London Fashion Week: London, New York, Paris, Scunthorpe
Shelley Fox is the proud possesser of one of fashion's more unusual pasts - and one of its brightest futures.
"But this year they're stopping using Morse code for good, which seems sad," she says. "I'm really interested in expressing what happens because of lack of communication."
If you think that this all sounds a little on the cerebral side, you're right; Fox's business is frocks, after all. But this is a designer who hangs out at the Imperial War Museum in her spare time, rather than London's Met Bar; a designer who is more likely to cite the thoroughly disturbing dolls of Hans Bellmer as inspiration than, say, a trip to Goa.
Later in the day, Fox faxes me the meaning of the Morse code prints in her current collection. "He who considers more deeply knows that, whatever his acts and judgements may be, he is always wrong." Yes, it would probably be safe to say that this designer is the first in the world to embellish her designs with the words of none other than Friedrich Nietzsche. To say, then, that Fox is a far cry from the frivolous and frothy norm associated with her trade would be to understate her seriousness as a designer.
Shelley Fox in person is, in fact, rather like her clothes: gentle, feminine and graceful, if a little dour. The 34-year-old designer's clothes are endowed with a quiet but majestic power; in the woman herself this translates as grim determination.
Of the aforementioned Braille skirt, she once told me: "I was working on a project at the RNIB [Royal Institute for the Blind]. The ladies there told me that when blind people dress themselves, each item of their clothing carries a button with Braille print on it, describing what colour it is. And that got me thinking."
Most things do. Fox is, above all, a designer who is unlikely to take things for granted. She is nothing if not resourceful in the way only Britain's underfunded designers know. To say that she has learnt from her mistakes would be to understate their importance. She has, in the past, even created garments out of sticking plasters. "I cut my knee, and took a good look at the Elastoplast," she recalls
At Central St Martins, where she trained, she allowed a clothes press to overheat and liked the result of the scorching so much that it has since gone on to become one of her signatures. Likewise, when she shrank a garment in her washing machine "it came out all scarred and rippled. I spent ages trying to do it again."
Fox's life has changed immeasurably over the past six months. In February, she became the first winner of the Jerwood Fashion Prize, worth more than pounds 125,000; there were more than 100 applicants. Only weeks before that she was sleeping on her studio floor - her boiler had broken at home and she couldn't afford to have it fixed. Last season she sent out only a capsule collection, designed from her tiny studio in Brick Lane; this season's offering boasts an impressive 70-plus pieces, generated from her new, sunlight-drenched workplace at the Jerwood Space, near London Bridge.
"It's great," she says. "I don't feel as if I'm begging any more. Things are far easier than they have been."
Fox was born in Scunthorpe and grew up there in the shadow of the steelworks.
"When I was young," she recalls, "I didn't think I wanted to be a fashion designer. I didn't even know you could do fashion. But - and I know this only in retrospect - I felt quite claustrophobic in that very small town. And I could never find things I wanted to wear. I used to buy old curtains and furnishing fabrics, and turn them into clothes. I made the patterns out of old newspaper."
At the age of 14, in an area of England that is hardly famous for its fashion forward approach, she attracted more than her fair share of attention. She remains something of an outsider to this day; her work is a far cry from both the hard-edged glamour for which Britain's fashion capital is famous, and the eclectic, London-girl, mix-and-match aesthetic.
Rather, Fox's clothes, cut in geometric shapes that gently envelop the female form, are, both in their rigour and their subtle embrace of femininity, reminiscent of the work of Japanese designers.
It's refreshing to note that Fox is, without question, that all too rare thing in fashion - a woman's woman. It was her mother, she says, who finally inspired her to break the family mould; her father was a steel worker, and his wife worked in the administration department of the same works. When young Shelley was offered a place at art college in Grimsby, her mum said, "You're going." "She knew it was my only way out." More recently, Fox has attributed much of her independent thinking to the influence of her grandmother.
It is well known that the danger of a high profile in London is that the very brightest young thing one season may have disappeared without trace the next. Not so Shelley Fox, who has come up the ranks slowly but surely, and is respected as much by buyers and press as she is by this city's established designers.
Her show this afternoon will be her first on the official British Fashion Council schedule and, though she would rather choke than admit it, it would be safe to say that Shelley Fox has now arrived.
"Each season is still this enormous learning-curve," she says, "but I believe in what I'm doing, and I don't think it's like other people's work."
Shelley Fox is truly a designer in a class of her own, one who has waited quietly in the wings, and rather longer than many of her contemporaries, for her time to come.
But those who laugh last, as they say...
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