Helen Lawrence’s New Mood
“I just want to make really nice, interesting jumpers,” Helen Lawrence’s northern lilt says through the phone. “I think it’s as simple as that.” Calling from her studio in Stoke Newington, the Newcastle-born knitwear designer is just about to head to Paris to show her AW16 collection at the London Showrooms. The collection – her fifth – was itself a new mood for the 29-year-old CSM alumni. Though signature mainstays that have found her stocked internationally (at Selfridges, Dover Street Market and Opening Ceremony to name a few) were present, new yarns and techniques were incorporated to bring out a darker attitude. The result was pieces that emphasised the human form, flashing mid drifts and upper thighs through transparent yarn, occasional cut outs and body-centric jacquard prints. We wanted to hear more.
Why did you choose to show at Chelsea College of Arts this season?
It’s where I did my BA, so it’s kind of like home for me! It was the best venue.
Why did you chose to do a digital presentation?
We wanted it to be a development of our previous collections, but we also wanted something new. To do that in terms of clothes, we added new techniques, and looked at different ways that fabrics fit around and can enhance parts of the body. For the presentation, we made a film. We wanted it to be quite weird; maybe a little bit uncomfortable, but kind of sexy too. We were really into a 70s fetish book when we were developing ideas – I know the clothes aren’t fetish at all, but the models in the film replicate some of the poses we found in that book, dancing in the chunky knits. The result was that it did reference that fetish concept, just not in a really direct way.
“WE’RE REALLY INTO YVES KLEIN PRINTS, AND WE WANTED SOMETHING SIMILAR, BUT WE WANTED IT TO BE ABOUT THE BODY. TO DO THAT, ONE OF MY ASSISTANTS GOT NAKED, WE PAINTED HER, THEN TOOK THE IMAGES AND HAD THEM MADE INTO JACQUARD KNIT JUMPERS.”
Let’s talk about those new techniques – what were you using?
We added quite a few new stitch structures, and the yarns each react uniquely to different washing and brushing techniques. We used a lot of italian alpaca, mohair, lambswool… the elasticated yarn that we use for most seasons remained, but we mixed it with a transparent yarn, so that you could see more of the body, and create a more interesting texture.
How much does the body influence your designs?
I think there’s something really organic about the human form, because everyone’s shape is different. Where clothes fit on the body really varies, so where you place a hole will sit in a new place on everyone. It’s quite nice to see that, and also to see which part of the body that hole might reveal.
Were you thinking about those shapes when choosing your fabrics?
Yeah, definitely. So we had a really, really thick one, like the Alpaca, which is… not difficult to knit with, but you definitely have to knit with it in a different way from how you would knit the lambswool, for example. We wanted it to not all be just one fabric, which is especially hard to do in knitwear, as you have to think about all the different types of yarn that you’re going to use to create something interesting. I think we’ve got a really good range of weights this season.
How does the design process start for you?
I think every season we just have to make a really great jumper and develop the collection from there. Because we make everything by hand – and the process is really long – it’s better for us to make a couple and see if what we’ve created actually works. As we hand make our fabrics, everything needs to happen in stages. Yes, the stitches, the way a piece works on the body, and the volume and tightness… that is all still conceptual and interesting, but if you look past that, at the shape of the garment, it comes down to a simple jumper shape that is very wearable.
“I HAD A REALLY GREAT TIME ON THE MA, AND WHILST IT WOULD BE GREAT TO SPEND TIME ON THE BUSINESS SIDE OF THINGS, I DON’T KNOW WHEN THERE WOULD BE TIME TO REALLY DO THAT.”
The collection is definitely wearable – do you design with commercial or conceptual needs primarily?
A bit of both! More than anything, it has to be interesting. I have to feel quite excited by it in order to make more. That’s why we always have the really interesting mix of pieces with the more commercial versions. This season we’ve done some really nice jacquard pieces. We’re really into Yves Klein prints, and we wanted something similar, but we wanted it to be about the body. To do that, one of my assistants got naked, we painted her, then took the images and had them made into jacquard knit jumpers. That’s probably the most liberal part of the collection, it’s like, okay – that’s a boob, on a jumper. You can see that that’s a body print. Whereas the bigger jumpers are they’re more about the interesting yarn, the elastic, and the way it clings to parts of the body. But everything is related.
Why did you decide to start your own label straight from the MA?
It kind of happened by accident! I got asked to do a show, and then from there another show, and another…. I didn’t think that it would be a thing, that people were going to buy it, and then suddenly I had a bunch of stockists. It just ended up being a business. It’s quite nice, it was really unexpected to pick up the stores we have.
Do you feel like you were prepared for the success?
It’s all kind of been added on a bit here and there – it wasn’t like: Boom! All of those stores in one season. It’s been a massive learning curve, obviously you go to art school and you make a collection, and you think that’s all it is, but then you get orders and it actually isn’t like that at all. When I took my first proper season to Paris for sales I thought, ‘it’s fine! I’m just going to remake the clothes.’ Actually, it wasn’t like that at all. There was quite a lot to learn, especially as we would be exporting to different countries. There’s a lot of paperwork. Plus, everything takes up a lot of time – especially as you don’t know how to do it, you spend a lot of time figuring it out. Sometimes you think, ‘this isn’t what I signed up for!’ But it’s an interesting set of skills to learn. I’ve had a lot of help from the Centre for Fashion Enterprise with all the cash flow, and how to put paperwork in and just general business advice – dealing with orders, how you’re going to pay to have the collection made, things like that – they’ve been a great help.
Do you feel like the MA equipped you for running a business?
In a way, yeah. The MA was amazing, and it really helped me find my feet in terms of what I wanted to show with my work, and who I am as a person. I think Louise Wilson really helped me to figure that out. Also, I come from a textiles background, so I always found it really challenging to translate my fabrics into clothes. If I had done a fashion knitwear course I may have found it a little easier. Louise really helped me see how to make my fabrics work clothing wise, and gave me a little nudge in the right direction. I had a really great time on the MA, and whilst it would be great to spend time on the business side of things, I don’t know when there would be time to really do that.
What’s next for you?
We’re shooting our lookbook on Wednesday, which is exciting. I have an amazing photographer called Martin Zähringer – this is going to be the second season we’re working together. He shot our lookbook last season and it worked really well. After that, it’s Paris for eight days to do the sales, and then I have a bit of a rest. I’m going back to stay with my parents for a little bit in March. It’s nice to go home – it’s so different to here, and really relaxing, but I don’t get to go enough!
Given her success, is it any wonder?