Designs on our bodies

people in fashion; Dai Rees' pieces are less accessories, more wearable sculptures. Annalisa Barbieri meets a designer with a difference

Heavy Bag. Plod, plod, plod. Open gate, push open letter box, plonk. Plod, plod, plod. Open gate. Hummmmmmm, clinkie, clinkie, read note: "Two pints today please." Clinkie, clinkie, back into milk float and hummmmmmm up the street. This could have been Dai Rees' life as a postman or a milkman, two occupations he toyed with while at school. Instead, he became - via being a chef, a welder, unemployed and studying ceramics - an accessories designer, making three-dimensional works of art for the head and neck out of feathers, leather, quills (goose or swallow and coated in glitter, turmeric and coffee).

His work has been used by directional designers Alexander McQueen, Sonja Nuttal and Julien McDonald. While still at college, Rees won numerous awards including first prize in the Ceramics Contemporaries Exhibition (like the Turner Prize for the ceramics world) where he beat 2,000 others, and showed in exhibitions in London and Venice, at the Designers Guild, the South Bank, the V&A... And yet Rees lied his way through college - saying he had five 'O' levels when he had none - and got into Central St Martins College of Art and Design (the college that spawns stars every year and is notoriously difficult to get into) without knowing anything about it. "I turned up with my pots and my portfolio and they offered me a place straightaway," he says in his lilting Welsh accent. "Then I started talking to people and realised how hard it is to get in and I thought, 'Bloody hell!'"

Dai Rees was born in Bridgend, South Wales, the last but one of seven children. His father was a cabinet-maker and his three brothers all followed suit. But Rees left school at 15, qualified as a chef and went to work at the Railway Inn Hotel in Bridgend. "My father wanted to be a chef, so I went into chefing 'cause of my dad, but it was no fun at all, sweating away in a hot kitchen." Next stop was welding: "I spent two years making wheelchairs and medical aids." Three years of contemplation, thanks to unemployment, followed. Rees enrolled for a ceramics course at evening class and started making replicas of people's houses to sell (his mother still has some on her window-sill). His father bought him a kiln.

A friend who had moved to London suggested Rees try getting into college. "I said, 'But I'll never get in, I have no 'O' levels,' and she said 'Lie', so I did and said I had five 'O' levels." Rees was accepted into Croydon College of Art and Design for a two-year course in 3D Ceramic Design and he left Wales - for the first time - aged 24.

But one year into the course he was told he was too advanced for the college and they set up an interview with St Martins, where he went to study for a BA in 3D Ceramic Design and came out with a first. He did his MA at the Royal College of Art where he added glass to his discipline. In between all this, Rees was infiltrating his way into exhibitions and introducing himself to the movers and shakers of the ceramics world. "I'd recognise them from their pictures in magazines and then I'd wear something to get myself noticed - ceramics people are very conservative."

After leaving college, Rees could not afford to set up in ceramics and instead started pottering around with feathers and quills, creating sculptural pieces to wear on your head and carving leather neck-braces that force your head into a haughty pose. He was advised to visit Katy England, stylist, muse and right-hand woman of Alexander McQueen (now the designer at Givenchy). Within ten minutes of being there, England was on the phone to McQueen and - without mentioning his name - sent Rees round to see him. "I knew him anyway from college. So I turned up and he said 'What are you doing here?' and I said 'Katy wants me to show you my work' and he said 'You're not going to show me some plates are you?'" But McQueen loved the wearable sculptures and showed them with his Spring/Summer 1997 collection. Rees was launched onto the fashion world.

Then Julien McDonald (for whom Rees made a "face mask" out of a sheep's pelvis) and Sonja Nuttal approached him. The sheep's pelvis he found on a deserted beach in the Outer Hebrides. "I liked the idea of taking an object that normally wouldn't be touched by human hands, and turning it into an object of desire." (Rees "flocked" the pelvis so it looks no more sinister than a velvet face mask, until you look closer.) Today, Rees makes three ranges: one- off art objects (such as the goose quill "cage" on the dummy head in the above photo, and the aforementioned face mask); a more retail conscious range - elaborate but reproducible; and an even more economical, smaller- scale range, such as simple, feather, head pieces.

Rees is pleased with his success. But one thing sticks with him above all else. "On the last day of school, my form teacher asked what everyone wanted to be. My ambition at the time was to be a postman or a milkman. There was this guy in my form and he was like my hero and he said he wanted to be a postman and she said, 'Oh yeah, you'd make a really good postman.' And then she came to me, but before I could answer she said, 'Well there's no point asking you, you'll probably end up in a factory somewhere.'" Rees smiles. "That teacher. She got her comeuppance."

Dai Rees' work is stocked by A La Mode, 36 Hans Crescent, London SW1, 0171 584 2133, and Tokio, 309 Brompton Road, London SW3, 0171 823 7310. For commissions and enquiries, call 0171 359 4874. Prices start from pounds 150.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.


ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

    £37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

    Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

    £25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

    Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

    £16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

    Day In a Page

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea