique pieces, beautiful fabrics and do good for the planet. My aim is for it to be an inclusive brand – I don’t have a specific vision of who I want to wear the pieces. I see my garments as art pieces, so I want the people who acquire them to enjoy them, the materials they are made from and what they stand for. My menswear collection was very popular with musicians. It was featured in The Face and Italian Vogue and it’s great to see how people style the pieces differently.

How has the process of starting a brand surprised you – is there anything you wish you had known beforehand?

I’m still in the early stages of starting the brand, but I am loving it. It was really helpful that CSM encouraged us to intern for other younger designers. Interning for designers who had started up after graduating such as Charles Jeffrey, Matty Bovan and Serena Gili, I could see first hand some of the tasks, work and struggles of setting up as a new designer. The designing and making process is similar to university, but making bespoke pieces for a client is different. 

Who is your dream stockist and why? Do you feel equipped to go through the buying process? Is this something you were taught at CSM?  

I’ve always had a love affair with Dover Street Market. The beauty of the presentation and attention to detail is like an exhibition for the garments, so that is the dream. Michael Costiff came to CSM to give a talk during final year and I loved hearing about his World Archive store within DSM. My peers and I have been discussing places to sell our work at the start of our careers and 50M sounds like an exciting place to aim for. The buying process was only mentioned briefly on Knitwear.

My peers and I have been discussing places to sell our work at the start of our careers and 50M sounds like an exciting place to aim for.”

What is the biggest challenge you face right now? How do you plan to overcome it?

Getting the ball rolling with sales and maintaining interest and momentum for the label. I also wonder how the customer will feel about the fact that each piece is difficult to recreate, because each piece is unique and the materials cannot be sourced again. In my eyes, that is the beauty of the brand, but I will do my best to recreate things as much as possible if that’s what customers want. My next challenge will be developing the Autumn collection within the theme of beautiful sustainable fabrics and unique knitwear. The ideas are already flowing so I’m excited to get going!

IMAGE ASSISTANT MARIA CISZEWSKA

DESIGNER & STYLIST SYDNEY PIMBLEY