Designs on our bodies

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