Words Lucy Macdonald
The Masters: Rebecca Jeffs
With work experience to date predominantly in couture and ‘true to form’ costume (including time in the artisanal couture studio at Margiela under Matthieu Blazy, as well as a stint at Dior under Raf Simons), it is little wonder that Rebecca has such a penchant for detailed handwork and flair for the artisanal aspects of creating her own textiles. The designer’s clear reverence for craftsmanship and attentiveness to detail is experienced across every aspect of the collection; her delicate cultivation of innovative materialities, immaculate tailoring and sensual silhouettes – every inch carefully considered and beautifully refined.
Rebecca’s MA collection was fuelled by her fascination with creating value and significance out of seemingly mundane and unremarkable things, repositioning them satirically as a means of commenting on elements of strangeness not only identifiable within the objects themselves, but also within the inherent and subconscious gendering of everything around us. “The collection developed through a constant exploration of the semiotics of the ‘feminine’, challenging the idea of femininity in all its guises; exploring the gendering of words, symbols and objects; singling out all that is typically and intrinsically feminine.”
Curious about this lending of gender to existing material objects, Rebecca worked to incorporate aspects such as the kiss-clasp of a lady’s purse, the wet-satin silk of knickers, hair clips, fishnet stockings, a man’s leather belt, a black leather watch and a pocket square handkerchief. Through an interaction with commonplace linguistic expressions, the designer creates physical embodiments of these turns of phrase, integrating them into her designs as quirky, symbolic commentaries on a world of language that we are so embedded within that we rarely pause to contemplate the deeper connotations that exist inside of it. Rebecca’s ‘Knickers in a twist’ dress exemplifies this notion; at first glance, the dress possibly strikes one as avant-garde bridal wear – virginal and simultaneously sexual – yet is really a cluster of ivory silk knickers (collaged and sewn together entirely by hand), a direct, satirical play on this gendered metaphor.
Throughout her research, Rebecca looked to various feminist figures, one of the most formative influences being American conceptual artist, Barbara Kruger. Inspired by Kruger’s phrases such as, “We won’t play nature to your culture” and “Your gaze hits the side of my face,” in combination with references to everyday idioms, for example, “Light as a feather,” she used her collection as a vehicle through which to draw attention to the feminisation of certain figures of speech, commenting on the way in which objects (such as the feather) are often presumed feminine in gender. Woven through her designs are tangible references to these various gendered turns of phrase, many of which characterise entire looks in the collection, such as Look 13, “Brown eyed girl”, Look 15, “She wears her heart on her sleeve”, Look 17, “Pretty in pink-lady” and Look 20, “Blondes have more fun”.
The designer also references John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing”, in which the art critic and author describes the way in which men look at women, and women in turn watch themselves being looked at, ultimately becoming objects of vision and sight. As a poetic reading of Berger’s concept, Rebecca designed a piece of seashell eyewear to accompany each look in the collection, (skilfully crafted by jewellery student, Miho Ishizuka), each of which functions as a metaphor for the gaze. Added to this was her consideration for the inherent material qualities of a shell; beautiful and fragile yet simultaneously strong and protective, a home for a living creature, much like the body of a woman. Not only this, but the brown spotted Cypraea tigris shell is recognised as a fertility symbol in many cultures, as well as being a motif of womanhood.
The eyewear thus became a direct embodiment of the multiplicity of a shell’s meaning, both in terms of its cultural history as well as the conceptual link that it shares with a veil, also a gendered item. Like a veil, the eyewear allows one to see, but not be seen seeing – simultaneously protective and narcissistic – empowering the wearer to be the author of one’s own gaze. As Rebecca elaborates, “The glasses are therefore a slightly surreal utilitarian aide – if you wear them you are protected from the male gaze and you see the world through a feminine gaze.”
The knotted rubber bands emerged from the designer’s desire to create a fishnet textile that subverted the conventionally erotic connotations of a fishnet stocking by transforming its identity from something sensual into something bumpy, indelicate and potentially disturbing. Similarly, the exquisite handcrafted shell bra set evolved out of a satirical play on the classic clamshell bra, constructed from cross sections of shells adjoined with silver rings to resemble lace.
Questions of femininity have always cohered around Rebecca’s design. She explains, “My connection to my work just comes from being a woman and designing for women and having strong feelings about the way that women are portrayed or perceived.” The designer loves scouring public domain archives for images that have been lost in history in pursuit of a particular mood or feeling that she can tap into when she designs. It is no wonder, then, that her pieces are infused with such a unique softness; a romantic sensibility that is artfully balanced with an unflappable sense of self-determination and empowerment. Androgynous undertones are juxtaposed with elements of textbook femininity; her pieces bold yet sensuous, delicate yet totally uncompromising. She says, “I think that when people talk about being a strong or powerful woman, I believe this power is found in their sensitivity, that emotional female instinct.”
Describing herself as simultaneously sensitive and headstrong, replicating such dualities through the prism of her design seems intuitive to the designer. Rebecca is resolute in her vision, her work is carefully considered and beautifully refined, totally apt at a moment in which womanhood needs to be empowered, uplifted and represented in all its complexities: quiet yet confident, sensitive yet strong, soft yet wilful ‒ multifaceted in every sense of the word ‒ capable of being more than one thing at once. Having experienced first hand the exquisitely crafted world of Rebecca Jeffs, there is no doubt that this designer is one to watch.