Shaun Harris Prioritises Backstory Over the Pressures of Originality
The RCA graduate discusses the return of the muse, working with history, and the importance of backstory.
It’s one of the hottest days in August, but Shaun Harris’ Battersea flat-cum-studio, or as he puts it, his “cottage,” feels like an oasis. Very little street noise permeates; a sleek Dyson maintains an orderly cool. Harris himself is a brilliant, unlikely combination of understated and theatrical – he calls himself, “the least cool designer there is.” And as he sits down in his favourite armchair to discuss his collection, against a cushion that says ‘His Majesty’ (a novelty gift from friends), he fans himself regally.
A graduate from this year’s Royal College of Art MA Fashion Design course, Harris’ collection started with a late 19th century Walking Dress that he discovered during a series of trips to Bath Fashion Museum. Drawn to the dress’ intricate structure and deceptive simplicity, though he saw many of the museum’s pieces, the Walking Dress was always at the back of his mind. “I loved its construction, how clever it is, and how well cut,” he says.
He was wary, though, of being a “designer who makes Victorian-inspired things,” so he decided to create a context for the dress. He went to Nottingham, to the shop where the dress had been sold, and mapped out the history of the site and the family who had owned it. He looked at other garments from the era, spoke to archivists, and compiled everything into a meticulous folder of notes, emails, scans and photographs that he plans to gift to the museum. “I broke down into it,” he explains. “I researched the layers, what went on underneath it, and what was appropriate at the time.”
When his tutor David Kappo asked who his customer was, Harris realised he knew exactly – “‘I don’t need a customer, I can tell you who my person is,’ he said. And so, he asked Livia to be his muse.
Things fell into place when he bumped into Livia Wang, a friend on the RCA’s architecture programme who’d done some fittings for Harris’ group project the year before. They sat down for a coffee, and as Wang filled him in on her own project restoring 87 Hackford Road, Stockwell, the house where Van Gogh had lodged as a young man, Harris thought about the parallels in their work; their shared focus on history, restoring and preserving.
At his next tutorial, when his tutor David Kappo asked who his customer was, Harris realised he knew exactly – “‘I don’t need a customer, I can tell you who my person is,’ he said. And so, he asked Livia to be his muse.
There are different forms the muse-designer design process can take; in Harris and Wang’s case, it was a dialogue. Each week Harris would present Wang with his designs and ideas, and she’d brief him on what she needed too. Catering for her insistence on exceptionally large pockets, for instance, meant creating accordingly loose trouser legs that would negate any bulges. “The clothes start taking that shape, you start thinking about how that person lives,” Harris says. “Those little things start appearing.”
Sometimes, with creatives especially, there can be a temptation to string together a backstory that makes their trajectory seem predestined after the fact. But in Harris’ case, the dots join up pretty organically. As a child, he was obsessed with history. He had a book on England’s kings and queens and he’d spend his pocket money making tiny Tudor dresses for his teddy bear, Lily – “I’d go to the upholstery store, dig through the remnants, and be like, ‘What matches the Anne Boleyn dress this week?’ And then I’d sit there and I’d hand sew these little dresses.”
Even by the standards of a designer, Harris’ fascination with how things are made is unusual. One of his favourite books is Unfinished – Thoughts Left Visible, the catalogue for The Met Breuer exhibition devoted to unfinished artist’s works, because of the insight it gives into process. “Lucien Freud is just like me – he doesn’t finish things,” he says, as we leaf through its pages. For a previous collection, he created an inside jacket lining so beautiful that he couldn’t bear to then put it inside the jacket, so he kept it as an object; it’s now framed by his desk.
“In fashion, our toiles, and the products that we make to get to this, get very disregarded. In the art world, a Picasso sketch is as valued as the painting, I think that’s really important in fashion too.”
He’s critical of the hierarchy in fashion school between a final, finished collection and the steps taken to get there. “In fashion, our toiles, and the products that we make to get to this, get very disregarded,” he says. “In the art world, a Picasso sketch is as valued as the painting, I think that’s really important in fashion too.” Going forward in his own practice, he plans to give each piece he makes a code, so it can always be traced back through his website. “I’ve got the codes to go into each piece, and the idea is I could be on the 100th version of a jacket and you could follow the trail, you could click on this, on the site, and then see everything that lead to this, where I ordered the fabric from, everything,” he explains.
This fascination with backstory seems to have given him a kind of immunity to the pressures of originality. “I never felt the pressure to be original,” he says. “If I was inspired I just said I was inspired, and showed you the backlog, the journey of how I got from A to B.”